State security photos of Hungarian demonstrations (1989)
Numerous demonstrations were organized in 1989 in Budapest. Nine of the demonstrations are documented in the Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára – ÁBTL). As of January 1989, however, the freedom of assembly was guaranteed by law. The secret police observed and recorded the events by following their earlier reflexes, and they focused on identifying the participants and the banners. The photo collection of street demonstrations is the visual imprint of the actions which were organized by the different civil, artistic, and activist groups and a good source on the ambivalent behavior of the political police in the transitional period before the collapse of the communist system.
Budapest Eötvös utca 7, Hungary 1067
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State security photos of Hungarian demonstrations (1989)
Provenance and cultural activities
The boxes, entitled “Protests, demonstrations, actions,” are kept in the Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára – ÁBTL). They include seven dossiers which contain photos and written documents. We can see photos of demonstrations which took place without exception in Budapest between January and November of 1989. Fortunately, we have some information concerning the creators of most of the photos. Thanks to Rolf Müller, a historian and state security photo-expert of ÁBTL, we can identify an agent with the cover name “Rolf Jenő” and a lieutenant, István Kurta. They took most of the photos of the different demonstrations.
The communist political police constantly collected and created photos for evidentiary and prosecutorial processes, from the end World War II to the fall of the regime. An independent department dealt with visual documentation in the state security organization. How can ÁBTL photos help us reconstruct the cultural opposition within the framework of street actions? These records were not manipulated. They show what happened, because the photographers’ goal was to record individuals and banners so that they could be identified, so they sought to create as pictures that were as detailed and informative as possible. In some cases, leaflets and brochures were attached to the reports. It is possible that these materials would not otherwise have survived, so actually, the secret security people not only created sources (by writing reports and taking photos), but also discovered, collected, and preserved them. The written documents include reports, minutes, action plans, and summaries of methods and tools which shed light on the formalized regulations of the state security forces. The reports include data, events, texts of banners, descriptions of the behavior of participants and bystanders, and other events which attracted notice.
The Kádár-regime permitted organized public meetings only for official, politically supported goals in venues which had been checked and authorized. Anyone who broke these rules was seen as hostile by the police. The authorities tried to collect information about these plans and prevent the nonconformist actions. The experiences of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 were crucial for employers, police leaders, and the demonstrators.
In Hungary, the right of assembly was guaranteed by law beginning in January 1989. People were already free to go out and occupy public spaces, but during the turmoil, the agents of the secret police still observed the events by taking photos of the participants. A great number of photos are available to researchers in the Historical Archive. We do not know exactly why so many photographs were taken in secret. Rolf Müller contends that this reflects the endurance of earlier reflexess.
In 1988–89, at the dawn of the political transformation, dozens of demonstrations and protests were organized to promote different goals by civil, alternative groups, and activists. Political parties started to form. About 50 groups found street demonstrations an efficient way of representing their interest, goals, and protests to the public.
The purpose was to rouse society and demonstrate the power of these groups and to show the communist party that the demonstrators were able to act and express their opinion, and they could put pressure on the central political leadership. On the one hand, the actions marked historical anniversaries (the Revolutions of 1848 and 1956, the execution of former Prime Minister Imre Nagy, and so on). On the other, they were related to actual political, public issues and events.
Though these demonstrations enjoyed the support of many different organizations, there were still only between eight and ten of them. The groups fought for democratic rights and environmental protection, and they expressed their solidarity for the last people imprisoned by the agonizing dictatorships in Eastern Europe. Many of these events were located in the city center, especially on Vörösmarty Square. Eight demonstrations took place in the first half of 1989 and one in November.The alternative artistic group Inconnu, the Jurta Theater, environmentalist clubs at universities, future political parties, and other smaller civil communities were among the organizers. The photo collections reveal that the issues stressed included solidarity with people who suffered illegal repression, people who had been arrested in other communist countries, and abuses of the rights of the Hungarian minority in Romania.
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The Raoul Wallenberg commemoration was chronologically the first action among the 9 events. The Raoul Wallenberg Association organized a commemoration for the Swedish diplomat, who rescued Jews from deportation and murder and who was deported to the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. On 18 January 1989, on the 44th anniversary of his enigmatic disappearance, about 150–180 people took part in the event. They lit candles and put their hand-made boards in the Raoul Wallenberg street.
