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.
One of the great scandals that has erupted in Hungary since the files of secret police informers were opened concerns István Szabó, the Oscar-winning Hungarian film director. According to the files, between 1957 and 1961 he gave three successive police officers forty-eight reports on seventy-two people, nearly all of them his schoolmates and teachers at the Theater and Film Academy. Some of his “targets,” such as Miklós Jancsó, later became celebrated actors and directors. The reports were extremely varied, and clearly many of them spontaneously written, on such topics as the general mood at the academy, the political and religious views of his schoolmates, their opinion of the 1956 revolution, their love affairs, their relatives in the West, and the fact that one among them bought a record player. Many of the reports were harmless gossip; others were more serious, as when Szabó denounced a colleague for writing graffiti on an official poster, an act for which the colleague was later officially reprimanded. Or when he reported that another colleague called the events of 1956 a revolution and not a counterrevolution. Szabó’s denunciation might have been the reason why a third colleague did not get a passport; but there is no evidence of anyone suffering more serious consequences than that. Szabó actually spent as much time complaining to the police about his colleagues’ lack of talent as about their activities against “the people.”
When he was initially confronted with this information in January, Szabó claimed to have become a police informer only in order to save the life of a classmate who had killed Communists during the 1956 revolution. “To accept working for State Security was the bravest, the most daring act of my life,” Szabó declared to journalists. But it soon turned out that this story was not true: the classmate did not kill Communists in 1956 and Szabó was not risking his life. Only then did Szabó admit that “I had to act to protect myself.” That is, he believed he would be expelled from the film school if he didn’t cooperate.3
In an early reaction to the Szabó affair, well over a hundred prominent intellectuals published a manifesto expressing their love and admiration for the man “who has been making superb and important films for us during the last forty-five years. And not only for us Hungarians. He has spread our fame to all parts of the world.” The manifesto, written in the patriotic style of a small country’s cultural establishment, fails to explain why great talent is a valid justification for misbehavior. The manifesto, in fact, was endorsed by some of the people Szabó had denounced.
Szabó has been embarrassed but is in no legal or professional trouble. It might be said, however, that his activities as a police informer provide new insight into his work as a filmmaker. In films such as Mephisto (1981), for which he received an Oscar, Colonel Redl (1985), Hanussen (1988), Sunshine (1999), Taking Sides (the case of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, 2001), and others less well known in the West, Szabó explores the Faustian predicament of a person of unusual intelligence and talent who sacrifices some of his colleagues, as he does in Mephisto, or compromises his principles in other ways, in deference to those who hold absolute power.
Among the many journalists and historians who have tried to expose the truth about Hungary’s civilian informers, Krisztián Ungváry, a young Budapest historian, has been particularly important. Ungváry, whose fine book The Siege of Budapest: 100 Days in World War II4 has also appeared in English, seems to have decided that Hungarian society must be made aware of its past shortcomings and crimes, regardless of whether they occurred under Nazi or under Communist rule. In his many newspaper and journal articles, he has urged those who were involved to come forward and confess.
Ungváry classifies former police informers by the extent of their collaboration. He distinguishes between those who seemed to act under duress and those who were more enthusiastic. (I am certain that he would list “Vili” among those who became informers only reluctantly and showed relatively good will.) There is now, however, a growing backlash against Ungváry’s activities: his critics accuse him of opening old wounds and playing the inquisitor; and it is true, as some have pointed out, that available police files contain few or no personal letters or signed statements by the informers themselves. Information about the activities of many of them has been extrapolated from documents that show only what the informers’ handlers were telling their superiors. Who knows whether lower officials may have exaggerated their accusations in order to please higher ones?
Some who acted as informers are now threatening defamation suits against the journalists who have exposed them; and the legality of publicizing the names of former informers is being questioned. Hungarian law allows the publication of negative information only about a public personality; but is it fair to label a young cleric or a student a public personality just because he later became a cardinal or a world-famous film director? And is it right to expose their names in connection with acts committed thirty or forty years ago which were not then punishable by law and are not punishable today? Yet it is worth recalling that, in Europe after World War II, many thousands of people were imprisoned, and some were hanged, for having denounced their neighbors to the Gestapo.
