Secret Policemen in Budapest, 1956 by Paul Sadovy, LIFE Magazine
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”― Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear
I know it sounds strange, when you say it out loud: “I am afraid”. Afraid of… You cannot really put your finger on what exactly. It is shapeless and boundless. The first reaction most people have is that you have “problems”. Obviously. You have gone cuckoo. Yet I think, one way or another, it is very much part of the human condition, being afraid. And in Hungary today, many people are afraid.
I am grateful to Mr. Chomsky, because he was able to put what we are going trough into words. First and foremost I have to state that I am not going nuts (and I am only being taken to the asylum this afternoon for checks, I can assure you). It is just that I spent the first 11 years of my life in a totalitarian dictatorship (even if it was the soft kind) and there are certain things I never realized existed, that were deeply ingrained in me. It is scary to face up to this, I have to admit. It can be scary, how it follows you around and stays with you, even after decades spent “in freedom”.
On the other hand, being afraid has its political uses. It has its power. There are many politicians and religious leaders who take advantage of it. It is very much part of everyday life, as I said. I am not going into it, but everyone should watch Adam Curtis‘ documentary “The Power of Nightmares” (it is available on youtube). Most of us are afraid of something. And if we happen to grow up in Hungary where there has been a lot to be afraid of in the last century, it makes even more sense. It is a small country and there were so many changes, twists and turns along the way, that in most families there is something to hide or something to be ashamed of. One way or another. When in a country’s parliament a government politician can criticize the behavior/politics of an opposition politician’s grandfather something is very wrong. Grandpa was a communist (in this context it means someone who was probably a member of “The Party” and/or “collaborated’ with the leaders of the “previous regime” i.e. not a “real” communist, whatever that means) and a high flier (i.e. successful), and apparently, according to the government politician, no “good person” was a commie after 1956. In other words, “dear opposition politician you are rotten to the core, cos your granddaddy was baaad and you should be ashamed of yourself and your family”.
As I mentioned, it is a small country and many people have lots to hide. Or so they think. Many are ashamed of this or that family member. There are many accusations out there, too. Many unjustified. They are said then written down and then they stay there… Like a stamp on one’s forehead. Verba volant, scripta manet. No-one will ever know if they are true or not and it does not matter, either. But it is safe to say there are ex-communists and ex secret policemen and woman everywhere – judging just by the size of the socialist era’s secret police organization. Over a certain age everyone can be suspected. Both in the government party, high up and down below – and in the previous government, too, of course… So I cannot help, but suspect those that scream “communist bastard!” on the top of their lungs have stuff to hide, too.
Yet the secret police files are all but accessible for research. Many of them are sealed for another fifty or hundred years. Sometimes a little piece of info dropped here and there, accusations come out from “well-placed sources”, there are occasional scandals, but all is forgotten quickly. “And the rest is silence…” Nothing changes, nothing is cleared up, no consensus, no dealing with it. On it goes, back under the rug, only to be dragged out for a second next when they see fit and someone needs to be blackmailed or publicly humiliated. No-one talks about the realities. No-one talks about how people had to live and some made compromises. There is little actual distinction made between “mass murders” and harmless party members and the reality of what it took to survive or to simply do one’s job – whatever it might have been. And I have to point out that it is not different today, either. Only we are now talking about a different party and the rap is different. Anyway, it was long ago, why cannot we let it go? Or do something? And if somebody did things so terrible why aren’t they prosecuted? Why cannot they open up all files and the debate? Why do people have to be blamed for their grandparents’ political beliefs?
And it is not only in Parliament. It is everywhere. In the government media, mainly and in conversations everywhere – which is worse than the media. The newspapers you can ignore, you can turn off the television. But you cannot not listen to your family and friends when they are sitting opposite you. Intimidation is a nasty weapon. Bullying is even nastier. It is like when in school a big bully made a list of enemies and then the whole class hated them, because it was “the policy”.
