“We still do not know precisely how many people were taken from Hungary to the Soviet Union. Some of the people taken into captivity died in the holding camps in Hungary or Romania. We know from recollections that the bodies of people who died while being loaded into the railway wagons or in transit were just thrown out of the wagons, without official Soviet record. We have no data whatsoever on these people, so we will never know the full number. We work from various incomplete sources.”
A conversation with Réka Földváryné Kiss, chairwoman of the Committee of National Remembrance, Csaba Szabó, Director General of the Hungarian National Archives and Tamás Stark, historian, senior research fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Humanities Research Centre, about the database of Hungarians in Soviet captivity.
The massive documentation received by the Hungarian National Archives suggests excellent cooperation between the Hungarian and Russian researchers and archivists.
Réka Földváryné Kiss: Substantial differences remain between us to this day when it comes to interpreting the events of the recent past, so the acquisition of any documents and written records relating to our post-1945 history is very important to us. Nevertheless, we need to recognise that this is still a very sensitive matter for all concerned. It is enough for me to point out that Russian historians use different words to describe the events and that they interpret them differently to us. They call the military operations of 1944–1945 “liberation”, whereas for the vast majority of Hungarian society the sense of being liberated from war was followed immediately by the experience – often involving personal tragedy – of the Soviet occupation.
The aim of the negotiations with the Russians was not to find a common denominator in terms of our historical recollections. At these talks the archivists merely discussed the handover of documents: while the Russians said that the 681,000 record cards contained the data of prisoners of war, the Hungarian historians talk about prisoner records, because at least a third of the captured and deported Hungarians were civilians. Nevertheless, we consider it a very important gesture that, at the end of the long negotiations, the Russians have placed this massive database at our disposal; and what is more they did this at a cost of only HUF 180 million, which is a fraction of the “market rate” charged to other countries.
Were the Hungarians aware from the start of how many and what kind of documents they would receive from the Russians?
RFK: We still do not know precisely how many people were taken from Hungary to the Soviet Union. Some of the people taken into captivity died in the holding camps in Hungary or Romania. We know from recollections that the bodies of people who died while being loaded into the railway wagons or in transit were just thrown out of the wagons, without official Soviet record. We have no data whatsoever on these people, so we will never know the full number. We work from various incomplete sources. Those who ultimately made it home were registered; this amounts to some 200,000 people. Some villages and towns also tried to list how many people had been taken from them. The Military History Museum also maintains a 60,000-strong database dedicated to prisoners of war (http://www.katonakagulagon.hu).
The 681,000 record card copies that we have just received are perhaps the largest piece of this puzzle. We will never have the complete picture, but we have now obtained information on the Hungarians who never returned home. Our Russian counterparts agreed to pick out, from their own database, the names of prisoners assumed to be of Hungarian nationality or thought to have a Hungarian name. We did not know precisely what we were getting from the total of 6 million Russian prisoner record cards. The database, which arrived in five stages, was received by the Hungarian National Archives. During random sampling by the archivists, it turned out that we have also received the data of prisoners from Transylvania and Carpathian Ruthenia. We are currently loading the information from the record cards into a consolidated database. We are trying to translate the described data into Hungarian as efficiently as possible. The next step will be when we attempt to verify the data content of the record cards.
What is all this data good for?
RFK: Hundreds of thousands died in the Soviet prisoner of war internment system. Until now, we knew virtually nothing about these people. Now we are confident that many Hungarian families will gain access to valuable information about the fate of their relatives. We hope that before long the online database will also permit personal searches.
When will the database become publicly accessible?
RFK: Lots of people ask us that. I am cautious about stating a time, because although we can sense the urgency of the public’s desire to access the data as soon as possible, we need more time and financial resources to process this quantity of raw data. If everything goes according to plan, the database could be accessible by 2021–2022.
Have we seen this kind of cooperation between archives anywhere else in the world?
Csaba Szabó: In 1926, Hungary and Austria signed the Treaty of Baden. Under this, the State of Hungary sent three archivists (one civilian and two military) to the Austrian archives, where they effectively had open access to all historical documents relating to Austria–Hungary. This was unprecedented anywhere in the world: no such relationship had ever existed between an imperial power and its former satellite. From the late 1980s the Russians also handed over a massive quantity of data to Germany regarding two million, and to Japan regarding 560,000–760,000 prisoners of war.
