Twenty years after the end of communism in Hungary, many things are still missing.
The year 2009 is a special year for most within Central and Eastern Europe. Twenty years ago the walls which divided east and west tumbled down. Many were filled with high hopes and expectations for the future as the notion of freedom spread throughout the region like a wildfire. For most this freedom was in the form of economic freedom and political freedom.
Two decades later most within the region are disappointed. In Hungary this is especially so as many feel that somehow the freedom they had sought had not been fulfilled. In terms of economics, although some have profited enormously since the end of communism, many have not and find that they are in a worse position now than they were before. Generally there is less security and it’s harder to make ends meet.
In terms of politics also people are increasingly disappointed. Except for the names and a few other cosmetic changes, the same ruling elites somehow appear to be in control. Moscow has been replaced by Brussels as the dominating force in people’s lives. Repression may be subtle, but it’s still there nonetheless albeit in another form and serving different masters.
Although economic and political freedoms are what most Hungarians associate the regime change of twenty years ago with, there were many other freedoms that people clamored and had high hopes for. Among these was the freedom of information. More specifically, Hungarians were driven by a desire to know about their recent past. The hope they had was that the secrets which lay shrouded behind the Iron Curtain would be revealed when this curtain finally fell. It goes without saying that as with the unsatisfied expectations of people’s economic and political desires, the desire to know the full truth about the recent past has likewise been a disappointment and, for the vast majority, has been left unfulfilled.
A case in point is information surrounding the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who has been credited with saving the lives of many from the horrors of the Second World War. To this day his exact fate remains a mystery. What is perhaps a bigger mystery still is why there is no interest on the part of the government to find out the truth of what exactly happened to him.
Raoul Wallenberg worked in Budapest during the Second World War to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. Between July and December of 1944 he issued protective passports and housed several thousand Jews, saving many lives.
His death has since long been a source of dispute. On January 17, 1945, he was arrested by the Soviets in Hungary, and was reported to have been taken to Moscow and to have died in March of that same year. In 1957, the Soviets announced that Wallenberg had actually died of a heart attack in 1947. Yet a joint Swedish-Russian Working Group (1991-2001) investigating the case failed to reach a consensus at the end of its ten year effort. The Swedish side outlined 17 questions which it felt that the Russian side needed to answer before any final conclusions about Wallenberg’s fate could be drawn. As a result, both sides ended up issuing separate reports: the Russian inquiry concluded that Wallenberg did indeed die in 1947, but by execution; the Swedish report, on the other hand, stated that there was no fully reliable proof of what happened to Wallenberg, and so his fate continues to remain a mystery.
Just as baffling is the relative silence on the part of successive governments in Hungary to find out what really happened to Wallenberg, the most protracted missing person case of the Cold War period. Although Hungary has gone through the usual rituals of other countries closely associated with the case – he was made an honorary citizen of the country and there is a monument of him in Budapest as well as a street named after him – little has been done in order to try and help to determine what had happened to him. This is despite the fact that there is still much that the present government of Hungary can do.
For instance, some researchers formerly of the now defunct Swedish-Russian Working Group have tried on a number of occasions to obtain key records from the Hungarian government, but to no avail. In many respects, the Hungarian authorities treat the case of Raoul Wallenberg much like the Russian authorities. In a way, it perhaps shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Hungarian authorities are as secretive about Wallenberg as in Russia. After all, the present head of Hungary’s National Security Office (NBH), Sandor Laborc, who was appointed to the post in December 2007, spent six years studying at the KGB's Dzerzhinsky Academy in Moscow during the 1980s. Despite the fact that his KGB past could endanger NATO security, the government forced through his appointment even though the Hungarian parliament's national security committee refused his nomination.
In Russia, intelligence material related to Wallenberg and his activities in Hungary for the critical period of 1944-45 is strictly off-limits. Researchers have been allowed to review personal files in Russia, but have never been permitted to see any operational details. Likewise, researchers haven’t been able to access the investigative files of witnesses and persons closely linked to Wallenberg in captivity.
The Hungarian connection to the fate of Wallenberg is quite strong: not only because Wallenberg was arrested in the country (and therefore someone from among the Hungarian communist “nomenklatura” had some sort of information), but also because of the fate of many others (most of them Hungarian) who were similarly arrested at more or less the same time. Among them were Vilmos Langfelder, Wallenberg’s driver, as well as Gabor Haraszti, Karoly Schandl, Laszlo Papp, Tibor Klement, Reginald Barratt, Gerrit van der Waals, and Sandor Katona.
