GOALS OF THE HUNGARIAN REVOLUTION OF 1956.
REPRISALS UNDER KÁDÁR
The Hungarian Revolution of October 1956 sought to put an end to the Soviet occupation of Hungary; to restore national independence; to create a parliamentary democracy in place of the Communist dictatorship; and to fully guarantee human and civil political rights.
The significance of the Revolution and its resistance to a Bolshevist system was felt beyond Hungary’s borders; indeed, it was a signal event in global history. In November 1956, the émigré Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai wrote: “Although abandoned, betrayed and crushed, the Hungarian revolution inflicted the first unhealing wound on Bolshevism, warning West European intellectuals that Bolshevism, far from being the earthly paradise of humanity, is only a historical cul-de-sac.” A year later, Albert Camus declared in Le Sang des Hongrois: “La Hongrie vaincue et enchaînée a plus fait pour la liberté et la justice qu’aucun peuple depuis vingt ans…” (“Hungary conquered and in chains has done more for freedom and justice than any people for twenty years…”).
On several occasions during the Revolution between 23 and 28 October, the Communist regime ordered the shooting of unarmed demonstrators, including many women and children, throughout the country, violating the laws then in force on the armed dispersal of crowds. Shootings took place in Budapest in front of the Ministry of Defence and the Parliament, and in the towns of Debrecen, Mosonmagyaróvár, Tiszakécske, Kecskemét and others. In carrying out these mass murders, which claimed several hundreds of victims, the Communist forces sought – unsuccessfully – to contain the spread of the revolution.
As a result of the Soviet military invasion of 4 November, János Kádár came to power, yet the population considered his rule, founded upon the presence of the armed forces of a foreign power, to be an illegitimate usurpation of power; they maintained their allegiance to the legitimate government of Prime Minister Imre Nagy and insisted upon the withdrawal of the Red Army.Even after the revolution was crushed by force of arms, the revolutionary process did not come to an end. Instead, it entered a new phase: throughout the country, a significant majority of the population recognised the newly elected Workers’ Councils as the governing authority.
To put an end to this situation, János Kádár resorted to armed force and to violence. To enable this, the Temporary Executive Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party created an armed militia (popularly known as pufajkások,“paddedjackets”). The Committee’s military organ, the Military Council, was led by Gyula Uszta. The Committee was represented at the Military Council meetings by László Földes. The militia were deployed with the aim of securing the Communist Party’s full control by way of the deliberate murder of a great number of unarmed civilians. This policy was decided upon through a resolution of the Military Council on 4 December 1956. According to the instructions issued by Gyula Uszta: “They must be taken care of quickly and without mercy”.
Following these instructions, the militia carried out bloody shootings in Budapest (at the Nyugati Railway Station), Salgótarján, Miskolc, Eger and many small towns; the final atrocity was perpetrated against the workers of the Budapest industrial suburb of Csepel on 11 January 1957.
In addition to the shootings, local revolutionary leaders around the country were beaten to death by the militia; several hundred people were tortured, including some whose only “crime” was passive support for the revolution. These actions attempted in some way to compensate for János Kádár’s flagrant lack of legitimacy. The use of the militia in this way ignored international legal prohibitions, and constituted extralegal reprisals against citizens who took part in the revolution.
In short order, the Kádár regime also constructed a system of “legal” reprisals: it declared a state of emergency (11 December 1956); introduced a so-called “fast- track” procedure, which enabled the court to increase the severity of a sentence even if the only appeal came from the part of the defence, and even if no appeal had been made for a more severe sentence – it effectively eliminated any restriction on heavier sentencing; and allowed the use of the death penalty on minors over the age of 16, enabling, for example, the execution of Péter Mansfeld. Such executions were to be delayed, sometimes for two years, until the defendant reached the age of 18. The regime also established the People’s Judiciary Council of the Supreme Court and similar bodies on the regional level.
The ideological basis for all these measures was established at the December 1956 meeting of the Hungarian Communist Party’s Temporary Central Committee, which declared: “In October of 1956, a counter-revolution took place in Hungary…” During this process of “legal” reprisals, no judicial independence existed. The monolithic power system excluded the existence of any independent judiciary organ, and the basic rights of the accused were not observed (such as the right to defence, the so-called “right of equality of arms”, and the principle of equal rights for all citizens).
