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Mephisto And Informants Update

by DoDo 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):

  1. After a bizarre press vs. politicians court case, an introduction of parties & history since 1989.
  2. The workings of non-issue-based politics: the tragicomical double referendum on barring hospital privatisations and giving neighbouring countries' ethnic Hungarians double citizenship.
  3. Bush and Hungary: why the nominal centre-left (now governing) is pro-Bush and the nominal centre-right opposition anti-Bush.
  4. Campaign season opens - half a year early.
  5. Further in the campaign, October polls and nonsensical rhetoric (how can you give preferential treatment to both the elites and the poor?)
  6. The juiciest of the many storm-in-the-bathtub scandals: Mata Hari in Budapest
  7. 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).
  8. European Dream: where would Hungarians like to live?
  9. Hungarian Orange (no relation to the Ukrainian version): on a clever opposition poster campaign and its contrast with reality.
  10. On another poster campaign by the same party - how to outsource negative campaign, and how it can be made to backfire.
  11. Of Socialists and Presidents.
  12. On the Oscar-winning film director who was The Mephisto Behind Mephisto.
  13. The Inverted Example of Spinning Jobless Statistics: doing the exact opposite of what the Bushites did.

Display:
Guilt, complicity and opportunism - now there's a combination worthy of a great director (just not in this way).

Does Hungary have an equivalent to the German Birthler-Behörde, which administers the Stasi files, or are informant records public domain?

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Fri Feb 17th, 2006 at 12:13:06 PM EST
Yes, there is an authority overseeing the files, but it is much more restrictive than the one in Germany. Researchers and onetime observed can't look for files, only request the employees to look for them. The copies they hand out (if they hand them out at all) usually have most names blacked out. As I wrote it in the previous diary in more detail, the big opening of files was attempted but sabotaged several times.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Feb 17th, 2006 at 02:14:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Szabó's fellow arrested-turned-informant gave his three days in prison in great detail. A recurring theme was that his cellmates, mostly working-class and arrested for real action during the 1956 Revolution, reassured him that "students are dealt with with kid gloves", "you'll be out in a few days". Which leads me to a little history lesson to emphasize something about the big revolutions during 'communism' and the following clampdown.

In 1956, Stalinism was over, with Dear Leader gone (both the original in the Soviet Union and the copy in Hungary), but its apparatus not quite. A lot of people were released - including, ironically, both Imre Nagy, the symbol of the revolution, and Imre Kádár, who would betray Nagy, call in the Soviet military, and then rule until 1988 -, but the feared secret service still existed, as did the second-line state-terror-ists, and dictature. So there was a sense of reforms and want for more.

The catalyst was (as often in Hungarian history) news from Poland, news of a crushed protest. Rebellion spread like bushfire from two sources: students - and the so-called Workers' Councils. The latter were self-established (not Party-controlled) councils at workplaces, demanding a Socialist state but with multi-party system and independent unions. These countinued to form all across the country after the breakout of revolution, and that was the reason the Party lost enough power to accept reforms (i.e. for those in the leadership who called the events "legitimate revolution" - then including Kádár - won over those who called it "counter-revolution").

And from this comes the second Socialist line in the Revolution: from the first day (23 October), one of the demand of protesters was not for everyone to go, but for Imre Nagy, himself a leading communist but popular, to form a national unity government. Which he did, and his government dismantled the old secret service, legalised other parties, called on the Russian military to leave, and disbanded and re-established the communist party under a new name (from Hungarian Workers' Party to Hungarian Socialist Labour Party).

After the revolution was crushed under Soviet tanks, the regime went especially after the two mentioned Socialist strands of the Revolution - the leaders of Workers' Councils and the members and administration of Imre Nagy got the worst torture and most executions. Never again did the Muscovites want the official legitimisation of their power challenged.

Which they achieved to such an extent that today, most remaining prominent 1956 veterans still appearing in public are from the Revolution's right-wing fringe, or people who fought in the final hopeless battles with Kalashnikovs against tanks (shades of Iraq here) as teenagers and became far-right in their old age.

There are strong parallels to this course of events in both the 1968 Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic, and the 1980 events in Poland.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Feb 17th, 2006 at 02:58:38 PM EST
so-called Workers' Councils. The latter were self-established (not Party-controlled) councils at workplaces, demanding a Socialist state but with multi-party system and independent unions.

Minor addition: the very first Worker's Council was established a day before the revolution, in the iron smelter of the city today called Dunaújváros. This city was founded just years before as a model city, then under the name Sztálinváros (Stalin-city). Model cities were generously funded and filled with loyal workers. So the system was really hit at its core when rebellion broke out first there.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Feb 17th, 2006 at 07:21:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Which they achieved to such an extent that today, most remaining prominent 1956 veterans still appearing in public are from the Revolution's right-wing fringe, or people who fought in the final hopeless battles with Kalashnikovs against tanks (shades of Iraq here) as teenagers and became far-right in their old age.

There are strong parallels to this course of events in both the 1968 Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic, and the 1980 events in Poland.

I don't see the parallel to Poland in 1980. Neither in the disparate treatment of working class vs. intelligentsia oppositionists - both were placed in internment camps en masse ( the top several thousand) or fired and blacklisted (the next ones down the line) following the imposition of martial law in December 1981. THe ex opposition has also been very prominent in all spheres of politics and civil society, with the (obvious) exception of those dominated by the ex-Communists. The top two papers are dominated by ex-opposition figures, every non post-communist government has been as well, including the current one.

The 1980 movement had the advantage of a prepared cadre of leaders. The veterans of both the 1968 student/intelligentsia revolt and the workers' revolts of 1970 and 1976 began working closely together after 1976, formulating a program of the creation of an autonomous civil society, a program which was then implemented in 1980.

PS. You mention that the Hungarian revolt was partially sparked by the workers' revolt in Poznan in June. I did not know that. You might be interested to know that in November 1956 Poland was at the highpoint of a brief wave of freedom. Blood drives for the Hungarian revolutionaries were publicly organized. The provincial city Party paper that I went through had articles describing what was going on as revolutionaries vs. counter revolutionaries - with the Red Army in the latter role.

by MarekNYC on Fri Feb 17th, 2006 at 07:27:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, in 1980, one parallel I saw was the dual move - students/wrokers' councils and intelligentsia/workers. Regarding the aftermath, I definitely did NOT meant that the regime hasn't gone after the students and intelligentsia - but did so with different vigour. Imprisonment and blacklisting and repeated firing from jobs (and for some the suggestion to emigrate) was the fate of many in the intelligentsia. But I submit 1980 is definitely different in there being no executions, so there couldn't have been that big differences in treatment, and much more leading figures could survive to play a post-1989 role. (Well to a lesser extent that is also true for the Velvet Revolution.)

Yes, the Polish link was direct: the protest that turned into a revolution started out as an announced sympathy protest for the workers of Poznan. Interesting input about the Polish response to 1956 - I knew about solidarity, but not that it was so much in the open.

I add a further bit of historical quirk: a still unresolved mystery is the shooting in front of Parliament on 25 October (70 dead). At the time there were protesters and Soviet tanks on the square - with some soldiers befriending the protesters. Someone first shot at the protesters from a roof - followed by some of the tanks also shooting at the crowd, but other tanks shooting at the rooftop shooters!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Feb 17th, 2006 at 07:46:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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