Jelentések hálójában. Antall József és az állambiztonság emberei, 1957-1989

TitleJelentések hálójában. Antall József és az állambiztonság emberei, 1957-1989
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialRainer, János M.

book. Title translated: In the Web of Reports. József Antall and the People of State Security 1957-1989

PublisherBudapest: 1956-os Intézet
ISSNISBN 978-963-9739-08-6
Review year


Full Text

Jelentések hálójában is an innovative and thought-provoking microhistorical work primarily based on the large amount of documents produced for the Hungarian State Security apparatus in the decades of communist rule that mostly concern a single person, József Antall Jr.[1]Rainer’s case study can illuminate several larger phenomena since an immensely widespread effort was made throughout the years of the Kádár regime to create and maintain, even through occasional redefinitions, the case of Antall as a suspicious person and a source of potential political conflict. Two dozen agents, among them people who appeared as political-ideological allies, colleagues (among whom an overly zealous and potentially maniac one wrote more than 150 reports on him within 30 months), students (one of whom was specifically ordered to enter his class with the purpose of reporting on him) and even close friends (an intimate one reported on Antall for over three decades) were responsible for producing the staggering 480 documents Rainer’s work draws on.[2] Altogether close to a hundred policemen, out of whom Rainer portrays the five officials most directly relevant for Antall’s case, were receiving these. The documents were mostly written in the period prior to 1970, though there are reports about Antall among them from as late as 1989.
At the same time, these immense efforts had no severe direct consequences for Antall, which Rainer sees as illustrative of the profundity as well as the inefficiency of this type of work in Kádárist Hungary. He partly attributes this incongruence to the power of an increasingly cautious and “sober” wing within an internally divided State Security.[3] This latter claim amounts to a partial revision of received wisdom: Rainer shows how this institution, so often perceived as the centerpiece of the totalitarian model, acted in a complex space featuring multiple actors. According to the evidence presented by Rainer, this notorious institution could prove relatively inefficient at achieving what it wanted even while it remained all-powerful in keeping Antall under surveillance. In other words, in Kádárist Hungary it kept all the basic means to act, but the legitimacy and political expediency of the acts it desired became questionable.
Following a theoretical and methodological introduction discussing the specificities of this kind of primary source and emphasizing that they tend to present the profile of the object of investigation according to the dogmatic ideological schemes and self-serving requirements of the organization, the author explores three main topics in turn. Firstly, Rainer analyzes the institution that produced these documents, its ambitions and their practical realization (or lack thereof). Secondly, he discusses the agents who wrote the reports. Rainer problematized the interconnections of the agent with the person who took on this role throughout: person and agent are never simply identified with each other, which Jelentések hálójában even signals through the use of different names and colors for them. Thirdly, the author provides a portrait of Antall in the age of the Kádár regime primarily on the basis of this secret investigation.
Thus, on the one hand, the book explores the workings of the State Security on the micro scale and finds a fruitful practical way of embedding it in its wider social contexts. On the other, the larger topic that interested Rainer in particular when he came across this intriguing material in 2002 was the story of the former “Christian middle classes” after 1956, the way their thinking evolved (or did not evolve) under the Soviet-type of regime and with what lessons or mental preparedness they arrived in 1989-90 (pp.14-15). Since there was an influential discourse claiming that Antall succeeded at completely maintained his identity and integrity even while avoiding confrontation with the regime, a particularly relevant comparison was that between the content of these secret police documents and the pronouncements made by and about Antall after he became prime minister of Hungary in 1990 (p.16).
Rainer detects a turning point in Antall’s life in 1959 that followed the covert resistance he pursued after 1956 – the overly zealous colleague made his many contributions at this time, so there is plenty of evidence on these crucial years. According to Rainer, Antall made a negotiated, even written compromise at this time, in an age when the conditions of agreements were hardly ever specified: he accepted that he had to give up his role as teacher to be able to continue living as an intellectual, whereby he respected a model of “coexistence with reservations” in practice and consolidated his position without making overt political gestures (pp.263-4). While this assessment appears balanced, I find Rainer’s concluding words concerning “a kind of symbiosis based on mutually and implicitly respecting limits” somewhat inappropriate knowing the one-sidedness of the constant surveillance and secretly imposed controls on Antall that this book so masterfully discusses (p.266).[4]
There are many laudable qualities of this book to compensate for this minor infelicity. Worthy of mention among these are Rainer’s lucid expositions on complex and diverse agent stories, motivations and practices, the sensitivity he shows to how preconceptions and linguistic codes largely determined the content of the reports written as well as to how their meaningful parts can still be interpreted, and his constant reminder of the uncertain status of statements made in such sources and the consequent tentative nature of our readings of them. Merrily, Rainer often proves willing to expose his thoughtful speculations in the absence of clear answers of how to relate what the sources say to what can be taken as evidence concerning the past. Last but not least, the interweaving of many intriguing stories with precise argumentation and a restrained tone makes this work not only an interesting read but a model of how and with what aims the documents in questions can be utilized by historians aiming at a more complete and nuanced picture of the period.

[1] Antall served as Prime Minister of Hungary between 1990 and 1993. The title of the work in its original Hungarian version is much more imaginative than in my English translation asjelentés (or jelentések in plural) can refer to both report and meaning, i.e. the title simultaneously means In the Web of Reports and In the Web of Meanings. Please note that I shall refer to József Antall Jr. as Antall in the rest of this review, even though the documents as well as Jelentések hálójában frequently discuss József Antall Sr., Antall’s influential father too.

[2] Importantly, in the case of Hungary, a significant part of these kinds of documents still remains outside the reach of researchers.

[3] This transformation is also alternatively characterized as from the paradigm of prevention to that of control, or from the aim of omnipotence to omnipresence (pp.261-2). In concrete terms this meant that they were interested in what Antall was thinking and doing but did not wish to see these as part of his plots or conspiracies.

[4] From the beginning of the 1960s Antall had only weak hopes for significant changes in the near future and rather aimed to minimize his own risks and disadvantages, even though he remained clearly anti-communist in his convictions. This kept him from analyzing the system and its evolution since he could not imagine playing a political role in it that he otherwise so wanted and even felt predestined for – which, ironically, made his critique one of lesser significance from the point of view of the regime. According to Rainer, for Antall even 1968 presented the hope of restoring the personal past in its wholeness rather than of a reformed system. What is equally interesting is that Antall seems to have sympathized more with the Polish than the Czechoslovak changes. While he believed in his continuous personal and political identity and even created his own self-centered version of 1956, he abstained from oppositional activities even in the second half of the 1980s.