The Hungarian informers: Past and present

The written and electronic media are full of stories about 1989, a year that saw dramatic political and economic change in Hungary. Instead of one-party rule the country would be a multi-party democracy and instead of "socialist production" capitalism would be the guiding principle of the economy. It was indeed a momentous year; even today one can only marvel at the speed with which this transformation took place. Twenty years is long enough to look back and try to analyze the events and their afterlife. After all, today's thirty-year-olds were small children in 1989; for them the Kádár regime is only history. History that they never learn in school and about which they have a distorted picture. It is either portrayed as the worst dictatorship and communist oppression or it is seen through the filter of their parents as a peaceful paradise when life was "secure." There was no need to worry about anything. Life was predictable.

The major actors of the drama of 1989 have been offering their memories, but almost nothing is being said about the unfinished story of the huge informer network that operated in the country. This network was in place throughout the communist period, and according to estimates during this era about 200,000 informers worked for the ministry of interior under whose aegis the whole complicated network operated. There were different departments whose jobs varied according to types of work. The best known and most notorious was Department III/III that dealt with internal matters. That is, it recruited people whose job it was to spy on their friends, relatives, or co-workers. In 1989-90 the Antall government inherited a huge archives, but some of the material was already gone. In the last few months of the old regime, the people who were running the show at III/III were busily destroying some of the material. Later some additional material disappeared. These documents were not destroyed but stashed away somewhere for later political use. Most likely all democratic governments engaged in this illicit "document-napping." After all, József Antall was able to show some of his political opponents embarrassing proof of their earlier lives as informers. When Viktor Orbán made his right-hand man and former mentor László Kövér minister without portfolio, one of whose jobs was to oversee the archives of the ministry of interior from the Kádár regime, a lot of people were certain that Orbán and Kövér had some specific tasks in mind. And indeed, one "revelation" after the other surfaced over the years.

It was time to do something with these archives. SZDSZ, a party that had little reason to worry about skeletons in its closet, championed for full disclosure. MSZP, MDF, and Fidesz were less sanguine because their leaders knew full well that many of their prominent members had something to hide. The government prepared several pieces of legislation that were dutifully approved by parliament, but each was weaker than the one before. As things now stand, the keepers of secrets claim that they have released everything that does not endanger current counterintelligence agents to an archives open to "researchers." According to the "reseachers" an unnecessarily large amount of the material was withheld. They want much more material to be released. This is where things have stood for at least a year. The government is not too eager to move.

But there are problems even with the material that was released. For instance, historians or journalists unearth the agent status of some "public figure." The past of a public figure is not protected by privacy laws. But the definition of a "public figure" is not legally clarified. For example, leaders of the various religious denominations claim that they are not public figures. Historians think otherwise. A second problem is that in the courts of law it is practically impossible to prove that someone was actually an agent. Krisztián Ungváry, a historian specializing in this area, thinks that, given the state of the archives, out of the 200,000 agents it would be possible to prove the informer status of only a couple of hundred. He knows only too well. He was sued several times and lost every time. As the law reads, it is not enough to have signatory proof that someone joined the informer network; their hand-written reports are also necessary. But these are rarely found together. Most of the agreements are detailed, but often they are not signed. Or if they are signed, the reports the agents wrote either disappeared or have not yet been found. As far as I know, not one of the cases researchers believed to be genuine ended in a verdict favorable to the historian or journalist.

