Elhallgatott múlt. A pártállam és a belügy. A politikai rendőrség működése Magyarországon, 1956–1990

TitleElhallgatott múlt. A pártállam és a belügy. A politikai rendőrség működése Magyarországon, 1956–1990
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsScheibner, Tamás
Author(s) of reviewed materialTabajdi, Gábor, and Krisztián Ungváry

book. Title translated: Silenced Past. The Party State and the Ministry of the Interior. The Operation of the Political Police in Hungary, 1956–1990

PublisherBudapest: Corvina–1956-os Intézet
ISSNISBN: 9789631357172
Review year


Full Text

Krisztián Ungváry can be considered one of the stars among Hungary’s younger generation of historians today,[1] even if star here does not fully correspond to the American meaning of the word. His first monograph on The Siege of Budapest (1998) became an international bestseller in the field,[2] and his more recent book, A magyar honvédség a második világháborúban (The Hungarian Army in the Second World War, 2005)[3] has also generated widespread interest in his home country. Moreover, he has been a protagonist in a series of public debates on sensitive historical issues, and became a frequently interviewed expert on 20th century political and military history in the mass media. In Elhallgatott múlt, he and his co-author, Gábor Tabajdi focus on a not less controversial theme: the operation of the Hungarian secret police between the 1956 revolution and the first democratic elections in 1990. Ungváry is in a unique position when it comes to researching secret police files, since he is a member of the professional committee, called upon in Spring 2007 by the prime minister of Hungary, to overview the files that resulted from the activities of the secret police under communism, but which remain classified as confidential to this day. According to the Introduction, the first version ofElhallgatott múlt was presented in a workshop in September 2007 and thus some of the results of this committee’s work might already be included in this book, however this concerns only the general understanding of the secret police’s operations, and not the factual data since members of the committee are not yet allowed to inform the public about the documents they scanned.[4]
Elhallgatott múlt consists of two larger parts: the first describes the political police as an institute, with attention paid to all its departments, main officers, and institutionalized methods. Furthermore, this part attempts to evaluate the apparatus and measure the scope of operation in the light of various kinds of statistics. The second part presents seventeen case studies that are supposed to provide further insights on the daily practice of agents and officers in a microhistorical manner.
Although, the presentation of “stories” (as the authors call their case studies) about certain agents, or “social trustees” and several artificially constructed (i.e. invented) cases might understandably catch the imagination of the wider reading public more, I would not hesitate to state that the first part is far more important for both historical scholarship and in terms of its (at least potential) impact on public opinion regarding the era of state socialism. This is not just because most of the case studies were already published in various periodicals, but rather because Elhallgatott múlt provides the first systematic description of the structure and decision-making processes of the 3rd Chief Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior under communism. This also means that the book shifts the attention from the agents themselves to the secret police and their interactions with higher officials of the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party (MSZMP). This move is of profound significance given that the public discourse in Hungary has been mostly obsessed with exposing former agents, indeed a task to do, without much second thought of how the whole system of control functioned and who should take the main responsibility for this aspect of repression.
Predictably, Elhallgatott múlt will not be the exemplary reading in classes of historical methodology, and, on the one hand, it can be criticized for its rather simplistic and, in certain ways, positivist views of society and history, which is manifested in the opposition of myth and history. As the Introduction suggests, the aim of the book is to challenge the widespread myths regarding the communist era, and “reveal the past” as it really was. It is true that the authors should have reflected on their own position more carefully, but on the other hand, their attitude is completely understandable, since many narratives are being circulated in Hungarian society which could be excluded as factually untrue.[5] Tabajdi and Ungváry cite an enormous number of newly discovered documents that enable them to differentiate between various accounts of the recent past.
Furthermore, they have a clearly defined political motivation: the only way to reach a society-wide reconciliation[6] is to identify and confront the persons most responsible for running the previous system, and provide a well-documented and clearly argued narrative to serve as the basis of mutual understanding, or at least inspires further research and discussion on the topic. The difficulty of realizing this agenda is that it is precisely against the current political elite’s interests, because — as it is shown by several examples in the book — all Hungarian governments since 1990 relied to an extent on those who bear the responsibility of maintaining the antidemocratic regime from before. As the authors suggest, this is precisely the reason why the legal regulation of data protection and research in the Historical Archives of Hungarian State Security are so strict, even in regional comparison that they severely hinder, almost paralyze the historians’ work. As they state, “irrespective of their party affiliation, most of the politicians actively misinform the Hungarian society” (p.12), and they keep a large number of documents secret, without acceptable reasons.
One of those myths that the authors would like to refute has to do with the role of the political police in the socialist state. It is frequently claimed that the secret police was a kind of ‘state within the state’, which is arguably true, but only for the period prior to the 1956 Revolution. Right after the Second World War and prior to the communist takeover, several secret polices were established and competed for hegemony. The ambitious Gábor Péter (1906–1993), the leader of the communist ruled Ministry of the Interior’s Department of State Security (ÁVO) could liquidate his rivals due to his excellent relationship to the first secretary of the communist party, Mátyás Rákosi (1892–1971), and achieved that no state or party control was effectuated over the political police: he reported directly to Rákosi. Thus from 1945 to 1956 the secret police enjoyed a large autonomy, and its members had the potential to enforce their interests.
