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Scandal in Budapest

1.

There are fewer policemen in the streets of authoritarian countries than in democracies because control is exercised more subtly, by a system of undercover informers, some of whom are coerced, others voluntary. The volunteers are sometimes rewarded by such privileges as a passport for vacationing abroad or a new car delivered ahead of the waiting list. Whenever I visited Hungary to do research in the 1960s and early 1970s, my movements were watched. As a Hungarian expatriate who had lived in the United States since the 1950s, I was suspect; and as a scholar at Columbia University who wrote, among other things, about Hungarian history, I was apparently something worse—a likely agent of the US government sent to spread hostile propaganda about the Communist regime. This is one conclusion that emerged when the Hungarian government recently released many of the police files from this period, including my own. The file reveals that Hungarian interest in my activities went beyond my research in Budapest. One entry records that

Our contact man then asked Deák whom he had voted for [in the 1968 US presidential elections]; he replied that he had cast his vote for Humprey [sic].

The “contact man,” to whom the police gave the cover name “Perényi,” was an informer at the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and he reported to a police lieutenant regularly in a secret apartment maintained for the purpose. On this particular occasion, as in other cases, the lieutenant wrote a careful summary of what “Perényi” told him about me, with ample quotes, and then sent it to his superior at the Ministry of Interior, who evaluated the report as “highly informative.” (The department to which he sent it was called “Interception of Internal Reactionary Behavior and Sabotage—Field of Culture.”) The superior then instructed the lieutenant to order “Perényi” to continue observing my behavior at the institute, where I was at the time a visiting scholar.

Who else was “Perényi” expected to observe, and how many others at the institute were doing similar snooping on the part of the government? The regime of János Kádár, the Communist leader of Hungary from the suppression of the 1956 revolution to his retirement as secretary-general of the Party in 1988, must be divided into two periods. The first, lasting approximately until 1963, was marked by bloody repression of political leaders, intellectuals, workers, and students who had taken part in the revolution. During the second period, lasting from the mid-1960s to the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989, the Hungarians enjoyed more freedom than the other Eastern European countries. There were fewer and fewer political prisoners in Hungary, and the terrible fear that had marked the years between 1948 and 1963 was no longer pervasive.

Still, Hungarians and visitors alike were watched over by a large intelligence apparatus. During the Kádár years, tens of thousands of people regularly reported on their colleagues in schools, offices, factories, and scientific institutions. According to recent estimates, some 40,000 civilian informers, or about half of 1 percent of the population, worked for the police at one time or another. This is a small number when compared to the activities of the Stasi, the East German secret police, which used 300,000 informers, approximately 2 percent of the population, and left an archive of files amounting to 33 million pages.1 But it was a large-scale enterprise, and Hungary’s slowness to open its secret police files has meant that the country is only now confronting the reality of its citizen informers.

In 2002, following the revelation that Péter Medgyessy, the Socialist prime minister, and other members of Hungary’s post-1989 governments, whether of the right or of the left, had worked for Hungary’s secret police during the Communist years, the Hungarian government began to grant more and more access to the files of informers. Since then, about seven hundred scholars and journalists have received permission to study the documents in the Historical Archive of the State Security Services in Budapest. In many cases, it has been relatively easy to establish the identity of informers. According to the current law, former “target persons”—to use the Communist police’s term for people who were watched—may also apply for access, but only to their own files, and they are not told the real names of their informers. I have, however, been able to learn from professional researchers the name of one of my informers. While “Perényi” still remains a mystery, I have learned the identity of “Vili,” another informer who reported on me whenever I traveled to Budapest in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Rather than being angry with “Vili,” a man who was at the time an archivist at the Institute of History, I have reason to be grateful to him. He must have been under some pressure to come up with stories worth investigating, yet he seems to have reported only good things about me. Clearly, he was unlike many other police informers, who, as Hungarians have recently learned, included people who are now some of the country’s most famous politicians, church leaders, sports broadcasters, rock musicians, actors, journalists, and other professionals. Many of them seemed to enjoy denouncing their colleagues; and their secret reports are now the talk of Budapest.2

Vili“‘s assignment to observe me could not have been an easy task, since we were never alone when we met; in fact, I barely remember his face. For lack of more exciting material, he fed the lieutenant such enlightening information as a conversation he overheard while standing behind me in line at the appalling institute canteen. I was discussing, he said, in a “profoundly engaged manner,” the revolutions of 1848 with a fellow historian. On another occasion, “Vili” observed that

as regards his political attitude, Deák clearly belongs to the more reasonable wing of the Democratic Party. He agrees with the views of the opponents of the Vietnam War, and he dislikes the American hawks.