So fear is a nasty “habit” to have. It creeps up on you gradually. It first started when I caught myself thinking twice about what to post on my Facebook page. Then I started to dread meetings with certain old friends and family members. Because some of them have gone bonkers. It is hard to describe but imagine your bullying classmate from grade school and put them into a grownup’s body. It is best to shut up and wait for the storm to pass. It is best to avoid confrontation. So I did and I did not say what I thought in their company. (Of course, there are friends who will not talk about politics and to whom your politics will not matter.)
Thus “avoid confrontation” is the name of the game. Because it is horrible. Leaves a bad taste in your mouth and your stomach in a knot. So you realize saying things can be very dangerous in general – heaven only knows what can happen. And things start to happen. Many people lose their jobs. People are inspected by Inland Revenue for no particular reason other than saying things publicly, things “they should not”. According to the government, that is. Horrible things are written in the government media (whose existence in itself is absurd), about representatives of certain political parties, beliefs, or generally: outspoken people. Certain Marxist and liberal philosophers (!!!) are harassed then fired from their jobs. Theater directors, judges, civil servants, municipality workers etc. etc. are fired and replaced. Horrible things are written about certain people, their name is dragged trough mud. Horrible things are written, full stop. Horrible things start to happen, too, to many people. New expressions start to fly around all the time. Like “Hungarian hater”, “betrayer of his own country and people”, “Communist” etc.
It is easy to be afraid. Paranoia is practically ingrained into our DNA. I know it is ingrained in mine. It is obvious where it comes from, thinking it over now. My grandpa was fired several times because he would not join “The Party” (there was only one, the name is immaterial, something to the effect of “Communist Workers’ Party” at the time, it changed later) in the 1950s. His best friend was taken to forced labor camp (to Recsk) than to prison, because he was an aristocrat and a democrat and had western diplomat friends (an amazing man, read more about him below *). Grandpa spent a good few years in the 1950s not sleeping and afraid of when he was going to be taken, too. He spoke 8 languages, my grandpa, and came from a very diverse background. It was very dangerous then, speaking languages and coming from a well-off upper middle class family. He was a surgeon, an outstanding one, that saved him, probably. His wife, my grandmother was blacklisted in the 1950s and could not get a job. She had always wanted to be a teacher, she had a PhD in French. Then in the 80s my parents’ phone was tapped and they knew it, they knew there was a friend who reported on them to the authorities.
So I grew up with this shit and I am by no means alone. It is still there, even for children growing up in today’s Hungary. It is shared trauma. Because stories like this are commonplace in Hungary. I heard many-many similar. Or worse. I never thought it had an effect on me, I thought it is in the past, it did not happen to me anyway. But it does count. And I have to admit that I was afraid for a while this last years. Because thinking about it, god only knows what my childhood friend (now in a well placed government job) will say to whom about what I post on my wall (yes, it looks mad now, writing it down) and I am sure they can find stuff on me if they look hard enough and can intimidate me if they choose to. No, I did not think I am that important, or whatever – I just thought one can never know. I know it is preposterous – I live in London for crying out loud – but still. I have family in Hungary, property, a life. I might go back and live there later. One can never know.
This follows you to the grave, this fear. If you let it. Then I was told a family member is certain that his phone is tapped. He should know things like that. He is not paranoid, only he knows. Anyway, some of it is real, others are in the heads. But it is enough. Because what is in the heads is more dangerous. You are afraid. You are afraid what to say or not, what to write or not. To think, even. After I was called a “Hungarian hater” I seriously thought it over if I really was that offensive…? You start questioning yourself. But it had to end. I cannot live like that. And one day I woke up and decided that I am not going to let this get to me. There is a life out there. Unafraid. So I am going to say what I think and know to be true. And I know plenty. There is nothing to be afraid of. Thank god for that.
(* He was my mother’s godfather and one of the first heart surgeons in Hungary, but his eyes were damaged from the beatings in prison, so he could not practice surgery anymore and after he emigrated to the US he became a GP. Yet he was the opposite of bitter, vindictive or disappointed. I had dinner with him regularly when I lived in New York. He was one of the most amazing people I have ever had the fortune to meet. He was unafraid of anything. He spent 7 years in forced labor camp and in prison and he was the most fun, life-loving person, ever. He left me the ever-valid proverb “life is too short for bad coffee”. I try and live accordingly.)