Recently, through an academic list that I subscribe to, I received a pretty amazing announcement, which I post below:

From: Christopher Adam
Subject: Hungarian archives in danger
Date: Wed, 16 Feb 2011 19:40:15 +0000
As a lecturer in history at Carleton University and having conducted research in archives across  Europe and North America, I would like to let the subscribers of the Habsburg List know of a deeply problematic piece of legislation currently in the works in Hungary, which would allow for the destruction of a significant portion of the country’s national archival heritage. In December 2010, Hungary’s parliamentary secretary for justice announced that his government believes that a democratic state cannot “preserve the immoral documents of an immoral regime.” By November 2011, the Government of Hungary plans to introduce legislation that will permit the removal and destruction of Hungarian communist secret police, interior ministry and state security files currently held at the Historical Archives of Hungarian State Security in Budapest, and available to researchers, as well as to survivors and effected communities.
The new law will allow survivors to remove original and irreplaceable files from the archives and do as they wish with them, including selling them or destroying them at home. As copies will not be kept of these original documents, researchers and future generations will no longer have access to tens of thousands of files. Additionally, the logistics of removing and scattering these documents is deeply flawed, considering that most of these files refer to groups of people, rather than just individuals, raising the question of who will be able to walk away with the original of any single document.
As of this morning, 390 Canadian, American and European academics have signed the petition that I launched in an effort to convince the Government of Hungary to reconsider its decision which, I strongly believe, serves as a very dangerous precedent for all historians, archives and all archivists.

Mr. Adam is a lecturer in the department of history at Carleton University in Canada and has launched a website on the topic, as well as the petition that he mentioned (with over 1,400 signatures now and counting). He also wrote an article for Canada’s National Post.

This was stunning news and so short-sighted and outlandish that I wrote to some Hungarian contacts to check it out. Unfortunately, it is true. I’ll just post here the pointed words of Miklos Haraszti. A former Hungarian dissident, member of parliament, writer and journalist, Miklos recently finished up a term as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (he’s also a TOL board member).

The all-front attacks on rule of law, civility, and democratic habits, kulturkampf, witch-hunt, etc,  are so overwhelming that the home forces of normalcy are just baffled. This issue is a “small” part of it. Fidesz — contrary to its anticommunist rhetoric — has always sided with the ex-communists in suppressing or damaging good legislation about the “files”. Namely, Fidesz and the Socialists together have successfully blocked the “liberation” of the files of the III/I and the III/II departments, that is intelligence and counterintelligence, claiming national interests. (So far, only the files of the III/III, that is, of the “internal enemy department” have been handled so-so.) The proposed measures, and to a certain extent the uproar created by it, help hiding this unchanged empowerment of the secret services to keep or release files in an unaccounted way and thus blackmail people as it pleases. Now, with the help of their 2/3 majority, Fidesz indeed proposed the described explicit dispersal mechanism with the described implicit consequences. (At the moment there is no draft law, but they always table laws in a surprise manner via individual MPs after secret codification in order to avoid public discussion — that is what happened to the media laws as well.) The proposal’s language — nominally — serves “citizens’ information rights”.  But the essence of it is to avoid for good any public scrutiny of pre-history of their own ranks.
My only remark is that it is EQUALLY IMPORTANT to protest against the plan that today’s secret services should keep their grip on the still undisclosed files — that they should remain the “owners” of the intelligence and counterintelligence files, and should be free to decide without any public scrutiny which files go to the public archive — thus blackmail who they want, WHILE the already released files would disappear in the hands of the victims as described and protested already. Of course, a real full access to one’s own files a la Germany would be welcome, but not a dispersal of the files, WHILE a great part of the files escapes any public or private scrutiny and the secret services continue owning them.

Miklos also noted a practical problem that the initiators of the law might not have considered: What happens when a file concerns more than one person? Who then gets to take it home?

Our friends over at the Economist’s Eastern Approaches blog recently wrote about the controversy as well and rightly observed how this episode is just the latest in a long-running debate across the region of how to deal with the old secret police archives:

No country has found the perfect answer. Hungary’s archives have been open to authorised historians with an approved research topic. Other countries allow individuals to consult (but not remove) the files of which they are the subjects. In Romania, files on prominent figures in politics and the church are, notoriously, missing, with no explanation of how they vanished.

More ominously, and a true indication of today’s Hungary, there seems to be virtually no public discussion about such a remarkable attempt to erase part of the country’s history. I asked János Kenedi about that. He’s one of the leading experts on the files and headed a commission that had been tasked with reviewing sensitive security documents that had yet to become part of the Historical Archives of Hungarian State Security. The commission was disbanded this past December by the new government.

“There is no any outcry within Hungary. No public discussion about it,” he said. “Only fear, and fear not only inside of civil society but in circles among professional historians and archivists.”

“I guess you mean fear of losing their jobs, public criticism, etc.?”, I asked.

“Exactly” was Kenedi’s answer.

The photo above is actually from the Stasi archive in Berlin, photo courtesy of Mahmood Al-Yousif’s stream on flickr.com (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mahmood/with/4616787140/)

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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