Will communist-era internal security files finally be open in Hungary?

At last the archives of the huge internal security network, currently stored in the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal or AH (Constitutional Defense Office), an idiotic name for one of the many offices dealing with national security, will be transferred to the Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltár/ASzTL (Historical Archives of the National Security Services). On March 6 a lengthy report on the “study of the pre-1990 data preserved on magnetic tapes” was released by a working group of the National Remembrance Committee and the Historical Archives of the National Security Services. Three days later the Hungarian government approved the transfer of the material.

Over the years socialist-liberal governments, at least halfheartedly, supported opening the archives, but right-wing governments categorically rejected the idea. For example, one of the most vociferous opponents of opening the archives of the feared III/III department of Kádár’s ministry of interior was Péter Boross, the arch-conservative interior minister and later prime minister in the early 1990s. As for Fidesz, the Orbán government’s reluctance is demonstrated by the fact that in the last seven years LMP turned in 14 proposals to make all documents pertaining to the workings of the internal security apparatus of the Rákosi and Kádár periods accessible. These proposals never got out of the parliamentary committee on judicial affairs.

The present report focuses on one aspect of the vast archival collection of the secret services: “the study of the magnetic tapes.” The existence of these tapes first came to light in 1995, although the initial reaction was one of denial. At that point I belonged to an internet political discussion group in which one of our members, who had been employed by the ministry of interior, had first-hand knowledge of the existence of such tapes. Once their existence could no longer be denied, those who didn’t want the content of these tapes to be revealed announced that they could no longer be read because the recording was done on by now obsolete equipment. Of course, this was just a diversionary tactic. Years later, in 2007, it was Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsán who at last set up the so-called Kenedi Commission, a group of researchers familiar with the history of the internal security apparatus. It was that commission which asked a group of IT experts to find a way to make the tapes readable. One of these tech gurus gave a fascinating description of how they managed to accomplish the task. By the way, I should mention that the material on these tapes was made secret until 2060. I don’t know which so-called democratic government decided that the “secrets” of the Kádár regime must be preserved until 2060 (when, presumably, everybody who’s implicated will be dead), but I will note that the Kenedi Commission was promptly dismantled by the Orbán government.

As opposed to other post-communist countries, Hungary allows only extremely limited access to communist-era documents. The East German archives were opened immediately after the regime change. Somewhat later both the Czechs and the Slovaks put all their material online, and anyone can comb through it to his heart’s content. Knowing the “enthusiasm” of the Fidesz government for transparency, I doubt that such a situation will exist in Hungary as long as Viktor Orbán is prime minister.

The present system is quite restrictive. Individuals can ask for their own file if such a file exists. If in that folder he finds a cover name, he can ask for the informer’s real name. But an ordinary mortal can conduct “research” only if he can prove that the person he is researching is a public figure. And only approved historians who can demonstrate a real need to do research in this field are allowed to use the stored archival material. Details of the procedure and the appropriate sections of the 2003 law are given on ASzTL’s website.

Even if one gets permission to do research on public figures to find out whether they were informers, the 2003 law governing accessibility to this material was written in such a way that even if it is perfectly obvious that X or Y was an informer, it is almost impossible to prove it. The law demands supportive material that more often than not is simply not available. For example, the law requires a signed agreement between the security services and the informer or a handwritten report from the agent. It has often happened in the past that the “maligned victim” dragged the historian to court and won because these demands were not met. Historian Krisztián Ungváry claims that as long as the 2003 law is in force nothing will change. For the time being all public figures can rest easy: their “sterling reputations” are being protected by the Hungarian government.

The procedure a historian must go through at ASzTL reminds me of my own experience in the Hungarian National Archives in the 1960s. One had to define one’s research topic quite narrowly–in my case, the foreign policy of the Friedrich government in 1919. I wanted to look at the transcripts of the cabinet meetings. Instead of giving me the full transcripts, the staff extracted only those parts that dealt with foreign policy. One was at their mercy. I assume the situation is similar at ASzTL. Let’s assume that in order to get a full picture of a specific case one needs to look at files on others. Surely, according to the present rules, this is not allowed.

Some people claim that nobody is interested in the issue. Who cares? people say. It was a long time ago. Why disturb the past? It is over with. At one point Bence Rétvári (KDNP), at the time the political undersecretary of the justice department, came up with the brilliant idea that the whole archives should be dismantled and that anyone who has a file should just pick it up and take it home. This kind of talk totally disregards the fact that the history of those 40 years requires an understanding of the enormous network which over the years might have had about 200,000 members. Ever since 1990 the issue has been discussed back and forth, committees have been formed, but governments made sure that the public would know as little as possible about the potentially checkered past of present-day politicians.

In 2002, after the public learned that Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy had been a paid officer of the counter-intelligence unit of the ministry of interior, a committee was set up that became known as the Mécs Committee after Imre Mécs (SZDSZ), its chairman. The commission, because of Fidesz’s obstruction, got nowhere. But apparently those members of the commission who had access to the files found at least ten politicians from the post-1990 period who had worked for the internal security forces.

In fact, as far back as 1990 Miklós Németh, the last prime minister of the old regime, was said to have handed over a long list of former informers who had important positions in the newly formed parties and later became members of parliament or members of the Antall government. This list of informers was leaked by someone called “Szakértő 90” in 2005 and is still available on the internet. In the interim historians have published several articles about the shady past of public figures–for example, János Martonyi, foreign minister in the first and second Orbán governments. He was one of the people who successfully sued Krisztián Ungváry.

It would be high time to set the record straight, but I have my doubts.

