HUNGARY'S Constitutional Court has just said "No" to a law which could have unleashed an indiscriminate "witch hunt" against members of the Communist regime that suppressed the popular revolt of 1956.
The law, approved by Parliament last November, would have extended an expired statute of limitations passed during the Communist time. Its sponsors insisted it was aimed only at bringing major offenders to trial. But critics held that, in practice, the courts would be free to act not only against those charged with one of the three crimes specified but also against thousands of their minor or passive supporters.
The Constitutional Court ruled March 3 that the law violated the legal guarantees of the new Constitution.
The decision will be greeted with relief not only by concerned Hungarians, but people across Eastern Europe.
Difficult times have spurred similar debates within several countries. East Europeans have turned skeptical of economic reforms as they failed to halt the decline in living standards. Winter, unemployment nearly double that of a year ago, and a cynical feeling that democracy looked synonymous with poverty have increasingly fueled social unrest. With it came renewed demands for scapegoats, for seeing that not only the Big Brothers be held accountable, but also the numerous lesser apparatchiks who carried out their bidding.
Some sophisticates warned against a preoccupation with the past and tendencies toward blanket accusations of guilt which could repeat some of the Communists' worst iniquities.
Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel, for example, spoke out resolutely against replacing individual responsibility with collective guilt. Yet Czechoslovakia now has a law labeling virtually anyone who had contacts of any kind with the former secret police a "collaborator." They will be barred for at least 5 years from even lowly jobs in state administration, and from institutions like state radio and television.
"Who did not have 'contacts' with the secret police?" asks one Czechoslovakian working in the official media until his dismissal in the early 1960s. "Anyone who traveled in the Communist years was arbitrarily summoned to report. I was pulled in once a month. My report was trivial enough, but who knows how it was doctored to satisfy an interrogator's superiors?
"If I were still in the country would I be barred under this law? Tens of thousands of lesser people can be at risk."
In Germany, bitter controversy is raging over the often sensational use of the archives of the old East German secret police, or Stasi, to discredit not only the state, but some of those who brought about its revolution.
In Poland, a plan for general "de-communization" looked so much like postwar de-Nazification in West Germany it was dropped, and focus turned instead on leaders in the Solidarity emergency period. Accusations ranged from general political and economic guilt to involvement in nine miners' deaths in an early confrontation under martial law.
Hungary's parliamentary vote last November stirred many misgivings. "It is too easy to let the genie out of the bottle," Ivan Peto, an opposition MP, warned. "It takes exemplary wisdom to give it the right orders. It is next to impossible to get it back in."
Grappling as they are with economic disorder, governments are not averse to blaming everything on their predecessors and exploiting the legitimate emotions many still feel about the past.
But there are many also who reject the idea of some modern witch hunt. "The emphasis," a several-times-jailed dissident said recently, "should be on the present and the future. We mustn't repeat the past examples of politicized justice. That way democracy can be undermined."
President Arpad Goncz, himself imprisoned for his part in the 1956 uprising, asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the law. The court seems wisely to have concurred.