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Hungary: Sinning with Impunity

Twenty years after the transition, Hungary is discussing whether those who had committed crimes against citizens during the communist era should be called to account. Most recently, the topic came up again following the release of Guilt and Impunity, a documentary about Béla Biszku, who had been the minister of the interior after the revolution of 1956. From 1957 to 1961, he was one of the officials involved in the retributions against the participants of the uprising against the socialist government.

According to some explanations, the question of responsibility derives from the way Hungary arranged its transition to democracy in 1989. The country was unique in the region with its “velvet revolution,” the change of the political system was smooth, and, in the name of continuity and peace, nobody was called to account.

Véleményvezér wrote (HUN) after the premiere screening of the documentary:

[…] They say the price of the peaceful transition was that these people were not troubled. They didn't even get amnesty or impunity—since these would imply their guilt. They were never even forced to face their sins. So they practically got a moral excuse. And as the example of Béla Biszku shows, they know very well what they did, but they still deny it. And of course they don't regret anything.

The elite co-ordinating the transition committed a big fault. The 1991 Zétényi-Takács draft law on justice would have eliminated the regulation that made punishment in politics-related murder, fatal physical assault and treason cases that happened between December 21, 1944, and May 2, 1990, unenforceable due to the lapse of time.

The draft was accepted with a voting by name by the right-wing parliamentary majority, against SZDSZ's abstinence, and Fidesz and MSZP voting “no”: Árpád Göncz [the then president] sent it to the Constitutional Court, and the board led by László Sólyom nullified the law. […]

The directors of the documentary – Fruzsina Skrabski and Tamás Novák – are journalists and bloggers with Mandiner (former Reakció blog). According to the film, their story of looking for the living “communist criminals” began with this (HUN) post of Lelkylola (Fruzsina Skrabski) in 2008, in which readers were asked to send e-mails with the names of communists “who have something to tell”:

[…] By the way I am not threatening our communists. I couldn't even do that since I don't have a black car, nor a law enforcement organization, a weapon or a dog. I just want to know about them. It would be good if their conscience hove a little bit. If sometimes someone asked them – a grandchild, for instance, or a neighbour – about what happened then, uncle Józsi? Why did you do what you did? What was it like to look in the eyes of a friend who was being arrested because of your report? What was it like to hit political prisoners? What was it like to put a seal on the paper of a little girl that she was X-class? What was it like to interrogate? What was it like to shout “counter-revolutionaries be afraid”? What was it like to laugh at the kulak whom you had robbed? […]

Not long before the premiere screening of the documentary on Béla Biszku, one of his daughters banned the release of the film. This caused an overwhelming debate on whether it was possible to “censor” a documentary on someone who had been a public person decades ago and should have been called to account for his acts.

The filmmakers shared the news about this on Mandiner (HUN) and on a Facebook page (HUN). Since the movie theater where they first wanted to screen the film chose not to risk subjecting itself to legal action, Ms. Skrabski and Mr. Novák organized an “illegal screening” (HUN) at Menta Terasz last Wednesday. Not long before the premiere, the daughters of Béla Biszku watched the film and decided to give their consent. This PR, coming with the illegality and the extremely important topic, gathered a lot of people at Menta Terasz; politicians and public persons also felt it was important to attend the event.

The film was continuously being screened in three rooms from 7 PM till late night. In this video, Mr. Novák is telling the public to wait for their turn:

Ms. Skrabski and Mr. Novák found contact with Béla Biszku, “responsible for the death of 300 and proceedings against 20,000″ after 1956. The documentary shows how they told him they were from his native village, Márokpapi, preparing an almanac with the famous people born there, and how Biszku was open to express his thoughts. The interview pieces in the film are showing him still thinking the same way as in the socialist era, not feeling guilty at all. His scenes are interspersed with comments from historians and stories from people who were sentenced to death after the revolution and were detained on death row. Ms. Skrabski told journalists they wanted to make a film for the young people in their twenties, a humorous film which still reminds people, for example, which party's successor the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) is.

The first minutes of Guilt and Impunity:

Meanwhile, this film contains a complex message to Hungarians, raising questions about how to deal with this part of the past. The directors were criticized for the method of making the film, revealing to Béla Biszku that they were journalists only by their last interview with him, when they were actually finished. Some are asking if they had the right to judge Béla Biszku, while others after seeing the film wondered why they hadn't put up more relevant questions to the former minister of the interior, instead of just asking their interviewee boldly to apologize for what he had done.

Ukridge objected (HUN) to the statements in the news sometimes calling the filmmakers “journalists” and sometimes “documentalists.” According to him, the trick used by Ms. Skrabski and Mr. Novák was against journalistic ethics, they didn't have the right to judge, nor to decide who had the right to tell which story must be published by all means.

[…] No, neither Fruzsina, nor Tamás has been commissioned by the constitution a) to pronounce a judgment, b) to set punishment on those who they consider commie genociders (cf. we are screening the film anyway, a murderer cannot tell us what we can put on screen).

No, undercover journalism it is not; it's either (now pay attention!) infiltrating into a community to collect information on things hidden to outsiders but concerning the community, or writing/presenting this. […]

In opposition to this, Márton Baranyi of Konzervatórium blog emphasized (HUN) how the film was objective:

[…] Fruzsi and Tamás are not setting any sentence, they are simply creating a memorial in remembrance of the victims of communism. They are not straining after more. Those who want to catch the filmmakers with claptrap shall be disappointed, because the film contains numerous tragicomic and comic episodes, too. […]

Manfréd Huba Weisz of Kettős Mérce blog (HUN) framed the relativity of justice depending on the historical situation in his post (HUN) written in response to Márton Baranyi:

[…] The film tried in vain to get on Biszku that he was justifying his sins, because he really doesn't consider himself guilty, he with his unauthentic, historically inaccurate sentences is defending the legitimacy of the system. Because he believed in his principles and even if it's terrible to write this down, from a certain point of view, he is right. It's not in my stance, but in his. History is not a constant thing and he has a notion generated by how he lived it, the same way you have a notion too. Which one is more right we all know. But now the young intellectuals are proceeding from an inconstant justice, they want to blur Gyurcsány, Apró and Biszku together to gain legitimacy for their campaign against this democracy after the transition. And right now you are also legitimizing your system, carrying on a revenge campaign. […]

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