Krisztián Ungváry’s most shattering find has been to identify László Paskai, the emeritus archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, as an informer. Ungváry revealed in February that Paskai had worked for the police between 1965 and 1974, when he was a head teacher in a seminary. Aware of the significance of unmasking someone who, between 1987 and his retirement in 2002, was Hungary’s most highly ranked ecclesiastic pastor, and then, in 2005, was a cardinal elector in the papal conclave that selected Benedict XVI, Ungváry went out of his way to assure the public that Paskai’s reports on his fellow priests were not harmful. When, for instance, he reported on his trip to a Jesuit college in Belgium and on his meetings with émigré Hungarian priests, he restricted himself to generalities, and was criticized for it by his police handler. Only later did Paskai go so far as to tell the police such things as, for instance, that a Franciscan monk in Budapest had committed the crime of publicly hinting to fellow monks that he was an informer. Still, the impact of the revelations was enormous; Paskai, after all, occupied a position that, after World War II, had been held by Cardinal József Mindszenty, a prelate known for his defiance of Communist rule. In 1948, Mindszenty was arrested, tortured, and, in one of Hungary’s most notorious show trials, made to confess to trumped-up charges. Sentenced to life imprisonment, the cardinal was freed by revolutionaries at the end of October 1956 and, following the suppression of the revolution on November 4 by Soviet tanks, he took refuge in the US embassy. To have the Church transformed from a symbol of principled resistance to communism into an institution that was secretly cooperating with the police was a shock to many Hungarians.
Although Paskai’s reports do not seem to have put anyone in jeopardy, he still eventually earned the acronym tmb, an informer who serves the Communist cause out of ideological commitment and dedication. And in later years, when he was no longer in police service, he was severely criticized by many Catholics for cracking down on the so-called “basis communities,” small assemblies of the faithful, led by independent-minded clergymen, who attempted to worship outside both the regime’s controls and the Church hierarchy. Archbishop Paskai’s situation in the 1980s resembled that of most other church leaders in Hungary where, unlike in Poland, the churches, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, were suffering from a decline in popular religiosity. As a result, the high clergy depended on the good will and the financial generosity of the Communist Party. Having been ruthlessly persecuted in the early years of communism, church leaders readily took an oath to the Communist constitution; and many among them were ready to repay the regime’s leniency and do its bidding.
The Catholic Church in Hungary has many defenders who point out that while Paskai and other bishops assiduously called on the faithful unconditionally to obey the Communist regime as well as eliminated all opposition to the hierarchy within the Church, they also provided a continuity that helped revive the Church after the fall of communism. Yet the Church’s critics are right to argue that the churches could have set a better example in the one-party state. And in the post-Communist years, the high clergy could have publicly apologized for its past behavior.5
Many were surprised to learn that members of Hungary’s great historic families also served as Communist police informers. Aristocrats have been traditional targets of envy and ridicule, but during Communist times they were generally respected for their dignity under adversity. In fact, toward the end of the Communist regime, the great historic families became near cult figures, sometimes even in the Communist media. Obviously, not all titled nobles—they made up a few hundred families—were heroes under communism, but the popular image has remained of tall men and women with aquiline noses who rolled their r’s in speech and who spent the Communist years living uncomplainingly with their large families in the servants’ quarters of their former estates or working diligently as gardeners and unskilled laborers.
Of all the titled families none has been more exalted than the Esterházy princes and counts, who once owned one thirtieth of Greater Hungary. During the twentieth century, members of the Esterházy clan have included prisoners in Communist concentration camps, a famous soccer player, and one of Hungary’s most talented novelists, Péter Esterházy. In 2000, Péter Esterházy wrote Celestial Harmonies,6 a major literary tribute to the fathers in the Esterházy family, and particularly to the hero of the book, Mátyás Esterházy, the writer’s apparently incorruptible and long-suffering father, who had to do menial work in a small village.
No sooner did the book appear, however, than a researcher put four voluminous dossiers in the hands of the author, which proved that Mátyás Esterházy, who died in 1998, had himself been a prolific police informer for much of the Kádár years, between 1957 and 1980. In response to this discovery, Péter Esterházy wrote “Improved Edition: An Attachment to Celestial Harmonies,”7 unfortunately not yet translated into English, in which he tries to deal with his own naiveté and account for, but not excuse, the activities of his father.
Mátyás Esterházy’s case was much more serious than that of Szabó or Paskai, not to speak of my “Vili” and “Perényi,” for not only had he informed on a huge number of relatives and friends but on March 23, 1957, for example, he named three people to his police handler who had participated with arms in the 1956 revolution in his small village. The penalty for doing so was death. A week later, he reported to the police the name of the man who had removed the red star from a monument to Soviet heroes, and soon thereafter, he submitted a list of six former members of the revolutionary National Guard in the village, two of whom were still at large.
Mátyás Esterházy wrote, by hand, hundreds upon hundreds of reports to the police, and although often criticized by his handlers for not being precise enough, he clearly did his best to please. It should be said, however, that Esterházy and his entire family had been deported to the countryside in Stalinist times, that he had spent some time in jail, and that he had become an alcoholic. Yet despite his son’s conclusion that “my father betrayed us, himself, his family, [and] his fatherland,” the press and the public, in their many letters to the editor, have seemed tolerant of Mátyás Esterházy’s record.
