Lex Biszku: Charge of homicide and high treason but can it be proven?

I have been planning to write about the so-called Biszku case for quite a while, and this is as good a time as any. It provides something of a break from day-to-day politics. It was way back in the summer of 2010 that Jobbik went to the police to demand an investigation into Béla Biszku’s denial of his allegedly murderous communist past that by then was a criminal offense. The Orbán government insisted that if the legislature passes a law on the denial of the Holocaust this piece of legislation must also include a reference to the genocide committed by the communists.

biszku then

Béla Biszku then

Who was Béla Biszku? No question, he was a hard-line communist who had a rather short but spectacular career in the Hungarian communist party, especially after 1956. Prior to the revolution he was among the lower-ranked party apparatchiks. He served as party secretary in several Budapest districts. Not really high positions. But after the revolution, he had a meteoric rise. First, he became party secretary of the whole of Budapest, a member of the Central Committee, and later of the Politburo. At the same time he was chosen as minister of interior (1956-1961) and later deputy prime minister (Sept. 13, 1961-Sept 27, 1962). His eventual dismissal stemmed from his opposition to János Kádár’s new, more moderate policies. For a number of years he remained the secretary of the Central Committee, a position that carried no real weight. In 1978 the party sent him into retirement at the age of 57.

For at least fifteen years or so no one was especially interested in Béla Biszku, who has been living in Budapest as a pensioner. How did he suddenly become the center of attention? Sometime in the spring of 2010 two associates of Mandiner, a more moderate right-wing online paper, had a lengthy interview with Biszku which was subsequently made into a film. They got permission for the interview under false names and identities. They claimed that they came from Márokpapi (pop. 460), the birthplace of Biszku, as representatives of the village leadership. They would be thrilled if Biszku would come visit them and talk to the people of Márokpapi. The old man was so moved that he agreed. During the interview he called the 1956 revolution a counterrevolution and showed no remorse about the very harsh reprisals while he was minister of interior. Otherwise, he denied any direct involvement in  individual cases that ended in death sentences or very long prison terms.

Béla Biszku now

Béla Biszku now

It was sometime after the release of the film that Jobbik decided that Biszku was guilty of a denial of the sins of communism. In my opinion, Jobbik either misread the law or misinterpreted Biszku’s statements in the film. The only thing Biszku did was to claim that the revolution of 1956 was a counterrevolution, which is no more than an opinion, whether we agree with him or not. So it’s no wonder that Zoltán Fleck, a liberal legal scholar, hoped that in case prosecutors bring charges against Biszku, the panel of judges would acquit him in the name of freedom of expression.

This was not the only attempt to get Biszku’s case to the point of indictment. Another suit charged him with crimes against humanity, but this was thrown out by the Budapest prosecutor’s office because according to Hungarian law one cannot be charged with a crime that was not part of Hungarian jurisprudence at the time. Crime against humanity is a new addition to the Hungarian juris corpus.

In October 2010 Ádám Gellért, a young legal scholar, brought different charges against Biszku. He claimed that Biszku was responsible for multiple homicides. Gellért specifically mentioned Pál Maléter, József Szilágyi, Miklós Gimes, and Imre Nagy for whose deaths Biszku was at least indirectly responsible. That charge was taken seriously by the Budapest prosecutor’s office and Gellért’s brief was sent to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office for an examination of the charges.

So by late 2010 there were at least two pending charges against Biszku: a denial of the revolutionary nature of the October events and homicide. The Orbán government decided to make the task of the prosecutors and the courts easier. They submitted a law to parliament that made it possible to charge Biszku and perhaps a few dozen other people with crimes against humanity by making it retroactively valid. This law, which of course was enacted, would allow Hungarian courts to treat these cases as war crimes that have no statute of limitations. The law has since been nicknamed Lex Biszku.

Throughout 2012 one could hear all sorts of speculations about what kinds of charges would eventually be leveled against Biszku, but it was only recently that the details of the indictment became known. As we found out, it took a whole year to come up with an indictment that might be able to stand on its own. It looks as if the prosecutors relied on one of Jobbik’s many charges which claims that Biszku as minister of interior was an accessory before the fact in several cases involving homicide. In addition, he is guilty of high treason, illegal imprisonment, and abatement.  These crimes if proven might carry a life sentence.