While all these individuals were arrested by the Soviets in Hungary, not all of them made it to the Soviet Union alive. Haraszti and Barratt allegedly died in Soviet captivity while still in Hungary, although this has never been fully confirmed.
Compounding the mystery of Wallenberg’s disappearance is the fact that Russian authorities to this day have not identified all secret, numbered prisoners who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms and sent to the Soviet Union's most notorious isolator prison, Vladimir, 150 km from Moscow. These missing numbers concern the period between 1947 and 1948, precisely when the trail for Langfelder, Katona and Wallenberg abruptly ends. It may be that they were supposed to become numbered prisoners and that they died before numbers could be assigned to them.
Not everyone who was arrested by the Soviets in Hungary, however, suffered the same fate as Wallenberg. Schandl was eventually released in 1956, returned briefly to Hungary and then escaped to the west as he was in danger of being re-arrested by the Hungarian secret police. Papp and Klement apparently also were released. Tibor Klement experienced a serious nervous breakdown in captivity and emerged as a broken man. Van der Waals is known to have died in captivity in Moscow.
What is of keen interest to some researchers is the fate of Sandor Katona, who appears to have been Langfelder’s cellmate. Not much is known about this individual but it is felt that he might provide the key to the fate of all men. Unsurprisingly, Russian authorities are refusing to reveal any information about Katona.
Sandor Katona's name appears repeatedly in Soviet administrative prison records, such as interrogation and transfer registers. This means that he must have a personal and investigative file. It is highly unlikely that this file has been destroyed. Consequently, it is very likely that he has a file in Hungary as well. Although the name Sandor Katona is a common Hungarian name (translated into English it is the equivalent of Alexander Soldier) it should be possible to identify who he is using dates and places of imprisonment, his known association with the Hungarian Legation in Sofia in 1944, etc. This should also be possible even if Sandor Katona may be a pseudonym; some may think that the surname indicates that he perhaps has some kind of military connection.
In any case, what is frustrating for those trying to find information on Wallenberg is that no one in Hungary has attempted to obtain the relevant information about Katona or any of the other individuals linked to the Wallenberg case. As one researcher pointed out, “essential steps which could be taken to solve the Raoul Wallenberg mystery should occur in Hungary, yet nothing has been done, despite repeated appeals.”
This frustration is shared by many who have had an interest in trying to delve into the truth of Hungary’s recent past. This frustration has become such that what was once a topic of great concern has faded into oblivion. In other words, the enthusiasm for finding out what lay shrouded behind the Iron Curtain which was readily apparent in the first few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall has been replaced by apathy and disregard.
The mystery of what happened to Wallenberg illustrates this best. At first it seemed that the fate of Wallenberg was of prime importance. Indeed visiting dignitaries, such as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, made it a point to stop at his monument to lay a wreath. This practice has long since vanished.
Likewise, there was much speculation as to what really happened to Wallenberg. This gave rise to many stories as to his fate, including one in where it was alleged that he was shot by a group of soldiers when he tried to intervene and protect a woman who was being harassed. According to this legend, Wallenberg lays buried where they had shot him, under a street in Budapest near the City Park.
Naturally this and other such stories are mere tales which have since been refuted by documentary evidence. Nonetheless, what is important is that the interest was there, and people were hungry for information about what happened in the past. One of the main characteristics of the former regime was to obfuscate the past as much as possible. The fact that since the end of communism the truth of that period still appears to be confused and concealed is one reason why there is a distinct lack of interest in the present about the past.
For some, this disinterest in the past is precisely the objective of the present government in Hungary. This is even more so considering that the present Socialist party and segments of the Liberal party (who are closely affiliated with the former) are the unrepentant remnants of the former communist party.
Much of the rhetoric emanating from both parties appear to be a rehash of communist rhetoric and dogma, only this time those spewing such rhetoric do so wearing business suits and praise capitalism and “the market” as opposed to communism and the party. Accordingly, the past in general is regarded by this new breed of so-called “socialists” as old-fashioned, conservative, and reactionary nonsense. It has no importance in our brave new world which is only forward-looking. Hence, the best would be to forget the past altogether. To this extent, Hungarian education policy has focused its energy on not teaching lexical knowledge since lexical knowledge is deemed to be unnecessary in a “modern” society.