Talking about the Hungarian prisoners of war and the civilians taken to the Soviet Union for “malenky robot” [a little work] was generally taboo until the change of political regime. From then on, artists and historians started processing the events. Research got under way to clarify the number of those affected – thanks in no small measure to Tamás Stark’s work in this field – and the need to carry out research in the Russian archives was also expressed. As part of the settlement of Russian national debt during the Yeltsin era, under the Antall government, an agreement was reached on the release of archival data. As a result of this, the Russian side provided the Military History Museum with copies of the files on 50,000 Hungarian prisoners of war who died in Soviet camps. Following a supplementary release of data from the Russians in 1998, this list grew to 66,281 names. The processing of this data was delayed, but thanks to the announcement of the GULAG Memorial Year in 2015, state aid and the expanding opportunities offered by computer technology, the website providing public access to the data of the casualties was created. This represented an enormous step forward in obtaining the missing information: the website, which is still operating today, provides relatives and other interested parties with information about the deceased prisoners of war.
In 2003 the Russian–Hungarian Joint Archives Committee was set up to further archival research in Russia. It enabled a permanent delegation of Hungarian archivists to conduct research, not without restriction but certainly with special assistance in the Russian archives, and to forge academic ties. Research by the delegated archivists Éva Mária Varga, Attila Seres and Anna Siklósné Kosztricz led to the writing of several important historical studies on the prisoners of war and captured civilians. It is also worth mentioning that the delegation’s work also yielded results in other areas (for example economic research). Thus the volume entitled Hungarian Prisoners of War in the Soviet Union, edited by Éva Mária Varga, was published in 2006. Later, the announcement of the GULAG Memorial Year lent new impetus to the joint archival research.
In the 2010s the Hungarian researchers made contact with one of the leading experts in this field, Professor Stefan Karner, the retired head of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institut für Kriegsfolgen-Forschung in Graz. Years before, the staff of the Boltzmann Institut had processed the files, amounting to some 130,000, of all Austrian prisoners of war. In the process they obtained a wealth of experience relating to the Russian archives organisation and the conducting of negotiations. Learning from this example, among others, in 2016 the Hungarian government set aside HUF 250 million in budgetary funds for this purpose, which was used to cover the expenses of data reporting and the preliminary assessment of the received documents.
How is the research with the new documents progressing?
CsSz: We purchased, and in December finally received from the Russians the database containing the data from personal record cards, and copies of the record cards themselves. This is the first time such a massive quantity of data has been received by the Hungarian archives at the same time. The academically rigorous processing of these would in normal routine take five years and cost approximately HUF 500 million.
Five years is too long for the public and 500 million too much for the politicians. In response to the growing interest in the files, after one year we would like to provide an overview, if not fully detailed information. Originally, the record cards were filled in by Russian soldiers based on information received from terrified prisoners. They recorded 18 types of data, but the information provided was often contradictory. Some gave their occupation as farmer, but their job title as engineer; commissioned officers often claimed to be common soldiers. Many Hungarians from Carpathian Ruthenia, Slovakia, Transylvania and Vojvodina also feature in the records, but we do not know if all the persons captured in these regions were listed as Hungarian or as other nationalities. The transcription of Hungarian names into Russian also raises many questions. At the moment we are making a list of questions, and later we will consult with our Russian counterparts. Talks are ongoing with IT university departments and companies regarding the latest possibilities and methods for processing the data, including the use of artificial intelligence. Together with the archivists, meanwhile, we are now developing the methodology to be applied. The ultimate goal, building on and using the Soldiers in the GULAG database, is to create a database that will be accessible via the worldwide web. By using this platform anybody, from a relative to an interested researcher, will be able to search and find the basic data of a particular person, their internment camp and final resting place, as well as the details of any file that may be associated with the record card, which can then be requested from the appropriate Russian archives through us. Another objective is for the database to be published in a way that is consistent with the record cards; that is, not corrected but in keeping with professional archival standards, although naturally they can be furnished with additional information to ease understanding.
What results can we expect from the processing and creation of the database?