March 12, 2017
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gdfxx
Guest

I would translate the name of the office mentioned in the first paragraph as The Office for the Defense of the Constitution.

petofi
Guest

Yes! They will open the files…but all they’ll find is old Donald Duck comic books….

bimbi
Guest

One can’t help thinking that @petofi is right. After 11 years of Fidesz “rule of law” maybe the Fidesz family members’ files will just be empty. At least that would carry its own message.

Member

We keep hearing that the master files are in Moscow… (but much of the truth about Orban and his accomplices is obvious)

webber
Guest

I think there is something still in the files in Budapest. If there were nothing, Fidesz would not have blocked the opening of the files so many times over the past years (LMP keeps introducing legislation – Fidesz keeps voting it down). I suspect those taking care of the files are making sure that members of the government will have a lot to lose if they are opened.

András B. Göllner
Guest

Small correction to your text Éva. The Kenedi Committee was not set up by the Bajnai government but by Ferenc Gyurcsány’s government, and much to the chagrin of some key MSZP politicians, not to mention members of Fidesz.

Guest

I’ve given up hope for Hungary – if the files are kept secret until 2060, ok that means that Hungary will not be a democracy before that time – if ever.

The same kind of secrecy will be applied to everything the Orbán regime is doing right now, from the metro to the casinos, from the tobacco shops to Paks2 – all those little strange laws that let Fidesz mafiosi print their own money …

wrfree
Guest

I agree on the files. They are the fitful bane and albatross around the neck of the Magyar nation. The ghost of Kadar and his time walk the country still slinking everywhere into its fiber and relationships. That sinister ‘spirit’ continues to continue the kind of servility which evokes ‘loyalty’ out of fear. And it’s too bad that loyalty can be to the wrong things and that good men fail to speak.

Guest

I wanted to upload a picture that shows Hungary’s dismal state in a funny way – but it doesn’t work …
Here’s the Facebook Page – have a look (there are more typical Hungarian pictures …):
https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=%C3%9Aton%20Eur%C3%B3p%C3%A1ba&init=mag_glass&tas=search_preload&search_first_focus=

webber
Guest

To remind everyone: Momentum says it would like a referendum on opening the files.

LMP has introduced legislation to open the files nearly a dozen times, and each time Fidesz votes it down.

Today in Parliament Jobbik’s Vona accused Orban of being a secret police informant in the communist period. He asked Orban twice whether he “dared to say that he was not an informer?” Orban did not answer that question, but replied with insults.

Much as I dislike Jobbik, Vona has hit a nerve – and I hope he keeps on hitting it, day in and day out. It seems that opening the files will be a topic for the elections.

Yesterday I wondered when opposition’s the campaign would start. Today I think it started.

If MSZP does not join the call to open the files, Botka is an idiot. That party has nothing to lose from the opening of the files. Everyone knows that socialists were implicated. That is axiomatic. People will vote for them anyway. It is Fidesz, alone, that has everything to lose.

webber
Guest
petofi
Guest

Nonsense #2.

Don’t people know that Vona is part of the show?
That he is part of the effort to give verisimilitude
to the so-called “Hungarian, democratic system” ?

(Ain’t the basement-boys gooood?)

webber
Guest

Vona seemed so sure of himself today that it makes me wonder whether Simicska has gotten something out of the files on Orban, and given it to Vona to drop like a bomb before the elections? If anyone could do it, Simicska could.
I hope so. I doubt it, but still I wonder.

pappp
Guest

That’s exactly what I thought too. By the way it’s not just Simicska (or his friends), most of the current national security apparatus is either pro-Jobbik or pro-Fidesz (needless to say the national security apparatus is not for bleeding heart liberals). My guess is that the younger generation (mostly rural kids with a more disciplined background) all lean Jobbik and resent their bosses who are all pro-Fidesz. It’s quite likely that some people figured it’s in their interest to help Jobbik by obtaining some kind of evidence of Orban’s activities. But when there are scandals like this it’s usually an intra-party issue, so I’m inclined to think it was Simicska, he has tons of ‘former’ security people on his payroll.

webber
Guest

IF Vona has something, I’d bet Orbán’s code name started with an S.
I say that because Vona kept saying things about that letter, and it seemed out of place – even weird – compared with the rest of his little presentation. As if he were hinting to Orbán that they really have something on him, without letting the public now (a do a deal, or we’ll drop the bomb sort of thing).

pappp
Guest
Something puzzles me. Why hasn’t Gyurcsany or Kuncze (he was minister of interior) or other leftists publish Orban’s documents? At least the metadata in the various state security data bases about the enrollment, the reports etc. Gyurcsany would’ve had to leak especially after 2006. Either the leftist governments didn’t have access to the docs or they just didn’t want to publish those? Somehow it feels a bit unrealistic to me that they had the docs but decided not to publish them (although I can imagine that too, they are so corrupt) which implies to me that Orban arranged the taking out of the most important enrollment docs and reports some time before 1994 when MSZP got to power. We must remember that Kövér was the second head of the Parliament’s national security committee from nov 1990 when Demszky became Budapest’s mayor and resigned as the chairman of the committee and Orban lobbied very hard at SZDSZ for Kövér, probably because Orban knew that a danger was looming for him which Orban had to treat. This also means that at least Kövér (aka “the conscience of Fidesz”) also knew about Orban’s state security past. So how come now Vona has something… Read more »
petofi
Guest

What nonsense!
Orban will give some rebate or another and the minutely-minded Hungaricoes will vote for him, again, en masse.
…Reap and you will sow..
…Character is Destiny…

These and other sayings aptly apply to Hungary and its sad-sack, ethically-challenged, inhabitants…

People ought to stop struggling. Don’t they know that the more they struggle, the stronger becomes the grip of the Anaconda named Orban?

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