Tag Archives: Rákosi regime

Miklós Vásárhelyi is taking stock: The memoirs of Imre Nagy’s press secretary

On this sad anniversary of the outbreak of the 1956 revolution, I decided to escape from the Orbán regime’s ghastly “celebration” into the realm of history by sharing memories with another witness, Miklós Vásárhelyi (1917-2001), press secretary of Imre Nagy in the last few days of the failed revolution and war of independence. I have been reading his memoirs, Kész a leltár (Taking stock), edited by Gyula Kozák and released a couple of weeks ago, on the 100th anniversary of Vásárhelyi’s birth in Fiume/Rijeka. Kozák, together with András B. Hegedűs, an active participant in the revolution, began studying the history of the 1956 events in 1981, first under cover, but from 1985 on legally, with the help of the Soros Foundation. As part of their project, they interviewed hundreds of people. The material they collected eventually became known as the Oral History Archivum under the auspices of the 1956 Institute.

The book is a transcription of a series of very lengthy interviews with Vásárhelyi that Kozák conducted in the 1990s. They take us through Vásárhelyi’s involvement in the communist movement before 1956, his imprisonment after the revolution, and his participation in the democratic movement of the 1980s. He became one of the founding members of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) and served as a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994. Between 1994 and 2001 he was the president of the Soros Foundation in Hungary.

Kész a leltár is hard to put down. Vásárhelyi’s early years in an upper-middle-class family in Fiume and Debrecen and his introduction to the communist movement by a classmate of decidedly gentry origin is as captivating as his vivid description of the unimaginable, almost Kafkaesque atmosphere of the period between 1950 and 1956 in communist Hungary. Vásárhelyi was never in the top leadership of the party or in the government, but he had access to the highest echelon of the Hungarian party leadership. Thus, he was fairly familiar with the power struggle that was going on, although he admits that from one day to the next one never knew who would be the next victim. Those who a couple of years before were sending their former comrades to the gallows were waiting for their turn.

Stalin’s death in March 1953 didn’t bring an end to the party strife. It is true that the dreaded head of the Államvédelmi Hatóság (ÁVH/State Security Authority) was arrested, but Mátyás Rákosi, still the strongman of the party, and his men tried to stop the de-Stalinization efforts of Imre Nagy, prime minister between July 4, 1953 and March 9, 1955. Vásárhelyi relates a typical Rákosi story. Ferenc Donáth, who had been a trusted member of the illegal communist party since 1934, was arrested in February 1951 and on trumped up charges was convicted. He spent almost three of his 15 years in solitary, but after Stalin’s death he was freed and rehabilitated. As Vásárhelyi, a friend of Donáth tells us, Donáth was the only person who had been convicted at a show trial to meet Rákosi personally after his release from jail. Rákosi, who was naturally behind Donáth’s incarceration, turned to him and said, “Comrade Donáth, I don’t understand you. You, as an old comrade from the illegal days who even had a taste of jail, why didn’t you find a way to get in touch with me from jail and tell me what was happening there with you? Why didn’t you tell me how these confessions and trials came into being?” (p. 136) The man’s cynicism was absolutely staggering.

I was especially interested in Vásárhelyi’s perspectives on the last crucial months leading up to October 23. In many ways, even people around Imre Nagy, like Vásárhelyi, Géza Losonczy, and Sándor Haraszti, were ignorant of the mood of the common people. As Vásárhelyi admits, they were surprised at the elemental storm that broke out in the country a few months later even though they were aware of the popularity of Imre Nagy, which was indeed genuine. Recent attempts by the Orbán regime to obliterate Imre Nagy from the national pantheon are doomed. Whether the anti-Bolsheviks of today like it or not, Imre Nagy was the hope of millions after the horrors of the Rákosi regime. His popularity, as I found out from Vásárhelyi’s book, was bolstered by the men who gathered around him and supported his program. They suggested to Nagy that he take walks on the streets of Budapest. I myself witnessed one of his appearances. We were leaving the faculty of arts building (today the Piarist Gymnasium) and there he was, standing with his wife, smiling broadly while people gathered around him, shaking his hand.

I was also fascinated by Vásárhelyi’s surprise at the size of the crowd at the reburial of László Rajk, minister of interior between 1946 and 1948 and foreign minister in 1948-1949, who was sentenced to death in October 1949. The reburial took place on October 6, 1956, the anniversary of the execution of the 13 rebel generals in 1849 at his wife’s insistence. The size of that crowd was indeed very large, which should have been seen as a sign of the depth of popular discontent. Yet, when a few weeks later the question of whether to allow or forbid the student demonstration was debated, some party leaders were certain that only a few students would show up and that the workers of Csepel would march downtown and take care of them. Imre Nagy was himself truly afraid that the demonstration might end up in bloodshed.

Both Miklós Vásárhelyi and I marched along the same route, except I must have been quite a bit ahead of him. He joined the crowd only at the Astoria Hotel while I and my university friends were marching at the head of the column. Still, with some delay, we saw the same things and, I’m happy to say, our recollections are practically the same. He also recalls the soldiers hanging out of the windows of their barracks on Bem tér and, at the urging of the crowd, tearing off their Soviet-style jackets. And from Bem tér we moved along the same route all the way to the parliament building.