Investigations were pursued as the result of political decisions, as were the prosecutions and even the sentencing. In some major court cases, the Temporary Executive Committee of the Communist Party gave instructions to the judges and carried out death sentences outright, as in the case of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs as late as June 1958.
These reprisals were essentially an attack against the Hungarian nation, even though the ruling elites insisted the proceedings were aimed against the so-called “class enemies”. In fact, 93.39 percent of those imprisoned could not be categorised as “class enemies”, and the same was true for those who were executed.
During the period of these reprisals perpetrated under the guise of legal measures, 26,621 persons were called to appear in court, and approximately 341 persons were executed. This number does not include those executed summarily on the spot during the Soviet invasion and the state of emergency. 13,000 were interned by police decree for reasons of “public safety”.
The process of reprisals via legal measures came to an end with Decree Law No. 4 (1963), which contained a general amnesty. In April 1963, 3,480 convicted revolutionaries were released from prison. However, an estimated 600 other revolutionaries – the barricade fighters – remained in detention and were not released until the 1970s.
THE COLLAPSE OF THE DICTATORSHIP
became irreversible when the “dogma of counter-revolution” promulgated by the Temporary Central Committee in December 1956 was shaken. On 28 January 1989, the Reform Communist leader Imre Pozsgay publicly announced that what occurred in Hungary in October 1956 was not a counter- revolution, but a people’s uprising. His announcement was acknowledged at meetings of the Political Committee of the Party Central Committee on 7 February 1989, and of the Central Committee itself on 20–21 February. With this new interpretation, the previous Party declaration of December 1956 ceased to be in force.
Naturally, this had legal consequences. The process of regime change was launched as a result of a compromise between the ruling party-state and the Opposition Roundtable in the summer of 1989, and it led among others to the rehabilitation of Imre Nagy and his confederates on 6 July 1989. After the reburial of Imre Nagy, which had taken place a month earlier, on 16 June, it was no longer possible to maintain that those convicted of participating in the revolution could be exonerated simply by way of a general amnesty. However, it would have been impossible to resort to judicial relief by way of extraordinary court proceedings (legal protest or reopened court case) for every individual who participated in the Revolution – so instead a solution was sought by means of passing a law.
The so-called concept of ex lege nullity was elaborated by Alajos Dornbach, legal expert on the Committee for Historical Justice, Minister of Justice Kálmán Kulcsár, and József Földvári, professor of criminal law. The law annulled the court decisions of the post-revolutionary period for reasons of innocence, and the court would issue a certificate to this effect to the individual or to his relatives. The law was passed asLawXXXVI(1989),“Ontherectificationoftheconvictionsrelatedtothe 1956 people’s uprising”, on 20 October 1989, by the last Hungarian Parliament not elected by democratic vote. The law’s preamble stated, inter alia, that the law represented a new system of values “on the road to a state based on the rule of law and parliamentary democracy”.
This first nullification law bears the marks of the tumultuous and chaotic atmosphere at the time it was passed, a period of incessant changes in the balance of forces on the political scene. Thus, the law reflects ad-hoc politicking, as well as certain deficiencies of the legal and historical professions. For this reason, some revolutionaries who were executed in the post-revolutionary reprisals could not be rehabilitated posthumously. This political small-mindedness was remedied – more than a decade later – by the fourth nullification law, prepared by Professor Tibor Király, a Member of the Hungarian Academy, and Zoltán Márki of the Ministry of Justice. The Parliament passed this law almost unanimously on 11 December 2000.
The enduring merit of Law XCCC (2000) – apart from enabling the cases of several executed revolutionaries to be properly remedied – was its declaration that “the political intent that drove the post-revolution reprisals resulted in the issuing of sentences for predetermined purposes. This is clearly expressed in the ‘extraordinary’ procedure rules laid down after the revolution was defeated.”
