Secrets destruct democracy in Hungary

The government’s withholding of the state secret service files in Hungary has created major problems and undermined citizens’ faith in the system. Society and its leaders will be paying a high price for this in the long run.

Photo: CreativeCommons/Domiriel


The dismantling of the communist system was probably nowhere as fast as in Hungary at the end of the 1980s. Between 1988 and 1989 the state party had already produced the cardinal laws of the transition, with the “old” parliament’s blessing and without any significant pressure from the opposition. The so-called “round table” talks between the state party and the opposition began in the summer of 1989, but most solutions had already been predetermined, and the opposition could only influence details during the discussions. 1

On 5 January 1990, two opposition parties reported to the military prosecutor’s office that the state party’s internal security had conducted illegal surveillance activities. This was the infamous III/III Department, who monitored the activities of legally established new parties even though the approaching multiparty elections were to be held in March. This created a huge political scandal known as the Danube Gate case. 2 Interestingly, for the longest time, various political forces did not, with any particular vehemence, demand the opening of state security files. 3

The disclosure issue in the 1990’s – an international comparison

It must be noted that the disclosure of state security documents was facing attempts of sabotage in all the countries of the region. Initially, in Germany, the West German political elite did not want to hear about the Stasi documents or research them, and it was only due to the oppositional East German civil rights movement that the documents were not destroyed. In Poland and Romania, the state security documents issues were avoided the first 10 years after the transition.  In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it didn’t start right away either; the secret files’ disclosures were only accelerated after the establishment of the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (2007) and the Slovak Nation’s Memory Institute (2002), inspiring the public to get more involved in both debates. Comparitvely by 2000 it had become clear that Hungary would not be a frontrunner to say the least. 4

The failure of the Antall government, in power between 1990 and 1994, to tackle the issue is perhaps the most understandable, because Antall and his allies were simply unprepared for the political tasks required for the file disclosures and lustrations. Antall was shocked by the information he received from former Prime Minister Miklós Németh; his close friends, faction members and political allies were so greatly affected that disclosure seemed like immediate political suicide.

In the autumn of 1991, Zsolt Zétényi, an MP of the governing party, a , took action and presented a bill that sought to declare those crimes committed for political reasons and never brought before the court and sanctioned, imprescriptible. This bill would not have affected state security files or state security agents, but was primarily aimed at political leaders and perpetrators who openly violated laws, and could have been used against leaders of the state party’s primary political opponent, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP).

Although the law was adopted by parliament, President Árpád Göncz raised concerns that the Constitutional Court upheld; and this happened again to a modified version of the law. It is not surprising that the socialists rejected it. What is interesting was that the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), a clearly anti-Communist liberal party before 1990, vehemently rejected the bill as well. The Free Democrat’s chairman, Iván Pető, explained that the “witch-hunt” and subsequent impeachments were not desirable and were in their view, pointless. He went further by saying that there was no example of this practice in western Europe, ignoring that this was not true in the case of Nazi crimes. This argument in later years had some fatal consequences, because it proved that the Hungarian liberal left did not measure Nazi and Communist crimes by the same standards. 5

Disclosure attempts

In November on behalf of the liberal opposition, the Demszky/Hack bill, which aimed to disclose the names of the agents in the infamous III/III department in the case they would run for a political office, was submitted. No other sanction at this stage was intended. This proposal, which would have been only part of the solution, was not supported by some of the Free Democrats themselves and of course even less by MSZP.

It is difficult to decipher why support for the bill was not unanimous, because issues that are bound to these political forces are still unresolved. An example of this are the cases of two highly respected figures: President Árpád Göncz and Kálmán Kéri, the first doyen of parliament, representing the coalition conservatives (MDF), both of whom where always opposed to the Communist dictatorship. As for Kéri, we know that formally he was recruited by the secret service, but for years he misled his bosses with fake reports, so he was dismissed from the agents’ network. 6

As for Árpád Göncz, we only know that between the 18th and 22nd of December 1989, someone took and destroyed 100 pages from his state security files. 7 There has not been a compelling explanation of who did it and why. What we do know is that neither Antall, nor Göncz initiated the disclosure of state security documents and tapes to the public during their terms of office. It is understandable that one might be afraid of how such news might discredit them. The records do not show how one “performed” in the network, although they allow some conclusions to be drawn. They show if and when somebody was dismissed: if they became “traitors”, got revealed or revealed themselves, did not do the work, had to stop for health reasons, or were no longer in a position to be useful, etc. In retrospect, it is still quite tragic that some people, including the victims of the Communist dictatorship, driven by real or perceived shame, have blocked attempts to learn about our past.

Interestingly, the few things that have happened to help the process never did so under conservative and right wing governments. It is quite revealing that the Fidesz-Smallholders coalition of 1998-2002 and the Fidesz-Christian Democrat government since 2010 were the only cycles when not a single act or initiative regarding the files was passed; the issue was not even touched.