As “Vili” wrote, “in terms of his world view, Deák is a left-wing bourgeois”—one of the kindest things he could have said about an imperialist enemy. Despite such reports, however, the secret police assumed that I and all other visiting scholars from the US were agents of the American information or intelligence services, purposely sent to Hungary to spread “division.”

One day in 1973, when I was again in Hungary as an exchange fellow, and doing research on the revolutions of 1848, I was abruptly summoned to police headquarters. Two polite men in business suits offered me the customary tiny cup of espresso and informed me that since I was guilty of grave crimes against the People’s Republic, I ought to be arrested and put on trial; but in view of the somewhat improved relations between the United States and Hungary, I would, they said, only be expelled. When I asked what I was accused of, I was told “to examine my conscience.” This I was to do in vain for the next thirty-three years until I learned, only a few months ago, in a newly uncovered police report to the Ministry of Interior, dated December 1976, that “according to irrefutable evidence” I had been working “for the intelligence service of the Pentagon.”

Many questions remain about my relatively minor case. If I was a known enemy spy, why did the authorities let me spend so much time in the country? Why, when they expelled me for espionage activities, was I allowed to leave the country in my own car, without anyone bothering to look at my research notes and microfilms? And why, a short time after my return to New York, did the Hungarian ambassador to the United Nations invite me to lunch and assure me that the Hungarian academic establishment would continue to collaborate with the small research institute I directed at Columbia University? And yet the 1976 police report described our New York research institute as a place “where Deák trains East European specialists for the diverse branches of the American armed forces.”

Following my expulsion, IREX, the American interuniversity organization for cultural exchanges with Eastern Europe, suspended, in protest, the exchange of research scholars with Hungary, leaving dozens of people who had been approved for IREX fellowships in both countries wondering when they would be allowed to travel. After hasty negotiations between IREX and Hungarian officials in neutral Vienna to resolve this standoff, the head of IREX urged me to return to Hungary for a short time—apparently to restore some sort of relations. This I did in 1974, but the ten-day visit was no pleasure: unlike the year before, I was constantly followed by thuggish and very conspicuous secret policemen and policewomen. At the airport, when leaving, I was ordered to undress, except for my underclothing and shoes. While the police examined my wallet and luggage and the rest of my clothes, my Swissair flight was delayed for an hour.

When I was expelled in 1973, the US embassy in Budapest showed no interest in my case; but, according to classified Hungarian documents, a year later, after IREX had asked me to return to Hungary, a diplomat at the US embassy in Budapest complained about my activities to the Hungarian authorities. In a “strictly secret” report to the Foreign Ministry found in the archives last year, the deputy director of the Hungarian Institute of Cultural Relations described a visit to his office by the diplomat, who said that I had been completely unwilling to listen to his advice “not to get in touch with the Hungarian Institute of Cultural Relations or any other Hungarian institution, but in this, as in any other question, he was unable to persuade him.” In fact, this embassy official, whom I had seen repeatedly during my brief stay in Budapest, had made fun of my worries about being persistently followed; despite my repeated requests, he refused to accompany me to the airport.

According to the Hungarian report, the diplomat said he was highly dissatisfied not only with my behavior but also with that of Allen H. Kassof and Ivo Lederer, two American scholars concerned with US–East European cultural exchanges at the time. Kassof was executive director of IREX and Lederer worked for the Ford Foundation; both had protested my ill treatment in Hungary. “Using excessively rude and obscene words in reference to Kassof and Lederer,” the report said, the diplomat complained that “rather than trusting the magnanimity and flexibility of the Hungarian side,” the two Americans sent a protest note to the Hungarian Institute of Cultural Relations, without prior consultation with the State Department. According to the report, the American diplomat claimed that this was “a clear case of East Coast diplomacy” used for a “definitely provocative purpose.” This episode remains one of the several mysteries of my involuntary involvement in international intrigue, although I suspect that the diplomat was doing no more than expressing a bureaucrat’s extreme suspicion of the activities of a nongovernmental American organization.

  1. 1

    The classic account of the East German police’s spying on citizens and visitors alike is contained in Timothy Garton Ash’s The File: A Personal History (Random House, 1997).

  2. 2

    In this article, I am naming only former informers whose activities are the subject of intense debate in Hungary, a debate which has spread into other European countries.

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