As time went by, more and more surprising charges emerged which, according to legal experts, will be practically impossible to prove: for example, Biszku’s connection to the firing at civilians in Salgótarján and in Budapest at the Western Station. A total of 50 people died in the two incidents. The connection between Biszku and the Salgótarján-Western station massacres was already investigated once in the early 1990s. At that time prosecutors turned the archives upside down but couldn’t find any direct link between Biszku, who at that time wasn’t even minister of the interior but a member of a temporary committee of the party handling the immediate work of getting things back to “normal,” and the two massacres. As far as we know, no new documents have surfaced since.

Although Biszku is an unsavory character who most likely committed an awful lot of crimes, there must be proof of these crimes. Unless the Hungarian prosecutors have come up with some new evidence that can link Biszku to these massacres or can prove that Biszku ordered the justices to condemn Imre Nagy and his close associates to death, this whole Biszku case will go nowhere. Even the Lex Biszku will be impotent if the prosecution fails to prove its case.

Finally, a brief note. It was only a few days ago that I read that a leading prosecutor might be dismissed for incompetence.  We don’t know who the person is, but the suspicion is that he was involved in those high-profile cases which the prosecution lost, one after the other. All were politically motivated, like the Hunvald case involving the former MSZP mayor of one of the Budapest districts. Or former Budapest Deputy Mayor Miklós Hagyó’s case. And these were not the only ones where the prosecution showed complete incompetence.

This Biszku case seems to be heading toward the same fate, that is, if Biszku lasts that long. I’m not even sure whether the prosecution or the Hungarian government believes or even cares whether Biszku’s wrongdoings can be proven. Most likely their only goal is to show how seriously they take crimes against humanity, especially if they involve the communists. Their eagerness in the case of László Csatáry who was charged with crimes against Hungarian Jews in 1944 was a great deal less visible. I think that the main aim is to show to Jobbik and its followers that they take all this very seriously and that their anti-communism can be translated into deeds. Otherwise, the outcome of the trial doesn’t interest them very much.

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23 comments

  1. I don’t buy into the idea that Fidesz acts are contingent on what pleases Jobbik and the extreme Right. I believe that Jobbik is a creation of the backroom boys of Fidesz and have various uses, not least of which is to make Fidesz actions reasonable. I think Jobbik is like the Brownshirts of Hitler’s time and can be done away with when desired, or when the time is right.

  2. The Biszku case is nothing but a medieval morality play for the simple-minded Hungarian majority. It’s to keep the horror of communism in the forefront and to, daily, mention the close connection of MSZP, liberals and indeed, all opposition with the past communists.
    The case will drag on right to the elections.

  3. OT: Of course we need the ski center at Normafa. http://index.hu/belfold/budapest/2013/10/27/sipalya-sivatag_normafa/

    It comes with jobs, you know the economy, development, plus tourism. Plus order finally instead of the chaos which is now Normafa. It’s only the usual liberal whining which opposes everything. But we will do it. Oh, yes. It’s part of the national sports investment budget which prescribes 100 bn HUF for sport facilities just for 2014, but will further increase in 2015 and beyond.

  4. In the early 1990s I was among the first to study the newly declassified secret police files on the interrogation and trials of Imre Nagy and his associates in 1957-58. The chief interrogator was Sandor Rajnai, who in turn reported regularly to the Ministry of Interior that supervised the police. That meant, in most cases, the minister himself, Bela Biszku. Next to Rajnai’s typed reports one could often see Biszku’s hand-written acknowledgment and approval of the line of questioning Rajnai and his team had followed.

    I recall, for example, that after Geza Losonczy’s death in prison in December 1957 Rajnai submitted a detailed report to Biszku. I’m not familiar with Hungarian law and therefore I don’t know the extent of Biszku’s legal responsibility for Losonczy’s death, but my own reading of those details was, and remains, that Losonczy, in particular, was subjected to psychological torture for which Biszku was partly responsible. I say “partly” for two reasons: 1. Despite several interviews with Rajnai that lasted some 40 hours, I couldn’t find any evidence of the direct role that Soviet “advisers” had played in the interrogations. Rajnai wouldn’t discuss that with me. Still, they must have made a difference and therefore no one should deny their responsibility. 2. I found no clear evidence that Janos Kadar, despite his overall control of Biszku’s ministry and of the Nagy group’s case, directed the interrogations. He was well-informed but he didn’t play a direct supervisory role. Therefore, I assumed then, and believe now, that the primary responsibility for the miserable treatment of Nagy and his associates — especially of the process that drove Losonczy to lose his mind and torture himself in ways that can’t be printed even here — should be assigned to Rajnai and to Biszku.

