___Opening the Archives of the Communist Secret Police___Vissza
János M. Rainer (1956 Institute, Budapest, Hungary)

Opening the Archives of the Communist Secret
Police—the Experience in Hungary

Paper prepared for the Round-Table ’The Opening the Archives and the History of Communism 1990-2000’, the 19th Congress of Historical Sciences, Oslo, 6-13 August, 2000

This paper sets out to describe Hungary’s experiences when the archives of the secret police, one of the most characteristic group of source materials for the communist period, were made accessible. After a short personal introduction, I will touch on five aspects. First comes the history of the events themselves, how the Hungarian archives were opened to a limited extent in 1989. Secondly, I sketch the process of transformation that took place after 1989 in the organizations that produced these state security-service documents. Thirdly, I trace what happened to the documents after accessibility became institutionalized in 1990. The fourth part of the paper concerns the surviving documents and the current problems of access to them. The fifth and final point considers the research findings so far and the debate that has broken out over them. As an epilogue, I would like to contribute a specific question to the debate.

Personal introduction. Before discussing how the archives of the communist secret police were opened, I would like to point out that I am not impartial here. My father was 39 years old in 1956. (I hardly knew him, as I was only seven when he died.) Up to 1945, he had been a regular officer in the Hungarian army. After that, he worked as a labourer and then as a warehouseman in a factory on the outskirts of Budapest. When the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 arrived, my father was elected to the factory workers’ council. Many years later, in 1988, I was handed a parcel of grubby documents by the engineer Imre Mécs, an opposition activist who has been a member of Parliament since 1990. What he had found them near the city, while out for a walk in the woods, were the papers of a secret-police officer, which included reports from informants. I found my father’s name in one of them, described as ‘former Horthyite officer and member of the workers’ council at the Ventilator Factory, who is cautious towards the end of November [1956] and does not express an opinion on anything.’

The documents also included a list of the informants employed, so to speak, by the officer’s unit. It contained more than a hundred names, with addresses and personal details. We published some of the documents in a Hungarian samizdat journal back in 1989, during the change of system. One of the editors suggested we should publish the list of names just as we found it, arguing that democracy called above all things for clarification of the past. We agreed with that, but raised the question of why we should unmask just a single group of informants, whose names had been found by chance. That is a question, we argued, for the new democracy to regulate by law. In the end, the list was published with the names blanked out. (It contained those of a university professor and of a simple worker.)

There was no way to tell then that Hungarian democracy (and historical research) would still be unable to resolve the problem a decade later.

1.The opening of the archives in Hungary. The monopoly of information characteristic of the communist dictatorship was broken by the last communist government. The minister of culture, who was originally a historian, issued a ministerial decree in the autumn of 1989, ordering the release of all papers more than 30 years old and classifying research into official archives as a human right. This suddenly opened the state archives. Their example was followed by the party archives, which were still in the control of the state party at that time, and by the military archives. Of course, the decree could not apply to records that had never been archived and remained in the place of provenance. There were two large groups of such sources: the records of the Foreign Ministry and of the Interior Ministry. The former handed over many of its documents to the National Archives in earlier years, while continuing to restrict research access to them. (The problems of the Foreign Ministry records are ignored here.) The Interior Ministry had released hardly anything since 1945 and a huge volume of documents had accumulated. Those of the greatest value as source materials were the records of the regular and political police, which both came under the ministry. The latter included the records of the political trials, from the investigations of the secret police to the verdict and sentence of the court.

2.The special case of the secret police during the transition. In September 1989, the negotiations at the so-called national round table led to agreement between the communist party and the opposition on a peaceful process of democratic transformation, with free parliamentary elections in the first half of 1990. In October, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party held an extraordinary congress, where it reconstituted itself as the Hungarian Socialist Party. In November, the radical opposition precipitated a referendum on banning party politics from work places and on methods of electing the president of the republic. The result on the latter overruled the September agreement: the choice of president was left to the freely elected Parliament, instead of the electorate. The idea that underlay these developments was to avoid revolutionary violence during the transformation. However, one side effect was that the opposition tacitly recognized the legitimacy of the previous institutional and legal systems. It was envisaged that in exchange, so to speak, for a peaceful transition, the existing, monolithic institutions would behave as ‘lame ducks’ until the general elections, acting only on immediate matters and leaving essential aspects of the transformation to be decided by the new Parliament and government. For instance, the old Parliament simply passed legislation on the free elections and the new budget, but refrained from making any other constitutional changes.