What I didn’t see but Vásárhelyi did was the students of the Lenin Institute marching with a huge picture of Lenin, which “fit into this demonstration; it didn’t look out of place.” Indeed, those few of us from the university who managed to stay together in that immense crowd in front of the parliament building began marching together back to the university, singing a so-called movement song about Lenin. It is difficult to understand all this today, even for those of us who went through it.

But it is one thing not to understand it. To falsify, pervert, or trample on it is something else entirely. Unfortunately, this is what Viktor Orbán is doing.

October 23, 2017

THE TRUE STORY OF BÉLA KIRÁLY, THE HERO OF THE 1956 REVOLUTION. PART II

Yesterday’s post on the career of Béla Király, the hero of the 1956 revolution, ended with his practically overnight metamorphosis from Ferenc Szálasi’s faithful follower to chief of staff of the First Infantry Division of the Hungarian Army. At the time of his appointment, he received the rank of major, but a few months later he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was nominated to the position by György Pálffy (1909-1949), lieutenant general and head of the military political department (KPO). Three years later Pálffy was to become one of the victims of the infamous Rajk trials. Király, who obviously didn’t want to call attention to his association with the military political department, asserted in his reminiscences that he came to know Pálffy only in 1948 when Pálffy became the inspector-general of the Hungarian Army. In an unpublished interview, however, he slipped and said that “Pálffy nominated and Jenő Tombor appointed me” to lead the first infantry division. Jenő Tombor was minister of defense for a very short period of time. He was appointed on February 4, 1946 and died a few months later, on July 25.

Portrait of Béla Király by Ferenc Simonyi in the early 1950s

The most reliable source on this period of Béla Király’s life is Ferenc Kubinyi’s Fekete lexikon, which was published in Thousand Oaks, California in 1994. Apparently Király was on friendly terms with Pálffy while he served as one of his counter-intelligence officers. Yet in September 1949, in the course of the Rajk trial, Király called Pálffy a traitor and demanded a life sentence for him at a public forum. This incident was reported in Magyar Nemzet at the time, and years later, in 2000, the journalist István Stefka asked him about the episode in an interview. He claimed not to remember, but, as he said, “under the circumstances one had to say something.” And, in any case, he added, his remarks made no difference as far as the fate of Pálffy was concerned.

One of the most uncomfortable moments in Béla Király’s life had to be in March 1990, shortly after he moved back to Hungary. Ferenc Kubinyi published an article in the March 21 issue of a weekly called Ring in which the author retold the story of Jenő Czebe, a lieutenant colonel working in the ministry of defense, who was arrested in February 1949. Kubinyi published Király’s incriminating testimony against Czebe, which Király called a forgery. But Kubinyi refused to back down, and his initial article was followed a few months later by another one in which further details of the affair were revelealed. In 1996 Kubinyi wrote a whole book on the subject (A katonapolitika regénye) from which we learn that, on behalf of the KPO, Király invited Jenő Czebe and his brother Valér to his apartment, where he initiated a conversation that led straight to their arrest. Naturally, the conversation was secretly recorded. Czebe, while attempting to escape, was shot dead; his brother Valér ended up in Recsk, the infamous secret concentration camp where thousands lost their lives because of the inhumane conditions. Király never managed to give a satisfactory explanation for the Czebe affair, which may have been the reason for Prime Minister József Antall’s suspicion of Király’s past. The case was definitely discussed between the two men in early 1990 because Király mentioned the encounter in his 2004 autobiographical book. He claimed that Antall tried to blackmail him with the Czebe story.

Fate eventually caught up with Király when he himself was arrested and sentenced to death in 1951. On appeal, the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. In jail he felt isolated: the right-wing political and military leaders who were imprisoned after 1945 despised him because he joined the communists, while the democratically-minded prisoners didn’t trust him. He described his prison term as being in a ghetto.

Király was freed on September 7, 1956, after which, according to his recollections of 1981, he was approached by three of his former fellow soldiers who called themselves pro-Imre Nagy reformers. They invited him to join their group, which was supposed to be Imre Nagy’s military contingent. This whole episode is the figment of Király’s imagination. First of all, there was no such military group among supporters of the future prime minister. Over the years Király desperately tried to come up with stories that would prove that Imre Nagy viewed him as someone he could rely on in times of need. At one point he concocted a conversation with Imre Nagy at the reburial of László Rajk and his fellow victims on October 13, 1956. According to this story, Imre Nagy recognized him and seemed to know that he had been in the hospital. Again, Király cannot keep his stories straight. He didn’t go to the hospital until October 17. Moreover, László Gyurkó’s book on 1956, published in 1986, quotes Imre Nagy during his trial as stating that “I didn’t know Béla Király, didn’t hear about him either directly or indirectly” prior to the revolutionary days.