    My reading of the evidence is that Biszku didn’t decide the death sentences for Nagy, Maleter, Gimes, and earlier for Szilagyi. It was done by Kadar, in consultation with Khrushchev. But it was Biszku who took the details of the preparations for the eventual trial to Moscow and discussed the sentences with Soviet secret police and party apparatchiki.

    Also in the early 1990s, I visited Biszku in his home. I was accompanied by the late Gyorgy Litvan, a very knowledgeable and very wise Hungarian historian. We spent about 90 minutes there, but it was a useless meeting. Biszku denied both that he was involved with the preparation of Nagy’s trial and even that he had any knowledge of it! He claimed it was all done by Hungary’s legitimate “judicial authorities.” At one point I put a photo copy of one his hand-written signatures in front of him that proved his day-to-day involvement of the interrogations. He looked at it and told us that it must be a forgery. He remembered nothing. He brought our visit to an end because, he said, his tennis partner was waiting for him.

    None of this should have anything to do with Hungarian politics today, but unfortunately it does.

  5. The strongest charge against Biszku so far is that he did not prosecute the beating up of three people in March 1957 by the pro-regime paramilitary.

    The other charge, “war crime” referring to the December 6, 1956 Nyugati railroad station & December 8, 1956 Salgotarjan shootings probably cannot hold – Biszku became member of the government on February 28, 1957 and interior minister on May 9, 1957.

    Correct me, if I am wrong.

  6. In addition, my understanding is that there were both pro- and anti-Communist demonstrators at the Nyugati on December 6 and their fight resulted in 3 deaths.

  7. Taxpayers’ voluntary support (1%) to churches, 2012 [2011,2010] tax years:

    Catholic Church: 656 thousand taxpayers (60.0%) [606, 618]
    Calvinist : 232 (21.3%) [211, 213]
    Lutheran: 62 (5.6%) [55, 56]
    Hit (Evangelical) : 28 (2.6%) [26, 26]
    Baptist: 26 (2.3%) [21, 18]
    Hindu: 23 (2.1%) [17, 15]
    Buddhist: 23 (5 denominations) (2.1%)
    Jehovah’s witnesses: 10 (0.9%)
    Jewish: 9 (3 denominations) (0.8%)
    Muslims 1 thousand (2 denominations) (0.1%)

    31 officially permitted choices combined: 1.093 million taxpayers [0.986, 1.048*]
    *187 denominations in 2010 tax year

    http://www.nav.gov.hu/data/cms296406/Kozlemeny_Egyhazi_lista_2013_2013.09.13..pdf

  8. Total taxes paid by the taxpayers donating money to churches:

    2012: 426.6 billion HUF
    2011: 384.4
    2010: 497.8

  9. tappanch :

    The other charge, “war crime” referring to the December 6, 1956 Nyugati railroad station & December 8, 1956 Salgotarjan shootings probably cannot hold – Biszku became member of the government on February 28, 1957 and interior minister on May 9, 1957.

    Correct me, if I am wrong.

    Correct. He wasn’t and that’s it will be very difficult to link him to Salgótarján and the Western station upheavals. The other day I heard Endre Bócz, chief prosecutor of Budapest in the early 1990s when Biszku’s involvement with Salgótarján was investigated and apparently what happened in Salgótarján was not a premeditated affair but the result of general confusion.

  10. My mother is telling me that there were regular shootouts on Vaci ut near Nyugati in early December, both before and after December 6. Nobody knew who was shooting whom.

  11. Re Charles Gati’s very interesting and valuable comments. I don’t know whether I managed to convey that according to Ádám Gellért, a very sympathetic young lawyer who turned in his opinion on the case to the police, concentrated only on the homicide issue and not the cases of Salgótarján and the Western Station massacres. I heard an interview with him recently and he, just as Charles Gati, claims that there is enough evidence to convict him on the homicide issue involving Imre Nagy and others.