By the late 1970s, the police often seemed hesitant to take action against those they described as enemies. Four years after I was expelled in 1973, I was appointed a member of the US presidential delegation that returned the Holy Crown to Hungary as a gesture of appreciation that the Hungarian regime had few, if any, political prisoners. The crown, which bears the name of Saint Stephen, the founder of the Hungarian kingdom, was actually created from two separate parts made of gold, silver, enamel, and jewelry in the decades following Stephen’s death in 1038. The US government took custody of the crown at the end of World War II and held it at Fort Knox. In 1977, President Carter decided that the time was right to return it and chose a delegation led by then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and including US political leaders as well as members of the Hungarian-American community, among them myself.
As I learned later, the police were furious that I was to be included in the ceremony but the Hungarian government would not allow them to refuse me a visa. The police took their revenge by forbidding Hungarian journalists to mention my name or show my photograph in the press or on television. Yet from that point on, I was always admitted to my native country. Moreover, after the ceremony, György Aczél, the cultural secretary of the Communist Party, sent me a note thanking me for “my patriotic behavior.” A Hungarian political policeman later explained to an émigré friend of mine, “By helping to return the Crown, Deák has redeemed his sins.”
In the early years of his regime, János Kádár brutally persecuted the fighters and intellectual leaders of the 1956 revolution. However, during the economic reforms of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the police forces were increasingly subject to control by the minister of interior and the Political Bureau of the Communist Party. The result was less and less arbitrary police action and a rapidly diminishing number of political prisoners.8
Hungary’s experiences under both Communist and Nazi rule remain intensely controversial. Recently debate has been particularly fierce concerning the case of Endre Ságvári, a young Communist underground fighter killed in Budapest in 1944 in a gun battle with four investigators from the Hungarian gendarmerie, the unit that collaborated most closely with Hungary’s Nazi occupiers. Like most of his comrades in the tiny Communist underground of the interwar years, Ságvári came from a cultivated and well-to-do Jewish family; he led the Party’s youth section, and was very active in the resistance.
On July 27, 1944, he was meeting with a comrade in a small pastry shop in the hills of Buda when he was surprised by the four detectives, who had come to arrest him. Rather than surrendering, Ságvári grabbed his revolver, killing one of the detectives and badly wounding two others before he was killed himself. There is much disagreement about whether to treat him as a hero of the anti-fascist struggle or one who, in a triumphant Communist system, might have himself become an oppressor. As for those who killed him, were they murderers or merely enforcing the laws that were in effect at that time?
Because Ságvári had been a dedicated Communist and died conveniently before the bloody postwar purges within the Communist Party began—purges in which he might have been eliminated—the Communist Hungarian regime celebrated Ságvári as a martyr of the people and named public squares, streets, youth parks, camps, and schools after him. The pastry shop itself, transformed into a garden restaurant, displayed a bust and a marble plaque commemorating Ságvári’s deeds. Then came the end of communism in 1989, and Ságvári’s bust disappeared from the increasingly fancy restaurant, but the plaque is still there. At one time or another it has been damaged by hostile demonstrators or decorated with flowers by latter-day admirers.
Recently, in an unusually polemical article, the historian Krisztián Ungváry argued that Ságvári merits no plaque at all. According to Ungváry, if we expect that a person who lived during World War II should have shown a minimum of anti-fascist sentiment, we should also expect that such a person would have shown a minimum of anti-Communist sentiment as well. Ságvári, he argues, should not be honored because he failed to demonstrate a “minimum” of opposition to communism. Among other things, Ungváry continued, he supported the 1939 Nazi–Soviet Nonaggression Pact—a particularly weak argument on Ungváry’s part. Although Ságvári’s opposition to the Nazis was justified, Ungváry asserts, he belonged to a criminal movement, the Communist Party; and according to Ungváry’s unsupported argument, this made it most likely that, had Ságvári survived, he too would have become a criminal oppressor. Ungváry suggests that if the former Communists who now dominate the Socialist Party insist on keeping Ságvári’s plaque in the garden restaurant, it is only fair to place another plaque next to it that commemorates the detective who was killed there in the line of duty.
Ungváry’s article caused all the more controversy because the family of László Kristóf, one of the detectives who was wounded by Ságvári, had previously asked the courts to rehabilitate Kristóf legally. At the end of the war, Kristóf managed to go into hiding and spent the next fourteen years working as a laborer. Meanwhile in Hungary, the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule came and went, and János Kádár, whom the Soviets had imposed on Hungary and who was himself a former victim of the Stalinist purges, temporarily engaged in a bloody purge to consolidate his position. The 1956 revolutionaries were branded as counterrevolutionaries and portrayed as spiritual descendants of the wartime fascists; former fascists were arrested. Acting on the report of an informer, the police tried to arrest Kristóf, but he fled and was again shot in the leg. Subsequently, he and several others were put on trial. In 1959, Kristóf and another of the four detectives involved in the Ságvári case were hanged, not because they had used torture against their mostly Communist prisoners, a crime they had in fact committed, but for “having murdered Comrade Ságvári.”
