He who controls the past controls the future, wrote George Orwell, and as the author of 1984, he would know better than most. Nowhere is his aphorism more true than central and eastern Europe, where more than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the region’s young democracies are still grappling with the ruinous legacy of four decades of Communist rule.
That’s why historians and archivists around the world are in uproar over an unprecedented proposal by Hungary’s right-of-centre government that would allow those spied upon by the former Communist regime the right to take home their files from the secret service archives, and, if they wish, destroy them.
So far, American, Canadian, Greek and Dutch archivists have written letters of protest, and a website, Save Hungary’s Archives, is coordinating the international campaign. The legislation is currently being drafted and will likely be brought to parliament later in the year. As the ruling Fidesz party enjoys a two-thirds majority it will likely sail through.
The move is especially surprising as during its previous term of office, in 1998-2002, Fidesz opened the House of Terror museum in Budapest, which chronicles the horrors of the Hungarian Stalinist period and the atrocities committed by the Arrow Cross Hungarian Nazis in the closing months of the Second World War.
Zoltan Kovacs, an official at the Ministry of Justice, tells Monocle: “A democratic state is not supposed to hold material that was collected unlawfully.” Historians say the claim is bizarre, as it would not allow for any historical study of any totalitarian regime. In addition, the proposed legislation raises numerous questions, for example, if more than one person is mentioned in a document, as is usually the case, who will have the right to take the papers home and destroy them? The government claims that academic research will not be affected but it is also unclear who will be able to examine secret service files, as historians may have to seek permission from those mentioned.
The new law is unnecessary because all victims already have the right to ask state archives to classify any files containing personal information for 90 years, says Janos Kenedi, a historian, who formerly headed an official committee in charge of dealing with secret service files. Information such as religion or sexual orientation is already unavailable.
Hungarians know that much compromising material remains hidden in the archives. Even as the Communist system collapsed in the late 1980s, the Communist Party had 800,000 members. More than 1.5 million people were spied on by the secret service, who often used friends or relatives to gather compromising information.
The key question, say historians, is whether a copy of the file will be kept once the original is removed. The government says that it is considering various options. “We don’t want to erase a section of our past,” says Kovacs.