Spy Files of Communists Still Put Hungary on Edge
Reluctance to release police records on individuals may stunt democratic progress.
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — Whoever controls the past," George Orwell once wrote, "controls the future."
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.
These people are either a little curious, a little paranoid, or suffer from delusions of grandeur, says Gyorgy Marko, director of the history office.
The applicants are essentially divided between those born before World War II and active in the 1956 revolution, and those born after the uprising.
There is also a small number of applicants who are former agents and worried that their files say so. To protect their identities, the names of all informants have been blacked out.
"This is not about revenge," Mr. Marko says. "We're allowing them to close that chapter of their life. Most were victims themselves, blackmailed into doing it."
In fact, the thought of learning who was doing the spying makes some Hungarians uneasy.
Pal Tar, the Hungarian ambassador to the United States from 1991 to 1994, assumes he has a file somewhere. He and Mr. Antall, the late former prime minister, were high school friends. During the revolution, they briefly resurrected a banned political party, the Smallholders.
After the Soviets suppressed the uprising, Mr. Antall was jailed but Mr. Tar eluded arrest by emigrating to France. He corresponded with Antall, who was followed for years afterward and likely had his mail monitored
Tar hasn't yet decided whether to seek access to his file. "Sometimes you had the feeling that a good friend was spying on you," says Tar, today a member of a local think tank. "Is that something I would now want to know? Once you know, what to do about the friendship?"
Still, those files that have been perused provide an intriguing glimpse of how the totalitarian game was played.
Budapest Mayor Gabor Demszky has perhaps one of the largest files on record, about 200 pages. A self-described "professional dissident" during the 1970s and '80s, Mr. Demszky was a key publisher of underground samizdat journals.
That earned him special attention from government agents. Demszky's apartment was bugged, his phone tapped, and informants swarmed around him. He was arrested more than a dozen times and beaten once, in 1983. But today his dossier is a "diary" of sorts, courtesy of the moles.
"They wrote down our latest initiatives, even the expressions we were using," says Demszky, who has been a force behind the movement to pry loose more secret documents. "Our lives are preserved in these files."
The agents were indeed copious notetakers.
One of Demszky's friends saw a detailed entry in his file of an event he remembered vividly. There were three visitors in his apartment, each of whom he guessed was an informant. Apparently, though, none knew the others were agents. Hardly efficient, three separate reports from the afternoon's chat appeared in his file.
On other occasions, it seems reports were written to fit the crime.
Learning the truth
Denes Dobrodinszky was a tool-and-die maker, and though he never said so publicly, he was anticommunist. In 1956, as a teenager, he joined in the street marches, but ducked out when they turned violent. Later, during "voluntary" May Day parades, he stayed home. He emigrated in the 1960s, but returned to Hungary in 1990.
Recently, Mr. Dobrodinszky asked to check his file. He was startled to find 91 photos, some of documents, many of him. He was described - inaccurately, he says - as an alcoholic, a womanizer, and someone who "spends more money than he can afford." Such a lifestyle made him suspect as an "enemy of the state."
"I wasn't a big fish," says Dobrodinszky proudly. "But they kept a file on me. To me, that means they were afraid of me and many little men like me."
But finding out who else the Communists feared is proving to be an exhaustive exercise. Help can't be expected from the Socialists, who seem headed for reelection next year.
Mayor Demszky vows he'll continue to wage what he calls the "little battles" needed to win. Ultimately, however, it may boil down to a war of attrition.
"Time will help solve this problem," the mayor says. "When fewer people feel endangered, more will come out."