However, this tacit agreement was interpreted very loosely by some institutions. At the Ministry of the Interior, for example, several plans to transform the functioning and organization of the political police were drawn up in 1988–9. Some of these notions coincided with the main strands of the democratic transition, by making the defence of national security and constitutional order the objective instead of the ideological defence of the communist state. Meanwhile the agencies concerned carried on their accustomed activities, gathering information on the political figures and organizations that they perceived as the ‘hostile opposition’. So while the ‘modernization’ plans to transform the secret police internally were prepared, the ‘operative games’, designed to influence the whole political transformation in Hungary, continued. The heads of the agency imagined they could contribute, in their own way, to deflecting the transformation in the direction that suited them. The political structure they wanted would be ‘democratic, socialist’ and even pluralist, yet allow the communist party to retain its special positions of power. Furthermore, the secret-police apparatus would remain, although it would change its name (like the party) and to some extent its duties. So the secret police continued to serve up the information it gathered to the leaders of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ or Socialist Party.

In the final days of 1989, a dissident security agent broke the news to the democratic opposition parties that the intelligence gathering continued and that meanwhile, a start had been made with destroying documents in the secret-police archives. These parties immediately appealed to public opinion and the so-called Dunagate scandal broke out. First the head of the group in the Interior Ministry working against ‘internal reaction’ was dismissed and later the deputy minister supervising the whole of state security. Finally, the interior minister was forced to resign. According to later parliamentary enquiries, the destruction of documents again took place at a panic-stricken speed. The ‘observer files’ still in use by the departments were destroyed (these had been kept on members of the opposition) and the closed files were not spared either. Most of the pre-1956 operative files have vanished and so have the ones for immediately before 1989. (The destruction was begun at the two ends, with 1945 and 1989.) About 100,000 of the 110,000 agent-recruitment files fell victim.

The scandal made plain the activity of the communist secret policy, of which everyone was already aware. The 3rd group directorate of the 3rd state-main-group directorate, dealing with ‘the interception of internal reaction’, was disbanded in the spring of 1990. However, before the general elections, a separate National Security or Information Office was formed out of the intelligence, counter-intelligence, military counter-intelligence and technical group directorates. This was placed under the supervision of the government instead of the Interior Ministry, and included most of the staff from the disbanded group. The first task of the new agencies was to take over tens of thousands of surviving Interior Ministry files ‘necessary for their work’, including 10,000 closed operative files and several thousand recruitment and work files. Many in Hungary believe now that the whole scandal was simply a successful ‘gambit’ for salvaging the secret services. One section out of five was sacrificed, along with a few leaders, in a series of events that managed to ‘democratize’ the whole communist state-security service, turning it into the national security service. According to this school of thought, most of the documents were not destroyed, but transferred to the renamed organizations.

3.The curious fate of the documents under democracy. The Interior Ministry after 1990 was ‘purged’ of its state-security (national security) functions, but it inherited the entire records of the state-security system, along with the documents that had survived destruction and had also been declared devoid of interest to the new national security system. This meant some 3000 metres of shelving, holding over one hundred thousand files, including almost all the papers of the political trials between 1945 and 1989, operative files, agents’ files and so on. This material was not handed over to the National Archives by the new ministry either. Some documents were made accessible, mainly the political trials, but only if special procedures were followed. The state-security documents remained closed, with even their existence denied in many cases.

In fact, these documents soon became the focus of a further political debate. The peaceful, legal character of the Hungarian transition had given the previous political elite ‘free passage’ and left unpunished those who had persecuted and even tortured people for their convictions under the communist regime. There was clearly a moral deficit and this weighed heavily on the new democracy, which had resolved to be the antithesis of the previous regime in every other respect. Various campaigns were launched by various political sources, calling for an investigation of the ‘crimes’ of the communist period and even for retribution. These campaigns for dispensing justice usually came from the conservative-nationalist right wing. They were opposed by the successor party to the communists and by the liberals, on grounds of principle to do with constitutionalism and legal security, although most liberals agreed with the moral arguments for dispensing justice.

The liberal view was that the requisite method of assimilating the past lies in the freedom to acknowledge and analyse it. The need for transparency extended to informing the public about who had been the secret accomplices in the previous regime, the agents informing on those around them, their friends and often family members as well. That was the basis of the proposed vetting legislation, which called for an examination of the past of the new political elite. The measure encountered unexpected opposition, on the democratic side, as well as from the Socialist Party. One of the first tasks for the new secret services was to compile a long list, of the names of members of the new political elite (especially members of Parliament) who had acted as secret informants to the state security system. Apparently the list included every ninth member of Parliament, most of them from parties in opposition at that time. Those affected and the politicians they influenced, who had become uncertain of themselves, gladly accepted the arguments advanced by the new national security services. People on the liberal side saw the entire state-security service as something illegal. They included in this the Hungarian intelligence, which had mainly tried to infiltrate the Hungarian democratic emigré community, and the counter-intelligence, which was more concerned with the Western help given to the opposition at home than with the secret-hunting CIA agents in Hungary. The state-security service sounded the alarm: t here was a danger to the agents who were still serving. That paralysed the whole debate, so that a law on vetting was not passed until 1994, when the mandate of that Parliament expired.

