Spy Files of Communists Still Put Hungary on Edge
Reluctance to release police records on individuals may stunt democratic progress.
Whoever controls the past," George Orwell once wrote, "controls the future."Skip to next paragraph
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If the partial release of Hungary's secret police files in September is any indication, those working the levers of control continue to be the gray-suited remnants of the Communist security apparatus.
Some three-dozen Hungarians have viewed the dossiers compiled against them, and most echo the same sentiment: The collection is paltry and far from complete.
"I'm a sucker and ashamed that I expected to find something meaningful," says Laszlo Regeczy-Nagy, who was imprisoned for six years for smuggling key documents out of Hungary during the failed anti-Soviet revolution of 1956.
He says, "It is my past, after all. But how can you expect them to give up their secrets, the secrets that are tied to them?"
Mr. Regeczy-Nagy's file was filled exclusively with accounts of his 14 months of interrogation and subsequent show trial, none of which is "secret" to him.
Two other facts are also not secret: First, roughly half of the files were destroyed in 1989 by skittish agents who saw that their time was up. Their frantic document shredding during the winter of 1989-90 was later dubbed "Danube-gate."
Second, many of the remaining files are legally off-limits. They concern issues such as espionage and counterintelligence and are viewed by the government as threats to "national security."
Vital for progress
But it wouldn't be fair to lay all of the blame for the paucity of files on former party apparatchiks. A so-called "conspiracy of silence" - said to be perpetrated by the power elite and intelligentsia - has kept the dossier issue on the back burner.
Complicity in Hungary's relatively mild "Goulash Communism" was widespread, note some analysts. The power structure has changed little since then.
As a result, few in the establishment want to see the files unearthed, says Janos Kenedi, a leading expert on the subject.
This "historical amnesia," he says, coupled with only a partial release of the files, stunts Hungary's democratic progress.
"I can't imagine building a democratic, civil society without a critical historical knowledge of the past," says Mr. Kenedi, a historian and journalist.
"And it's a joke without the entire collection, a falsification of history," he adds.
That Hungary has moved so slowly in exposing its secret files has puzzled some outsiders. The Central European nation is a front-runner to join major democratic institutions such as NATO and the European Union.
The former East Germany, on the other hand, took the painful but necessary step of opening its secret police files relatively quickly. Of course, it would also melt into a democratic Germany.
Hungary was expected to follow the East German lead. The first democratically elected government here in 1994 was conservative and virulently anti-Communist. But then-Prime Minister Jozsef Antall was reluctant to push the issue, so the story goes, because upon taking office he'd been handed a long list of former collaborators and agents within his own party.
Case closed, until the next elections. Challenged by the ex-communist Socialist Party, the government selectively released dossiers to damage the opposition. It backfired as the Socialists won resoundingly.
Needless to say, the Socialists have even less incentive to push the files issue. Prime Minister Gyula Horn, a member of the paramilitary units that helped put down the 1956 revolution, was also the Communist regime's foreign minister in the late 1980s. Several other current ministers were also party leaders.
Yet the Socialists have been able to resist the occasional call to release more secret files because the public itself seems remarkably uninterested.
At the peak of its reign of terror in the early 1950s, the security apparatus was reportedly tracking some 1.5 million of Hungary's 10 million population. The number dwindled to about 215,000 active and inactive files in 1989, when the shredders kicked into gear.
The new guardian of the files, the Office of History in the Interior Ministry, has received more than 1,300 applications to review them in its first two months of operation. Most requests have yet to be processed. Aside from the few people granted access, a handful of others have been told there are only registry cards to show for files that were likely destroyed. Another 350 applicants came up empty-handed.