The Hungarian secret service, 1956-1990

Two historians, Gábor Tabajdi and Krisztián Ungváry, have written a new book about the history of the Hungarian secret service between 1956 and 1990. The title is Elhallgatott múlt: A pártállam és a belügy. A politikai rendőrség Magyarországon, 19856-1990 (The Suppressed Past: The Dictatorship and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Activities of the Secret Service in Hungary, 1956-1990). Krisztián Ungváry is well known because he writes frequently in the daily press, mostly about the archives of the secret service. He is one of the authors of the Kenedi Report commissioned by Ferenc Gyurcsány.

I haven't had a chance to read the entire book, but it is obviously a thorough study, full of statistical details, of the organizational structure of the secret service's several branches. All the section chiefs are identified and their biographies provided.

Although the bulk of the story covers the years between 1956 and 1990 there are a few interesting pieces of statistical information from previous years. The secret service employees in the early 1950s were so zealous that the organization kept files on 1,200,000 individuals. By 1953 even they realized that handling that many folders and trying to keep some order was not only impossible but perhaps superfluous as well. So they began to cull files and reduce the number under surveillance. By 1956 only 550,000 people's lives were followed. After the revolution, not surprisingly, their number grew to 650,000, but by the 1970s there were only 185,000 names on file.

As I was reading the section chiefs' biographies I was struck by their low level of educational attainment, their social origins, and their relative youth. That initial impression was reinforced a bit later when the authors provided some statistics. For example, in 1957 there were 247 new leading positions filled and out of these 247 people there were only three with a college degree and only 48 had finished high school! Thus the reports written by these men and women were, how shall I say, not always perfect. None of them knew foreign languages and therefore letters from abroad were either not answered or sometimes answered a year later. Three-quarters of these people finished "party school" and naturally 98% of them were members of MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt). The average age in 1957 was 28; presumably there was a low attrition rate, so in 1962 the average age was 32. All of them came from worker or peasant families.

The first chapter I read dealt in great detail with something I knew a fair amount about from one of the participants: the history of the "Hétfői Szabadegyetem" (Monday Free University). I heard about this Monday evening gathering in private apartments from one of the scheduled "lecturers," Péter Hanák, during one of his visits to the United States. The lecture series was the brainchild of three college students who managed to convince the historian Miklós Szabó to give a lecture series on the history of the Soviet Communist Party. The first semester of the Free University began in August 1978. Szabó was a researcher at the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences whose members didn't teach. However, already in the 60s and 70s the researchers of the Institute occasionally gave so-called "house seminars" for a restricted number of students. This new Free University was different. Anyone could attend and normally 150-200 people gathered on Monday nights in the apartment of a friend of Szabó. It took a couple of months for the secret service to get wind of the lecture series, but by December they had an informer called "the Doctor." The written information about Szabó's lectures was then evaluated, most likely by someone who was an "expert" on party history. According to him, Szabó overemphasized the dissension among different factions, individual power struggles, and personal ambitions within the Soviet party. Therefore, the lecture series was dangerous. On April 24, 1979, Szabó's boss, the head of the Institute, Zsigmond Pál Pach, called him in and warned him. Szabó decided to stop his lectures. However, two other members of the Institute were ready to take over: Péter Hanák and Tibor Hajdú. Hanák's field of interest was the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, while Hajdú wrote a number of important books on Mihály Károlyi, the October Revolution of 1918, and the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919. Szabó, Hanák, and Hajdú were closely watched by someone inside of the Institute, most likely their colleague Ervin Pamlényi (1919-1984). For example, the secret service learned that Hanák was working on a series of twenty lectures, presumably to be delivered at the Free University. Since Hanák spent the semester lecturing in the United States these planned Free University lectures were never given.

The Hungarian secret service spent an incredible amount of time and effort trying to discover subversive activities among intellectuals. I don't know whether there was anything subversive in lectures by Gáspár Miklós Tamás or János Kis, the philosophers, but I'm certain that nothing terribly subversive could be found in the history of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Unless one considers a less nationalistic interpretation of the Dual Monarchy subversive. Who were watched? I will here mention only the better known people: Mihály Vajda, Sándor Radnóti, György Bence, István Eörsi, Bálint Magyar, Pál Benyó, György Dalos, Pál Szalai, Mihály Hamburger, Anna Betlen, Erzsébet Vezér, György Krassó, Gábor Iványi, Iván Pető. István Szent-Iványi, Miklós Haraszti. And how many people watched them? Thirty-two. In 24 cases Ungváry managed to identify the real person behind the cover name given by the organization. Seventeen people were slackards, handing over some notes only a few times. The rest were more eager. Eight of them were outright zealots. Whether they received money is not known except for one, the leading informer called "Költő" (Poet), who received a 5,000 Ft bonus, a tidy sum in those days. The informers were an interesting lot, names available in the book, but I'm omitting them here. One of them teaches ethics and philosophy at a Hungarian university today, another writes introductions to Hungarist literature about Szálasi and Hitler. Yet another works today in the media, while there are at least two who left the country, one in 1987 and the other in 1989. The 1989 emigrant is today a respected professor in New Zealand. He was the worst of the lot. Altogether there are five volumes of "stuff" on the short-lived Free University that the secret service managed to kill by 1982.