Scandal in Budapest

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 …

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