The informers: Will we know the truth at last?

In pre-democratic Hungary, just as in all socialist countries, the state employed a network of informers to spy on their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and, yes, even relatives. Best known among these special internal police forces is the East German Stasi (abbreviation for Ministerium für Staatssicherheit), which was such an elaborate spy network that a whole ministry was devoted to the task. After the unification of Germany, the Stasi’s documents were immediately made public. In Germany the speed of revealing the secrets of the Stasi is understandable: the people who took over East Germany’s affairs were not directly involved in the sordid affairs of the past. But this was not the case in the other socialist countries and especially not in Hungary, where the transition from a one-party system to democracy was the result of a negotiated settlement. Thus, to this day we know very little about the activities of the Hungarian spy network that operated under the aegis of the Ministry of Interior.

One could ask why the conservative Antall government, the first after the change of regime, didn’t begin making these files available. Antall himself was fiercely anti-communist. In fact, he would not accept anyone in his cabinet who was ever a member of the old party of János Kádár, the MSZMP. Yet, acording to rumors, Antall decided to let sleeping dogs lie because he discovered that the majority of the MPs on the right side of the aisle were former informers. His whole government might have collapsed had he made the documents public. At the same time, Antall was not shy about using these secret documents in a self-serving way . To put it rather bluntly, he blackmailed people within his own party or in parties allied with his own, showing the documents to them and inquiring "what they wanted to do now."

After four years the Antall government (later led by Péter Boross after Antall’s death in December 1993) lost the elections. Not by just a little but spectacularly. The MSZP, organized from the reform wing of the MSZMP, received an absolute majority in parliament. However, the party’s leader, Gyula Horn, realized that Europe might look upon his party with a certain suspicion. After all, the socialists were the successors, formerly part of, the old communist party. Therefore, the MSZP turned to the liberals (SZDSZ) and invited them to join in a coalition. The SZDSZ was supposed to be the guarantee in the eyes of the West that the MSZP was no longer the old communist party. The SZDSZ accepted the invitation mostly because they didn’t trust the MSZP either and wanted to be able influence the government’s decisions. One of their demands was that the security police’s files be made public and the informers’ names revealed. The MSZP agreed, but in the end nothing happened. There were, one suspects, too many skeletons in the closet.

Four years later the Fidesz formed a government in coalition with the Smallholders’ Party and, interestingly enough, again nothing happened. At least not what most people expected. One suspects that the Fidesz’s main concern was to comb through the files and remove anything that might be embarrassing. This suspicion was somewhat reinforced by the surprising appointment of László Kövér, best friend and confidant of Viktor Orbán, as minister of national security, a position that wasn’t considered to be particularly important. In fact, earlier the post wasn’t even at the ministerial level. National security was headed by an undersecretary. It is possible that, in addition to culling the files of material damaging to Fidesz, Kövér pocketed documents potentially embarrassing to the other side.

Meanwhile bits and pieces of information leaked out from time to time. A name here, a name there: writers, poets, rock singers, politicians, a film director, an economist, and so on. But the biggest splash was the revelation about Péter Medgyessy, Orbán’s successor. Everybody knew that during the Kádár regime he worked in very high positions in the Ministry of Finance and that at one point he was even deputy prime minister. But they didn’t know that in the late 1970s and the 1980s he worked as a paid intelligence officer for the Ministry of Interior. How did that happen when there was a provision from the last days of the Boross government that anyone who worked as an informer couldn’t hold high office? The answer is fairly simple. The security police had separate departments for intelligence work and for internal information gathering. The judges who scrutinized the backgrounds of the appointees were not allowed to see the documents concerning intelligence work because of possible national security concerns. Medgyessy was an intelligence officer and not an informer.

However, a few months after the socialists and the liberals won a slim majority in parliament and formed a government, the Fidesz got hold of this information and decided that by making Medgyessy’s intelligence work public they might force a rupture between the MSZP and the SZDSZ. Well, it didn’t work out that way: the SZDSZ decided to stick by Medgyessy. But the party once again insisted that something be done with the secret archives of the security police. The MSZP agreed, and some of the documents were indeed transferred from the Ministry of Interior to a special archives that could be used by qualified researchers. The problem was that the intellligence unit released only documents that they felt did not pose a "security risk." Apparently they kept far too many documents. Until now no one was able to verify the real situation.

Recently the two coalition parties renegotiated the bases of their cooperation and the SZDSZ reiterated its priorities, including the release of documents.They demanded the establishment of an independent committee made up of experts–historians and archivists–who would examine the documents still in the secret archives of the national security unit. Today I heard that the head of this committee will be János Kenedi. This time I’m hopeful. The committe is under the watchful eyes of a man I trust.