pdfVolume 3 Issue 4 CONTENTS

György Kövér

Intra- and Inter-confessional Conflicts in Tiszaeszlár in the Period of the “Great Trial”

At around noon on Saturday, April 1, 1882, Eszter Solymosi, a 14-year-old girl disappeared without a trace from Tiszaeszlár, a village in Szabolcs county in the Tiszántúl region. The case remains unsolved. In the course of a criminal procedure, one of the charges made was that the Jews living in Eszlár had murdered the girl and used her for a ritual blood sacrifice. Finally, in an extended trial held in Nyíregyháza the accused were acquitted in the absence of proof.

I have found only one open conflict that took place in the public sphere prior to the trial held in Nyíregyháza that was thematized along Christian–Jewish confessional interests: the issue of Jewish education. However, there were numerous intra-confessional conflicts among the Christian denominations. The best way of reconstructing the subtle network of relationships connecting the villagers (Christians and Jews as well) is to make an effort to expose the capillaries of the “female public opinion” of the village. To do this, one must analyze the background of the discourses of the trial, the conflicts of the everyday life.

Rivalry between the approved Christian denominations found manifestation either in conversion or in mixed marriages. After the emancipation of the Jews, the Christian–Jewish conflict still took the form not only of blood libels, but also of the ritual forms of intimidation and violence.

Keywords: intra- and inter-confessional rivalries (religious coexistence, cooperation, competition, conflict), anti-semitism, blood libel, ritual murder trial, exclusionary violence, Tiszaeszlár

At around noon on Saturday, April 1, 1882, Eszter Solymosi, a 14-year-old girl disappeared without a trace from Tiszaeszlár, a village in Szabolcs county in the Tiszántúl region. The case remains unsolved, despite the fact that a number of attempts have been made to track her down. At the request of her mother, a warrant of caption—complete with her description—was issued. The district officer and the county investigating judge tried to reconstruct what may have happened to the girl. During the criminal procedure, one of the charges that slowly took shape was that the Jews living in Eszlár had murdered the girl and used her for a ritual blood sacrifice. Nearly everyone in the village was interrogated regarding the events of April 1. Even the Jews living in Eszlár tried to discover the potential whereabouts of Eszter. Numerous reports were made concerning the various places where the missing girl had allegedly been seen. None of these reports could be confirmed.

Then, on June 18, 1882, the corpse of a woman was found at Tiszadada. At first, many thought she was Eszter Solymosi. During the official identification procedure, neither her mother nor her sister identified the partially decomposed body as Eszter, nor for that matter did many of the locals. The local physicians performing the post-mortem examination ruled out the possibility of the corpse being Eszter’s. However, they clearly recognized the clothes found on the body. With this, a new count of indictment was made: the charge of “floating a corpse.” Timber raftsmen from the northeastern county of Máramaros were accused of having dressed an unknown female corpse in Eszter Solymosi’s garments. But even though an elite group of medical professors who arrived from the capital city tried to identify the body after it had been exhumed in December 1882, and even though in an extended trial held between June 19 and August 3, 1883 in Nyíregyháza a select team of defense attorneys headed by Károly Eötvös tried to clarify what might have happened, the accused were acquitted in the absence of proof, without any sentence being passed concerning what may have happened to Eszter Solymosi. The courts of appeal also remained silent on this matter.

When Károly Eötvös—the defense attorney who had fought arduously and eventually won the case—wrote the history of the trial two decades later, he used the phrase “great trial” in the subtitle of his book. He was not only making reference to the one-and-a-half-month long criminal procedure conducted in Nyíregyháza; he gave the phrase a wider interpretation. When mentioning “the great trial that has been going on for a thousand years and has not yet concluded,” he was making reference to the Christian–Jewish conflict in general: the animosity, or, to put it differently, the embers of anti-Semitism that sometimes barely glow under the ashes but occasionally burst into open flames. In his foreword, he actually outlined the international context:

Throughout the entire duration of the great trial, Hungarian society was overcome by a rush of excitement, as if it were ready to launch a religious war against the Jewish confession. It saw the examples of Russia and Romania, while even among the ranks of the German-speaking nations, both in the territories of Austria and Germany, there were serious phenomena indicating surging hatred of the Jews. Hungarian society is not isolated enough to remain entirely insensitive to these developments. Especially when a case so regrettably distorted into a blood libel had also emerged on Hungarian soil.1

It is not difficult to see how right Eötvös was in his prophecy; one only needs to think of the events of the 20th century, which had clearly been unforeseeable at his time.2

If one were to try to understand the events in a millennial framework, it would be necessary to take a few steps back into the past. It is very difficult to envision any dynamic theory that encompasses all of universal history. Theories of religious conflicts explain outbursts of tension either by the internal peculiarities of the individual denominations (although, as is well known, measuring proneness to conflict is problematic at best) or by changes in the external/internal environment (for example, modernization). Structural interpretations link such events to changes in the relationships between denominational or confessional elite groups, religious institutions, and the state (for example, secularization or the separation of state and church). As might be expected, there are also certain hybrid models that operate with various, occasionally conflicting variables.3 Religious studies apply the conceptual apparatus of inter-confessional conflicts to history in a highly sophisticated way. The two historical eras typically studied in this context are the period of early Christianity and the age of the Reformation in the Early Modern Period. The four key categories of the model proposed by the Religious Rivalries Seminar are coexistence, cooperation, competition, and conflict.4 Naturally, these concepts are not mutually exclusive; not even coexistence and conflict, provided that the terms are taken in a strict sense.