October 23, the outbreak of the revolution, found Király in the central military hospital, where he had had a minor operation. It looks as if he was in no hurry to leave the peace and quiet of the hospital and that he decided to wait out the turbulent first few days. On October 28 he emerged from the hospital, even though the political situation at that time was still extremely volatile. By the next day, however, the situation was looking more promising. The most compromised political leaders were sent to Moscow, and Imre Nagy moved into the parliament building instead of using the party headquarters. Negotiations began with the Soviet leaders about troop withdrawals. It was at that point that Király decided to join the revolution. Within a day he was chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of Armed Forces, commander of the National Guard, and commander of the city of Budapest. What Király did after November 4 is another story.

To be continued

August 28, 2017

Viktor Orbán discovered the culprits of bolshevism in western europe

At last we have a Viktor Orbán speech that contains something new, not merely his usual mantra of the declining West which, let’s face it, is becoming pretty tedious. Although the speech was still about the West, Viktor Orbán–this time as a self-styled expert on political philosophy from a historical perspective–decided to enlighten his audience about one of the West’s gravest sins. With admirable virtuosity he managed to make the West responsible for the Soviet system as it developed after 1917 in Russia. For good measure, he added that Western Europeans should be ashamed for not placing equal blame on communism and national socialism.

The speech was delivered on February 25, which Orbán’s government declared in 2000 to be the “Day of Victims of Communism” as “befitted a Christian-national government.”

So, let’s see how he moved from the Soviet Union and its satellites to the guilty West. “It is no longer customary to say that those ideas that led to tyranny were born in Western minds. Communism, just like national socialism, came into being as a Western intellectual product. It didn’t see the light of day in Moscow, Cambodia, or Havana. It came from the west of us, in Europe, from where it proliferated over half the world.” The West was also responsible for this “through and through Western idea becoming the bitter lot of Central Europe.”

The numbers on the lectern designate the three parcels in which the remains of the heroes of 1956 are buried / MTI/ Photo: Zoltán Máthé

The transgressions of the West don’t end here. “Even today there are many people in the West who try to excuse the sins of communism, and the European Union itself is reluctant to condemn it.” After the war, sentences were meted out to war criminals in a military court, but after the fall of communism “the representatives of the free world didn’t impose such a severe verdict” on the perpetrators of crimes in the former communist countries. So, it’s no wonder that “Western Europe has a bad conscience.”

Orbán’s critics are up in arms. What an incredible leap from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Lenin and Stalin. Accusing Western European politicians and intellectuals of being responsible for Stalinism or Maoism just because in the second half of the nineteenth century a German social scientist and philosopher developed a social model which years after his death was transformed in Russia into something that had nothing to do with Marx’s theories is preposterous. Marx’s original hypothesis that the lot of the proletariat would worsen turned out to be wrong and therefore, as the years went by, Marx’s ideas were transformed. Modern social democracy developed. Soviet Bolshevism had more in common with Russia’s Tsarist past than with Karl Marx. Viktor Orbán should know that only too well. His generation had to study Marxism-Leninism and, as far as we know, he was an enthusiastic member of KISZ, the Communist Youth Organization, while his father was party secretary at his workplace.

Other speakers representing the Christian-nationalist government elaborated on Orbán’s theme, further distorting the past, burying it under their ideological garbage. Zoltán Balog went so far as to claim that “European unity and real dialogue [between East and West] will be possible only if Western Europe is willing and able to look upon the sins of both communism and Nazism as the shame of Europe.” This contention–that underlying the profound differences of opinion between some of the Central and East European countries and the western members of the European Union is the refusal of Western Europe to own up to the sins of communism–is staggering.

Other Fidesz politicians turned instant historians came up with bizarre versions of Hungarian history in their desire to make anti-communism a trademark of Hungarian existence during the Kádár regime. János Potápi, undersecretary in charge the government’s “national policy,” said that with the arrival of communism Hungary “had to say goodbye to a world based on law and order.” As if the Horthy era had been a model political system that was worth preserving. We also learn from him that “the political system founded on tyranny failed because there were secret little islands, fortresses of souls and ideas that paralyzed” the dictatorship. This is the fruit of Mr. Potápi’s imagination. With the exception of a handful of “dissidents” in the 1980s who were the future founders of SZDSZ there were no fortresses or islands of resistance in Hungary to speak of. And those few who resisted the regime and were ready to face the serious consequences of their actions are today considered to be “enemies of the people” by Viktor Orbán.

László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, is inclined to see communist ghosts everywhere, although he himself came from a family that was closely associated with leftist politics. His grandfather, as a young man, served in Béla Kun’s Red Army, and his father was known to be a faithful member of the party. Yet he considers the communist system to be the greatest curse of history, which ruined the lives of generations. It seems that Kövér discovered God and now as a religious man is worried about the “godlessness and inhumanity that are manifest in communism, which may under a different name and in a different shape return at any time.” Such a tragedy must be thwarted by reminding people of the evils of communism.