The next demonstration was held on 2 March by numerous alternative organizations and parties. The goal of the “Protest against the persistent imprisonment of civil activists” was to express the participants’ solidarity with the arrested Czechoslovak protesters, for example, Václav Havel. Agent “Rolf Jenő” and lieutenant István Kurta took photos of around 4–600 participants on the Vörösmarty Square. “Rolf” managed to record some observed, registered persons. Kurta photographed the grassroots initiative to sign a petition demanding Havel’s release.
Kurta would have photographed the sympathy demonstration for the Jurta Theater two days later at the same place, but the organizers canceled the event because they were afraid of some provocation. Kurta documented the 30 people who did not get this news.
On 21 April, environmental protectionist clubs at two universities (the Budapest University of Technology and Eötvös Loránd University) and other environmentalist activists demonstrated against air pollution in the Hungarian capital with the motto “Clear air!”
The next day, on the occasion of the Congress of the Italian Radical Party, the Hungarian section organized a meeting on Vörösmarty Square to protest against decreases in the ozone layer of the earth. The 100–150 demonstrators were mainly Italian citizens, but the Hungarian Duna Circle and the Hungarian Democratic Forum also participated. Kurta took photos from a business house nearby.
On 6 May, more groups, for example, the Jurta Theater, organized a demonstration and set up a wooden cross in memory of a Hungarian student, Norbert Pécsi, who lived in Transylvania and who was shot on the Hungarian-Romanian border by a Romanian border guard in March 1989. The organizers wanted to protest this and similar violent acts by the Romanian authorities. The event was documented by István Kurta.
On 11 May, the Republican Circle and other groups assembled in the street across from the building of the Cultural Ministry to protest against the compulsory Russian language instruction and the ideological education of students in schools.
On Vörösmarty Square again, the Inconnu amateur art group together with other political parties and organizations, held a protest meeting against the executions in China on 10 July. The action was spectacular: they set up a copy of the American Statue of Liberty painted red and then demolished it.Finally, on 4 November, a dozen organizations went to the street because of different motivations. They protested against Romania’s anti-Hungarian politics, they demanded the withdrawal from the country of the Soviet army, and speeches were held against the attack against the Jurta Theater, which accommodated more democratic programs.
- photos: 100-499
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- Huhák, Heléna
Müller, Rolf. Tettesek, áldozatok szereplők. Állambiztonsági és történeti fényképgyűjtemény [manuscript]
Müller, Rolf. Titkok – képek – nyolcvanas évek/The Secret Pictures of the Eighties. Budapest: Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára – L’Harmattan Kiadó, 2011.
Müller, Rolf. "A fotótechnika alkalmazása a politikai rendőrségen. (Szervezettörténeti vázlat)." Beszélő, no. 3 (2010). http://www.betekinto.hu/2010_3_muller.
Sümegi, György. "Fotók a Történeti Levéltárban." In Trezor 3. Az átmenet évkönyve 2003, edited by György Gyarmati, 309-324. Budapest: Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára, 2004.
Szabó, Máté. "A nyugati modellek és a magyar gyakorlat. A tömegdemonstrációk és a rendőrség viszonya Magyarországon a demokratizálódás folyamán." In Tüntetés, rendőrség, demokrácia. Tanulmányok. Villányi úti könyvek 17., Politikatudományi sorozat 13., edited by Máté Szabó and Wisler Dominique, 155-188. Budapest: Villányi úti Konferenciaközpont és Szabadegyetem Alapítvány, 1999.
Szabó, Máté. "A tüntetések rendőri kezelésének normái a Kádár-rendszerben (1957–1989)." In Tüntetés, rendőrség, demokrácia. Tanulmányok. Villányi úti könyvek 17., Politikatudományi sorozat 13., edited by Máté Szabó and Dominique Wisler, 131-154. Budapest: Villányi úti Konferenciaközpont és Szabadegyetem Alapítvány, 1999.
Müller, Rolf, interview by Huhák, Heléna, November 29, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection