Is Hungary afraid of the past?

by Taaha Malik and Trevor Taylor

In the aftermath of WWII, Hungary, left with a legacy of ties to the Nazis, formed an alliance with the Soviet Union. By 1949, Hungary had drafted a new constitution, making the nation a “workers and peasants’ state,” resulting in, among other things, a wave of police terror against all opponents of the new regime. With the help of the Soviet Union, the Hungarian Communists effectively purged the judicial body and other civil services, and suppressed any local opposition. In 1956, Hungarians, growing frustrated with the oppressive regime, staged a peaceful mass march in protest. However, police fired into the crowd of peaceful protesters, and what became known as the 1956 Revolution began. However, the Revolution was short lived, and by November, Soviet tanks invaded Hungary and reinstated communist control. More purges ensued, and those involved in the 1956 Revolution were executed. However, by 1988, Hungary was faced with economic turmoil, and the leadership that had held power for so long stepped down. This was the opening of the door to transition within Hungary.

v-1The specifics of the transition itself are known to be relatively unprecedented because, among other things, it was undertaken in a peacefully negotiated manner that kept the governing ability of the central power. Rather than drafting a new constitution, what became known as “the Amendment” was made to the constitution. The resulting document signaled a sense of common guilt and a desire for a return to national unity. Hungarian transition was exemplified by a number of amendments to the 1949 constitution, failed attempts at punishing past perpetrators, the introduction of the Constitutional Court, and lustration laws with limited effectiveness. At what became known as the Roundtable Talks, taking place in 1989, no agreements took place over prosecutions of past criminals, nor did any other major transitional justice processes take place. Quite to the contrary, there came about an agreement that allowed for a free withdrawal of the state party (the perpetrators of the past crimes) upon the peaceful transfer of power. Leadership seemed keener to learn from crimes of the past, and use those lessons to restrict the abuse of power in the future.

More so, Hungary has had several issues with the implementation of any significant transitional justice processes since the Constitutional Court was organized. The Court had the right to annul any law or rule it deemed unconstitutional, and its decisions were not appealable. As testament to the forward thinking of the new regime, the court struck down several attempts to deal with crimes of the past. Added to this 0,,16661552_303,00reluctance to prosecute those responsible was the difficulty of pinning the blame to any particular group of people at all. This was noted as the biggest difficulty of passing lustration laws, designed to “cleanse” the governing body of criminal actors of the past regime. The first “screening law” was passed in 1994, but was soon struck down by the Constitutional Court. This law, though struck down, added a “layer” to future laws that were eventually upheld. It set up a panel of judges that offered those individuals found to be past criminals the chance to resign or else face their past misdeeds being made public. Essentially, and perhaps most unfortunately, one of the main goals of the lustration laws, and of the transitional justice processes at large, preventing blackmail, has seemingly been defeated. Perhaps it was the lack of desire to prosecute those criminally responsible, perhaps it was an abuse of power on behalf of the Constitutional Court, or perhaps it was the forward-looking ideals and reluctance of the Hungarian people as a whole that has led to such inability to bring those responsible for past crimes to justice. Even so, it only takes a glimpse into the events that have led to the current state of affairs to realize that much of the system still remains broken, and many past crimes have gone, as of yet, unpunished. Even so, this may perhaps be exactly what the Hungarian people desire, as they would much rather learn from the past, rather than dwell on it.

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