Gábor Tamás Nagy, the mayor of Budapest’s District I, claimed that in essence there was no difference between the Rákosi and the Kádár regimes, adding the total nonsense that “the communists didn’t learn anything from 1956 and didn’t forget anything. That was the reason for their downfall.” At first I thought that perhaps the mayor is a relatively young man who knows nothing about the Kádár regime. But no, he was born in 1960 and thus spent 30 years in Kádár’s Hungary, which he equates with the terrors of Mátyás Rákosi. They didn’t learn anything from 1956? Just the opposite. The memory of the revolution was foremost on their minds, and they adjusted their policies accordingly. It was precisely the lessons of 1956 that eventually led to Kádár’s goulash communism.

All this falsification of history only postpones a real reckoning with the past, be it 1944, 1956, or 1989-90.

February 27, 2017

Fidesz attack on the Hungarian Helsinki Commission and conditions in the Debrecen refugee camp

Just the other day Viktor Orbán’s friend Vladimir Putin signed a new law against “undesirable” NGOs. The law gives Russian authorities the power to shut down foreign-financed organizations, introduce fines, and even mete out jail time of up to six years for those who violate the law. This new law further restricts the activities of NGOs financed in part by foreign donors. The 2012 law affected 60 groups that were branded “foreign agents.”

Hungary is not far behind Russia when it comes to harassment of non-governmental groups that receive foreign financing. Some of them, especially those that deal with human rights issues, are under constant siege. The latest attack is on the Hungarian Helsinki Commission.

The occasion for Fidesz’s assault is a dispute over the origins of immigrants coming from outside the European Union. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t warrant such an outburst on the part of the government party. In fact, the text of the press release reminded Hungarians of the darkest days of the Rákosi regime.

The pseudo-civic Helsinki Commission, which fulfills the political orders of the international financial speculators, brazenly tries to falsify black-and-white facts. As opposed to their lies, the fact is that four-fifths of those seeking refugee status, 35,000 people, don’t arrive in Hungary from war zones. They come only for the money. This year only 17.3% of the arrivals came from war zones, and hence the great majority of those who illegally cross the border are not political refugees.

We call on the Helsinki Commission to stop lying and at least in such an important and serious question not be preoccupied with stuffing their pockets with the money of György Soros.

The terms used here to describe the evil forces of international finance, with their anti-Semitic overtones, could be found daily in the notorious party newspaper of the early 1950s, Szabad Nép.

What makes Fidesz so jumpy that it feels compelled to release a Soviet-style rant about something that may have been a simple misunderstanding? There is a good possibility that it has something to do with the Hungarian Helsinki Commission’s involvement in the investigation into the circumstances in which refugees are forced to live in the Debrecen refugee camp.

It was about a month ago that Ombudsman László Székely and his associates investigated the situation in the Debrecen camp, and it is likely that the investigation was prompted by a request from the Hungarian Helsinki Commission. The report that was published in April is an indictment of the conditions in the camp. And that was enough for the Fidesz types to lash out at the “troublemakers.”

In the first place, the camp is terribly overcrowded. The facility can handle a maximum of 807 individuals, but right now there are 1,188 men, women, and children living in the former barracks that serves as a refugee camp. Although Viktor Orbán wants to close the Debrecen camp, an association formed to assist refugees and migrants is trying to convince the government to enlarge the facility.

The Debrecen camp has two sections. One is for people who can leave the camp during the day. There is, however, also a closed section, which is actually a glorified jail. The people held there didn’t commit any crime. They are the “lucky” ones whose refugee status is being contemplated by the Hungarian authorities. The rationale for their incarceration is the authorities’ demand that they be available at all times for “speedy decision making.” They can be kept captive for as long as six months. At the time of the ombudsman’s investigation, there were 65 people in this section. All, with the exception of one couple, were families with children from Kosovo.

A room in the Debrecen refugee camp

A room in the Debrecen refugee camp

The closed section of the camp is surrounded by a 3m-high solid fence, topped with barbed tape–a mesh of metal strips with sharp edges. The inhabitants are watched 24 hours a day by policemen situated in six guard rooms placed along the inside of the wall. The guards seem to do a thorough job screening new arrivals. For example, women complained that they had to strip naked in front of male guards. Apparently, when a family arrives in the camp, policemen strip search them as a group. So, the father and mother have to strip naked in front of their children. The armed guards even follow the new arrivals to their medical examinations.

There is a room where children can play for a few hours, but even these small children are under constant surveillance. Although the section in which these families are kept has plenty of rooms, the authorities often put two or three families in a single room. There are rooms in which a family with three children, along with a couple without children, have to live. Men can shave for only an hour–from 9 p.m.–and the act is again watched by armed guards. After the men finish shaving, the guards collect the razors. The next day these razors are haphazardly distributed to the “inmates.” Families with children have a hard time keeping clean. Although there is a room where they are supposed to be able to use an old-fashioned washing machine, the officials had difficulty even producing the key to the room. From the look of room inside, it was clear that the place hasn’t been used lately.

