The other day a friend from Hungary sent me a brief e-mail with a link: “What do you think? For me this is too bizarre, especially because of Berkesi.” The link was to a Pesti Srácok article written by a certain Gábor Mező, who is apparently an associate of the Hamvas Institute, whose website is singularly short on any information about the institute’s activities. Mező claims that while doing research on an unrelated topic, he happened upon copies of documents that prove that Béla Király, the hero of the 1956 revolution, was an agent of the so-called Military Political Department (Katonai politikai osztály/KPO) of the Ministry of Defense. It was there that he found a statement by András Berkesi attesting to the fact that Király was his recruit and that Király dutifully reported to him on his fellow officers. András Berkesi did work for the KPO between 1945 and 1950, when he was arrested and sentenced. Yet he remained a loyal communist and fought, defending the regime, during the 1956 revolution. He became famous in the sixties as a celebrated author of crime novels.
According to these documents, former high-ranking officers, by that time in emigration, approached Király, who dutifully reported all the information he received from abroad and subsequently cooperated with KPO. As a result of his activities a fellow officer, Jenő Czebe, was uncovered. While trying to escape, he was shot. According to the document, Czebe’s fate was sealed by Király’s work as an agent.
Although I knew Béla Király quite well when we both belonged to a small association of Hungarian historians in the United States, by the mid-80s we lost touch. Of course, I knew that Béla returned to Hungary in 1990, where he ran for parliament as a candidate from the district of his hometown, Kaposvár. Occasionally I read short news items about his activities, which indicated a rather complicated series of political moves. At first he was an independent, but soon enough he moved over to the ruling, right-of-center MDF. It didn’t take long for him to become a member of the liberal SZDSZ. Király’s political career ended with him serving as a military adviser to Viktor Orbán (1998-2002).
Our fellow historian, Peter Pastor of Montclair University, was much closer to Béla than I was, and I decided to forward the e-mail with the link to him. Perhaps, I thought, he can shed light on that story. And indeed, Peter immediately answered and with only slight modifications authenticated the story. At the same time he promised me several articles that he had published on Béla Király, who died in 2009 and was buried with full military honors. Peter expressed his sorrow that the true story of Béla Király so far has been told by people on the right. It would be time, he said, for the left to face the fact that Béla Király was a fake who served every regime he ever encountered, including those of Ferenc Szálasi and Mátyás Rákosi.
I could hardly put down the material Peter sent me. Perhaps the most comprehensive summary of Király’s career, including a short description of his involvement in the events of the 1956 revolution, was Peter’s article “Béla Király in the light of his autobiographies,” which appeared in Memoirs and History (2012). I was mesmerized–and dismayed–by what I read. How could I have been so misled by this man? Both Peter and I had considered him a friend. But what is more important, how could he mislead a whole country?
The material I received covers Király’s career from 1912, when he was born, to 1956. During this period Hungary had a turbulent history. It seems that Király was the epitome of the survivor. His career was studded with betrayal and deceit. And yet, it is difficult to be a successful liar, especially if you live your life in the limelight and feel compelled to write and rewrite your life story. What Peter Pastor did was to compare his many published autobiographical writings and interviews and test them against what we know to be verifiable historical facts.
One must admire Király’s miraculously smooth move, within a few months, from being a faithful follower of the Hungarist/Nazi Ferenc Szálasi to being a secret communist party member in the military political department of the ministry of defense. When I call him a Szálasi loyalist I don’t use the term lightly. In January 1945 he received the high decoration of the military cross of the order of merit (Magyar Érdemrend Tiszti Keresztje). By that time Szálasi and his fellow Nazis, including Király, had moved to Kőszeg on the Austro-Hungarian border. Two months later, in March 1945, he was inducted into the Vitézi Rend, which became infamous recently because of Sebastian Gorka’s membership in the order. Keep in mind that by March 1945 Budapest was occupied by Soviet troops and that the war in Europe was rapidly coming to an end.
It was during his time in Kőszeg that Király began plotting his political survival; it was there that he decided to desert and go over to the Soviets. Of course, in his several descriptions, he greatly embellished his role in the events that took place there. Almost everything he wrote about the taking of Kőszeg by the Soviets was an outright lie. He was not the leader of the brigade defending the city, and he didn’t save Kőszeg from bombardment. Moreover, what he neglected to tell was that he stole the military vehicle of his superior officer and drove over to the Soviets, taking with him the documents of the military command.
Anyone who is familiar with the history of the post-war years cannot help but wonder how it was possible for Király to become a full-fledged member of the communist party. My very first thought was: “But there were the ‘denazification commissions.’ How did he manage to pass?” Well, there is an explanation. At this time the so-called people’s courts were investigating cases of war crimes, and one of the many hundreds of people under investigation was Károly Beregfy, minister of defense in the Szálasi government. The prosecution needed more evidence against Beregfy when “unexpected help came.” As Pál Kornis, former party secretary of the military political department of the ministry of defense at the time, reports in a book titled I appear as a witness, published in 1988, “a civilian showed up from Kaposvár who was a direct subordinate of Beregfy and was ready to give information on Beregfy’s activities as minister of defense. Béla Király was an impressive, good-looking and a very well-prepared officer. It was with his assistance that we managed to close the case of Károly Beregfy.” Beregfy was condemned to death in March 1946. As Kornis puts it, Király “managed this way to get a transfer ticket to the new army.”
Király in his memoirs written in 1981 and 1986, i.e. before the appearance of Kornis’s book, maintained that it was Beregfy’s defense that called him as a witness. However, after 1988 he had to have an explanation for Kornis’s allegations. In the 2004 version of his life he admitted that he had been interrogated by Kornis on October 23, 1945 but adds that the information he provided was not substantial enough to call him to the witness stand. A little more than a month later, on December 2, 1945, Király sailed through the investigation by the ministry’s denazification commission.
To be continued