A glimpse into the past: the presiding judge at the Imre Nagy trial

Around national holidays it is customary to air programs that shed light on the significance of the date. October 23 is no exception, and in the last few days we had an opportunity to listen to interviews with historians and participants in those events 52 years ago. There was an interview with the granddaughter of Imre Nagy, with the son of László Rajk who was executed on trumped-up charges in 1949, and with Imre Mécs, currently a member of parliament who was originally condemned to death but whose sentence was on appeal changed to life imprisonment.

There is a weekly program on MTV (the Hungarian non-commercial public television) called "Múlt-kor." The title has a double meaning: "past" and "the other day." Not suprisingly the topic this week had something to do with 1956. Specifically, with the Imre Nagy trial and its presiding judge who condemned four of the nine accused to death. It was one of the fastest trials ever: the whole thing was over in a week. There was no appeal, and the execution took place a few hours after the trial ended. The judge's name was Ferenc Vida. He died only in 1990, that is after the the collapse of the Kádár regime and more than a year after the reburial of his victims. Vida never regretted his decision, denied till the end that he received instructions from Kádár, and was convinced that Imre Nagy and his friends were traitors who received their just reward.

Who was Ferenc Vida? He was born in the provincial town of Csongrád which then, in 1911, had a population of 25,000. His father was a well-heeled lawyer. He himself finished law school in 1933, a year after becoming one of the organizers of the rather weak Hungarian Zionist movement. After graduation he emigrated to Palestine where in 1934 he joined the Palestine Communist Party. He didn't last long in Tel Aviv. In 1935 he returned to Hungary, took the necessary exams to become a lawyer, and meanwhile was active in the illegal communist party. In 1942 he received a life sentence in a military court proceeding because of his illegal activities. Between 1942 and 1944 he was incarcerated in various Hungarian jails but eventually was taken to Germany where he was sent to one of the death camps. After returning to Hungary in 1945 he continued his law practice for a few months and immediately joined the MKP (Magyar Kommunista Párt). His past was appreciated, and he quickly moved into important positions. He became the party secretary of District V and later a high official in the Ministry of Interior which was in communist hands in the coalition government. From the Ministry of Interior he moved over to the Ministry of Justice, and although his legal career was anything but illustrious he was appointed a judge on the Supreme Court in 1953. He retired in 1972 at the age of 61.

Apparently by 1989 Vida was worried about what might happen to him after the change of regime. Around the time of Imre Nagy's reburial he left Budapest and stayed in a friend's villa at Lake Balaton. Once he realized that there would be no retribution, he returned to the capital where he had a nice long interview with a journalist.

"Múlt-kor" played segments of this interview as well as parts of the original tape recording of the actual trial that was made available a few months ago on CD. The commentators were well known historians of the period who provided background information on Vida, on the trial, and on Vida's career in his later years. Vida conducted the proceedings not so much as a judge but rather as a prosecutor. He later in the interview claimed that he never yelled at the accused but one can hear him scream at both the defense lawyers and his victims. In the interview before his death in a sickeningly pious voice he admitted that he may have made mistakes, but he was following the law to the best of his knowledge. This was not so. He broke the law left and right. For example, he didn't allow the testimony of certain witnesses, he struck out lines from the transcript that he didn't like–for example, a reference to the fact that János Kádár was also a signatory to the declaration of Hungary's neutrality.

I highly recommend listening to Vida's voice. I found it frightening. One doesn't even have to know Hungarian to shudder at hearing him speak. The program can be seen here: http://tinyurl.com/6yvhz4