Without trying to sum up the vast literature on the topic, there are a number of questions that may be worthy of our attention in the context of the local case of Eszlár. Do purely inter-confessional conflicts even exist? Are we not only talking about conflicts essentially rooted somewhere else, in the “environment,” and only masquerading as “confessional”? (The question, of course, is equally pertinent to intra-confessional conflicts.) It might be worth taking a closer look at the answer that is most commonly proposed on pragmatic grounds: “an inter-confessional conflict is a conflict that has a confessional aspect.”5

Is the conflict under review personal or collective in nature? That is, does it only concern persons that belong to the given confession, or does it concern the whole of the confessional group? And, last but not least, in what “arena” or “field” does the conflict emerge? Is it in the public space (in the street) or in the private sphere (within the yard of a household or at property boundaries)? At what strata of the social space did the events take place? Did they become institutionalized or did they remain informal?

In the case of Tiszaeszlár I try to touch on all of these problems: dynamism and proportions among denominations (coexistence and rivalry), intra- and inter-confessional conflict-management, everyday conflicts, and Christian–Jewish animosity behind the scenes in the public sphere.

“Confessional Fields” (Pierre Bourdieu)

The population and its settlement

Four denominations lived in Eszlár: two mother churches (Roman Catholics and Calvinists) and two filias (Greek Catholics and Jews). The individual confessional groups all differed in their degrees of autonomy: there was no local Greek Catholic parson, nor was there a local rabbi in Eszlár.6 Government census data in Eszlár reflect a dynamically growing village (an increase from 1,280 people in 1785 to 3,392 in 1910).7 The appearance of the settlement changed accordingly. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Eszlár continued to expand in an east-southeasterly direction in two ways. On the one hand, just southeast of Ófalu (the Old Village) and Tó(t)falu (Lake Village or Slovak Village), the village now had a third section, Újfalu (the New Village), populated from 1858 on in the wake of the flood of 1855. On the other hand, the village was surrounded by vast open fields to the east-southeast interspersed with several manors (puszta) and hamlets (tanya).



Central areas



Roman Catholic

Greek Catholic



Eastern Orthodox























































































































Central areas and outskirts together


























































Table 1. The confessional distribution of the population of the central areas and the outskirts of Tiszaeszlár on the basis of the schematismi of the Catholic Diocese of Eger (1831–1889)8


The population records collected by the church indicate that population levels, which had been in decline during the Hungarian Reform Era, actually hit rock bottom during the 1850s, only to bounce back in the long run. While the population of the central areas of Eszlár fluctuated and even declined after 1860, the dynamism seen in the total population numbers of the village reflected the impact of demographic changes in the outskirts. The Israelite community was the only confessional group where the dynamic population growth seen in the 60s and 70s was limited almost exclusively to the central areas of the village. Their concentrated presence implied greater visibility. In the 1880s, Catholics also produced higher population numbers on the outskirts than in the central areas (and by 1889, this pattern had come to prevail among Greek Catholics as well). The two confessional groups that were most involved in immigration were the Catholics and the Jews.

Tiszaeszlár has always lived in the threat of regularly returning spring floods (1830; 1855; 1876). On March 23, 1888, “the Tisza river rushed into our village, wreaking so much havoc and damaging our embankments to such an extent that the villagers unanimously decided not to stay where they originally had lived,” wrote Tiszaeszlár parson Ödön Jenő Oldall to his archbishop.9 The deputy lord lieutenant then issued a decree banning the rebuilding of the collapsed houses and new construction sites around Újfalu for about 140 houses were allocated to those who had been evacuated.

At this point, one should review the debate surrounding the confessional aspects of this belated colonization. Minister of the Interior Count Géza Teleki proposed that 8,000 forints of the resettlement fund should be allocated to the Calvinists and 4,000 forints to the Catholics.10 Oldall, the parson of Eszlár, mainly emphasized population data. He wrote that “only 992 Calvinists but as many as 1,044 Roman Catholics [live] in Eszlár and in the filias that belong to the village; if Greek Catholics, who go to the same church, are also added, their numbers reach as many as 1,452.”11 The Ministry of Interior yielded to the argumentation of the Catholics.12 The leaders of the Calvinist community believed that the only correct principle on which to base the allocation of the funds between the two parties would be the extent of the damages sustained by each.13 But they had to accept the challenge of the Catholic (demographic) argumentation:


Map 1. Cadastral map of Tiszaeszlár (1870)14

The three parts of Tiszaeszlár on the map: Ófalu [Old Village] (designated on the map as Tisza Eszlár), Tótfalu [Slovak Village] (designated on the map as Tisza Eszlár Tótfalu), and Újfalu [New Village] (designated on the map as Tisza Eszlár Újfalu).

