Fri Feb 17th, 2006 at 09:17:56 AM EST
Three weeks ago, I brought you the story of István Szabó, a Hungarian film director who won the Oscar in 1991, who was exposed as an informant of the 'communist' regime active 1957-1961, spying on his fellow students and teachers in the dark years after the 1956 Revolution. A director whose films, in hindsight, are in large part about his own guilt. I also gave a general overview of the complexities and the many shades of grey in the issue of informants during the dictature (if you haven't yet, you better read it now to have context for what follows).
Below I sum up the developments since, up to a development two weeks ago that shed much more light on the backstory.
The initial responses were, well, from my viewpoint, disgusting.
The director, István Szabó, gave an interview in which he presented what he did as a heroic act to give cover for one of his classmates, who took part in armed resistance in 1956 and there was filmed evidence for that hidden collectively by the people at the film school. This had a rather stark contrast with the guilt and self-criticism apparent with hindsight in all his films, and even more apparent in past interviews dug up by newspapers.
Then 140 liberal intellectuals signed a petition declaring that they still value him highly because of his work (so life achievement absolves denunciation? The Elia Kazan problem), and there were diverse attacks on the (also liberal) publishing paper and the author (a professional researcher), accusing them of ulterior motives/not giving context/strange timing (despite the fact that that weekly journal has an eight-year on-going series on former informants).
What was interesting was that of those whom Szabó reported on, those still living were to the most part very conciliatory. In fact I read of only one stronger criticism, even this one focusing on Szabó's version of saving a classmate - and saying Szabó really wanted to save himself. Szabó later withdrew the claim but didn't apologise. Others also criticised the story of the hidden filmed evidence, pointing out that the person Szabó identified with his classmate has been reliably identified as someone else.
Of course, there was a backlash from the backlash, some people expressed en-bloc criticisms of fellow liberals or all-black criticisms of Szabó. Meanwhile, scandal sells, the screening of Szabó's latest film was brought forward by six weeks.
As now usual during every big spy exposure scandal, some other exposures followed in fast succession. One was a former cardinal of Hungary - probably another case when controlling the informant was more valuable to the dictature than the information he delivered. (He signed in the seventies after seven years of harrassment.) The other was the self-exposure of a classmate of Szabó. And this one was really interesting.
What made it specially noteworthy was that he wrote up his recollections during a previous spy scandal 3 years ago, but only dared to publish it now - so it is kind of an idependent check on Szabó's version.
The story that emerges is that he, Szabó, and a third, since dead classmate (out of a class of 10) were arrested when leaving a theatre early 1957 - in the framework of a wide 'pre-emptive' clampdown on students whom the regime feared would revolt again in March. After a few days of imprisonment and interrogations to get them 'confess' ties to 1956, all three could be pressured to become informants (without knowing the others became too), from this one's story, with the simple blackmail of killing their career.
From this guy's account, what in Szabó's reports I thought to be enthusiastic forthcoming information, turned out to have been exactly what was demanded - reports on the general mood at school, reports from events, any signs of 'counterrevolutionary' tones, characterisations of specific individuals, reports on the formation and progress of the Party youth organisation at the school. Another interesting angle was that informants had to fear that if they had been to a collective event, another informant was present, and if they left out something the other didn't could get them into prison.
This guy also recounts the story of finding that filmed 1956 material and recognising a classmate with a weapon in his hand, and everyone colectively keeping the secret - so this was true, and people must have mis-recognised him. On the other hand, this wasn't the reason behind becoming an informant. Also, unlike Szabó, this guy was the "I'm a coward but a saboteur" type informant: he would be ditched after giving unsatisfying reports and not keeping appointments and playing an idiot. (A weighty proof that this was not a misrepresentation of himself was the lack of support and recognition he got from the regime.)
In the end, my impression is that in the case of Szabó, three motivations mixed, with about even weight, and not without cognitive dissonance: his wish for a bright career, still being a faithful believer in the regime (and wanting to prove his loyalty), and protecting friends by filtering the information the secret service gets. It also looks like he apparently did little damage to his fellows in the end - though classmates who died since may have had more grave stories to tell.
What you find in my older posts on Hungarian politics (oldest first):
- After a bizarre press vs. politicians court case, an introduction of parties & history since 1989.
- The workings of non-issue-based politics: the tragicomical double referendum on barring hospital privatisations and giving neighbouring countries' ethnic Hungarians double citizenship.
- Bush and Hungary: why the nominal centre-left (now governing) is pro-Bush and the nominal centre-right opposition anti-Bush.
- Campaign season opens - half a year early.
- Further in the campaign, October polls and nonsensical rhetoric (how can you give preferential treatment to both the elites and the poor?)
- The juiciest of the many storm-in-the-bathtub scandals: Mata Hari in Budapest
- A foray into history (not much to do with recent Hungarian politics, but some further perspective for the debate on Turkey's accession to the EU).
- European Dream: where would Hungarians like to live?
- Hungarian Orange (no relation to the Ukrainian version): on a clever opposition poster campaign and its contrast with reality.
- On another poster campaign by the same party - how to outsource negative campaign, and how it can be made to backfire.
- Of Socialists and Presidents.
- On the Oscar-winning film director who was The Mephisto Behind Mephisto.
- The Inverted Example of Spinning Jobless Statistics: doing the exact opposite of what the Bushites did.