George Orwell (1984), Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon) and many others had illustrated vividly why it was important for a totalitarian regime such as communism to suppress the past and, in some cases, even rewrite it. Simply, knowledge of the past is power and gives a broader perspective on the present. By regarding lexical knowledge as unnecessary, what the Hungarian government hopes to achieve with its education policy is to suppress the ability of people to analyze, synthesize, and ultimately evaluate information and the world around them. In other words, too much knowledge is regarded as dangerous.
This contempt for the past was well demonstrated a few years ago during a controversy over the supposed remains of Sandor Petofi. Sandor Petofi is one of Hungary’s most renowned poets. He was also a revolutionary who died during the 1848-9 revolution against Austrian rule. He supposedly was killed at the battle of Segesvar in 1849. The circumstances of his death, however, remain a mystery. According to one version, Petofi wasn’t killed at Segesvar but was captured and taken to Russia, where he died some years later in Siberia of natural causes.
A few years ago a team of researchers claimed to have his skeletal remains and wanted to obtain genetic material from the graves of his parents in order to confirm their findings. The Liberal mayor of Budapest, Gabor Demszky, steadfastly refused to allow this under any circumstances whatsoever. Although it was later confirmed that the remains found in Siberia did not belong to Petofi (the skeleton turned out to be that of a female corpse) the overall attitude of Demszky toward investigating the past was nevertheless disappointing. Naturally, his refusal would have been reasonable if it would have been based on scientific or academic grounds, but this was not the case at the time.
In many ways, it appears that the Wallenberg case has suffered the same fate, albeit for slightly different reasons. Apart from a general contempt for the past, many within Hungary are unwilling to confront the past because of their inability to reconcile past events with that of present rhetoric and ideology. This problem is especially acute for those on the so-called left of the Hungarian political spectrum, namely the Socialists and Liberals.
The biggest problem these people face when confronting the past is how the Soviet invasion in Hungary at the end of the Second World War is regarded: as liberation or an occupation. The leader of the Liberals, Gabor Fodor, was quite clear on this matter not long ago: as far as he and those within his party were concerned, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1944 was liberation.
Caught in a Trap
The problem for the likes of Fodor is that they are caught in a trap: when did the liberation turn into occupation? After all, the regime change of twenty years ago was precisely to end Soviet occupation as well as remove the communists from power. Indeed, every year at the end of June an anniversary celebration is held for when the occupying Soviets had finally left Hungary.
Aside from this, not only can't it be determined when the liberation turned into an occupation, but if such a process can exist, then does that mean that those in the Ukraine and the Baltic states who initially regarded Hitler's armies as liberators be justified in their view? Along these lines, could it be that the case of Wallenberg is being left as a mystery so as not to open old wounds and perhaps discover some uncomfortable facts about the past and confront such difficult questions? In fact, one of the nagging problems from that period is that Wallenberg suffered his fate at the hands of the victorious Allied powers.
In conjunction with all this, there is a growing false impression as to Hungary’s role in the Second World War. Many on both the left and the right try to paint Hungary in all innocence as a country invaded by Nazi Germany and then liberated by the Red Army whom they welcomed as it freed them from Nazi occupation. Hungarians don’t want to face up to the bare facts: they threw their lot in with Hitler because he promised the ability to best regain territories lost after the First World War. In essence, Hungary was on the losing side (like Italy they tried to jump out before it was too late, but the plan failed). Nor did the country welcome the Red Army with open arms. While it may be true that many Hungarians didn’t like the Nazis much either, for most Hungarians the Nazis represented the lesser of two evils.
This feeling was reinforced almost immediately after the Soviets had taken over Budapest. In January Soviet soldiers were already looting banks and other properties of their valuables. This included the Hazai Bank, which now houses the British Embassy in Budapest.
The Hazai Bank was important for Wallenberg because it acted as one of the safe houses used to hide Jews from the Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis). After trying to do what it could to help its Jewish customers save their valuables from total confiscation by the authorities, in November 1944 the Hazai Bank leased the third floor of the building to the Swedish Legation, initially as office space. Wallenberg was frequently there and some people were granted refuge at the bank. During the siege of Budapest many people took shelter in the bank's vaults. Wallenberg left the Bank on January 11, 1945, just before he began his last known journey, to Debrecen. Among his final recorded remarks were references to the presence in the bank vaults of diamonds, to be used to continue his work with the Jews. In early February the bank was looted by Soviet soldiers and the vaults were emptied of any remaining valuables stored there.