[T]he ministerial justification mentions 1,044 Roman Catholics; however, the majority of these persons are mostly foreign and temporary farm hands (according to the statistics taken by the Roman Catholic cantor, there are 695 Roman Catholics living in hamlets) […] while this same ministerial justification mentions 992 Calvinists, who, in actual reality, number 1,065 souls confessing the Calvinist faith, who—with the exception of very few—have always been inhabitants of Tiszaeszlár.15


The social dimension of the discord therefore manifests itself in a dichotomy pitting “foreign” and “temporary” Catholic farmhands against “Calvinist villagers of Eszlár who have always lived there.”

Conflict Management within a Denomination

The Calvinist flock and its pastor

Within the Protestant congregations, the established renewable term system—reappointing or replacing pastors at the end of the year of service—caused much discord between the flock and their preachers.16 In Tiszaeszlár, pastors either served very long terms or soon left of their own accord to take up the same office in another, more affluent congregation.

Sámuel Csiszár Jr. was the pastor in Eszlár between 1866 and 1878. In retrospect, presenting his case as a model seems fully justified. As soon as he was elected, he got down to work with vengeance. First off, he set about to consolidate the financial matters of the parish. He consistently collected all church taxes.17 The pastor also tended his flock spiritually: he had a list of school-age children drawn up on the basis of the registry of births, and, “their parents were encouraged, on more than one occasion, to provide for their schooling.”18 These measures inevitably caused frictions. Moreover, in 1873 the reverend filed a complaint with the office of the district officer against Pál Ónody, the chief curator who had just resigned, “for his failure to pay the church tax.”19 The escalation of the conflict was reflected in the fact that on February 20, 1874 Gábor Farkas, a member of the formerly tax-paying petty nobility, filed a complaint with the dean in which he made reference to a “pasquillus (pasquil or satirical piece) signed by 65” that he had found in his garden that included a plea to have the pastor relocated to another parish.20 Letters of complaint came one after the other. The one dated March 4 was signed by as many as 100 people. The accusations started slowly to take shape: by humiliating the school teacher, the pastor disrupted the schooling of the children of the parish; using “physical force,” he committed battery against some shepherds and even against his housekeeper; and, finally, he slandered “the magistrate of the Greek Catholic congregation and the officials of the Roman Catholic house of the Kállays.”21

Csiszár, instead of offering an explanation, launched a counterattack: “Your Excellency the Dean has no idea of the vile souls that inhabit this parish, where the bread and the whip are inseparable companions.”22 On May 23, the people of Eszlár “appeared in the same place with yet another letter full of complaints and accusations, this time also expressing verbally that the people were ready to lock the church down in the afternoon of the second day of Pentecost (!) unless their demands were satisfied.”23

The case was examined during the canonical visit, which took place in early June 1874. The complaints and the minutes clearly indicate what the conflicts were actually about. The pastor was not willing to tolerate certain earlier economic practices. In addition, when it came to disciplinary action, he never hesitated to rely on the assistance of any power, earthly and celestial. He punished one culprit by proclaiming that “the death knell will not be tolled and no church funeral services will be rendered” either for him or for his family. A good many Calvinist villagers must have had the feeling that the pastor had turned against the norms of the community.

In the meantime, Lajos Borus, the Tiszalök priest, an old friend of the dean’s, and himself well known in Eszlár, warned the dean: “What great sorrow it would be to see my neighboring congregation—the congregation where I spent the most beautiful 18 months of my life—convert to Catholicism.”24

In the spring of 1875, another letter of complaint was delivered to the dean. This time, it had only been signed by twenty people, although—with the sole exception of Gábor Farkas—all of them had been signatories to the previous letter of complaint dated March 1874.25 According to this letter, not all of the accusations made during the previous year’s procedure had been recorded in the minutes. The gravest of them was the contention that Csiszár had raped his maid, Mária Tilk.

In April 1877, the twenty signatories addressed the bishop himself, denouncing a case of blatant immorality that had taken place back in 1876: Sámuel Csiszár first got his maid Mária Fogarasi pregnant and then sought illegal medical help to induce abortion. The district officer conducted the preliminary investigation and then forwarded the case to the Royal Court of Law of Nyíregyháza, where Sámuel Csiszár “was detained for eight days awaiting trial. The detention was reported by the most respectable domestic dailies.”26 Once again, the signatories ask that Csiszár be removed and a replacement parson be sent.

During the trial held on August 28 and 29, 1877, the court acquitted Csiszár in the absence of proof.27 At the same time, the court fined the defendant 100 forints (or, if unpaid, 20 days in simple custody) because he had “breached public order by threatening and making promises to the witnesses heard.” As the Tiszalök pastor Lajos Borus commented, Csiszár, “seated before the very eyes of the audience right next to the slut, was told face to face on more than one occasion how many times he had raped her, yet he showed no shame or remorse whatsoever. A terrible disgrace for all the community of pastors!!”28

Later, the council meeting of the court of law of the diocese held in Püspökladány on September 11, 1877 suspended Sámuel Csiszár from his functions and launched an investigation against him.29 In October 1877, János Lápossy (1848–1902), still single at the time, was appointed substitute pastor.30 When the dean showed him the anonymous letter denouncing his actions, Csiszár concluded that “this campaign of terrible defamation against me was headed by Jews.”31