CsSz: An important possible consequence is that the merging and processing of the received database with existing Hungarian data could put an end to the spurious citing of baseless figures and the spreading of unfounded opinions. As it contains so many varieties of data, the database could trigger and inspire a whole series of social history research projects, for instance the extent to which the various social groups, women, children, nationalities, etc. were affected.
And perhaps even more important than this (although it is essential that such efforts are underpinned by rigorous academic research) is that after decades of secrecy, silence and hesitation this terrible national tragedy can take its place in our national memory, undistorted, alongside our other great national tragedy, the Holocaust. Lest we forget, we are talking about a mass of personal calamities that remain undiscussed to this day. Behind every single record card lies a family’s own tragedy. It is both uplifting and heart-rending when old and young alike, often great-grandchildren, visit us to search for the data and mementoes of their lost relatives, and when institutions, companies and individuals pledge their assistance. I hope all this will contribute to the healing of our national memory.
What led the Hungarian historians to request the Russian documentation?
Tamás Stark: Specialists of the history of people imprisoned in the Soviet Union have known about the records since 1991. The former GULAG prisoner Gusztáv Menczer, representing the National Bureau of Reparations and Claims, went to Moscow in 1991. I accompanied him. We were admitted to the massive archives where the personal details of prisoners of war and interned civilians were stored. This vast quantity of documentation consisted of two parts: the A5 format record cards filled in by hand with personal data, and the detailed personal files of at least four pages, which are more interesting as they contain important data regarding the prisoners’ lives in Hungary, their activities during the war and their time in the Soviet internment camps.
As regards the deported civilians, the Russians were not prepared to discuss the matter of compensation (which in my opinion was totally justified), but in 1992 the Antall government managed to obtain for Hungary, from the Russians, a list of the deceased registered in Russia, containing some 50,000 names, which was published in the newspaper Új Magyarország. This list – which contained no other data – was supplemented with the database of around 70,000 names that was handed over to the Military History Museum in 1999 by the Russian military monuments association, which tends war graves in Russia. This was the dataset used to create the katonakagulagon.hu website, which is accessible by anyone.
So, the profession has known about these records for a long time?
TS: We knew about them, but in practice we were unable to carry out any research in Russia. I myself only had one opportunity to see the record cards and the detailed personal files. The breakthrough in obtaining the personal records of the prisoners came when the then Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog, in the context of the GULAG Memorial Year, announced in 2016 that copies of the record cards would shortly arrive in Hungary. In the end, the copying of the documents and their sending in several instalments only commenced in 2019. Unfortunately, we only purchased copies of the record cards, and not the detailed personal files, although these are of greater interest. It is regrettable that there were not enough funds available for their purchase. It is far from certain that the Russians will make this documentation, which is so important from the perspective of Hungarian history, available later.
Why did it take so long to obtain the copies of the record cards?
TS: It is impossible to obtain such a quantity of data without government assistance. The Antall administration clearly expressed the need for us to know everything about what happened to Hungarian prisoners in the Soviet Union. Later governments, however, did not treat this as a priority. The GULAG Memorial Year of 2016–2017 created the opportunity for obtaining the data sources in question.
What results, what changes to the history books could the new database bring?
TS: The most compelling question is how many people were registered. Recently there has been a lot of data circulating on how many Hungarians ended up in Soviet captivity, with figures of up to 1 million people mentioned. The Soviet archival sources do not give a precise number; but they do estimate the number of prisoners of war and interned civilians at between 490,000 and 540,000, depending on where, when and by which agency the documents were released. The record cards being delivered now are based on actual registration, so in theory they will be able to tell us the precise number of registered persons, their names and also what nationality the deportees from Transylvania, Slovakia, Carpathian Ruthenia or Vojvodina were registered as, because, at the time of registration their citizenship was far from clear. We will also be able to find out what category was assigned to those prisoners who were taken as Germans. It will be possible to determine precisely the names and the locations of the internment camps concerned. So, all in all, we will be able to clarify the existing data.
So, will the record cards reveal the exact number of deportees with certainty?
TS: The 680,000 record cards, in themselves, do not offer us a watertight reference point because often two or three cards were made for the same person. This will be determined based on the processing of the data in the archives but the assumptions of 800,000 to one million nevertheless seem unrealistic. Based on contemporary Hungarian and Soviet documents, I would place the number of Hungarian prisoners at 600,000, and certainly no higher than 700,000. The contemporary reports on the deportations, the lists made by the Ministry of Defence for the peace talks, and the many contemporary lists do not permit a higher estimate.