The 1994 elections brought into government a socialist-liberal coalition. The minister of the interior, a liberal, assembled a committee of historians and archivists to assess the ministry records and make proposals about what should happen to the documents. The committee proposed handing some of them over to the National Archives (which later happened) and establishing a special institution to hold the state-security documents. The pattern for this was the so-called Gauck Office handling the documents of the East German secret police. Researchers and specialists imagined that the new office would bring together all the state-security documents at last: those that had remained in the Ministry of the Interior and those transferred to the new services at the beginning of 1990. The position of the latter was considered illegal and any use of them a danger to democracy. The optimism was increased by the passage of the Archives Act in 1995. This provided for the archives of the communist party to be released right up to 1989, instead of waiting the customary 30 years because there were special reasons for making this period known.

In 1996, an amendment to the vetting legislation founded the Historical Office, which was to hold the documents of the state-security services. The measure mentioned the combining of the records, but it left the execution of this to cooperation between the office and the national security service. The office was given the task of satisfying demands from citizens, based on the principle of ‘information compensation’ introduced by the data-protection ombudsman of the Hungarian Parliament. It was also charged with providing for researchers and with publicizing materials. On the other hand, serious obstacles were erected for both, on the pretext of protecting personal data: ‘sensitive’ data was erased from documents supplied to ordinary citizens and to researchers. Curiously, those interpreting the legislation have classed as sensitive even the act of being recruited as an informant. The fact that someone was an agent of the secret police in Hungary, let us say from 1963 to 1975, counts as a strictly protected piece of personal data. The only exception is if the person concerned is a member of Parliament (or a high-ranking civil servant) and the special tribunal established for the purpose establishes this fact. If the incriminated person then resigns, the secret remains a secret. If he or she refuses to do so, the fact is published but there are no other consequences. Unfortunately, the person chosen to head the Historical Office subscribed to an interpretation much closer to the interests of the apparatus, intent on maintaining confidentiality at all costs, than to civil interests such as research and recognition criteria. So the Hungarian ‘Gauck Office’, according to many people, became simply an ‘operetta Gauck’, not a place where victims could obtain their information deserts.

4.What remains? Despite all the drawbacks, the Historical Office contains a significant, if fragmented body of records. It includes the investigation files for almost 70,000 political cases between 1945 and 1989, about 15,000 operative files from the same period, 5600 recruitment files, 8000 work files, and almost 4000 other files, studies, lists, manuals etc.

After the foregoing events, members of the Hungarian public did not show any inordinate curiosity to look into the files about themselves. After more than three years, the number of applications to do so has yet to reach 5000. Furthermore, no data was found in half of these cases. The registration system also suffered appreciable damage in 1989–90 and preparation of new systems is proceeding very slowly.

However, several hundred researchers a year have been visiting the Historical Office, where the research room is extremely crowded. The relatively complete sets of political trial papers are prime sources for the political history of Hungary since 1945. The various forms of resistance by the working class, the peasantry, young people and so on all counted as political matters, so that social historians find it extremely profitable to look through the state-security files. The ‘building’ files, covering the life inside a factory or other economic unit, are important sources of economic history. Similar files were kept on cultural and scientific institutions. Several thousand people were kept under observation for years and decades at a time, without any open proceedings being taken against them. The all-embracing state-security function of observation and intervention as a whole was an emblem of the communist period. The history of that activity, and how it altered and changed, ties in closely with the political history of the period. So these documents have fundamental historical significance.

Research today is impeded by two factors. One is the document shortage. Many written records were destroyed in 1989–90, but no one knows precisely what they contained, because they were removed, as far as possible, from the registers as well. Meanwhile many documents were appropriated by the new national security services. Nothing is known of these either, as no information is released. Almost all documents about relations with the KGB have vanished, although Soviet advisers still sat in the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior as late as the summer of 1989. Finally, the condition of the registers means that there is no clear picture available of the surviving materials. The alphabetical register of persons has survived relatively intact, but the computer versions have vanished. Especially sad is the destruction (or possibly loss) of the so-called subject-heading index, which made possible thematic searches over all the documents. However, the national security services last year returned about a thousand files of intelligence papers, dealing with Hungarian emigrés in the West.