In the middle of November 1877, with the help of the new pastor, the presbytery and the school board were reconstituted.32 Out of the 12 members of the presbytery, only four had been members before, the other eight members having been elected for the first time. (Three of them, namely Ferenc Farkas, József Farkas, and Sándor Farkas, were members of the Farkas clan, a family representing the petty nobility that had lived on serf plots before 1848.) In July, the dean ordered that another investigation be launched.33 The parish made sure that people were duly mobilized.34 As the chief curator testifies in his letter, the next morning “at least 100 complainants presented themselves to be heard” in front of the vicarage. When Sámuel Csiszár saw the crowds, he submitted his resignation.35 On August 25, in the presence of the aforementioned judges of the ecclesiastical court, the congregation elected János Lápossy as their ordinary pastor. Lápossy remained in his new position until his death.

There are lessons to be learned from this conflict for the present-day historian much as there were for the elite of the Calvinist community of the village. The conflict of the 1870s may have confirmed the opinion of leaders of the Calvinist congregation that success did not depend on the number of signatories backing a petition (the letter written in 1874 had as many as a hundred signatories, while those of 1875 and 1877 were only signed by twenty). They must also have realized that success took more than just getting the respectable land owners of the village on board, having them sign the petition, following the standard procedure, or even hand-delivering the letter of complaint to the dean. In fact, the alternative approach, when the chief curator—a young, ambitious, local medium landowner—bypassed the dean and approached the bishop directly, may have seemed more efficient. However, Soma Csiszár’s downfall was not brought about by the judgments of any secular or ecclesiastical court of law. Rather, it was caused by the fact that the members of the presbytery were willing and able to mobilize about a hundred people who all appeared in the courtyard of the vicarage when the new investigative procedure was launched. Seeing this, the reverend realized he had no future in the village.

To understand the social history background of the conflict better, the historian can analyze the composition of the signatories of the petition. He can establish that there were only nine signatories who took a stand for themselves both in 1874 and in 1877 (and only four who had also signed the petition of 1875). The Farkas clan played a leading role among them. The historian can also study the changes in the composition of the presbytery, where, once again, he or she may establish that the male members of the Farkas family were gaining ground in 1877. However, the feisty hard core included more than just members of this family; other respectable landowning families were also represented among their ranks. It is also beyond any doubt that the Calvinist elite of the village had the chance to travel beyond the boundaries of their village and obtain valuable experience and, indeed, skills in the local (or county-level) techniques of conflict management, and that the experience they had gained in previous conflicts inevitably filtered through and into the rituals used both for stirring up and attenuating future conflicts.


The Catholic parson and his critics

Tensions between pastor and congregation were not limited to the Calvinists, of course. A good example of discontent within a given denomination came in 1884, when a group within the Roman Catholic congregation filed a complaint with the archbishop of Eger against the Reverend József Adamovics.36 While investigations in such cases were also common within the Catholic church, power relations, the available forms of crisis management, and the chances of a priest being removed may have been fundamentally different.

Of course, this specific conflict cannot be classified as one of the antecedents of the “Eszlár case” of 1882–83. Nevertheless, it is striking to see how many fairly overt allusions were made in the complaint to local confessional power relations. The complaint, dated March 1, 1884, begins with a comment to the effect that “there are but a handful of people of the Roman Catholic confession” in Eszlár. Also, when quoting the allegedly offensive words with which the pastor chastised his flock, the letter reads “our first thought was that if the Calvinist congregation learns about the words our priest uttered we would be even more exposed to their mockery.” The complaint, which lists the “sins” of the parish priest, ends with the following words:

We must therefore expose these cases and all his wrongs, because we live among villagers of mixed religions and it happens that our sons marry women of other religions, and lest this become even more widespread, and lest our congregation disperse, for if we have to live under the care of such a pastor, we may be forced to place ourselves and all our families under the guidance of a pastor–of whatever confession–who leads us in a sensible manner.

Once again, it seems a never-failing tactic to attract the attention of the higher ecclesiastical authorities was to threaten them with the possibility of conversion to other religions.

In the spring of 1884, having received the five-page long indictment, József Adamovics filed his 22-page long response, in which he claimed to unveil a plot organized against him by the former Greek Catholic judge. Luckily for posterity, he exposed a lot more of the conflicts than the people who had filed the complaint ever mentioned. The specific accusations were fairly run-of-the-mill: the parish priest was frequently drunk; he behaved in a scandalous way while celebrating the wedding of a drunk groom; he used derogatory and offensive language when preaching; he had paid a band of musicians and had his own name day celebrated on March 19, during Lent; etc. They added verbally that the reverend also collected twice as much parish tax in the village as in the manors. In response to the “excitement” following this incident, Adamovics delivered a sermon on February 17, 1884 chastising his flock, the most offensive part of which was, as we know from an account given by the parish priest after the fact, the following adage: “Pigs... the dirtier they are, the more they scratch and whine.”37