Viktor Orbán was terribly upset when some members of the European Parliament dared to bring up the treatment of Hungarian refugees in 1956. He indignantly announced that those 200,000 people who fled after the Soviets decided to quell the uprising “escaped from Soviet tanks.” Well, let’s face it, most of those refugees left Hungary in the hope of a better life. There were of course some who could be considered bona fide political refugees, but relatively few.

As for the treatment of the 56ers, let me give you a few examples from my own experience. In Eisenstadt, which was a major collection center, I was asked whether I would like to go to Wienerneustadt or the Alps. It was not a difficult choice. We received train tickets to the Carinthian Alps, where a Volkswagen bus took us to Weißensee, the highest mountain lake in Austria. There we were housed in a comfortable Gasthaus. There was only one couple with us, and naturally they received separate quarters. From our mountain resort we used to go to the nearest village, where the owner of the movie theater made it a point to order films with Hungarian themes. He never accepted any money from us. Once two of the boys returned from the village with brand new shoes because the owner of the local store had noticed that their shoes were in bad shape. When in Vienna, we didn’t have to pay for tickets on streetcars and buses and received a weekly stipend. We received meal tickets in restaurants owned by the city of Vienna, where the food was as good as any decent restaurant. Compare our welcome in Austria to the way the miserable people in the closed section of the Debrecen camp are being treated.

But since the Hungarian Helsinki Commission had the temerity to call attention to the unacceptable conditions in the so-called refugee camp, they must be part of an international conspiracy.

“What shall I call you?”* The political system of Viktor Orbán

You may recall that a few days ago I published a lecture of Gábor Demszky, former mayor of Budapest, delivered in the Library of Congress. After the text of the lecture I described an exchange between Anna Stumpf, political attaché of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, and Gábor Demszky. Stumpf, the daughter of Viktor Orbán’s right hand man during his first administration and today a member of the Constitutional Court, took exception to Demszky’s description of the dire situation of the media in Hungary today when he claimed that in some ways it is less free than it was in the Kádár regime’s last few years. She exclaimed: “You are not serious!” Gábor Demszky’s answer was, “Yes, I’m serious. I lived in it.” Within a couple of days this footnote to Hungarian Spectrum‘s coverage of the lecture made the rounds in the Hungarian media. It made a splash even in the liberal press because the Hungarian opposition doesn’t quite know what to call Viktor Orbán’s political system. Moreover, they are reluctant to describe the “System of National Cooperation” as a regime that is perhaps worse than the “soft dictatorship” of János Kádár. Bálint Magyar and his coauthors from many disciplines describe Viktor Orbán as the Godfather, the leadership of Fidesz and their friends and relatives as mafia, and the political structure as a “mafia state.” The book this group of political scientists, philosophers, economists, and sociologists published became a bestseller in Hungary since it appeared a few weeks ago, and references to the “Hungarian Octopus,” the title of the book, appear frequently in the written and electronic media. Yet some people are not entirely satisfied with the description. There are a few people, especially those who publish mostly in German, who consider Orbán’s system “fascism” pure and simple.  Magdolna Marsovszky is one of the chief proponents of this theory. Only today she commented on an article in the German-language blogPusztaranger, which dealt with a conference organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. One of the guests was Attila Vidnyánszky, the new director of the Hungarian National Theater. What Vidnyánszky said at the conference led Pusztaranger to call this new National Theater a “faschistiches Erlösungtheater,” that is, a fascist redemption theater.

A telling pictorial description of the political system of Viktor Orbán. A combination of old socialist and nationalistic sybols

A telling pictorial description of the political system of Viktor Orbán. A combination of old socialist and nationalistic symbols / www.deviant.com

A few days ago Ágnes Heller described the present situation in Hungary as “Bonapartism,” which is defined as “a political movement associated chiefly with authoritarian rule usually by a military leader ostensibly supported by a popular mandate.” When pressed, she elaborated by saying that Bonapartism is at its core striving and acquiring power for its own sake. Moreover, such a system, according to her, cannot come to a resting place, a consolidated state of affairs because the very essence of Bonapartism is the continual striving toward greater and greater power and glory. Such a quest, however, must eventually fail. Society cannot be maintained in a constant state of ideological, national, and social warfare. Others, like János Kornai, agree that Orbán’s system is a dead end but, as he wittily said, one can live on a dead end street for a very long time. A society can live under such circumstances for perhaps decades. That was certainly the case with the Soviet Union. Not a pleasant prospect for those people who believe that Hungary’s future lies with the West, which entails a break with its authoritarian and communist past. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the main outline of Viktor Orbán’s devilish plans for his “revolution” were in the making most likely years before the 2010 electoral victory. László Lengyel, a political commentator and economist, thinks that Orbán and his closest collaborators had a completely defined plan for the political edifice they intended to build way before 2010 because as soon as the first session of parliament gathered, the plan for the System of National Cooperation (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere or NER) was ready for immediate implementation. And commentators are starting to realize that Orbán’s regime is more than populism. The word “dictatorship” is an increasingly common description. There are just too many signs that Orbán’s world bears a suspicious resemblance to the communist times when one had to fear the authorities. Comparisons are made to the Rákosi regime instead of to the milder Kádár era. By the late Kádár period people’s property, for instance, was left alone. One didn’t have to worry that one day some official would arrive and take away one’s car or apartment. But nowadays private property is not at all safe. If the government decides to take away the livelihood of thousands of slot machine owners, it can do it from one day to the next. Or steal millions in savings. It can do it with impunity. Often the goods taken away are passed on to others who are favored by Viktor Orbán and his friends because they are on the right side, the national side. Again, the charge is that a complete change in ownership structure is being contemplated and slowly achieved. Here again the point of comparison is the Rákosi regime. But at least then the state didn’t turn around and sell the confiscated property to its own clients. Then it was done for ideological reasons. And then comes the soul searching. What did we do wrong in 1989-1990? At first, the participants were certain that their peaceful political and economic transition was ideal; it was certainly judged to be the best in the region by outside observers. A lot of people still cling to that belief. But, others argue, perhaps the introduction of a great number of cardinal laws, which need a two-thirds majority to pass, was a mistake. Ágnes Heller charges, not without reason, that the Budapest intellectuals who made up the democratic opposition really didn’t know the people of the country they lived in. Others rightly point out that the democratic education of the population, especially of the youth, was completely neglected. On the other hand, one cannot accuse Viktor Orbán of not knowing his people. He knows them only too well, and this is the key to his success. But more about this tomorrow. —— *I borrowed the title from one of the best known poems of Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849). The original and its English translation can be found here.