The law characterised the legal reprisals following the 1956 revolution as “sentences used to settle scores”, thus acknowledging that during the period of reprisals, no independent judiciary existed, and that decisions handed down under the guise of court sentences represented political reprisals, plain and simple – they had nothing to do with jurisprudence in a state of law. [Italics added]
During the post-Communist transition of 1989–90, there was no discussion of the crimes of the Kádár regime that had crushed the revolution –at least, no public discussion, and at the time of the first nullification law, nothing was said about the war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out during and after the revolution by the Kádár regime’s armed militia and their political manipulators. At this time, the compromise agreement that guided through the regime change managed only to establish the legal innocence of those who had suffered injustices. Bringing the perpetrators to justice would certainlyhaverunupagainststrongoppositionfromtheparty-statestill in power. Nevertheless, there were already calls – primarily from the local branch of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) in the north-western town of Mosonmagyaróvár – to investigate one of the bloodiest shootings of the Revolution that took place there.
Following the petition from the Mosonmagyaróvár chapter of MDF, the Ministry of the Interior appointed Police Lieutenant Colonel András Hering (Internal Investigations Unit of the Ministry of the Interior) to conduct a detailed investigation of the events surrounding the 1956 shootings in Mosonmagyaróvár, and to determine the responsibility of Captain István Dudás, who at the time of the shooting was commander of the local military barracks.
The resulting document – known as the Hering Report (5 October1989) – stated: “…from the standpoint of 33 years later, the use of weapons was unjustified, resulting from a series of ill-advised measures and an incorrect interpretation of the situation…” – for which Commander Dudás was directly responsible. However, the report did not lead to any criminal proceedings, because the prosecution maintained that the statute of limitations had expired for this crime (manslaughter committed against multiple persons) – given the 15-year statute of limitations. [Italics added]
This was the start of the “statute of limitations debate” in Hungary, which centred on the following question: does time that has elapsed since a crime was committed during the Communist era count toward the statutory limitation, so that such a crime cannot be punishable; or does that time period have to be considered merely a so-called “natural time period” not entailing any limitation – in view of the fact that the Communist party-state failed to fulfil its duty to prosecute crimes, so the “clock” of statutory limitation stopped ticking during the dictatorship, and did not start up again until the rule of law was re-established.
The debate over statutory limitation was heated indeed within the legal profession, as well as in Parliament. In the press, the debate reached hysterical levels. The left-liberal media pulled no punches in attacking all those who merely voiced sympathy for the idea that those who employed methods of terror should be called to account. József Antall, Prime Minister of the first freely elected government, appointed the following legal specialists of wide public acceptance to draft an expert opinion on the matter: Imre Békés, Mihály Bihari, Tibor Király, István Schlett, Csaba Varga and Lajos Vékás. Their study, published in November 1991 in the journal Magyar Jog (Hungarian Law), was entitled: “Principles and legal conditions for assessing and determining responsibility for conduct carried out between 1949 and 1990, offending the sense of social justice”. In essence, the paper’s conclusions are in harmony with the opinion expressed by Kálmán Györgyi, chief prosecutor at the time: “It remains to be seen how the Constitutional Court will interpret the provisions of the rule of law.”
As part of the legal discussions, Károly Bárd, professor of procedural law at ELTE University and Assistant State Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, put the question in this way, in an essay published in 1992 in the journal Társadalmi Szemle (Social Review): “Can criminal law be used to apply justice retroactively?” He summarised his views as follows: “… the difference between regular criminal acts and systematised, state-sponsored criminal acts is not so great that the use of criminal law on this basis alone could be excluded… Overturning the prohibition on passing laws to exact punishment retroactively did not seem to pose a problem for the Bolshevist regime, and the National Socialists did the same, as their first act in ‘reforming’ criminal law in 1935.”
He continued: “As it happens, the general provisions of the Hungarian Criminal Code of 1950 state that it is allowable to apply a Criminal Code that comes into force after the time a crime was committed, so long as that new law expressly states that its validity extends to acts committed before it came in to force. The lawmakers from the Communist era can be considered blameless only to the extent that they never said that they were trying to achieve the rule of law. But if we deny the past in the name of the rule of law and infringe – even temporarily – the limits drawn by the law, we undermine the purity of our own intentions.”