At this stage what is rarely discussed is the significance of Hungary in the aftermath of the Second World War. The reason why this is important is because it helps to explain why Wallenberg and others who had opposed the Nazis suddenly found themselves in trouble with one of the victorious Allies or, as Fodor would put it, one of the “liberators” of Hungary.
Dozens, probably hundreds were harassed and arrested simply for having been associated with Wallenberg’s rescue efforts. The reason for this is quite simple: post war paranoia. As the Second World War ended and the Cold War began, the Soviets were afraid that a Western Allied front against the Soviet Union was already forming. Hence those with close ties to Wallenberg or helped in his efforts were suspect, along with those who worked actively in the Hungarian underground. Admittedly, some had links to British intelligence.
The Soviets weren’t entirely unjustified in their way of thinking. As William B. Breuer relates in his book “Feuding Allies”, Patton and others had called for such a Western Allied front against the Soviets, which is one reason why some feel that Patton was actually murdered and wasn’t simply killed in an accident. Either way, what all this shows is that the Allied cause during and after the war wasn’t as united or principled as it was made out to be.
Although there doesn’t appear to be a trace of Wallenberg and some others after 1947, his story doesn’t end there. As late as 1953 Stalin was so obsessed with Wallenberg as well as with British-American activities in Hungary, that he ordered a new round of show trials, focusing on an alleged Jewish-Allied, anti-Soviet conspiracy. The person of Raoul Wallenberg -- dead or alive -- was to play a central role at the trials. The man who was to oversee the preparations of these trials was Karoly Remeny, a high ranking Hungarian secret police (AVO/AVH) official who presided over the arrests of all sorts of people who had at one point or another had contact with Wallenberg or who had worked with him – even though it was eight years after the end of the war.
Remeny worked with Soviet liaison officials who appear to have been intimately familiar with the Wallenberg case. The background to these planned show trials is entirely off-limits in both the Hungarian and Russian archives. Stalin personally oversaw the preparations, but the project was shelved (as with the planned show trials of Jewish doctors) when he died later in 1953. For Wallenberg researchers, access to this documentation – which no doubt still exists in Hungary’s and Russia’s intelligence archives -- could provide clear evidence of whether or not Wallenberg was definitely dead at the time.
These and other such facts no doubt are still uncomfortable for the political authorities in Hungary to deal with. As a result, it appears that their strategy is to not deal with it all. Still, this is no excuse why documents essential to helping find out what exactly happened to Wallenberg are not forthcoming, and why any attempt to raise the issue is met with silence or evasion.
The fate of Raoul Wallenberg is a mystery with myriad Hungarian connections. Twenty years ago there was keen interest in such mysteries that took place behind the Iron Curtain. Indubitably this led to much hearsay and rumor, nevertheless there was interest and a certain degree of willingness to try and find out the truth to what had happened and why.
Sadly, talking about these issues now in a country where the political landscape is highly polarized is an uncomfortable exercise for many because they are forced to reconcile hitherto contradictory and even hypocritical points of view. Yet history is rarely a black and white narrative, but often appears in many shades of grey.
As a result, successive Hungarian governments (on both the left and the right) have simply chosen to ignore the issue and let sleeping dogs lie. In turn, this has led to the general population to fall into a certain malaise. All that energy and optimism that was characteristic of the first few years of post-communist rule seems to have faded with the years.
There is a hope among some observers that the further away one moves from an event the clearer the picture becomes. Hence, some harbor a certain amount of confidence and optimism that the truth will be revealed – in due course. Many admit, however, that this is unlikely to be in their lifetime.
Unfortunately, this is of no consolation for the present. The reason why it is important to pursue such questions -- now more than ever -- is that there are potentially still individuals who have useful and important information to relate. Waiting any longer means an irreversible loss of such important sources of information.
If the Hungarian government is truly committed to starting a new chapter and integrating the country fully with the rest of Europe, it should start by removing the obstacles it has set in place and show its willingness to sincerely confront the past no matter how painful it might be. Moreover, Hungarian researchers should request access to related material that exists not only in Hungary but in Russian archives as well; this would help not only to put pressure on the Russian authorities to reveal documents associated with the Wallenberg case, but is also an essential part to fully understanding this period in Hungarian history. Only then can some mysteries finally be laid to rest and people have a sense that some kind of change indeed has taken place.
For the most current research on Raoul Wallenberg, please visit:www.raoul-wallenberg.asso.fr. Further information on Karoly Schandl and his friends in the British underground in Hungary during the Second World War can be found on his daughter's website.