A show trial in Orbán’s Hungary

Today, inspired by an anonymous piece of writing entitled “A kémügy” (The spy affair) that appeared online on September 16, I will revisit a case I have written about extensively in the past. In July there was a show trial in the military court of Debrecen where the accused were a former minister and two high officials in the Hungarian National Security office.  We will not know details of the trial or even the charges brought against these men for a very long time because the transcript of the trial and the material gathered by the prosecution will not be made public until 2041. Moreover, a gag order was imposed on the defendants. If they reveal anything whatsoever related to the case they will be charged with divulging “state secrets,” which may mean another trial and another sentence.

The last time a cabinet minister and high-ranking officials were accused and convicted of espionage in Hungary was during the Rákosi period. In 1949 László Rajk, minister of the interior, and several high-ranking army officers were accused of spying, found guilty, and executed. The charges were, of course, trumped up. Times have changed, at least in the sense that Viktor Orbán’s political enemies can no longer be physically eliminated. But even on trumped-up charges they can end up in jail for a few years, their lives ruined.

The defendants in this case were György Szilvásy, minister in charge of national security in the Gyurcsány administration, Lajos Galambos, head of the National Security Office, and Sándor Laborc, Galambos’s successor. The court procedures were conducted in the Debrecen military court instead of in a Budapest civilian court.

As I said, I have written a lot about this case, and I suggest that those who are interested in this trial should read some of the older entries. My first post on the subject appeared on July 2, 2011, with the title “More and more arrests, most likely on phony charges,” which was followed by two more in the same month, one of which I entitled “The case against György Szilvásy and the national security chiefs might be of historic importance.” I borrowed that title from Gábor Török, a political scientist, who argued at the time that if the charges turn out to be unfounded “the present government majority can’t escape political responsibility.” In a democracy, said Török, “no political power can use means that are considered to be illegitimate.” Török suspected that someone did use such means and warned that “it will be a black day for Hungarian democracy when we find out who he was.”

Reading this old blog post of Gábor Török from 2011, we can now understand Viktor Orbán’s fury, described by the author of “A kémügy,” when he found out that despite the assurances of Chief Prosecutor Peter Polt the prosecutors’ case against Szilvásy was so weak that a military judge named Béla Varga refused to initiate proceedings against Szilvásy. Poor Varga didn’t remain a military judge for long. In fact, he is currently under criminal investigation. But after Varga’s ruling Orbán realized that “his political career is at stake” and that this “mistake” must be corrected somehow. And the situation for Orbán didn’t look good. The prosecutors appealed and the appellate court agreed with the lower court.

It was at that junction, claims our author, that there was a meeting of Fidesz leaders, high officials of the Ministry of Interior, and top prosecutors. Fidesz leaders made it clear that the “problem” must be solved. A guilty verdict must be delivered, at least in the first instance. The burden eventually fell on the minister of the interior, Sándor Pintér, who just a bit earlier had received supervisory rights over a new national security organization called Nemzeti Védelmi Szolgálat (National Security Service). He managed to get bits and pieces of information from Laborc’s successor, László Balajti, about some of the cases Galambos and Laborc handled.

Since I already wrote rather extensively about the case, I will not dwell on the details. It is enough to say that Galambos hired an outside firm owned by a person whose father studied in the Soviet Union and whose mother was Russian to conduct lie detector tests on some of the people whom he suspected of being spies for Fidesz within his own office. That became the wedge used to build a case against these three men. The prosecutors concentrated on Galambos with the idea of breaking him. Initially, however, they were not successful and again the investigative judge released him from custody. Again, the prosecutors appealed the ruling and in the second instance the investigative judge sent Galambos back to  jail. But although Galambos was often quite incoherent, he did not accuse his minister of espionage.