Csaba Varga, Professor of Legal Theory at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, and a senior advisor to Prime Minister Antall, expressed in several of his studies that limitations are definitively not applicable as long as the state does not fulfil its responsibility to prosecute crime. Indeed, László Szűk, on the Criminal Law Committee of the Ministry of Justice, said on 27 September 1991 that the statute of limitation is an issue of procedure, not of material law, and he saw no obstacle to changing the statute of limitations regulations within the framework of a legal state. In any case, however, the Antall government submitted no draft law to Parliament that would have enabled the prosecution of serious crimes committed during the revolution.
In May 1991, two MDF politicians, Zsolt Zétényi and Péter Takács, submitted a draft law to Parliament. Its intent was to establish that the statute of limitations was suspended for all serious crimes that the state – in violation of its responsibilities – failed to prosecute between 21 December 1944 and 2 May 1990; and that prosecution for these crimes could now proceed.
The Parliament passed this law on 4 November 1991, but instead of signing it, President Árpád Göncz sent it to the Constitutional Court for review. In its decision No. 11/1992 (III. 5.) AB, the Constitutional Court declared that the law was unconstitutional in its entirety, and declared it void.
This decision by the Constitutional Court rested on the interpretation of the theory of a constitutional state. It stated that the law did not fulfil the requirement of legal certainty. “The uncertain and vague wording of the law violates the requirement of legal certainty.” It also found that the law violated “the requirement of constitutional criminal law that the statute of limitations be applied in terms of the law that was in effect at the time the crime was committed, except if, during the elapsed time, newer regulations come into force that are favourable to the defendant”.
This decision of the Constitutional Court was a political decision clothed in legal terms; one might say that the rule of law was thus bound hand and foot. The Constitutional Court considered the dictatorship’s amoral “system of laws” as though it had been the product of a state based on the rule of law; as if the court system under Communism had operated according to the rule of law, rather than as the executive body of a monolithic power.
In a parallel opinion, Constitutional Court Judge János Zlinszky expostulated on the difference between the natural passing of time, and the passing of time that counts under the statute of limitations. But in the Constitutional Court decision, there is no professional justification for why the statute of limitations should be applied during the years of the dictatorship, instead of being considered merely a natural time passage, in the case of those who committed serious crimes on behalf of the dictatorship.
By giving priority to this elusive “legal security” clause, the Constitutional Court, under the presidency of László Sólyom, declared the law to be unconstitutional. Following this, the Parliament issued a position paper on the issue of delay in the statute of limitations. [1/1993. (II. 27.) Parliament Position Paper] The Constitutional Court rejected this attempt, too, and declared the position paper to be unconstitutional. [41/1993. (VI. 30.) Constitutional Court Declaration.]
Next, Zsolt Zétényi submitted another draft law that centred on procedural matters. Zétényi proposed that the court (rather than the prosecutor’s office) should decide, in the most serious manslaughter cases, whether the time that passed between the crime and the judicial proceedings is a natural passage of time, or whether it counts toward the statute of limitations.
On 16 February 1993, the Parliament passed this law, but the Constitutional Court ruled that it, too, was unconstitutional. [42/1993. (VI. 30. Constitutional Court decision] According to the Constitutional Court’s argument, the law violated “… the principles of the rule of law described in paragraph 2. § (1) of the Constitution, including the requirements for legal security, as well as the other basic tenet of constitutional criminal law defined in paragraph 8. § (1) and (2) of the Constitution”. Thus, the Constitutional Court reverted to its own earlier, political decision, and did not even allow courts to consider the requirements for the statute of limitations to be effective, though it did not question the difference between time that elapses under the statute of limitations and the natural passage of time.
The decisions of the Constitutional Court made it increasingly clear that the intent to go beyond remedies for the victims and to bring to justice those who planned and carried out capital crimes, could not be realised in Hungary for the time being.
Several legal scholars considered whether, if the rule of law in the Hungarian state, as it was interpreted by the Constitutional Court, was unable to provide a response to capital crimes that took the form of massmurders, they might then turn to the general regulations of international law, which are binding upon Hungary. This is supported by the Ministerial statement appended to paragraph 114 of Law V of the Criminal Code (1961), with respect to the concept of war. According to this statement, “the proposed regulation makes it possible to apply the criminal provisions not only in case of war as it is understood in international law, but also in case of serious threats to domestic peace”.