The other impeding factor is the accessibility of the existing documents. As mentioned earlier, the sensitive data in the documents is excised. Unfortunately, the legislation leaves wide scope for interpretation. Membership of a political party is indeed a piece of data calling for protection in a democratic, constitutional state. In the case of participants in the history of the party-state, concealing the fact of communist-party membership and removing it from documents is absurd. I have already mentioned the practice of protecting the identity of agents. It is not just that the recruitment files have remained closed to this day. The work files containing the reports have not been made available to researchers either, although they are sometimes published. Earlier on, the national security services tried to cover up the techniques of their secret-service work as well, arguing that these were still in use and therefore state secrets. For a while, researchers were denied access to transcriptions of telephone tapping, because then it would emerge that this method was used (as if everyone did not know anyway.) Such ad hoc interventions have ceased today, but the successfulness of research still depends on the flexibility and benevolence of the archivist serving the researcher.

5.Findings and debates. Despite the difficulties mentioned, there have been important findings from the research done so far. The Historical Office now contains a research department that deals mainly with the institutional and organizational history of state security. The 1956 Institute in Budapest has launched a several-year research programme into the history of state-security activity in the Kádár period. Apart from that, research is taking place on a variety of detailed questions.

Interest today is clearly directed on a few main focal points. One is the question of the show trials that were held in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There are also many researchers working on the reprisals that followed the 1956 Revolution, including the role of the state security system. Another focus is the democratic transformation of 1989–90 and its immediate antecedents, especially the way opposition activities were received by the state security system. Once the intelligence materials have been obtained by the Historical Office and become accessible, regular research work can start on the Western democratic emigrés.

Several volumes, studies and collections of documents have appeared already. Prominent among them is the two-volume Little Reader on State Security, by the historian János Kenedi, which contains documents on state-security actions connected with civil commemorations of October 23, March 15 and June 16, in the period 1957–89. The part of Kenedi’s book that aroused the sharpest debate points to the role of the state security system in the democratic transition, in connection with the Imre Nagy reburial. Had the secret service manipulated the process through its agents? Essentially, the answer is that it tried to, but largely failed.

The other debate concerns the accessibility of the documents and whether those who played a part in the past should be named. The legislation described earlier gave a negative answer to the second, but the demand for an investigation of the past remains strong. Finally, a new chapter in the debate opened at the end of last year, by a case where it was perfectly clear, even after the names had been removed from a document, who had been one of the undercover agents in the democratic opposition. The person concerned, who was an important, successful writer, made a public confession and cited blackmail by the secret police as an explanation. One of the persons who had been under direct observation publicly exonerated the informant, saying that ultimately, he had been as much a victim of the communist system as anyone. This interpretation was strenuously opposed by many people, while others warned against drawing any general conclusions. Some people even expressed the view that the state security system was continuing its activities post mortem and still poisoning public utterances and the public atmosphere. The philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás, a former opposition activist, said he would simply send all the surviving documents of the state security system to the bottom of the Danube.

A question. Although Tamás’s ‘solution’ is a radical one, there are probably good reasons for not adopting it. Can any kind of truth about the past be gained from sources produced by organizations dedicated to institutionalized lying? These organizations fabricated stories from their agents’ reports, along predetermined lines. ‘Although readers are introduced to an institutional system of lying in public life, the sources tell the truth. They present to posterity the reality of a hypocritical system,’ was Kenedi’s response to the question. Except that Kenedi’s book could not name the participants, for the reasons already mentioned. This was rightly picked up by the critic István Rév: ‘A historical work and a work of fiction can be distinguished, among other reasons and in formal terms, since the former presents a story verifiable from documents accessible to others, while a fictional work is not usually required to verify itself in archive documents. The professional credence of a historical work depends, among other things, on the identifiable participants found in the sources under their real, genuine names. The authenticity of a historical work and of a piece of fiction rest on different bases: internal consistency does not suffice to credit a historical narrative.’ The post-modern concept of history argues with this statement to some extent, but to my mind, Rév has summed up the basic question convincingly.

The subtitle of Timothy Garton Ash’s book The File presents a personal history, as an adequate means of confronting the past and expressing the truth about dictatorship. He clearly assigns a significant role in the processing to studying the files of the former secret service. From this point of view, analysing the history, the comprehensive data, the running and the development of the organization is far from useless, but it hardly reveals more than any other analytical treatment of totalitarian systems (classical or reformed). Morally speaking, the allegory of personal history exerts an immeasurably greater force, of course. It captures, simultaneously, the organization, the victims, the collaboration and the moral erosion, and it has no obligation at all to place all these on a basis of objectivity. The problem is that most documents in Hungary today are incomplete or not accessible at all. Consequently, there is hardly any chance of reconstructing the personal history of someone or other from the files of the state-security system. The one hope is that people who consider it important to be acquainted with the past (historians among them) will apply pressure for the eventual release of the documents.

Kérjük írja meg véleményét, javaslatait.
Copyright © 2000 National Széchényi Library 1956 Institute and Oral History Archive
Utolsó módosítás:  2006. szeptember 18. hétfő

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