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Dispute Continues Over Hungarian Plan to Allow Destruction of Communist-Era Archives

posted March 18, 2011

Militants during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; photo: Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security
Archivists and historians continue to protest a Hungarian government plan to allow Hungarian citizens to destroy records about them, or that mention them, that were kept by the country’s Communist-era security apparatus.

MIAN described the protests in late February 2011.

Recently, Hungarian government representatives have responded to the protests with a mixture of reassurance – of a kind that hardly has reassured protesters – and indignation at what they view as being lectured on what they should do.

Hungary’s communist secret police, interior ministry, and state security services compiled the records – their network of informants once surveilled as many as 1.6 million people. Relatives and neighbours informed on each other as the secret services compiled vast archives. The records are held at the Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security in Budapest. Most holdings are in the form of documents, but the archives also have large stores of microfilms, and some moving-image records.

The government proposal to allow destruction of the records, which undoubtedly include details that would embarrass many high Hungarian figures, came to light when Bence Rétvári, a secretary of state in Hungary’s Ministry of Justice, said on a radio program: ”A constitutional system cannot preserve documents collected through anti-constitutional means, as these are the immoral documents of an immoral regime.”

That prompted an expert on the relationship between communist Hungary and Hungarian Canadian communities between 1956 and 1989, Christopher Adam, to launch the Hungarianarchives website (http://hungarianarchives.com) and petition (http://hungarianarchives.com/the-petition/) to coordinate protests.

Adam, a lecturer at Carleton University’s Department of History, claimed that the plan “may lead to the blatant, politically-motivated sanitization of the country’s communist past.” He wrote on his website: “Allegedly out of a concern for privacy rights, citizens who were spied upon or observed by the previous regime’s state security officers may now not only ask to view their files at the Archives of Hungarian State Security in Budapest, but may also remove these preserved archival documents from the reading room, take them home and have them destroyed.”

To parliamentary secretary of state Bence Rétvári’s claim regarding the immorality of safeguarding immorally gathered records, Adam said: “The government decree makes it permissible to remove and destroy irreplaceable archival documents. Were Rétvári’s warped logic also used by authorities in other countries, we could no longer produce histories of the world’s most dictatorial and genocidal regimes.”

Various groups heard Adam’s alarm, and urged the Hungarian government to reconsider. Protesters included the Association of Canadian Archivists which wrote:

“As archivists, we strongly believe that archives are the foundation of democracy, social justice, and social memory.” An archive, the association added, “ensures that collective amnesia does not prevail. Archival records provide evidence documenting the actions of public leaders and protecting the rights of all citizens.”

Archivists “strongly believe that archives are the foundation of democracy, social justice, and social memory,” it wrote.

As Adam records on his website the outcry has come from various historical and news organizations.

During March 2011, the Royal Society of Dutch Archivists, the Society of American Archivists, and the Society of Greek Archivists wrote letters of concern to Hungarian ambassadors to their countries. The Greek archivists noted that “in Greece, we experienced a similar situation in the past: back in 1989, 40 years after the end of our civil war and 15 years after the fall of the colonels’ dictatorship, the Greek government decided to destroy the police security files, ‘to symbolically end an era of national disunity and guarantee a future of equality and egalitarianism among citizens.’ Since then, an important part of our history, based on evidence concerning the involvement of the Greek people in the resistance during the German Occupation, the five years of civil war and the seven years of dictatorship (1967-1974), is for ever lost.”

The Czech Centre for Human Rights raised similar concerns with the Hungarian ambassador to the Czech Republic: “The access to the files that document activities of the former regimes is irrevocably connected to the transitional justice and national reconciliation,” the centre’s letter said.

It also sought to place the Hungarian government’s plans in context: “The very first attempt to deal with former secret police informers took place in Germany, where the Gauck-Behorde Agency was appointed to collect and administer the files of [the East German secret police agency] STASI. Similar experience is shared by the Czech Republic where the access to files from the communist era was established in 1996 and its widening represents one of the most discussed themes to these days.

“Reluctance of the Hungarian government towards the release and free access to the documents is unfortunately not a new issue. In case Kenedi v. Hungary (Appl. no. 31475/05), the European Court of Human Rights held that ‘access to original documentary sources for legitimate historical research was an essential element of the exercise of the applicant’s right to freedom of expression.’ Similarly, the opinion at the level of European Union is, that all states considering themselves democratic shall open all their archives to researchers 30 years after the occurrence of the events in question.”

The dispute has caught the attention of influential media organizations, too. On March 1 2011 The Economist joined the voices of concern with an article titled “Closing Down History.” The publication noted that state security documents have a history of going missing in ex-communist countries, particularly Romania where politicians and church leaders appeared to benefit from such disappearances.

The Economist said: “Shredding a historical archive is an unorthodox step, but this is, in effect, Hungary’s answer to the 20-year conundrum of what to do with the files left behind by its communist-era secret police.”

The publication quoted János Kenedi, a writer and researcher who headed a Hungarian government committee charged with evaluating pre-1990 secret-service files until the government disbanded it early this year, and who wrote an introduction to Adam’s petition. Kenedi said: “Without the archive, we lose the ability to find out who we are as a society. And it’s society as a whole that’s committing hara-kiri, because it’ll be the files’ own subjects who’ll destroy the archive.”