    However, the prosecutors are perhaps overreaching themselves, as so many times recently, when they drag in Salgótarján and other perhaps superfluous charges. According to people familiar with the case claim that there is absolutely no evidence that Biszku had anything to do with either shootings. Moreover, by all the evidence it was the result of a local scuffle during which the participants lost their heads and were shooting all over creation. No orders came from above.

  12. “The only thing Biszku did was to claim that the revolution of 1956 was a counterrevolution, which is no more than an opinion, whether we agree with him or not.”

    A Stalinist claiming 1956 was a ‘counterrevolution’ (i.e. aimed at the destruction of the workers state and restoration of capitalism), is hardly at odds with the entire bourgeois political spectrum in Hungary, which proudly claims 1956 as a heroic struggle to to overthrow ‘communism’ (i.e. to destroy the workers state and restore capitalism).

  13. The contemporary terms for 1956 were

    uprising = felkelés or people’s uprising = népfelkelés
    then came
    counter-revolution = ellenforradalom, to equate it with the 1919-1922 Horthy regime
    now
    revolution = forradalom
    or, officially,
    revolution and freedom fight = forradalom és szabadságharc, to equate it with 1848-1849.

  14. Lumpy Lang, you mean it wasn’t? I’m not sure that people regarded themselves as living in a “workers state” because they palpably weren’t. But they wanted something better and it seems to be it was a heroic effort.

  15. Definitions can be slippery – after 1945 the Hungarian capitalists had been gradually expropriated and excluded from power, and the means of production were socialized. Stalinism, bureaucracy, corruption notwithstanding – the post-war state opened the door to education and social advancement for large numbers working people and peasants.

    Heroic indeed; but as far as I can tell, restoring the capitalists/landlords to power (retroactively defined after 1989 as “freedom”) was not the intent of most participants in 1956.

  16. Lumpy Lang :

    Heroic indeed; but as far as I can tell, restoring the capitalists/landlords to power (retroactively defined after 1989 as “freedom”) was not the intent of most participants in 1956.

    Correct. It wasn’t. But, of course, we don’t know what would have happened if the revolution is won and free elections are held. I don’t think that “socialism with a human face,” to borrow a later phrase, could have been maintained.

  17. Without descending into the bottomless pit of ‘what ifs’, the broad masses of workers in 1956 were consciously opposed to capitalist restoration. Such an outcome appeared far less inevitable (to all concerned) at the time than it does in retrospect. The Fidesz regime’s rehabilitation of fascistic Horthyism marks it as the rightful political continuator of 1989, but not 1956.

  18. I just watched a “witness” to the post-first-round taping of the Baja bribery attempt on ATV channel. He admitted that he had been “guarded” by the police for days and then testified against the MSzP.

    I am convinced now that his Fidesz handlers sent him to ATV and it was a real bribery attempt the Fidesz turned around when it came to light.

    Almost the only way for a court in Hungary to overturn electoral fraud if there is taped proof. This is what happened in Baja in the first round.

    Today, Fidesz introduced a new bill to punish falsifying tapes.[this tape was not falsified, but the witness claims it was just a theatrical play - unbelievable]. This will discourage the collection of proof. So fraud will be easier to commit at the general election in 2014.

  19. tappanch :
    The contemporary terms for 1956 were
    uprising = felkelés or people’s uprising = népfelkelés
    then came
    counter-revolution = ellenforradalom, to equate it with the 1919-1922 Horthy regime
    now
    revolution = forradalom
    or, officially,
    revolution and freedom fight = forradalom és szabadságharc, to equate it with 1848-1849.

    Looks like you got a little tangled up there, tappanch. The term felkelés ([up]rising) was indeed used in 1956 (even by Kádár, who – as a member of Nagy’s cabinet -.<a href="http://mek.oszk.hu/01900/01937/html/szerviz/dokument/kadar01s.htm"talked about “the glorious uprising of our people” on November 1). But so was the word forradalom (revolution). For example, by Prime Minister Nagy, who called the events a revolution in his October 30 speech. On the other hand, the expression népfelkelés (people’s uprising) may well have been first used by Pozsgay only in 1989.

  20. @Tyrker,

    Thank you for the reference.
    Kadar used three terms in this single speech:

    the recent “glorious uprising” ,
    “people’s uprising” (nép felkelése) and
    the threatening “open counterrevolution”

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