The only exception was the creation of a so-called National Remembrance Commission in 2013, which admittedly have not wanted to deal with the secret agent issue. The reasons for this are manifold, but it should be pointed out that the disclosure of agents’ files, could implicate the main Christian churches’ entire leadership, who are now political allies, landing them in the middle of a major scandal. 8

Archives protecting the perpetrators

State security document researchers had to wait almost 10 years for the creation of the Historical Archives on State Security Services, yet this was not a real solution either, because it was created by laws that protect perpetrators and make research and reparation as hard as possible. This is true even if we disregard the first period’s scandalous practice of anonimization, when all personal details were covered making files completely useless. We should note that under no circumstances should we blame the archives staff for any of this, but only the institution that employs them.

Here are some examples:

1. In the archives under law nr. III/2003, 4§ (3), only those who have relevant publications and whose research has already begun can get a research permit(!). If this were taken seriously, then noone would be eligable for a research permit.  Most research materials are only available in the archives, so one cannot begin research without them, and then consequently publish work about them.

2. For half a decade the archive catalogues were not provided to researchers, so they could not search for documents themselves. This has significantly hindered access to key documents.

3. The archive was designed without enough space for all the files, although during the planning those in charge were fully aware how much physical space the file collection required. This congestion deliberately slows down research.

4. The director of the archives did not once exercise his right to initiate a review of the secrecy rating of those documents that still remain at the services. So if anyone wants to know who was involved as a “networked person” (a member of the professional staff) or an “operational relationship” (a reporting contact), they have to ask for records from the public figures, themselves, which makes access to the information dependent on the decisions of those, who could be harmed as a result.

Legally forced to lie

The most serious problem is that legislation designed to gain full knowledge about the past actually protects the interests of the perpetrators. Law 2003/III’s definition of who can be classified as an agent can only be applied to about 0.1% of the approximately 200,000 agents, meaning they are the only ones that can be considered secret agents. 9 During the past 25 years, more than a dozen lawsuits were filed by people complaining that scientific researchers, based on documentation, had called them agents. Each of them won their cases against the scientific researchers without the courts even reviewing the details.

The absurdity of this situation is illustrated by one court resolution, where a certain person, noted only as MJ, could not be called a state security agent even though it was proven that he, under the names “Marosvásárhelyi” and “Magasdi” met consistently with, and gave regular reports to state security officers. 10This is because the above law, on the grounds that records are unreliable, does not consider those persons “agents” who were previously treated as such by state security, itself.

The law also outlines a triple set of criteria – people can only be considered agents if they: secretly, under a cover name and in conspiracy gave reports; signed recruitment declarations for that purpose; and received compensation for such reports. In other words if someone has 2,000 pages of handwritten reports in the archives, but a declaration cannot be found and no data is available that they have been paid for it, that person is not legally considered an agent. Equally absurd examples can be found in the recent “agent court cases” in which, despite the obvious evidence, the researchers, who published their findings were always sentenced – not the affected person.

The regulators must be aware that they set up an absurd set of criteria, since it is known that at least 90% of agents did not receive salaries or benefits, 11 nor was it compulsory to sign recruitment declarations, and the so-called B-files containing payment receipts and recruitment statements were almost all completely destroyed (out of about 200,000 approximately only 6,000 survived). In other words: those who designed this law wanted to protect agents from public scrutiny. This is a vile and immoral law, and it is incredible that a party that calls itself a polgári, or “civic” thinks this is acceptable.

Myths and rebuttals

In regard to opening the files, many often say, “Why deal with this? Nobody cares anymore.” However, all the press attention has shown that the Hungarian public is actually very interested in the issue, and even more so today because some public figures are still lying about what they did before the transition. It’s certainly true that citizens’ interest will not be satisfied by the condemnation of those who are guilty. Unfortunately, most stories that reach the public primarily remain at the tabloid level.

The opponents of opening the files also argue that the documents contain false information, thus should not be made researchable. The truth is, however, that none of the documents in the archives or in the possession of today’s secret service produced after 1990, have proven to be fake. It would also be technically impossible to fake documents that identify agents. The so-called Card Number 6, which proved that an agent had been recruited, included at least six types of data, including file, page and dossier numbers, and various codes that allowed the identification of documents, persons and their positions in the organizational structure, to be cross-checked. This would make it impossible to create and place a fake Card Number 6 among real ones without discrepancies appearing, as higher numbers, based on file dates, would have been given to those cards produced after 1990; and any duplicate numbers would become apparent during routine checks. It is also clear that with everything being digitally recorded since 1990 and the fact that current state security authorities use the same data base to date, that they regard it as 100% authentic for their current operations.