However, after the failed revolution, when János Kádár (1912–1989) took over, the situation completely changed. The new leader, who was a rival of Rákosi and his devotees, and had been himself a captive of the political police before, while relying very much on the political police, was careful not to give too much power into the hands of its officers. Rather, Kádár introduced close party control over the secret police: firstly, the definition of target groups and the main initiatives came from the Central Committee’s Department of Administration; secondly, every department of the Party was in continuous contact with the secret police; and thirdly, informal relationships also played a significant role. As a result, after 1956, the heads of these departments and even the county leaders of the Party all had better chances to enforce their interests than even the chief director of the political police. Relying on the secret police’s support was not enough anymore to make a career; one had to have good connections with(in) the Party as all appointments had to be affirmed by it. In 1957 and 1962, when the 3rd Chief Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior (as well as the whole Ministry) underwent major revisions, the Party appointed reliable cadres to most higher offices.
Closely connected to the myth of the ‘state within the state’, there is another belief shared by many (being largely fed by nostalgic feelings towards the socialist system) that János Kádár had the best intentions, and had not much to do with the dark side of the regime and its system of repression. As the authors argue, despite the fact that Kádár “consciously built up the image suggesting he had no right to interfere with the political police’s issues, [and] he protected the legal forms and professionalism as much as he could” (p. 28), he was, actually, not just a regular guest in the secret police’s headquarters, but made several utterances that disaffirm this image. It is documented that he sometimes harshly criticized the political police for not dealing harshly enough with the underground opposition. What is more, it was not exceptional that the Central Committee, led by Kádár, called for secret political harassment of specific persons.
Another widespread belief is that the 1956 revolution put an ultimate end to the career of most members of the Hungarian political police, a view which famously found its expression in a well known novel, György Moldova's Az elbocsátott légió (The Disbanded Legion, 1969). In the light of the statistics presented by Ungváry and Tabajdi, however, the story seems more complex, and, although, the staff of the secret police was extensively revised several times throughout the decades, such a revision did not occur in 1956/57. It is true that the revolutionary government disembodied the State Security Agency (ÁVH), and formally it was not restored ever again. Still, most of the staff temporarily continued its activity in various detachments of the police and then they rejoined the new political police reorganized and supervised by the Ministry of Interior. Right after the suppressed revolution, the new communist regime initiated a major vetting of secret police employees, but presumably it was more like a politically motivated step taken for the sake of keeping up the image of anti-Stalinism: approximately 98% of the original staff of the State Security Agency was approved, and reemployed by the Ministry. János Kádár, the founder of State Security Agency, who was evidently rather well versed in interior and secret police affairs, knew very well that without the experience of the old political police guard it would have hardly been possible to ‘consolidate’ the situation, and maintain the regime.
A significant number of the case studies deal with the role of the Catholic Church in Hungary under the communist regime. This interesting theme seems to be in the focus of the authors' research who aim to call in question the image of the ‘resisting Church’. They point out that in spite of the fact that churchmen as individuals might well have opposed the political system, it does not follow that the Church itself, which suffered the greatest abuse in regional comparison between 1945 and 1956, meant a great challenge to the Party from the 1970s. Rather, according to the state security documents, the political elite considered the Church as a ‘solid pillar’ of the regime from then on. What is more, at least 64% of the bishops were agents by 1970. In the case of archbishops the rate was even higher. As the authors state, it is rather difficult to analyze these data without consulting the related Church archives (which remain confidential), but probably the 1964 Vatican Treaty was an unnecessary compromise on the side of the Catholic Church: it let the Party manipulate the appointment of high priests in favor of those more loyal to the system while in exchange promising to guarantee nothing except the operation of the already existing institutions of the Church. In other countries of the region where there was no such self-binding move, the Catholic Church could contribute more effectively to the opposition of the regime.
However, the image of ‘solid pillar’ does not seem to correspond to the self-understanding of the Catholic Church: quite a few high ecclesiastical dignitaries failed to admit the Church's responsibility in the maintenance of the system. Although, it must be noted, it is not a self-governing national institution and has to respect the policies of the Vatican, it would be fundamental for the renewal of the Catholic Church in Hungary to take the lead in confronting its pre-1989 history.
The chapters on the structure and characteristics of the secret police make Elhallgatott múlt an excellent introduction and a must for students who would like to engage with the history of state socialism, as these illuminate what the function of the secret police was in the whole system of control and oppression.