Many prisoners died before reaching the camp and being registered. Can the record cards provide any reliable information about the number of such cases?
TS: We can draw conclusions regarding mortality from the time that the data was registered, because many died within a few weeks of arrival, due to the bad living conditions. I consider it an important task, and one that must be performed, to compare the thousands of names in Hungarian data sources, especially the name lists in the massive body of documents held by the prisoners of war department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the lists announced in the contemporary Prisoner of War News and the records of the more than 200,000 people who returned to the prisoner of war reception camp in Debrecen, with the massive dataset that we have just received. This will allow us to obtain an entirely accurate, person by person picture of who was taken and when, who returned and who did not return, who was registered as deceased and who disappeared in transit and was buried in a mass grave without being registered. This would be a database of millions, and processing of the data is simple to solve in IT terms.
Is there an opportunity for the data to be processed in a way that meets the academic standards for history writing?
TS: The processing of the record cards would be a kind of memorial to the deportees. Everyone deserves to have their story known. A great many families have no idea what happened to their relatives in captivity. The processing of the data provided by the Russians now could certainly help to shed light on an issue that was previously considered taboo. However, I am afraid that the somewhat confused public perception of the events will not change.
What is the source of the confusion?
TS: Remembrance-policy reasons play a part. Some people draw parallels between the Soviet internment and the Hungarian Holocaust, the transportation of half a million Hungarian Jews to the death camps, stressing that the “Hungarians” suffered as much or more during the Second World War than the “Jewry”. The two stories of suffering are, however, entirely different. Both are national tragedies, but they need to be examined and interpreted separately; and they certainly should not be played off against each other. I think it is right and proper that we set aside a day to commemorate the victims of the Communist dictatorships (25 February) and that since 2012 we have also held a day of remembrance for the Hungarian victims of the Soviet forced labour camps. At the same time, I often notice that the official remembrance speeches given by representatives of the government have an anti-Western edge to them, as if to suggest the West consented to the mass deportation of Hungarians to the Soviet Union, and that it did not intervene to secure their release. Historically, neither claim holds water: the West did not consent, and it did intervene. It is true that many Western left-wing intellectuals turned a blind eye to the inhumanities of the Soviet regime, but this should not obscure the fact that the Soviet Communists’ grip on power was in the end broken by the United States, by the West.
Could placing the data on a more solid foundation moderate these extreme displays of rhetoric?
TS: Those who approach events with preconceptions are hard to convince, but it is the historian’s job to reveal the facts and confront such people with them.
Selected literature on the subject:
Bognár, Zalán: GULAG, GUPVI, “málenkij robot”. Magyarok a szovjet lágerbirodalomban [GULAG, GUPVI, “Malenky Robot”. Hungarians in the Soviet Labour Camp Empire], Budapest, Magyar Napló, 2017.
Bognár, Zalán: Hadifogolytáborok és (hadi)fogolysors a Vörös Hadsereg által megszállt Magyarországon, 1944–46 [POW Camps and the Fate of POWs in Red Army-occupied Hungary], Budapest, Kairosz, 2012.
Karner, Stefan: Im Archipel GUPVI: Kriegsgefangenschaft und Internierung in der Sowjetunion 1941– 1956 [In the GUPVI Archipelago. Prisoners of War and Internment in the Soviet Union 1941–1956], Vienna and Munich, Oldenbourg, 1995.
Stark, Tamás: „…akkor aszt mondták kicsi robot” – A magyar polgári lakosság elhurcolása a Szovjetunióba korabeli dokumentumok tükrében [“… then they said: malenky robot.” The Abduction of Hungarian Civilians to the Soviet Union through the Lens of Contemporary Documents], Budapest, MTA BTK TTI, 2017.
Stark, Tamás: Magyar foglyok a Szovjetunióban [Hungarian Prisoners in the Soviet Union], Budapest, Lucidus, 2006.
Varga, Éva Mária: Magyarok szovjet hadifogságban (1941–1956). Az oroszországi levéltári források tükrében [Hungarians in Soviet Military Captivity (1941–1956)], Budapest, Russica Pannonicana, Pannonica Kiadó, 2009.