It was at that point that Sándor Pintér’s new National Defense Service took over the investigation because the politician was worried that nothing would come of this not so well constructed phony case. But by law the National Defense Service is not allowed to engage in investigative operations. So, illegally the officials of the Service visited Galambos in jail and asked for his cooperation. Galambos could easily be coerced because he had another court case hanging over his head. They promised that if he cooperates they will drop the charges in the other case. By that time Galambos was in such bad psychological shape that overnight the prison guards checked on him every fifteen minutes. But still no tangible evidence came to light that would implicate György Szilvásy. Eventually, they asked Galambos whether they could “summarize” his testimony.

According to the document, Szilvásy, with the knowledge of Ferenc Gyurcsány, served Russian interests. He tried to pass MOL. the Hungarian oil company, into Russian hands and Szilvásy allegedly had something to do with the collapse of Malév, the Hungarian airline company. The lie detector tests were necessary to prevent leaks because the Russians wanted to be sure that no one learns the details of the planned Southern Stream gas pipeline. The anonymous author reminds us that these accusations are practically the same that Fidesz leveled against the Gyurcsány government. Mind you, even here the officers of the National Defense Service were sloppy. At the time that all these dastardly deeds were allegedly committed, in 2006 and early 2007, there were no talks about Hungary’s involvement in the Southern Stream project.

This so-called testimony, the linchpin of the whole case, wasn’t included with the other pieces of evidence because in that case the defense would have been able to read it before the trial. In which case they would have been able to deny the charges in writing. Moreover, evidence obtained illegally cannot be used in the investigative phase. On the other hand, the judges would most likely accept it as evidence because they were more interested in its content than the way in which it was obtained. So, the decision was made that during Galambos’s trial, Galambos himself would ask for the “summary.” Naturally, neither Szilvásy nor Laborc was present and therefore they had no way of knowing what Galambos’s testimony was all about. Therefore they couldn’t possibly mount a defense against it.

Galambos had to be found guilty because otherwise Szilvásy couldn’t have been charged with abetment and Laborc with complicity. Galambos and Szilvásy each received jail sentences of two years and ten months, Sándor Laborc a suspended sentence of one year.

This is what we can glean from this anonymous document. How much of it is true we cannot know now and perhaps never will. But espionage is certainly a very serious offense. According to ¶261§(1) of the Hungarian Criminal Code, someone who gathers intelligence for a foreign power will receive a sentence of from two to eight years. ¶261§(2) states that if the information passed to a foreign power happens to be top-secret then the sentence will be harsher, between five and fifteen years. Considering that Galambos received only two years and ten months, the alleged evidence was most likely very flimsy.

If political motivation played a role and the prosecutors, the military judges, the ministry of interiors actually conspired to send György Szilvásy to jail just because of his role in unveiling Fidesz politicians’ illegal spying on the National Security Office, then Orbán’s Hungary is no longer a country that respects the rule of law. A friend of mine made an observation that I think is absolutely brilliant.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Senlis / wikimedia.org

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Senlis / wikimedia.org

In classic show trials the victims were forced to cooperate and in a spectacular public trial they admitted their guilt. Once the authorities got what they wanted, the judges could announce the verdict and the victims naturally were found guilty. But what happens when the accused refuse to admit guilt as these three men did? How do the authorities manage to send them to jail? The Orbán government came up with the perfect solution. They made everything about this trial secret, including the exact nature of the charges. The persons involved are bound by a gag order. The victims cannot even deny their guilt in public. Thus we will never know what they were charged with and why they were found guilty. This is, my friend says, worse than the classic show trials. I tend to agree with him.

Two Hungarian national holidays: August 20 and March 15

On the eve of one of Hungary’s three national holidays it is perhaps appropriate to say a few words about the history of August 20, the “name day” of Steven (István).

Name days evolved from the Catholic custom of devoting one day of the year to a particular saint. Saints are ranked. Some deserve special days that are observed everywhere while others must be satisfied with local fame. For a while St. Stephen’s day made the short list after Pope Innocent XI in 1686 elevated it to universal status. It seems that August 20 was already occupied because, according to the liturgical calendar, St. Stephen’s day was to be celebrated on August 16. But then came Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) who thought that there were far too many saints’ days, whereupon Hungary’s St. Stephen was relegated to the list of saints celebrated only by the Hungarian Catholic Church. Besides Stephen only three saints–Stephen’s son Imre (d. 1031), King László (1046-1085), and Margaret (1242-1270) of Margaret Island fame (where in fact she died)–get special notice from the Hungarian Catholic Church. All the rest of the “Hungarian saints and blessed ones” must share one day, November 13.

It was at the time of Queen Maria Theresa (1717-1780) that the veneration of St. Stephen was revived. Maria Theresa was grateful to the members of the Hungarian Diet who didn’t object to her accession to the throne. She showed her gratitude in many ways. For instance, she was the one who managed to secure a mummified right hand from Ragusa (today Dubrovnik) which allegedly belonged to the saintly king. The Holy Right Hand was brought to Buda in 1771, and from that time forward it was the highlight of the religious procession held first in Buda and later in Pest on every August 20th. At least until 1947.