It is also legitimate to ask that not only the agents, but their bosses and official connections, who are in the system, should be dealt with; and fortunately researchers do both, equally revealing the two types of agents. Interestingly, officers and those who gave the political orders for operations are much more researchable than agents at the other end of the food chain, with the exception of the group that was taken over by the new National Security Services. The number of those in this group should not to be underestimated, as even 25 years after the fall of the regime, we can say that the vast majority of the current National Security Services’ leaders started their career in the ranks of the Communist State Security before 1990.

Claims have been made that exposing the state party’s security system will lead to “witch-hunts,” however to my knowledge, in other places where the secrets of the state party’s security are fully researchable, like in the countries of eastern Europe, no such thing has happened.

It is true that not everything can be made public today because of national security interests; however, those demanding that the files be opened are only requesting the exposure of facts that are in the public interest and that do not infringe upon current national security considerations. Surely in complicated cases we cannot leave these decisions to the security services entirely, and so far Hungary’s various governments have negated the possibility of civilian control, placing power in the hands of those who are only interested in hiding the facts.

Political evaluation

It is telling that the rhetorically radical anti-communist “System of National Cooperation,” i.e. the government, completely ignores such a burning social issue, not even entering into the debate. The Hungarian Greens (LMP) attempted  to present a bill about the state security document issue eight times, but the two-thirds majority shot down these attempts before the debate could even get on parliament’s agenda. If anything reveals the true nature of this anti-communism rhetoric, it is this act. It is all the more worrisome that the coalition did not even tell the public why they avoided a parliamentary debate on the topic.

Settling these matters is important, not because of what some people did 20 or 40 years ago, but because of what they say about it now. It is obvious now that many of our public figures boldly lie about their pasts, and the courts silence anyone who dares to question them and reveal the truth. Therefore, this issue is primarily about whether or not it is acceptable to lie to the public; and then about what extended periods of lying does to destroy the fundamental rule of law. If the voters’ faith in the rule of law disappears, no one should be surprised if they vote for forces that will wipe out this discredited elite altogether.

Those in power have successfully muted critical voices for some time. But what can we expect from a society that has endured such political manipulation and believes that our parliamentary system and democracy are nothing more than a cynical show? The current government’s behavior is not only undermining Hungarian society, but its own future as well.

Notes:

  1. Andreas Schmidt-Schweizer: Umbruch in Ungarn 1985-1990. Marburg: Verlag Herder-Institut, 2014. (Dokumente und Materialien zur ostmitteleuropäischen Geschichte); Rudolf Tőkés: Hungary’s negotiated Revolution. Economic Reform, Social Change and Political Succession. Cambridge, 1996.
  2.  Béla Révész: A “Duna-gate” ügy jelentősége a rendszerváltás történelmében: Politológiai értelmezési lehetőségek. ACTA UNIVERSITATIS SZEGEDIENSIS DE ATTILA JÓZSEF NOMINATAE SECTIO JURIDICA ET POLITICA 68:(19) pp. 3-131. (2006) and Dunagate I-II-III. In: Beszélő (2004) 12, (2005) 1, (2005) 2.
  3. László Varga: Világ besúgói egyesüljetek! Az állambiztonság átmentése. Budapest, 2006, PolgArt.
  4.  A szakértői Bizottság Jelentése 2007-2008; Bendegúz Gergő Cseh: Közép-kelet-európai állambiztonsági panoráma. Titkosszolgálati iratok nyilvánossága az egykori szocialista országokban. In: Betekintő; Sándor Horváth (ed.): Az ügynök arcai. Mindennapi kollaboráció és ügynökkérdés. Budapest, 2014 Libri.
  5.  Péter Kende: Igazságtétel. In Beszélő
  6.  Krisztián Ungváry: Sarokba szorítva: Hátszegi Hatz Ottó és az állambiztonság. In: Gábor Tabajdi- Krisztián Ungváry: Elhallgatott múlt. A pártállam és a belügy. A politikai rendőrség működése Magyarországon 1956-1990. Budapest, 2008 Corvina 262-284.
  7.  Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történelmi Levéltára, V-150003/2c és 150003/5 dossiers
  8.  Krisztián Ungváry: The Kádár-Regime and the Subduing of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy. In: Sabrina P. Ramet (Ed.): Religion and Politics in Post-Socialist Ccentral and Southeastern Europe. Challenges since 1898. London 2014 Palgrave Macmillan, 86-114.
  9.  Approximated figure according to content among researchers
  10.  Péter Kende: Egy polgár vallomásai I. In: Élet és Irodalom, 2007 április 27 (17.sz); Egy polgár vallomásai II. In: Élet és Irodalom, 2007. június 8 (23.sz.)
  11. Gábor Tabajdi-Krisztián Ungváry: Elhallgatott múlt. A pártállam és a belügy. A politikai rendőrség működése Magyarországon 1956-1990, Budapest, 2008, 189.o.
Krisztián Ungváry

Krisztián Ungváry

is a historian of 20th century political and military history. He focuses on the siege of Budapest in World War II as well as the work of the secret service under the communist period of Hungary.