In March of this year, the supreme court reviewed the trial, and ruled that, by 1959, police torture of Hungarian citizens at gendarmerie headquarters in Budapest during the war could not be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations. Moreover, the court argued, the detectives who were pursuing Ságvári did not commit a war crime—the original charge against them—in trying to arrest him; instead “they fulfilled their duty emanating from their official obligation; they acted under orders; they used their weapons legally.”
The supreme court’s argument is puzzling. No doubt, Kristóf did not deserve to be executed, but it is difficult to assert that he was only doing his duty. By July 1944, when Ságvári was killed, Hungary had already been under German occupation for several months; a Nazi puppet regime had been imposed by Germany on Regent Miklós Horthy. Although the government was formally appointed by the regent and acted in his name, it could hardly have been considered legal because it took its orders from an occupying power. The cabinet allowed the Gestapo to arrest a number of anti-Nazi parliamentary deputies and high-ranking dignitaries. Even worse, the government ordered and carried out the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Within a few weeks, well over 400,000 Hungarian citizens of Jewish origin, mostly women, children, and older men, were sent to their deaths. Wasn’t it the duty of every decent and patriotic citizen to oppose this government, or at least to avoid collaborating with it? The four detectives knew full well that by arresting Ságvári, they would expose him to torture and execution by the Nazi occupiers and their Hungarian allies, and possibly death under torture. By trying to arrest him, the detectives acted in the service of a murderous and illegal government. Ságvári was justified in using his gun in self-defense.
The Nuremberg Court in 1945–1946 categorically dismissed superior orders as an excuse for criminal acts. If it had not done so, all the great criminals of the last century, from Heinrich Himmler to Lavrentii Beria, could have invoked that excuse. In Hungary, the high court’s recent invocation of the concept of superior orders has disturbing implications. If this view becomes widely accepted, it would mean that the small number who gave their lives fighting the Nazis and the many who died fighting the Communists in 1956 would be seen more as terrorists than the people who killed them in defense of illegal, totalitarian regimes. The gendarmes to which Kristóf belonged were rightly considered the most brutal and the most Nazified uniformed forces in Hungary; they excelled in torturing and robbing Jews during the deportations. After the war, the people’s court dissolved the entire corps and declared its members collectively guilty.
Hungary is now a free and democratic country. The party in power, the Hungarian Socialist Party, now faces protests aimed at deposing the prime minister, who has admitted to repeatedly lying about the economy. The government seems committed to respecting human rights and the rule of law, but some of its members were associated with the former Communist Party and the party is embarrassed by charges of spying and repression on the part of the pre-1989 government. In any case, for many citizens, newly immersed in a consumer society, and more concerned about the prime minister’s admission that he had “lied morning, evening, and night” than about his membership in the Communist Youth League as a student, the past is no longer a major preoccupation. The recent unmasking of police informers seems to many a kind of game. When asked by pollsters, they are inclined to judge former policemen and former informers indulgently.
Still, Hungarians continue to face a troubling moral dilemma. Was it right to work within an oppressive system so one could try to encourage reforms or was it better to remain an outsider and thereby condemn oneself to political and professional insignificance? At what point must one take a stand against oppression even at personal peril? One day each one of us might be forced to make such a decision.
—September 20, 2006
October 19, 2006
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). ↩
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. ↩
The police classified informers according to three categories: those who acted under duress; those who did their work out of “ideological conviction,” for which they were identified by the acronym tmb; and those who not only acted out of ideological conviction but were also ready to make great sacrifices for the cause, their acronym being tmt. “Vili” was for several years only a modest informer until, one day, he was promoted to tmb. ↩
There now exists a committee within the Catholic Church in Hungary charged with examining the past actions of its prelates. It is a striking fact, recently uncovered by Tamás Majsai, a Protestant theologian, that with one exception, every single Hungarian Protestant bishop appointed after 1956 worked as an informer for the police, reporting regularly on fellow ministers. ↩
Translated by Judith Sollosy (Ecco, 2004). ↩
Javìtott kiadás: Melléklet a Harmonia Caelestishez (Budapest: Magvet?o, 2002). ↩
Perhaps the best way to explain Hungarian history between the collapse of the democratic and Communist experiments in 1919 and the reestablishment of democracy in 1989 is that during that period, the country exper-ienced two authoritarian regimes and two tyrannies. The conservative nationalist government of Miklós Horthy between 1919 and March 1944 and the greatly relaxed Communist system of János Kádár after 1963 were authoritarian. The far-right governments between March 1944 and January 1945 were responsible for the wartime destruction of the country and the killing of a majority of the country’s 800,000-odd Jews; the hard-line Communist regime between 1948 and 1963 imprisoned thousands and executed many real and imagined enemies. ↩