Then there is the question of another department operating under the ministry of interior: Department III/II that dealt with counterintelligence. This department also had several sections. Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy was employed and drew a salary from a section of Department III/II that dealt with foreign economic opinions about Hungary. Lately another section came into the limelight: people who were watching foreigners visiting Hungary, including, I assume, Hungarian-born people who settled in the West either after 1945 or 1956 and later. The reason for the interest in this particular department is the case of Mária Kivágó Iván who worked for this department for about twenty years until 1991. That is, she wasn't fired at the time of the regime change. She simply retired once she reached the appropriate  age. Subsequently she became a local politician serving for the last fifteen years or so as one of the vice-mayors of District XXIII in Budapest. She most likely would have retired unnoticed in a few years if the Budapest MSZP bigwigs hadn't come up with her name as a replacement for György Hunwald (mayor of District VII) as a member of the city council. Hunwald has been sitting in jail for at least two months because the prosecutor's office decided that he was allegedly involved in some big-time corruption cases involving property transfers. Because the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition in Budapest had a one-man majority, Hunwald's absence made the council absolutely useless as far decision-making was concerned. The vote on the budget was of paramount importance but nobody moved an inch. Months went by, the deadline was past but no budget. Eventually MSZP convinced Hunwald to resign and they opted for Mária Kivágó Iván. As soon as she was named, the opposition brought up her III/II past. Apparently her past was no secret even before, but then she wasn't as important in Budapest politics and therefore the opposition didn't make hay of it. My feeling is that the Budapest MSZP leaders didn't even consider it an issue. They don't think that a III/II past is of any importance. After all, she was not an informer. III/II is not III/III. The problem is that people in the know are convinced that the divisions between departments were not as rigid as all that. In any event, once the news of her past reached the public, even Gábor Demszky (SZDSZ), mayor of Budapest, said something negative about MSZP's decision to nominate her. Admittedly, the MSZP choice was rather unfortunate but, let's face it, Demszky can only be grateful to the woman with whose help the budget was finally passed a few days ago. (I might add that Mrs. Kivágó Iván resigned immediately after the vote.)

But now comes another twist. It turns out that the head of SZDSZ in District XXI (Island of Csepel) was a colleague of the same Mrs. Kivágó Iván whom they criticized. Gábor Demszky cannot be terribly happy because apparently he was influential in the resignation of Mrs. Kivágó Iván. Put it this way: Népszabadság tried to reach Demszky to ask his opinion on the case in Csepel but he was unavailable. The SZDSZ politician also worked for Department III/II for twenty years. He didn't make a secret of his past.

The whole thing is a mess. As far as I can see, if the political elite had wanted to exclude these people from political life they should have acted accordingly at the very beginning. However, it would have been difficult to enact such legislation for at least two reasons. The transfer from the MSZMP to the multi-party parliament was peaceful. As József Antall said when some of his colleagues complained about men of the past showing up in the new regime's political life: "You should have staged a revolution," knowing full well that such a revolution would have been an impossibility. The other reason is that each party most likely had a fair number of people who were involved with the secret service. By now we even know some of the names. Twenty years later playing political games with the past of certain people is dishonest. Especially when "our communists" are acceptable but "yours are not."

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Sandor
Guest
This time we are going to tangle! Just because the politicians have no taste for letting their comrades fall in the clean-up, should the old scum-bags be given a blanket absolution? By the way, thanks to the fact that one of the latest version in the historians committee that reviewed the matter last year, is a school chum of mine, I have a bit of an insight into the workings of the old monster. It is divulged, that all records of the communist secret service was continuously double recorded. In addition to the papers produced in copious amounts, there was a complete electronic archive as well. The entire secret service record is stored on 19 magnetic tapes. The existence and actual numbers of these tapes were first denied, then fudged, finally, just after the publication of the committee’s report, the government claimed that there is no suitable technology available anymore to decipher them. All that turned out to be lies and presently they are working on them on the old main-frame computers. But, as could be expected, the corrupt communists, making up both mainline parties, are busy to actually realize the words of the “Workers International” they learned and recited… Read more »
Mark
Guest
“The past of a public figure is not protected by privacy laws.” This isn’t true, and this is one of the peculiarities of Hungarian law in this regard – there is no public interest defence allowed in law where the disclosure of personal information is concerned. There are a number of cases of public figures who have sucessfully sued historians and archivists (because if a historian writes something that contravenes the act, not only is the historian liable legally, but so is the archivist who gave them the information!)The only way around this is if the information was already in the public domain. Not surprisingly this has made Hungarian archives very nervous. If an academic researcher like myself wants to research in archival materials covered by the act (most of the socialist period), then they have to meet certain conditions. Firstly, they have to be a citizen of a country with equivalent personal data protection provisions to Hungary – in practice this means if you want to be an historian of Communist Hungary you have to be an EU citizen, or a citizen of a Council of Europe country (US citizens at present cannot get the necessary permissions). Secondly, if… Read more »
Sandor
Guest

Well Mark, you argue very convincingly, but it worked to great effect in Germany.
Let the chips fall wherever they may!
Although the Hungarian society is completely distorted in many respects, let them make up their minds, however foolishly, and not be prevented by “legal” niceties.