At the height of the conflict, one evening a group of congregation members paid a less than friendly visit to the vicarage. They nearly came to blows. The visiting congregation members claimed Adamovics called them names like “marha” and “ökör” (“bovine” and “ox,” both used in vulgar language to mean “imbecile” or “idiot”).38

In March, Lőrinc Halasy—the Rakamaz parish priest appointed to carry out the investigation—visited Eszlár on two Sundays to hear the parties filing the complaint. Ferenc Ajler stated that “the discord is solely attributable to how the timber obtained from the felled logs was sold off.” János Kobzos Sr. claimed the wrong done to him: the parish priest “grabbed me and tried to throw me out.” Following the choreography of mutual accusations, Adamovics called Ajler “földosztó” (“a leveller,” in the sense of redistributing large-scale land holdings among the landless poor) and “a big mouth,” and Kobzos “a rambunctious type” and “a drunk.”

In his response, Adamovics also made a statement about inter-confessional rivalry:

Has anyone, even a single soul, apostatized ever since I have been the parish priest in Eszlár by the grace of God Almighty and your High Excellency? On the contrary, I take pride in pointing out that I myself have gained two souls for the mother-church, something that has not happened in this village for a long time. I can also point out without boasting that ever since I have been here there have only been a handful of mixed marriages. Even though a few mixed couples announced their intentions to marry, I succeeded in dissuading them and convinced them to marry either a Catholic or at least a Greek Catholic person.

He openly stated that “if need be, I apply the necessary strictness in guiding my flock, as is justified in the case of the rabble that inhabit this village.”39

The Roman Catholics of Eszlár had inferiority complexes not only towards the Calvinists but also, in a certain sense, towards Greek Catholics, even though Greek Catholicism was considered a “sister religion.” The Greek Catholic community of the village was under the guidance of the Tokaj parish. While they were much fewer in number, they were slowly but surely expanding, and they formed part of the elite of the village in terms of their wealth and power positions. Based on the historical distribution of lands, the Greek Catholics contributed relatively more area to the cemeteries than the Roman Catholics. In 1879, Adamovics threatened to revoke the right of the Greek Catholic congregation to bury their deceased in the cemetery. However, the Greek Catholic curator let him know that, “I might have the right to come to an agreement with them about obligating the members of our congregations to keep the line but I have no right to exclude them from the cemetery.”40

During the investigation of the case, Adamovics convinced Calvinist pastor Lápossy to testify in his support, but he also had a group of 14 members of his congregation who signed the statement in his favor (mostly members of the local intelligentsia). In fact, Adamovics got a bit overconfident. He requested that the archbishop return him the letter of complaint filed against him so he could sue his enemies “for the crimes of making false accusations and fraud committed by the forgery of documents.” He must have been very disappointed when archbishop Samassa sent him a letter closing the case in which he not only dissuaded Adamovics from taking legal action but actually chastised him, saying that “the church is no place for making personal statements of any sort, let alone for using the sort of low language employed in the sermon notes filed; words like those are not fit for a church setting and do not become a priest or even a common person of a certain level of education.”41

In the Catholic case, the religious congregation as a community was not particularly well-organized. If Adamovics was right, the “first mover” of the complaint came from outside, from the Greek Catholic “sister religion.” The “excitement” was expressed rather occasionally and emotionally. The subtle mobilization technique inside the parish was used first of all by the pastor himself in favor of the local hierarchy and controlled totally by the archbishop.


Affairs inside the Jewish community

I have not found any evidence of confessional animosities within the Israelite community of Eszlár. Possibly the community was too small, or perhaps the sources are too limited. The case I examine here only exemplifies the conflict management customs that existed among the Jews.

The Lichtmanns settled in the village as lessees of feudal iura regalia landlords’ rights, but later they hired the estate of the landlord, Ferenc Wesselényi, who lived outside the county, in Transylvania. By the 1880s, they had their own regalists or lessees, something that was certainly one of the pillars of the power they wielded in the village. Once the investigation clarified all the events that took place on April 1, 1882, the Jews of the Újfalu section of Eszlár met in the foyer of the house of prayer in order to try to reach an agreement concerning a market-related conflict, Jakab Lichtmann acting as the arbitrator. There were two inns in Újfalu, one operated by Szüszmann, the other by Einhorn, both being regalists or lessees of Lichtmann. The two parties had a row over one of them selling pálinka or fruit brandy at a lower price.42 At the time of the trial held in Nyíregyháza, Jakab Szüszmann claimed that he had approached “Mr. Jakab Lichtmann, who was, after all, the head of our community, to settle the issue. For it is our custom that, instead of filing court action right away, we first try to come to an out-of-court agreement if it is at all possible”.43 As far as József Einhorn remembered, he told Lichtmann (the owner of the inns), “How come he [Szüszmann] sells spirits at a lower price? You either ban him from doing that or I will also start selling at a lower price.”44 Jakab Lichtmann explained that such arbitration was not only customary within the Jewish community, but also made sense financially:

I was approached to broker some sort of an agreement between the two parties in order to avoid them doing damage to one another and prevent either of the two from ending up in a situation in which he would be unable to pay the lease. For this purpose, we met not in the temple per se but in its foyer, this being the customary place to settle business affairs between [Jewish] parties or to hold council, not only in Eszlár but everywhere: such affairs are settled in the foyer of the house of prayer...45

Instead of ordering his lessees to report to his mansion in Ófalu, he himself went to the synagogue in Tótfalu to do justice in the foyer of the house of prayer. Formerly, Jewish communities had had their own Jewish judges, but this institution had not existed in the village for a long time. Still, Eszlár Jews considered Lichtmann “the head of our community.” However, the visible spatial influence of the Lichtmanns in the central places of the settlement (the manor house in Ófalu and residence in Tótfalu) spread over the whole village.

