HUNGARY: Historians resist return of spy files

A decision by the Hungarian government to return secret service files to people investigated by communist regimes before 1990 has drawn international protests from archivists and historians on the grounds that it is a threat to archival integrity.

The Ministry of Public Administration and Justice has been instructed to draft legislation on how to return the files relating to secret service investigations stored in the archive of Hungarian State Security.

The archive, on electronic files, is currently open to researchers. Another 50,000 separate items of unreleased data collected by state security officers may also be included in the law.

A petition of international historians with 1,215 signatures, undertaken by several historical societies, aims to persuade the government to reconsider.

Following the announcement of the decision, archivists and historians from the international Network for Concerned Historians and the UK's Royal Historical Society protested that the plan not only contradicts current legislation governing Hungary's archives and European Union conventions, but is unprecedented in the history of modern archives.

Colin Jones, President of the Royal Historical Society, said: "The threat to the national archives in of real concern to all historians. The principle behind it seems a real threat to archival integrity."

The Royal Historical Society has sent the petition to its members, and the Network of Concerned Historians has alerted its members to the planned legislation.

Currently a law passed in 2003 allows access to and copying of documents for the persons observed.

Bence Rétvári, the parliamentary secretary of state at Hungary's Ministry of Justice, is reported to have said: "A constitutional state cannot preserve personal information collected through unconstitutional means, because these are the immoral documents of an immoral regime."

The proposed legislation, which has to be drafted and sent to parliament before 20 November this year, will allow citizens who were spied on by the secret police and government officials to remove and destroy original, irreplaceable documents on the country's communist past, according to a campaigning website, Save Hungary's Archives, set up by Christopher Adam, a lecturer at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The signed petition is followed by a long list of comments by scholars warning of the effects of the legislation.

Guy Rowlands of St Andrews University in Scotland said: "I am a French historian of the 17th and 18th centuries. Even in their wildest moments the leaders of the revolutionary Terror did not countenance the systematic destruction of the archives of the 'immoral' old regime of monarchial France.

"The plans by the Hungarian government are some of the most extreme I have ever encountered, and will deprive a huge number of living Hungarians of the chance of ever understanding what crimes were committed in their name, and what they actually were living under."