The authors, referring to their own research and to some of the publications of their colleagues, notice that the social base of the recruitment of political police officers shifted throughout the decades. Within a few years of the communist takeover almost every employee who joined the forces in 1945 was replaced by cadres “of people's origin” – meaning rural or urban worker origins in party jargon. Since having an illegal communist past was a major advantage at the time, most of the new employees were either from Budapest or from Northern Hungary's industrial centers where the movement was traditionally stronger than in other parts of the country. While until the so-called 1962 ‘de-Stalinization wave’ most of the higher officers had such a social background, from then on lowly qualified younger officers recruited from the somewhat more backward Eastern and Southeastern parts of the country took the leading positions. As Ungváry and Tabajdi observe, a career at the political police provided relatively few prospects, thus it was not such a tempting option for those from more developed regions. The low qualification of the officers was a serious drawback for the secret police interested primarily in the activities of the intellectuals. Nor is it surprising to find that the frustrated officers, partly out of motivation to justify their own existence, created and heuristically revealed various conspiracies without significant foundation, as some of the case studies show.
The basic assumption, though, of the secret police was that prevention is much more effective than any kind of legal punishment, and this idea made the officers overly cautious too. The most common methods were the disintegration of circles, the prevention of regular gatherings by harassment, intimidation, official notification, the isolation of a person by discrediting him or her in the eyes of their acquaintances, even by extremely cynical suggestions that he or she was an agent. Of course, these operations were preceded by an extensive ‘study’ of the given ‘object’, either a person or a group that might involve, among others, secret photographic documentation or interception of letters and phone calls. The basic source, however, were certainly the reports written by the agents.
One of the most intriguing questions here concerns the scope of the secret police's activity. According to Elhallgatott múlt, before October 1957 they kept 1.2 million people on file, i.e. more than 10% of the whole population (including children). It was certainly such an enormous number that the secret police, which had about 5-6000 employees, could not cope, so by 1963 they quartered that number, giving up almost all files on members of the Party.[7] The number of agents varied between 5000 and 13 000, and fluctuation was very high throughout the whole period. This means that while the number of agents in Hungary was relatively great, most of them quit very soon, and in the majority of the cases this had no noteworthy consequences, although, occasionally it led to persecution or serious punishments.
However significant the agents were in maintaining the system, it is worth to point out that the majority of reports were produced not by them but by so called ‘comrades of good intentions.’ Having a dense network of agents was not necessarily advantageous, anyway: as a case study on a political police ran Budapest night club demonstrates, if there were too many agents, the risk of unveiling the conspiracy was higher, and it could be difficult to find out who had blabbed.
What makes Elhallgatott múlt a useful guide to the communist system as such is the presentation of not just the leaders of the political police, but that of the responsible party cadres as well who passed the orders and were the superior authorities. By the presentation of their basic data, main characteristics and career paths, Ungváry and Tabajdi make it easier to follow the various cases, and transmit substantial empirical knowledge concerning the persons in charge. The purpose of this is to readjust the focus from the agents to the political decision makers and their attendants.
As I emphasized at the beginning of this review, Elhallgatott múlt is not just a historical analysis, but also a contribution to the current debates on the recent past and on the so-called ‘agent-question’ in particular. This cannot be otherwise since many of the protagonists of the book – whether secret police officers, agents or leading cadres of the party who were co-operating with and instructing the communist political police – are still alive, many of then are even active and fulfilling various public functions. Some of them are delegates in Brussels, or have mandates in the Hungarian parliament while others had/have been advisors, if not members, of various Hungarian governments in the last twenty years. Many of them were awarded high state decorations. One might wonder, given the extent of continuity presented by Ungváry and Tabajdi, whether the rhetorics of change has not been overused in East and Central Europe after the collapse of communist regimes. Sadly, this is more a history of the present than one might like to believe. All major political forces carry the burden of the recent past in Hungary, and that is the reason, the authors argue, why no government made a decisive effort to create a friendly legal environment for discovering that. It has to be changed, indeed.

[1]     Probably only Balázs Ablonczy can be compared to Ungváry in this respect. Both of them were students of Ignác Romsics, the school around whom seems to have become the most well-known school of historiography in Hungary since the 1990s. They tend to be more interested in extensive archival research without refining their methodology.

[2]     Krisztián Ungváry, Budapest ostroma (Budapest: Corvina, 1998). Idem: Die Schlacht um Budapest. Stalingrad an der Donau 1944-45 (München: Herbig, 1999). Idem: The Siege of Budapest. One Hundred Days in World War II (New Haven: Yale UP, 2005).

[3]     Krisztián Ungváry, A magyar honvédség a második világháborúban (Budapest: Osiris, 2005).

[4]     By the time this review appears, the report of this committee may already be available.

[5]     The word ‘true’ can be used metaphorically as well as ontologically. I am using it in the former sense.

[6]     The Hungarian political arena is not just deeply divided, but historically defined too, because the evaluation of the past is part of everyday political discourse and historical argumentation drive the rhetoric of the main parties.

[7]     From 1975, the 3rd Chief Directorate kept an electronic database of all the agents. According to Ungváry, the data carrier is available: it is just a question of political choice if the list will be printed tomorrow or be kept secret forever.