The Public Sphere and the Christian–Jewish Animosity

Frequent conflicts inside Christian denominations create good opportunities to foster other animosities among all of the inhabitants of the village. In my study of Eszlár prior to the trial held in Nyíregyháza, I have found only one open conflict that took place in the public sphere which was thematized along Christian–Jewish confessional interests.


The issue of Jewish education

At the time, there were only confessional schools in the village. From 1871 on, there were already two Calvinist schools (in Ófalu and in Újfalu) and one Catholic school (in Ófalu) operating locally. But how were the school-age Jewish children of the village schooled? As far as this period is concerned, only the Calvinist schools kept a record of the names of their students in Eszlár. In 1876, all Jewish names on the list are girls, and all of them went to school in Ófalu. In 1883, however, we also find Jewish children in the Calvinist elementary school of Újfalu. Furthermore, Jewish boys also attended school both in Ófalu and Újfalu.46 It may be assumed that in earlier periods the Jewish school that operated in Eszlár was made out to look like private tutoring. It had to be kept secret because the school inspector was systematically hunting down unauthorized Jewish schools that operated in a clandestine manner, as they were considered unsuitable by the state.47 What is certain is that the first time that an unauthorized school of the Israelite community was officially closed in Eszlár was in 1883.48 We do not know whether this was the school that educated all the Jewish children missing from the system during the 1870s or not. All we can assume is that Jewish boys must have received an education somewhere, at least because of religious reasons. This assumption is supported by the autobiography of Móric Scharf, who played a crucial role in the Tiszaeszlár trial.49

After the 1876 flood, the secular municipal authorities of the village adopted a decree according to which the three teachers would receive 160 forints each from the budget of the village for providing what was called recapitulative education to students who would not proceed with secondary education (the decree also cancelled the obligation to pay a tuition fee for normally daily schooling).50 However, the elder of the Jewish congregation, Jakab Lichtmann—who was also a virilist, one of the biggest taxpayers to the state—filed a complaint with the general assembly of the county against the decree. After this, the general assembly of the county was forced to strike the 480 forint expenditure line from the proposed budget of the village.51 After several rounds of discussion, the village approached the minister of the interior.52 By 1879, Ministerial Counsellor György Lukács had finally approved subsidizing the teachers from the budget of the village.53

The background to the case was that the Calvinist schools of the village collected an additional contribution in the form of a tuition fee from non-Christian students with the justification that the parents of non-Calvinist children did not contribute to the maintenance of the confessional school.54 The Catholic parson understood that the Calvinists “demanded a total of 27 forints (Gulden), nine forints for each of his three children, from an Israelite family father.”55 Eventually, the Calvinist council of the village adopted a new regulation in 1883 concerning the school fees of the children of the non-Christian denominations: “in addition to the tuition fee, they shall pay, upon their enrolment, […] another 80 krajcár towards the maintenance of the school.”56

Jakab Lichtmann probably hired a private tutor. He may have raised his objections in defense of the children of his older brother, József, who lived in Újfalu. Both on personal and confessional grounds, he believed that this discrimination—and especially the extent of it—was unfair. It cannot be ruled out that when Jakab Lichtmann resigned as the chief curator of the Jewish community in 1879, one of his reasons for leaving was his failure in the affair of the ministerial decree. The two events are certainly very close to each other in time. It follows, therefore, that in 1882 he was formally not an elder and therefore not a legitimate representative of the Israelite community, which certainly weakened its resistance.


Electing the village judge (January 4, 1882)

In another case that took place in the public sphere, confessional aspects seem to play only an indirect role if any. On December 28, 1881, local elections had to be suspended in Tiszaeszlár. because of “the brawl” between “two rather angry parties.”57 The required forces (40 troops) were mobilized on January 4 to keep order.58

Local scuffles of this type were a rather common form of expressing political intentions in this region, but what roused the passions of the community to such a degree at the end of 1881 in Tiszaeszlár?59 Ecclesiastical documents give us some insight into the origin of the tensions.