Two legal experts from the Christian Democratic People’s Party, János Bruhács, professor of international law, and Gábor Jobbágyi, professor of civil law, wrote the draft law, according to which the generally accepted principles and norms of international law must be directly applied in considerations of Hungarian criminal law. Their proposal was based, in some of its presumptions, upon the draft criminal law code A/46/405, approved on 11 September 1991, by the United Nations General Assembly.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian government also submitted a law to the Parliament. This law, entitled Law XC (1993) “Proceedings related to certain crimes committed during the course of the Revolution and Freedom Fight of 1956”, was passed by Parliament on 16 February 1993. This law can be considered unusual in the history of Hungarian legislation, as it is a law that interprets another law.
The law stated that the necessary procedures defined in Hungarian criminal law must be applied to acts (listed in the text of the law) that correspond to serious legal breaches, as defined in Decree Law No. 32 (1954), entitled “The conventions reached in Geneva on 12 August 1949, relating to the defence of war victims”.
This law, drafted by the Ministry of Justice under the leadership of Minister István Balsai, sought to ensure that the crimes committed against civilians during the revolution – which Hungarian authorities had so far qualified as common law offenses (such as manslaughter) – should instead be prosecuted as crimes against peace and humanity/humanitarianism whose statute of limitations does not expire. The essential effect of the Geneva Conventions on criminal law is that they change the definition of the legal subject of the crime. The targets of the crimes, in legal terms, are no longer the lives and safety of particular individuals; instead, humanity itself is the target which requires defence.
This law, too, was reviewed by the Constitutional Court, which nullified parts of it (including the first segment of the reference to Law VII (1945), since the crime listed therein “does not qualify as a war crime according to international law”. [Later, the same conception is echoed in the Constitutional Court decree 2/1994 (I. 14.)]
However, the Constitutional Court did declare that “… the delay of statutory limitation can be applied only to those crimes whose prosecution at the time they were committed were exempt, according to the Hungarian law then in force, from statutory limits – except if the events are considered, under international law, to be war crimes or crimes against humanity, and if international law holds that statutory limits are suspended or may be suspended, and if Hungary is obligated under international law to exclude statutory limits”.
The decree stated further:
“… the vast majority of war crimes and crimes against humanity were considered indictable by law under the Hungarian criminal law that was in force in 1956. However, the Constitutional Court draws attention to the fact that international law itself defines all the crimes that are to be prosecuted and punished, and the requirements for their prosecution. All of these circumstances and conditions must obtain, therefore, in order for a crime under domestic law to be considered a crime under international law.” (Constitutional Court Decree53/1993, X. 13.) With this, the breakthrough occurred, clearing the last obstacle to bringing the perpetrators of the most serious bloodbaths to justice.
THE PRACTICE OF THE COURTS
Even while heated debates were conducted about the possibility of prosecuting those responsible for the shootings, a number of charges were filed to prosecutors. In case after case, however, officials failed to prosecute, saying that the statute of limitations had expired on these crimes, which were deemed to be manslaughter or multiple manslaughters.
The first case brought to court based on the principles of Law XC (1993) and Constitutional Court Decree 53/1993 was the case against the militiamen who took part in the shootings in Salgótarján. The case was brought before the Budapest City Court (Case No. 16. B.768/1994).
Without detailing the court’s reasoning here, we can state that for the first time in the history of Hungarian jurisprudence, the court decision was based on the regulations of the Geneva Conventions, which the Supreme Court based on the provisions of the 1907 Hague Agreement (Hague law). The decision also cited the convention approved at the UN General Assembly on 26 November 1968, which excludes any statute of limitations in the case of a war crime as defined by international law.
During the hearings, presiding judge János Strausz heard the testimony of Béla Biszku, who was a member of the Temporary Executive Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party in 1956. The judge excluded Biszku’s testimony from the evidence, stating that if Biszku had told the truth, he would have necessarily accused himself of serious crimes, which is in violation of the basic tenets of criminal proceedings. Despite this circumstance, the prosecution did not bring charges against Béla Biszku. Only a few of the militiamen who executed the order to fire upon the crowd were sentenced; the rest were exonerated for lack of evidence.
