Fighting over the secret past in Hungary

Almost twenty years have gone by since the change of regime but the question of releasing the archives of the secret police still hasn't been satisfactorily settled. It seems that with the exception of SZDSZ and historians interested in the period no government ever wanted to make the contents of these extensive archives public. Not even József Antall, the first prime minister of democratic Hungary, who sure didn't like the communists. But according to rumors he came to the conclusion that if the list of informers became public, half of the parliament and most of the politicians in his own party would be implicated. So nothing was done. Or, to be more precise, when Antall wanted to intimidate his opponents he used the documents. Against people like István Csurka who started his political career in MDF but in no time showed his true antisemitic and nationalistic colors. Or when József Torgyán, the Budapest lawyer who became suddenly a smallholder, was confronted with documents that he refused to look at.

Without going into the details of the whole painful story, in 1994 SZDSZ demanded that the MSZP-SZDSZ government do something about the question. Well, they did but it was a feeble attempt. Allegedly the rights of individuals were so "protected" that people who knew that they were victims of the regime received documents that contained no information whatsoever. Every second word was blackened out with a magic marker. And adding insult to injury, the poor person, after waiting months for the documents, had to pay handsomely for xeroxing the useless pages. The Orbán government did nothing except perhaps make sure that certain documents would never see the light of day or conversely gather dirt on their political opponents. Otherwise, I can't possibly explain the presence of the second most important man in the party in the humble position of minister without portfolio in charge of the national security agencies. He left his post after two years. I guess by then the job was done to his satisfaction.

A new attempt was made to settle the issue after it came to light that Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy (MSZP) had been an active counterintelligence officer in the 1970s for which activity he even drew a monthly salary. It was obvious that a Fidesz sympathizer had smuggled out the information in the hope of creating a split between SZDSZ and MSZP, but SZDSZ decided to support the prime minister. In exchange they demanded a thorough reexamination of the question of opening up the archives (with the exception of material that would pose foreign and domestic security risks). In response, about 75% of all existing material was released by the Ministry of Interior and handed over to a new archives created for the purpose. However, historians claimed that a great deal of material was still withheld without reason. Moreover, every time historians claimed that X or Y was an informer, the actual informer sued and won. Either because plaintiff could "prove" that he is not considered a public figure (közszereplő) as the law specifies or because the researcher couldn't find two documents that could establish beyond a doubt, reasonable or unreasonable, that the person was indeed an agent. The cases fizzled, and the agents went home ostensibly maligned for no good reason.

At the time that János Kóka became the party leader of SZDSZ he insisted on a new coalition contract between his party and MSZP including the still unsettled issue of the archives. This time it really looked promising. Gyurcsány was more than willing and agreed to set up a commission of historians to study the matter thoroughly. The group consisted of five men and two women, all well-known names. It was called the Kenedi Committee, after its chairman János Kenedi, author of several books on the subject. After some delay the group came out with a thorough 420 page document. Their greatest discovery was the existence of miles and miles of magnetic tapes that contain the names of everyone–victims as well as informers–who ever entered the web of the secret police. The secret service responded that the data on these old magnetic tapes cannot be recovered. Of course, this is nonsense. There are several machines in Hungary capable of translating the data into another format. And even if Hungary didn't have the capability, surely Siemens could provide a working model of this old machine.

The Kenedi Committee finished its work, the 420 pages were sent on to the proper authorities, and since then there has been deadly silence. Admittedly, the government has a lot on its plate at the moment, and let's hope that the only reason for the delay is the current economic crisis. However, an interview with Károly Tóth (MSZP), vice chairman of the parliamentary committe on national security, made me a bit suspicious about the intentions of MSZP concerning the whole issue. He tore into SZDSZ and into the historians serving on the committee. (I really felt offended by the way he talked about historians.) He claimed that they are lying when they claim that the national security authorities withheld material that didn't not pose any threat to national security. He insisted that only 8-9% of all material was withheld and that SZDSZ politicians are lying when they talk about 30%. I checked the addenda to the Kenedi report and I'm afraid that József Gulyás (SZDSZ) who spoke about the issue the other day is right and Tóth is wrong. From the period between 1945-1970 they released 82.1% of all material, from the period between 1970-1980 84.9%, and for the last ten years only 63.8%. It doesn't matter how we slice it, a lot more than 9% of all material is still in the hands of the national security agencies. And this dispute about the percentage of released material doesn't include the infamous tapes that apparently exist in multiple copies. According to some the secret service people are lying through their teeth.

Who will win? First, I think Gyurcsány will have to win against Tóth who is surely no friend of the prime minister. And then we will see how far the historians get. As for Tóth, he is a real dinosaur within the socialist party. At the end of the interview he told about his intention to retire from national politics because he is fed up with the current political strife. When asked whether one side is more responsible for the current situation his answer was that both sides are equally responsible. Personnel changes are needed in his party. When the reporter inquired which person he has in mind, it became clear that he would completely change the whole socialist party. They are obviously not socialist enough. He made, by the way, a very bad impression during that interview. He was very aggressive and antagonistic. As long as there are people like Tóth in MSZP it will be very difficult to change the law governing the secret police archives.