The fate of informers in Hungary

Hungarians have been struggling endlessly with the question of what should happen to the vast network of informers who busied themselves between 1945 and 1990, perhaps even later. No one is suggesting criminal charges. The issue is whether they should be "outed." While other countries in the region gave access to damaging archives, in Hungary almost nothing happened. Or rather what happened was the worst possible outcome: dribs and drabs of information leaked out about certain well-known figures: a famous film maker, a well respected economist, religious leaders of all faiths, Olympic champions, soccer players, TV personalities, and I could continue. Although when people are asked whether the whole truth (or as much as can be known) should be revealed, the majority say that they are not at all interested. This was all a long time ago and who cares? Of course, there are people who care very much. For example, historians. Or those who think that the current situation is untenable.

There were several unsuccessful attempts at formulating a law that would release the incredible amount of material pertaining to the archives of the national security forces. The first attempt occurred in 1990, but it seems that the Antall government was not too eager to divulge the secrets of these archives. József Antall as prime minister was very picky when it came to former communist party members. No former party member could be part of his government. Yet he was a great deal less eager to pursue the past of the informers. Apparently because he realized that a a lot of the leaders of his own party would be in serious trouble if their pasts were revealed. Just to give an example, the second man in his party, István Csurka, who is today one of the leaders of the extreme right, had been an informer for years. He met weekly with his "handler" but, according to him, he never passed on any information. What boring meetings these must have been! Orbán's government was full of former informers. And it turned out that even the socialist Péter Medgyessy, prime minister between 2000 and 2002, was, while in a high position in the ministry of finance, a paid counterintelligence officer. In brief, the horrific mind set that your friend, neighbor, coworker, economic counterparty was in fact your enemy was widespread and cut across ideological lines.

To regress, after four years of wrangling, in 1994 a law was passed that gave very limited access for people to find out whether they had been watched, wiretapped, reported on. However, no names were revealed so they could only try to surmise who in their own circle reported on them. But even that was difficult because by law it could easily happen that pages and pages of documents were accessible but 99% of the text was blacked out. Certain documents were withdrawn by the National Security Office as so important and so sensitive that even today no one can look at them. Just to give you an example of how restrictive this policy was. Paul Lendvai, the well known Austro-Hungarian journalist who left Hungary via Poland in 1957, went to inquire about material concerning himself. He was told that there was absolutely nothing. Then Lendvai went to Berlin where in the Stasi archives he found tons of material about himself that was given to the Germans by the Hungarians!

Although on paper after 1990 no one could just go in and lift folders from the archives, that is exactly what happened. József Antall essentially blackmailed certain politicians–for instance, József Torgyán of the Smallholders, by shoving incriminating documents in front of him.

People also wonder why Fidesz named to the relatively insignificant post of minister without portfolio in charge of national security László Kövér, who is the second most important person in Fidesz. Suspicion lingers to this day that Kövér's appointment had something to do with the secrets of the archives.

Prior to the documents stolen after 1990, there was a massive destruction of material around 1988-89 when the communists sensed that their days were numbered. They were not at all sure what fate would befall those who had kept this network of informants working for decades. And it was a huge network. In the mid-1970s five to ten million names were registered. Not that many were actively watched, not all of them had a "folder," but these were people whose names over the years came up for one reason or another. Until the early 1970s every letter sent abroad or sent from abroad to Hungary was individually checked. If it was written in a foreign language, it had to be translated. There was a huge catalogue of typewritten samples (every official typewriter had to be registered). But there was also a catalogue of handwriting samples. The most secretive material was placed in the so-called F-dossier that was periodically destroyed. Then there were millions of #6 cards, basically a database of people who agreed to cooperate with the security officers. In 1990 alone about 10,000 of these cards were destroyed.

And now we come to a new development in the career of Katalin Kondor. I wrote about Katalin Kondor, former president of Magyar Rádió, at least twice: "Getting acquainted with Katalin Kondor" (7/29/07) and "Katalin Kondor: Was she an informer"(1/31/08). In a continuing string of litigations, she sued Népszava, Élet és irodalom, and several sociologists and historians attesting that they falsely published documents proving, at least to their satisfaction, that Kondor was an informer or that the historians claimed that the documents were genuine and wrote articles accordingly. Until now the courts have consistently ruled in her favor and awarded her substantial damages. Although her name and her handler's name were linked in the archives, although there was proof that she had received an alias, and although documents specified the address of the apartment where she met with her handler, she won her suits because, according to Hungarian law, the existence of a #6 card is insufficient to prove a person's involvement with the security forces. Historians familiar with the material claim that they have never encountered a falsified #6 card.

Well, and this is the really interesting part of the story. Two days ago what do I read? Katalin Kondor was in the middle of yet another court case, this time suing Pál Szombathy, formerly editor-in-chief of Magyar Hírlap, and László Vargha, a historian. October 8 was their first scheduled court appearance. Out of the blue Ms. Kondor decided to stop the proceedings. Allegedly, according to her lawyer, she became tired of the whole thing. Well, there is no way, I said to myself, that Katalin Kondor becomes tired of suing. There must be something else. And indeed.

About a year ago yet another attempt was made to shed light on Hungary's murky past. The government asked a panel of historians to recommend a course of action. This new body became known as the Kenedi Committee, named after the historian heading the committee. On the same day  that Ms. Kondor withdrew her suit the Kenedi Committee's report became public. It can be found, all 438 pages of it, on the home page of the Prime Minister's Office. One of the recommendations of this report is to accept the #6 card as proof of informer status. Let me add that László Vargha, one of the defendants in this particular Kondor case, is one of the seven members of the Kenedi Committee. Knowing the prime minister's attitude about this whole topic, the committee's recommendations will be taken seriously. Perhaps Ms. Kondor thought that the best thing was not to be in the limelight right now. I agree with her.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Odin's lost eye

I am not certain if there is a ‘Statute of Limitations’ in Hungary. There is in both the UK (except for certain heinous crimes – Setting fire to an Admiralty Dockyard, Procuring the heir to the throne, High treason, Murder etc- ) and in the US of A. It will soon be over 21 years since the ‘Red Men’ (Communists) went. That is plenty long enough, let the past bury the past, and let every one forget the weird details. This country has enough problems without digging up the old cesspits from that era. Perhaps parliament should pass a law which says that either EVERYONE was an informer or that NO ONE was an informer and kill this horrid looking for skeletons in cupboards to do someone down. It is over and done with!


Odin, with all due respect, this is a asjfghaskjghfkshfdh of an idea!
The fidesz’s higher echelon is full of former spys whom are about to be elected to government. There is simply no other way to prevent that than by outing them. And if they are outed, why not all?
The statute of limitation is of no consequence, wether there is one or not, because it is merely an outing, not associated with any actual punishment.
Turn them out! I say, and let come what may.