Nevertheless, the case was ground-breaking, not only because it represented the first time that a Hungarian court based its decision on international law, but because the mass murder carried out on behalf of the Communist dictatorship was considered under the same legal regulations as those used to condemn the crimes of the Nazi dictatorship.
The Investigation Office of the Chief Prosecutor of Budapest initiated proceedings against 40 defendants in 32 cases, while the Budapest Military Prosecutor’s Office investigated an additional eight cases.
Given the difficulties in gathering evidence, charges could not be filed in several of these cases. The prosecutor filed charges in eight cases, and the courts sentenced four defendants to mandatory prison sentences. All of those charged in relation to the shooting cases of 1956 were soldiers and policemen who fired the guns; in no case were charges filed against the political leaders who ordered the shootings to take place.
The injustice of the situation prompted two young documentary filmmakers, Tamás Novák and Fruzsina Skrabski, to make a film about Béla Biszku titled Crime and Non-Punishment. In interviews recorded by the filmmakers, the 90 year old Communist politician declares that he has not altered in the slightest his opinions about the necessity of using armed force in post-revolutionary reprisals. In a public television show aired 4 August 2010 (on Duna TV), Béla Biszku declared that he still stands by his earlier opinions on the events of 1956, and continues to approve of the reprisals that were carried out against what he continues to consider a “counter-revolution”. Based on his publicly aired declarations, the Prosecutor’s Office filed charges against Biszku for the denial of crimes that took place under Communism, based on Civil Code 269/C §.
On 21 October 2010, international law expert Ádám Gellért also filed a complaint against Béla Biszku, who at the time of the revolution had played a decisive role as member of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party Temporary Executive Committee, and therefore – in Gellért’s opinion – is liable for criminal prosecution, since he deployed the militia in a manner that violated international law, and because he played an operative role in the reprisals, which qualify as crimes against humanity according to international law (Paragraph 6 point C of the Statute of the Military Tribunal of Nuremberg, as well as customary law). In Gellért’s opinion, Biszku is liable not for his opinions, but for his actions.
Ádám Gellért’s claim was rejected by the Budapest Chief Prosecutor’s office, and then by the Office of the Attorney General. Thus,for the time being, all attempts to carry out criminal prosecution as part of the judicial process ran into stumbling blocks. In particular, it seemed impossible to pass judgement on the criminal responsibility of those who gave the orders to commit crimes on behalf of the Communist dictatorship.
A change occurred with the passing of the new Constitution of Hungary on 18 April 2011. The new Constitution represented a basic change in the environment of the earlier Constitution, and modified the validity of the earlier interpretations of the Constitutional Court, known in legal circles as the infamous “invisible constitution”.
The Hungarian Parliament approved the “Temporary Regulations of the Hungarian Constitution” on 30 December 2011. The preamble to the legal text, passed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, makes reference to the transition from Communist dictatorship to democracy: “There can be no statute of limitation for the heinous crimes committed under Communist dictatorship against Hungary or its citizens in the name, in the interest or with the consent of the Party-state, which were not prosecuted for political reasons in defiance of the criminal code in force at the time of their perpetration.”
The change in attitude regarding constitutional issues is reflected in a draft law submitted to Parliament on 19 October 2011, by Gergely Gulyás of the majority Fidesz (Young Democrats) party. The proposed law is entitled “The non- applicability of statutory limitations to crimes against humanity”.
Later, the title was amended and passed as “The prosecutability of and non- applicability of statutory limitations to crimes against humanity, and the prosecution of certain crimes carried out during the Communist dictatorship”. Like the Parliamentary law of 1993, this law, which entered into force on 1 January 2011, is a law that interprets another law. This is particularly true for its first section, which calls attention to the international agreement signed in New York in 1968, as well as to the application of the basic statute of the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg (the Hungarian law also includes the English- language original text).
This legal interpretation not only makes possible the criminal prosecution of crimes committed on behalf of the Communist dictatorship; it mandates such prosecution. Thus, the law eliminates the double standard that had differentiated between crimes committed under the National Socialist regime, and those committed in the name of Communist ideology.
