Well, this will solve the problem. According to an announcement made yesterday, all the millions and millions of documents that were written by busy agents and informers reporting on their fellow citizens "will be made public." On the face of it, that might even seem a welcome piece of news. After twenty years of wrangling over the issue at last we will know the names of the informers and their victims. But the devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and it is very true in this case.
"Made public" for the Orbán government actually means destroying the documents. But the government instead is giving the false impression that it is being both morally righteous and protective of the rights of the citizenry. The claim is that the rights of the victims are paramount and therefore the victims or their descendants will receive the original documents. Afterward these people can do anything they want with them. So, these documents will be gone. And the rest? I assume in defense of the innocent victims, the authorities will destroy them. Or at least some of them. They might save those that could be useful in the future for purposes of blackmailing their political opponents. And they can do anything they want because there will be no one to watch over them. The Kenedi Committee, composed of three independent historians and asked by the Bajnai government to oversee the selection of documents that can be released, was just told that their services are no longer needed.
The decision is absolutely outrageous. The government is planning to destroy an important part of Hungary's recent history. As it stands now, certain parts of the documents could be studied by historians. Moreover, people could go to the archives and receive copies of documents in which their names are mentioned. However, I talked to people who received practically blank pages: the authorities redacted everything that they considered to be "secret" information. Also, researchers could only guess the number of informers and often had difficulty ferreting out their real identities.
The national security authorities tried to hide the fact that the names of the informers and their code names had been stored on magnetic tapes. Apparently about 50,000 of them. First they denied the existence of these tapes, but when there was just too much evidence to the contrary they claimed that the tapes are no longer readable by existing technology. That turned out to be a lie as well. On December 6, 2009, the government spokesman finally announced that the data had been rescued and had been copied onto a more modern, I assume digitized medium.
In March 2010 János Kenedi, a historian of the period particularly knowledgeable about the activities of the secret service, accepted the job of heading a committee that would "analyze the data found on the tapes." Kenedi thought that it would take them a year to complete the job. In April Kenedi announced the names of two other historians and archivists who would make up the committee: Mária Palasik and Gergő Bendegúz Cseh. Kenedi also announced that "there is a chance that as a result of careful historical research we will be able to come up with the numbers, names and code names of informers between 1944 and 1990." Well, no longer!
Although the demise of the Kenedi Committee was announced only yesterday, Magyar Nemzet as usual knew about the decision a week before. On December 9 an article appeared under the headline "Will the informer lists become public?" The paper learned that the decision had already been made that "people who had been watched and reported on will be able to get to all the pertinent documents." Magyar Nemzet added that in this case there will be no need for the work of the Kenedi Committee.
The Kenedi Committee was authorized to evaluate and select data found on the tapes but yesterday's decision, if I read it correctly, goes beyond the question of the tapes. Bence Rétvári (KDNP), undersecretary in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, was talking about all documents pertaining to the activities of the secret service. According to him a "constitutional democratic state cannot keep personal information collected illegally by an immoral regime." The documents currently in the Historical Archives of the National Security Service (Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára) will also be given to the victims or their descendants. Only documents pertaining to the activities of the informers will be stored there.
This is an absolute outrage. Orbán and Fidesz have scant appreciation of history. For example, alone in the history of the Hungarian parliamentary system the Orbán governments kept and are keeping no minutes of cabinet meetings. And now they are destroying the reports of the informers allegedly because of privacy issues.
It is hard not to suspect an entirely different reason for the mass destruction of documents: self preservation. I'm certain that already during the first Orbán government when László Kövér, the second most important man in the party, received the seemingly insignificant position of minister without portfolio in charge of the national security offices and archives, his real job was to collect and destroy documents that would implicate some of the ministers and party leaders. However, everybody who knows the documents claims that it is very difficult to catch everything because copies of the documents might crop up in some unexpected places. This way, the powers that be no longer have to worry. Moreover, they themselves, without any civil control, can pick and choose what to destroy and what to keep.
Below you find I letter I received a couple of hours ago from Christopher Adam, a lecturer in the History Department of Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
In what serves as a very disturbing development for anyone with an interest in Hungary's Cold War history, the Hungarian government is preparing to enact a new law which may lead to the blatant, politically-motivated sanitization of the country's communist past. Allegedly out of a concern for privacy rights, citizens who were spied upon or observed by the previous regime's state security officers may now not only ask to view their files at the Archives of Hungarian State Security in Budapest, but may also remove these preserved archival documents from the reading room, take them home and have them destroyed.
According to Bence Rétvári, a secretary of state in Hungary's Ministry of Justice, "A constitutional system cannot preserve documents collected through anti-constitutional means, as these are the immoral documents of an immoral regime." The government decree makes it permissible to remove and destroy irreplaceable archival documents. Were Rétvári's warped logic also used by authorities in other countries, we could no longer produce histories of the world's most dictatorial and genocidal regimes.
Anyone who has worked with these state security documents knows just how difficult it is to define who did and who did not collaborate with the previous, communist regime. There were many forms of collaboration with the secret police, including people who were actually agents themselves, as well as "ordinary" citizens who served as so-called "community contacts;" who met with state security officers, in order to provide information on their neighbours. Others collaborated with communist authorities out of fear. Access to as much of the surviving record as possible allowed professional historians to produce histories of this period which took into account the various forms and levels of collaboration, whilst also showing just how deep cooperation with the former regime actually ran in society.
It is very difficult to see the destruction of Hungarian archives as anything other than a crude political move on the part of politicians who are concerned about potentially unpleasant and embarrassing documents on their relationship with the former regime that may one day be found by historians. Such documents may even suggest that some of the most fervent anti-communist politicians today were of a rather different opinion only two decades ago.
I have been able to collect and copy a few hundred pages of now potentially endangered documents from the Archives of Hungarian State Security during my own research and I hope that historians will reproduce as much as possible of the preserved material, before it is lost forever. It is a very sad prospect that the Hungarian government–including a prime minister who spoke out strongly against dictatorship 20 years ago–may now make it impossible for historians to study and share their research on the country's communist past.