A proposed law may lead to the destruction of Hungarian secret police documents preserved by the Historical Archives of Hungarian State Security

In what serves as a very disturbing development for anyone with an interest in Hungary’s Cold War history, the Hungarian government is preparing to enact a new law which may lead to the blatant, politically-motivated sanitization of the country’s communist past. 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.
According to Bence Rétvári, a secretary of state in Hungary’s Ministry of Justice, “A constitutional system cannot preserve documents collected through anti-constitutional means, as these are the immoral documents of an immoral regime.” 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.
Anyone who has worked with these state security documents knows just how difficult it is to define who did and who did not collaborate with the previous, communist regime. There were many forms of collaboration with the secret police, including people who were actually agents themselves, as well as “ordinary” citizens who served as so-called “community contacts;” who met with state security officers, in order to provide information on their neighbours. Others collaborated with communist authorities out of fear. Access to as much of the surviving record as possible allowed professional historians to produce histories of this period which took into account the various forms and levels of collaboration, whilst also showing just how deep cooperation with the former regime actually ran in society.
It is very difficult to see the destruction of Hungarian archives as anything other than a crude political move on the part of politicians who are concerned about potentially unpleasant and embarrassing documents on their relationship with the former regime that may one day be found by historians. Such documents may even suggest that some of the most fervent anti-communist politicians today were of a rather different opinion only two decades ago.
I have been able to collect and copy a few hundred pages of now potentially endangered documents from the Archives of Hungarian State Security during my own research and I hope that historians will reproduce as much as possible of the preserved material, before it is lost forever. It is a very sad prospect that the Hungarian government–including a prime minister who spoke out strongly against dictatorship 20 years ago–may now make it impossible for historians to study and share their research on the country’s communist past.

Christopher Adam