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.