The Holy Right Procession, August 20, 2012 MTI / Photo Zsolt Szigetváry

The Holy Right Hand Procession, August 20, 2012
MTI / Photo Zsolt Szigetváry

During the period between 1945 and 1990 two new holidays were added to the old ones of March 15 and August 20: April 4, the day when allegedly the last Hungarian village was liberated by the Soviet troops (the date turned out to be incorrect), and November 7, the anniversary of the Great October Revolution. March 15, celebrating the Hungarian revolution of 1848, was relegated to a school holiday while August 20th became Constitution Day because it was on August 20, 1949 that the Stalinist constitution was promulgated.

Clearly something had to be done about the Hungarian holidays after the change of regime in 1989-1990. There was no question that November 7th and April 4th had to go. There was also no question that March 15th’s former importance must be restored. Moreover, August 20th could not remain as either Constitution Day or, as it was sometimes called, the day of the new bread. Adding October 23 to March 15th and August 20th was also a given. The only debate centered around which of the three should be primus inter pares.

SZDSZ, Fidesz, and MSZP opted for March 15th, arguing first that it was a secular holiday, not one with religious overtones, and second that 1848 signified the turning point when Hungary left feudalism behind and embarked on the road to a  modern form of parliamentary democracy.  There was a practical argument as well. On the chief national holiday embassies usually hold a reception where members of the government of the host country and representatives of other embassies are invited. August is not exactly the best time to hold such a reception. But the right-of-center government parties that were in the majority won and August 20 became “the” national holiday. Similar arguments developed around the question of the Hungarian coat-of-arms and again the conservative right voted for the crown as opposed to the coat-of-arms used after the dethronement of the Habsburgs in 1849.

The history of March 15 says a lot about Hungary’s history. In the wake of the 1848-49 revolution and war of independence the celebration of March 15 was outright forbidden. After the Compromise of 1867 Emperor-King Franz Joseph understandably wasn’t too happy about this reminder of the very difficult years of the empire. However, as long as celebrations were not too obvious they were tolerated. All was well until 1898 when Ferenc Kossuth, son of Lajos, who was invited to head the Party of Independence, suggested that March 15th should be an official national holiday. Such a move was too much for Franz Joseph as well as for the Hungarian government. A compromise was worked out. The national holiday, it was decided, would be on April 11, the day King Ferdinand V signed the so-called April Laws that transformed Hungary from a feudal state to parliamentary democracy. What followed was typically Hungarian. The Liberal Party celebrated on April 11 and the Party of Independence on March 15. Not much has changed in Hungary, it seems, in more than one hundred years.

The politicians of the Horthy period had an ambivalent attitude toward anything to do with revolutions and March 15th became an official holiday only in 1927. After all, they defined themselves as counter-revolutionaries, so it often happened that the official speeches were not so much about March 15 or even about April 11 as about the thirteen executed generals and about Világos (Arad County, Romania) where the Hungarians surrendered to the Russian General F. V. Ridiger on August 13, 1849. The official programs were held in those days on Szabadság tér amid irredentist statues reminding everybody of the lost territories. Later, as war was approaching, they moved the event to Heroes’ Square where again instead of celebrating parliamentary democracy the event focused on war efforts and regaining lost territories.

Immediately after the war the Hungarian Communist Party was super nationalistic and the 100th anniversary of the revolution was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance. By 1951, however, March 15 was demoted to be a non-holiday or at least an ordinary working day. It is hard to figure what motivated the Rákosi regime to abandon their tender feelings for 1848. Perhaps there were just too many holidays around March and April, including Mátyás Rákosi’s birthday. Or perhaps, as was the case later in the Kádár regime, they were afraid of the message of 1848: freedom, parliamentary democracy, independence.

This situation became even worse after 1956. Usually only a few hundred people dared to gather in front of the National Museum or at the statue of Sándor Petőfi. However, by 1969 János Kádár felt secure enough to organize a bigger celebration, but it wasn’t really about March 15 and what it meant.  Instead, the regime created a new holiday called Forradalmi Ifjúsági Napok (Days of the Revolutionary Youth). The Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség (KISZ) celebrated March 15, March 21 (the day of the Proclamation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919), and April 4 (the Day of Liberation) in one neat package.

It happened first in 1973 that the police used nightsticks to disperse the young people who gathered to celebrate March 15. From there on such incidents occurred practically every year. The last police attack on the celebrants took place in 1988 in spite of the fact that the Politburo of MSZMP four months earlier, on December 15, had declared March 15 to be a full-fledged national holiday again.

Surely, the socialist regime feared March 15th much more than August 20th.  Yet today’s Hungarian right, which claims to be fiercely anti-communist, prefers the heritage of August 20th which has very little to do with the concerns of today: democracy, freedom, human rights, equality, freedom of the press, freedom of expression. Should we wonder why?