Breaking from the Past: Hungary & Lustration

By: Harlan Cutshall 

Harlan is a junior currently studying Central and Eastern European Politics at Corvinus University in Budapest, Hungary for the fall semester. Over the next four months, he hopes to use the EJIA to discuss issues facing Hungary and the region as they orient themselves to further integrate into the European Community.


The word “lustration” has its roots in Latin—the verb lustrare means to “purify” or “illumine.” In the last two decades, the word has taken on a literal interpretation for residents of the former Soviet-bloc and communist nations of Eastern Europe—namely, East Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. To these citizens, lustration refers to the process in which the abuses of former communist regimes are revealed, implicating perpetrators as well as victims [1]. Lustration has encompassed opening and making various  types of files public—regardless if it is reading the books of the secret police or exposing compromised politicians, the process is sensitive and, at times, painful for people who for decades lived oppressed lives under dictatorial regimes.


In some nations, the process has been all-encompassing, involving as many available documents as possible, publicizing the mass atrocities committed prior to the regime change in an attempt to assuage old wounds as well as publically shame those responsible [2]. The Czech Republic represents this extreme. Following overwhelming victories by opposition parties in the 1990 elections—the nation’s first fair and open ones—the new government took an aggressive stance towards lustration.  It pursued lustration actively and systematically, shaming those responsible and excluding former high-ranking communists and secret police members from public office in the newly democratic nation [2]. Czechoslovakia was ruled by heavy-handed communist party officials and there was nothing liberal about the nation’s regime [3]. Thus, when the regime came down, successors were eager to banish such perpetrators from power. Laws introducing such restrictions originally passed in 1991 and were extended indefinitely in 2000, barring nearly all former communist officials from 9,000 national offices [2].


Hungary represents a dramatically different approach. Under the so-called “goulash communism” of János Kádár, Hungary found itself economically and socially better off than its Eastern bloc counterparts [4]. “[We] were actually the lucky ones,” writes Zsuzsanna Clark in a 2002 editorial for the United Kingdom’s Guardian [4]. While still a communist dictatorship, with a secret police and state ownership of enterprises, Kádár ruled with slightly more compassion than fellow dictators, granting more freedoms and liberties. Thus, when the regime came down in 1989, citizens and newly empowered politicians alike were not as determined to avenge wrongdoings as their Czech peers [3]. Half-hearted lustration efforts were undertaken in a sporadic fashion throughout the 1990s [3]. One party would win an election, and lustration would end, and four years later the ruling party would be defeated and the victors would restart the process. Unlike its neighbors, Hungary was not as eager to dispose of its past, simply because its communist government was not nearly as oppressive [5]. Thus, without aggressive lustration policies and aggressive efforts taken against former ranking communist members, former party members faced less scrutiny for their past actions than in other nations, leaving them the possibility to return to office in the future.


Without comprehensive lustration laws, former communist party members have been able to take part in contemporary Hungarian politics—often without public awareness. In the summer of 2002, the country was stunned when Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy was revealed to have served as a counter-intelligence officer in the Ministry of Finance during the Kádár regime [6]. Fifteen years after the end of communism, the head of the democratic government was forced to admit his role in the former regime’s secret police, undermining both his legitimacy and the nation’s as truly democratic by acknowledging a role in the most feared element of the former regime.


The Medgyessy example, although the most dramatic, is not an isolated case. József Antall, Hungary’s first prime minister following the regime change, actively opposed lustration laws during his tenure, fearing that both advisors and members of his own party would be implicated.  Eventually, various parliament members and government officials have been exposed as ex-communists [2]. When laws finally passed in 1994, the four years of lag time had allowed former communists to become firmly entrenched in national politics. Hungary’s people are famously resilient yet pessimistic; the final verse of the national anthem includes the line “they who have suffered for all the sins of the past and future,” indicating a resignation to further disappointment. Such future disappointment is currently manifesting itself in the lack of strong lustration laws. By allowing former communists to have a role in contemporary politics, Hungary is unable to leave its troubled past behind and unable to make a clean break from forty years of communist dictatorships. As a result, the notion of a truly democratic Hungary is undermined. To confront these problems fully and move forward, the Hungarian government must take a close look at lustration laws of other former communist nations, and adopt these procedures and fully implement them. Only then can Hungary fully detach itself from its tarnished past, and guarantee its people full, true democracy.


[1]: Brahm, Eric. "Lustration." Beyond Intractability (2004): n. pag. June 2004. Web.

[2]: Williams, Kieran, Aleks Szezerbiak, and Brigid Fowler. "Explaining Lustration in

Eastern Europe: 'A Post-Communist Politics Approach'" Sussex European Institute 62 (n.d.): n. pag. Sussex European Institute. Web.

[3]: Linkute, Laisve. "Is It Possible to Devise a Fair System of Lustration?" E-

International Relations. N.p., 1 June 2012. Web.

[4]: Clark, Zsuzsanna. "Goulash and Solidarity." The Guardian. The Guardian, 2 Nov.

2002. Web.

[5]: Zilhany, Peter. "The Aftertaste of Goulash Communism." The New York Times [New

York, NY] 13 Jan. 2012: n. pag. The New York Times. 13 Jan. 2012. Web.

[6]: Strauss, Julius. "Communist past Haunts Hungary's Premier." The Telegraph

[London] 20 June 2002: n. pag. The Guardian. Web.


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