Crime and punishment? The case of Béla Biszku

Béla Biszku was an important man at one time, but for the last forty years he has been living in obscurity as a pensioner, far away from politics. Biszku (born in 1921 and still in excellent physical and mental shape) was a  Stalinist hardliner who played a large role in the retributions after the failure of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Between 1957 and 1961 he was minister of interior, in 1961-62 he was deputy prime minister, and he was secretary of the Central Committee between 1962 and 1978.

 But after 1972 he was gradually pushed into the background because Biszku, together with another hardliner, Zoltán Komócsin, tried to organize a coup d’état against János Kádár in order to reestablish a more orthodox Communist regime in Hungary. He apparently asked the help of Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, who immediately alerted Kádár. After  1978 Biszku completely disappeared from sight.

Most people, even those who are older and are familiar with the names of apparatchiki of the Kádár regime, most likely thought that Biszku was long dead. But one day in June the Hungarian media was full of news about a documentary that was filmed with Biszku’s knowledge. However, Biszku was somewhat misled by the filmmakers about the purpose of their project. Then one day there was an announcement that in the Uránia (a well known movie theater in Budapest) there will be a screening of the documentary on Biszku’s activities between 1957 and 1961 before a select audience. The film is now available online.

In the film people can hear Biszku assert that the Hungarian courts after the 1956 Revolution were completely independent and therefore he personally was not responsible for the verdicts, including of course the death sentences handed down for Imre Nagy and his close associates.

 

More importantly from our point of view, Biszku asserted in the film and on Duna TV afterward that the 1956 revolution was a counterrevolution and that the sentences, including about 235 death sentences, were completely justified.

Well, one could say, this is Béla Biszku’s personal opinion. Yes, but there is a new paragraph in the Hungarian criminal code that might make Biszku’s statement concerning the nature of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 punishable by law.

The background is as follows. In February 2010, after many years of trying in vain, parliament voted to include a provision that would allow punishment for public holocaust denial. The new law read: “Those who before a large audience offend the honor of the victims of the holocaust by denying its existence, questioning or belittling its gravity can be punished by three years of imprisonment.”

As soon as the new government was formed this particular passage was modified by the new two-thirds majority. They left out the word “holocaust” and the sentence was rewritten thus: “Those who before a large audience deny the genocide of the national socialist or the communist regimes …questioning or belittling it can be punished by three years of imprisonment.”

The fact that Biszku publicly called the Hungarian Revolution a counterrevolution and claimed that the sentences that were meted out afterward were justified and legal constitutes, according to politicians of Jobbik, a criminal act. They asked for an investigation. Immediately voices were heard that Biszku might even be charged with crimes greater than “belittling” the communist acts committed after 1956 because there is ample evidence that in spite of his denial Biszku was intimately involved in the illegal acts of the early Kádár regime. But it seems that bringing charges against Biszku based on actual crimes he committed while minister of interior between 1957 and 1961 might be very difficult according to current Hungarian law. Moreover, according to some legal experts, for example Zoltán Fleck, the criminal code’s wording is not explicit. It is not at all clear whether calling 1956 a counterrevolution falls under the category of the newly formulated law concerning “the denial of the genocide of the … communist regimes.”

Trying Biszku for his role in the repression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is even more difficult. After all, the new democratic regime was born as a result of an understanding between the ruling communist party and the opposition forces. The communist party gave up its exclusive position of political power on the understanding that there would be no retribution for old political crimes. The devoted party leaders who were against a change of regime faded away and only the reform wing of the communist party gathered to form the new Hungarian Socialist Party. Twenty years later it would be unimaginable to renege on that mutual understanding.

If the prosecutor’s office decides to put Biszku on trial it will certainly be an interesting test case. As far as I can see, public opinion is very much split on the issue. People who sympathize with the right consider Biszku’s comments perhaps even worse than a simple denial of crimes committed. After all, Biszku applauded the verdicts and on occasion found them too light. As one man said, there is a difference between simply denying the holocaust and claiming that it was actually a desirable event. This man would like to see Biszku in jail for his opinion. Others, mostly liberal interpreters of the law, hope that the case will either die a quiet death or that the courts will find him not guilty.

I for one think that such provisions in the criminal code can only lead to trouble. It doesn’t matter how carefully the law is worded, there will always be questions about its meaning. What does it mean to “belittle,” for example? What if someone claims that the Hungarian Revolution wasn’t even a revolution but an uprising of little consequence? Can that person be prosecuted? Perhaps it would have been better to stick with the simple “denial of crimes committed.” Then there might be the question of what we mean by “genocide.” The Armenians certainly think that the Turkish massacre after World War I was a genocide. The Turks deny it. Was the man-created Ukrainian famine in the 1930s a genocide or not? Were the victims of the Gulag part of a genocide? And one could go on and on. More and more question marks. Surely something is very wrong with this new provision and I suspect there will be a lot of problems with it in the future. This is just the beginning.

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pgyzs
Guest

The first post here I agree with completely.
The problem is know that if he is acquited, that would send a message that he indeed got away with all his crimes.
As László Eörsi pointed out
http://www.es.hu/?view=doc;26556
Biszku both times faced unprepared ridiculously weak reporters and he could technically say what he wanted.
In holocaust terms, that would be something like Himmler going to ZDF or Sat1 and proudly saying that the jews were killed according to legitimate german law so he acted like a law-abiding officer.
This is clearly intolerable. If he had been at least humiliated (in the sense that his case had been distroyed BBC hard talk style) giving some moral revenge for his victims, I’d say let it go. But if he just walks away glamorously then there is no truth in the world.
So I have to say yes, let’s put him to prison according to a stupid law, who cared when Al Capone was arrested for cheating the tax. I think the other option would be morally disasterous also because hard right idiots could righteously refer to his case from then on.

Sandor
Guest

I am afraid this would not work.
He made his statement before the law was altered, therefore, he could scarcely be tried under retroactive jurisdiction. And if the law should be altered again, just for his “sake,” to make it retroactive, such legal maneuvering is invariably frowned upon by all legal authorities.

P.I.Hidas
Guest

It is possible that Biszku committed crimes against humanity. Interfering with court procedures was against the law of the Kadar constitution too. Biszku fought tooth and nail against the first economic reforms and committed treason against Hungary by plotting the downfall of Kadar with a foreign power. Of course, you need better experts than the two journalists who, for example, tried to emphasize over and over that the execution of 200 persons was the crime of the last two hundred years. They forgot about the White Terror, Ujvidek, the hanging of escaping soldiers in 1944, the Hungarian Holocaust and the hanging and shooting of 2,000 Romanians in 1849 by Kossuth’s courts. The journalists did not even know how many communist were killed in 1956. Why did not the journalist invite a representative of the 56 Institute?

pgyzs
Guest

Sandor: But we are talking about his statements he made a few weeks ago in Duna TV:








Sandor
Guest

In that case I suggest to rather investigate what he did and not what he said.
I escaped from the country of bastards such as he is, but one of the reasons to do so was to let people say what they think. This, alas, must include this maggot as well. If he cannot be tried for what he did, he should, and everybody should nevertheless, likewise be left alone and not pestered for what they think, or say.

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