When parish priest József Adamovics was defending himself against the accusations in the spring of 1884, he also brought up a number of older conflicts. He suspected that the complaint filed against him was really backed by former Eszlár judge Ferenc Nagy, who, as Adamovics put it, wanted to take revenge, since Adamovics had played a role in Nagy losing his position. Tódor (Ferenc) Nagy was born in Eszlár in 1834 in a well-respected Greek Catholic family of peasants with a half plot, as defined by the urbarium. He married Hermina Roth, a Lutheran widow,60 in 1864. In February 1872, he took his oath of office as a judge.61

Adamovics claims first having gotten into a conflict with Ferenc Nagy when Adamovics was chairman of the board of auditors. Adamovics was the rapporteur on a case involving “funds missing because of misappropriation” in which the judge was found “to have embezzled, conniving with a Jew, 170 Austrian forints from the village funds.”62 Eventually, Adamovics broke all ties with Ferenc Nagy when he refused to hand over an estate: “Then I told him openly that […] in fact I would do everything in my power to rid the village of him.” In fact, Adamovics did achieve his goal: Nagy “was not even registered as a candidate when the time came for electing a new judge.”63 Thus, at the end of 1881 Ferenc Nagy could not openly head his “party.” The most he could do was organize a plot from the background.

While he served as a judge, Ferenc Nagy also had conflicts with other leaders of the village. The complaint related to the missing village funds was reported to the county by Géza Ónody.64 This was one of the reasons why János Lápossy, a Calvinist pastor, welcomed the elections of January 4 as a favorable turn of events:

after a heavy siege taking several years, we have finally managed to approach Gábor Farkas, who is known for the interest he takes in the matters of the church, his good will, and his sensibility, and to get him to make a clear statement that he would accept the position of judge, and we have been able, at the expense of great efforts, and much to our pleasure, to elect him as judge.65

During the race leading to the election of the judge, the Calvinist community supported Gábor Farkas, who, being from an old and well-respected local Calvinist family representing the petty nobility, had already played an important role in the drive for the removal of pastor Soma Csiszár.66

The municipal assembly of the village consisted of 40 delegates, half of whom were virilists, the biggest tax-payers of the village. The other half of the assembly were elected delegates, out of whom 10 people had been selected by a draw for replacement; it was their mandates that now had to be filled by way of elections. As far as the confessional composition of the elected delegates is concerned, the most apparent observation that can be made is that 15 delegates out of the 20 were Calvinists. Ferenc Nagy held the 11th position, which apparently indicates that the efforts to completely disqualify him from local politics were not entirely successful. One of the new names was József Klein, a day worker, who was the only Jew elected as a delegate in the municipal assembly.

As far as the actual numbers of the votes cast are concerned, only the data for the election of the judge is available. The real challenger of Gábor Farkas was a Catholic candidate, Ferenc Ailer (Eiler).67 This may be of some interest because Ailer was not one of the wealthy men, yet he must have been one of the leaders in community opinion: he appears as one of the key figures of the conflict that surrounded Adamovics in 1884. Gábor Farkas received 110 votes in favor and 97 against, a clear win, but a rather tight result. He was probably not very confident about his success, which may have contributed to things getting out of control. The fact that more than 200 votes were cast suggests that there was considerable mobilization; in the case of the municipal assembly of the village, every adult male had one vote to cast. Confessional fault lines may also have played a role in the election propaganda: Adamovics believed that some of his opponents were convinced to join the camp of his rival “party” by people who had spread the allegation that “the priest himself wants to convert to Calvinism that is why he wants Gábor Farkas to take the office of the judge.”68

Other officials were elected by acclamation. Looking at the final results, the vague outlines of a certain proportionality seem to appear: the judge was Calvinist, the magistrate of the adjunct judge was Greek Catholic, and the treasurer was Roman Catholic. Two of the sworn officials were Calvinists, two were Catholics (Kobzos and Ajler!); one of the elected municipal sergeants was also Roman Catholic, while the other was Calvinist. Can such careful political proportionality be purely accidental? One might say that while the composition of the municipal authorities reflects a moderate balance between the various confessions, all signs indicate that the elections had an effect of adjusting power relations in favor of the original Calvinist population. Without doubt, it was the Jewish community of the village who were least favored by such adjustment. After the elections, no former Jewish delegates remained among the members of the authorities. And “the great trial” was nowhere to be seen yet.

During the trial held in Nyíregyháza, in which Ferenc Nagy was not involved even as a witness, one of the defendants, Sámuel Lustig, finally spoke his mind: “Had Ferenc Nagy, supported by the Jewish vote, become the judge, the disappearance of Eszter would not have caused so much trouble.”69 In other words, even if the conflicts emerging in the public sphere did leave a mark on the discourses of the Nyíregyháza trial, they did so only very indirectly. The weak and hidden signs of public rivalry, however, do not mean that one cannot search for further interactive mechanisms inside the local community, in everyday practice of coexistence and conflicts on a smaller scale, and in the private sphere of the peasant households.

The Hidden Networks of the “Incriminated Case of the Girl Gone Missing”

Coexistence: the neighborhood

The best way of reconstructing the subtle network of relationships (secular and religious as well) connecting the villagers is to expose the capillaries of the “female public opinion” of the village. To do this, one must analyze the background of the discourses of the trial. I present three cases, one from each of the three sections of the village.