Tünde
Guest

“The real problem is that there has been too much focus on individuals and not on the structures to which they reacted.” Mark for once I agree with you, but there are historians, such as Ungváry Krisztián who endeavour to expose the system as well.
Many helped the system from the “outside”, and many on the “inside” did their best not to hurt others. And many primitive ÁVOs who had blood on their hands but had no idea what they were doing are any many cases better than the cleanhanded superiors who directed them. The real question is how the system came about, and who was behind it. There is a lack of justice though, particularly in the cases such as the vérbírók.
As far as the long term implications for Hungarian society, I think those are fairly obvious.

Mark
Guest

Sándor: “it worked to great effect in Germany.”
I’m actually completely neutral on whether agents’ lists should be published or not – I can see advantages of having the ambiguous truth about informing and denunciation out there. My point is more that publishing them wouldn’t have the effects that the advocates of such a position intend. I’m not certain by any means that the different German or Czech approaches have led to appreciably better outcomes.
Tünde: “The real question is how the system came about, and who was behind it.”
Absolutely; the really important question is not who the agents were, but the issue of dictatorship. Namely, how did the dictatorship survive and secure the degree of cooperation it did, particularly in the Kádár era? After all it managed to create a degree of stability for a considerable period after the defeat of 1956, and contained rather successfully those who opposed it right down to the mid-1980s. I think we’ve heard parts of the answer to the questions of how and why, but we don’t really have an adequate explanation.

Tünde
Guest

Mark: Given your research I am sure you already know the answer to that. A puha diktatúra is the most insidious kind. Not that we should leave out the Rákosi era, one of the most brutal, and it was exactly the contrast to this brutality, inclusion instead of exclusion, plus consumer goods, weekend houses and much of what is mistakenly called western (pop music, jeans, cola) culture which made people overlook the fact that regime might be soft, but it was still a dictatorship.
Of course no surprise that people are nostalgic for it (again relativity, relative to the present mess), even when not realising that Kádár regime was responsible for much (although not all by far) of the mess we are in now.

Mark
Guest
Tünde: “Given your research I am sure you already know the answer to that.” I wish I did! Well, I think I know some of the answer and I’d we’d agree. But I’ve always felt disatisfied because it doesn’t really explain informing, and everyday denunciation (which is something that was more widespread, and is rarely addressed). It also doesn’t really explain those moments at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s when Kádár pursued collectivization single-mindedly (while we do have some good political/economic histories of collectivization, we lack a really decent social history). And there must have been those moments – Khruschev’s removal, or the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia – which must have awakened bad memories. Tünde: “Of course no surprise that people are nostalgic for it (again relativity, relative to the present mess), even when not realising that Kádár regime was responsible for much (although not all by far) of the mess we are in now.” Most of the economic history available in Hungary uses the KSH produced national income statistics from the period very uncritically, and therefore in the textbooks Hungary’s economic performance during the period is overestimated. Actually, of course, Hungary’s grew far… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
Guest

No! Mr Sandor Let us not ‘out’ any one! No matter how poisonous a little toad they were. Neither you nor I know what pressures were placed on them to sign up. I would hand back to each informer that asked for it the paper record which contained their real name not their ‘code name’. For the rest of the lists of names I would let the ‘red wind’ through them and shred the ashes. This must be a ‘New Hungary’ with all the old grumbles etc (Fontenbleau etc) buried and forgotten. Only that way can the new Hungary emerge as a democracy and advance! As for vengeance let them live with their sins – it is far heaver a burden!

Sandor
Guest

Yes, my dear Odin’s! Out the bastards and soon!
I refuse your “pressure” excuse for the reason that there were many under the same pressure, who refused and lived to tell about it.
There will not be a “New Hungary” no matter how they cuddle the bastards, because this cuddling is what made the old one (as well as the present one), as bad as it was: known war criminals found refuge from punishment under the protection of the communist party.
The undeserved respect and protection extended to criminals, in the name of compassion, (or in the name of rights to privacy, that’s even worse!), is one of the recipes for the disaster the country is in. When did they respect the civil, and privacy rights of others? And they have all manners and varieties of scum and criminals at large, all enjoying somebody’s protection and largess as well. Fuck them! I say.
(Sorry, Mr Speaker, I regret the unparliamentary language.)

reinsen
Guest

Hi, I come from Germany and still am very grateful for the Hungarians to open the iron curtain in 1989. We wil nevr forget. At that time, I was with my family on holidays at Balaton. More and more Trabants and Wartburgs were left alone at Hungarian-Austrian border. And the newspaper of GDR wrote about murdered guards of the inner-german frontier…

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