Monocolumn: The Fight To Keep A Record Of The Past

Historians around the world are in uproar over a proposal by Hungary’s government that would allow those spied upon by the former Communist regime the right to take home their files from the secret service archives, and, if they wish, destroy them.

Monocolumn is Monocle’s daily bulletin of news and opinion. Catch up with previous editions here.

He who controls the past controls the future, wrote George Orwell, and as the author of 1984, he would know better than most. Nowhere is his aphorism more true than central and eastern Europe, where more than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the region’s young democracies are still grappling with the ruinous legacy of four decades of Communist rule.

That’s why historians and archivists around the world are in uproar over an unprecedented proposal by Hungary’s right-of-centre government that would allow those spied upon by the former Communist regime the right to take home their files from the secret service archives, and, if they wish, destroy them.

So far, American, Canadian, Greek and Dutch archivists have written letters of protest, and a website, Save Hungary’s Archives, is coordinating the international campaign. The legislation is currently being drafted and will likely be brought to parliament later in the year. As the ruling Fidesz party enjoys a two-thirds majority it will likely sail through.

The move is especially surprising as during its previous term of office, in 1998-2002, Fidesz opened the House of Terror museum in Budapest, which chronicles the horrors of the Hungarian Stalinist period and the atrocities committed by the Arrow Cross Hungarian Nazis in the closing months of the Second World War.

Zoltan Kovacs, an official at the Ministry of Justice, tells Monocle: “A democratic state is not supposed to hold material that was collected unlawfully.” Historians say the claim is bizarre, as it would not allow for any historical study of any totalitarian regime.

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