Kenedi also was prominent in a long and widely published Associated Press article that provided telling context to the dispute, Pablo Gorondi of the Associated Press, in early March. Said Kenedi: “The government thinks it can put an end to the past. For Fidesz [the ruling party], history starts and ends with them and what came before in Hungarian history does not exist. Their aim is collective amnesia.”

Gorondi noted that Hungary has lagged behind other former Soviet bloc states in providing access to such archives. Almost 30 per cent of surveillance files remain classified and controlled by the state security apparatus, he wrote. But as records have little by little become available, details have made it clear what is making powerbrokers in the country nervous: “The names of former communist secret agents – from actors and athletes to politicians, priests and intellectuals – continue to trickle out every few weeks and months,” Gorondi wrote.

Government Disingenuousness?

Why, then, is it happening under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who in his first term established a museum, The House of Terror, to exhibit the evils of the country’s fascist and communist dictatorial regimes, the latter between 1948 and 1990? The museum has exhibited material relating to Hungary’s ties to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, including records from the fascist Arrow Cross Party and the communist AVH secret police. It has even opened infamous AVH basement interrogation cells.

When Orban broke ground for the House of Terror in 1989, at a time when it was not certain that Hungary would continue to put totalitarianism behind it, he called for Soviet troops to leave the country.

The April 2010 electoral success of Orban’s Fidesz party – by a two-thirds parliamentary majority – offers one explanation, observers told Gorondi. That, he wrote, “has emboldened the government to disregard most dissent, weaken basic democratic institutions, and distort the system of check and balances. It has curtailed the powers of the constitutional Court, neutered the Fiscal Council, a budget watchdog, and created a media law which attracted heavy criticism from the European Union and is feared will allow the government to clamp down on the opposition press.”

Such institutions as the 1956 Institute which studies that year’s anti-Soviet revolution have suffered budget cuts and fear elimination.

The publication, Transitions Online, ran pointed comments by Miklós Haraszti, a former spokesman on media freedom with the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe; he is also a professor at New York’s Columbia Law School. Haraszti said: “The all-front attacks on rule of law, civility, and democratic habits, kulturkampf, witch-hunt, etc., are so overwhelming that the home forces of normalcy are just baffled. This issue is a ‘small’ part of it. Fidesz – contrary to its anticommunist rhetoric – has always sided with the ex-communists in suppressing or damaging good legislation about the ‘files.’”

He continued: “Fidesz and the Socialists together have successfully blocked the ‘liberation’ of the files of the III/I and the III/II departments, that is intelligence and counterintelligence, claiming national interests. (So far, only the files of the III/III, that is, of the ‘internal enemy department’ have been handled so-so.) The proposed measures, and to a certain extent the uproar created by it, help hiding this unchanged empowerment of the secret services to keep or release files in an unaccounted way and thus blackmail people as it pleases.”

Fidesz had been disingenuous in pushing its plan, beginning with conspiring to preclude public discussion of it, Haraszti claimed: “The proposal’s language – nominally – serves ‘citizens’ information rights.’ But the essence of it is to avoid for good any public scrutiny of pre-history of their own ranks.”

And he cautioned: “It is equally important to protest against the plan that today’s secret services should keep their grip on the still undisclosed files – that they should remain the ‘owners’ of the intelligence and counterintelligence files, and should be free to decide without any public scrutiny which files go to the public archive – thus blackmail who they want, while the already released files would disappear in the hands of the victims as described and protested already. Of course, a real full access to one’s own files à la Germany would be welcome.”

Hungary’s Response

On March 7 2011, Hungary’s ambassador to Canada, László Pordány, shed light on his government’s attitude towards the dispute in a letter of response to the Association of Canadian Archivists’ letter of protest. He wrote: “Although I feel it is slightly exaggerated that ’archives are the foundation of democracy’ (your words), but as a layman in this matter, I am willing to accept it. However, communism, under which I grew up, also teaches us that archives can also be (used/abused as) means or a base of tremendous human sufferings, torture and deaths (see e.g. the thousands of the trumped up charges of the 1950s, based on ‘well-founded documents).’ One of the aims of the law in preparation is, besides revealing the crimes, to put an irreversible end to continuous humiliation, and suspicion, a decisive end that has been delayed for over 20 years. Therefore, it seems not only totally acceptable, but in fact a mandatory requirement  that the planned law give a  priority to individual human rights, possibly placing them in at least a few well-defined cases above everything else.”

Pordány also predicted that the law would not lead to the removal of archival documents: “I am convinced that the actual law will not contain anything hindering or obstructing, let alone making impossible any scholarly research.”

In any case, he said, the Hungarian government did not need to be lectured on the matter. His letter objected to the “aggressive petitioning” that had occurred. His government would prefer, and welcome, “well-intentioned suggestions,” he said.

He sought to underscore that willingness by saying his government would welcome further input on the subject, “preferably not in widely circulated and popularized petitions, but through responsible consultation, to which the government is always receptive.”)

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