On 10 September 2012, prosecutors, acting on the basis of this law, brought charges against Béla Biszku for having ordered the shootings of 5 December 1956 at Budapest’s Nyugati Railway Station which resulted in five dead and in Salgótarján on 8 December 1956 which resulted in at least 45 dead, charging him with incitement to crimes against humanity. Later, they expanded this charge to include violent crimes committed by militia.
A radical change has come about, then, to which Ádám Gellért reacted on a televised news program on 11 September 2012 (on Hír TV): “It is as if the prosecutor’s office has awoken from its Sleeping Beauty trance and charged Béla Biszku with a crime, which they could have charged him with at any time during the past 18 years.” The author of the present article, considering Gellért’s witty statement, attempted then to analyse the events that transpired – which he himself participated in – to try to find a reason for that Sleeping Beauty trance.
THE COST OF A COMPROMISE-LED REGIME CHANGE
During the 1990s there was a popular saying in Hungary, attributed to Prime Minister Antall, which was heard whenever the contradictions of the democratic transition, and pushiness of certain personalities who had been beneficiaries of the dictatorship, were all too evident. To those who grumbled about these contradictory phenomena, people would say: “Then you should have made a revolution.”
It is indisputably true that the situation in Hungary in 1989–1990, while turbulent, was hardly revolutionary. It is also true that some events of that era did bring large crowds of citizens out onto the streets: the re-interment of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs, and the demonstration to protest the village destruction plan in Ceauşescu’s Romania. Nonetheless – no matter the reasons – no one “made a revolution”. Thus, there was no repeat of the 1956 revolution in Hungary, though everyone knew that a change of regime was inevitable.
But when a regime is changed by some means other than revolution, then the transfer of power necessitates a series of compromises. The basis and background to these compromises were laid as part of the understanding reached by the leaders of the United States and the USSR. However, it is clear that the West did not opt for judicial retaliations in its victory over the Soviet system.
In addition, the new Hungarian political elite harboured fears in the early 1990s that the Soviet army would remain in place, and the transition could be undone.
The transition to democracy also depended, naturally, on developments in local political power struggles. And thus were born a number of compromises, which subsequent generations can justifiably criticise as being half-baked.
Because of such circumstances, many individuals who had benefited from the dictatorship were able to convert their political power into economic benefit, and were even able – for a while – to hold political positions. (Let us not forget: during those years, the fate of many families may have been sealed for generations to come: would they end up on the sunny side of life, or would they remain among the “common herd”, who – as the poet Madách wrote – are doomed “to turn the mill of any sovereignty that rules”.)
The ideology which served as legitimation to those who took over power during the transition to democracy was rooted in the just cause of the 1956 Revolution. Yet those who handed over the regime had based their power, for decades, on the defeat of that very revolution. The generation which had used bloody means to put down the revolution and carry out reprisals had thereby attained positions of power which they passed on to their successors. Clearly, meting out legal (and in limited measure, material) restitution to the victims of the post-revolutionary reprisals was relatively easy; in contrast, attempts to prosecute those who had carried out serious crimes ran up against politically motivated obstructions which for many years made it impossible to press charges and hand down sentences.
The legal interpretations elaborated by the Constitutional Court played a key role in these obstructions. It took years before the judicial system finally recognised, incontrovertibly, its duty to apply international criminal law. By doing so, it overturned the double standard that had prevailed regarding the justified legal sanctions against Nazi-era crimes, and the lack of prosecution of crimes committed in the name of Communist ideology.
By the time the Parliament got around to creating the new Constitution and the associated temporary regulations, the decision-makers who had participated in crushing the revolution and carrying out reprisals were, with a few exceptions, deceased, without ever having had to answer for their crimes in a court of law. One might say that today, it is too late. But this is only partly true.
The change in law is still of great import, because it sets out for all time that there is no essential difference between Nazi and Communist crimes. And this is no small thing in 21st century Europe.
The responsibility of historians, in this situation, is even more critical: they must undertake to bring to light all of the crimes that were committed, because death does not exonerate anyone from historical responsibility, and our national memory must make no mistake in terms of who were the martyrs and victims, and who were the murderers – not only those who carried out the murders, but also those who ordered them.
Translation by Katica Avvakumovits