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.