The first case is related to the events of April 1. The investigation began in late April or early May 1882, one month after the case of the girl gone missing, investigating the statements made by five-year-old Jewish boy Samu Scharf in the goose grazing land near Tótfalu. Allegedly, he saw Jews take the blood of Eszter Solymosi in the Synagogue. Who else heard what this child allegedly had said? Eötvös (defense attorney in the case and writer of the documentary novel about it) believed that, in addition to village judge Gábor Farkas, the key people were “his female relative Eszter Farkas, the wife of András Sós,” whose “daughter may have been” twelve-year-old Erzsébet Sós, and two “young women whom they knew: Julianna Szabó and Eszter Tanyi. It was these four women who produced the first Jewish child witness.”70 Eötvös also tried to reconstruct kinship relations in the case of Erzsébet Tanyi, but he failed.71

Without casting doubt on the importance of kinship relations in rural societies, the most common feature of the people testifying in the case seems to have been that they fit equally well into a certain spatial structure based on neighborhood. The space between the upper part of Tótfalu (just a few houses) and the rectangular, recently settled part of Tótfalu was very special in many respects (in brackets the cadastral number of the site): it was where the old Catholic cemetery, then used for grazing geese, was located (666); the road leading from Ófalu to Újfalu crossed it (2159); it was where the embankment surrounding Ófalu ended; it was where the synagogue was located, along with the warden’s (shamash) home (668); and, finally, it was where Eszter Solymosi allegedly disappeared. It was this part of the village, “the throat of Tótfalu” as I will refer to it, that “swallowed” Eszter. This was the space of the everyday lives of all of the people who “supplied” the data for the investigation. Erzsébet Tanyi (Mrs. Pásztor) was driving her geese from the grazing land in the old cemetery to their house in the middle of Tótfalu (701) when little Samu jumped in front of her on May 2, saying “I won’t tell you what my father did to the Hungarian girl!” It was Mrs. Gábor Bátori, a widow who lived behind the Synagogue (669) who questioned Mrs. József Scharf, Samu’s mother standing outside at the time, about what they had just heard. Eszter Tanyi was on her way to see Mrs. Mihály Soós, who lived in the northeast part of Tótfalu (681), to have some feed milled. On the April 30, Mrs. András Soós (690), on her way home, was standing in the gate of Mrs. István Lengyel, the blacksmith’s widow, who lived right under the Synagogue (672) and allegedly had heard Samu talk.72 All the hearsay and gossip circulated within a tight network of neighborhood relationships, in “ecumenical turnover” among Calvinist and Catholic women.

Map 2. The “throat” of Tótfalu73

Eötvös believed it was “unusual and, in fact, unprecedented” that this system of neighborhood relations should also include the Jewish child. However, the witnesses considered it fairly normal that little Samu would be playing together with the other kids. Mrs. Mihály Soós did not feel any need to explain why Samu had been at their house: “I too have a child, Samu was playing with him.”74 However, by “inviting him into the house,” she had indeed granted him access to a more intimate inner sphere. It is not entirely implausible that this may have had to do with a desire to question the child. The dimensions of the rather closed micro-world of Samu are well reflected by the fact that, in his statement made in front of the investigating judge of the affair, József Bary, all the Jewish actors he listed as being involved in the imagined “murder” were somehow linked to Tótfalu.

Of course, neighborhoods also have their everyday female conflicts, after all, it is women who are at home all day long, that time. For example, the trial shed light on a dispute between Mrs. József Scharf and Mrs. András Sós. Although Mrs. Sós tried to give the impression that after April she and Mrs. Scharf “continued to visit one another as [they had] before,” the comments made by József Scharf, who interrupted the hearing, make it clear that a good many things had changed. For example, according to Scharf, when his wife wanted to buy “a small goose for 40 krajcárs” from Mrs. Sós, the latter responded: “Why, neighbor, you don’t need geese, for the Jews will be expelled soon; I’ll be there myself driving them with the fire iron.” Mrs. Sós admitted having said this; in fact, she shed light on the background of the incident: “On one occasion she drove my geese off to the estate steward, and now she is angry at me for making a witness statement against her.”75 During the trial, the neighborhood seemed to be very peaceful on the surface, but underneath this veneer there was a silent, suppressed tension probably best put into words by Eszter Tanyi, who said “we are quiet among the Jews.”76

Another example, which took place at the time of the trial in Ófalu, involves the case of witness Julianna Vámosi. Eighteen-year-old Julcsa Vámosi (in the trial, she was consistently referred to by her nickname), who was in the third year of her service at Jewish shopkeeper Löventhal’s family, first testified in the trial that she had seen Eszter walk home from the shop as late as 1:00 o’clock in the afternoon.77 Later, yielding to pressure from her parents, she changed her statement, in spite of the fact that she could have been charged with making a false witness statement. At the end of the day, the parents practically denounced their own child to the municipal authorities.

The mother, Erzsébet Tóth (Mrs. József Vámosi), a 48-year-old Calvinist woman, stated that her daughter “had been asked to swear that she had seen Eszter Solymosi at 1:00 o’clock. What she told us, though, was this: »Yes, mother, I did see her, but that was between 10:00 and 11:00«; however, her master, an Israelite, had asked her to »swear that you saw Eszter Solymosi at one o’clock and you shall be greatly rewarded«.” The mother even added that her daughter used to be “a proper anti-Semite”:

This girl, she used to be the type that could have killed Jews; she would not have talked the way she does now. These last few days, however, she must have been somehow cajoled into saying these things... I am her mother, I have been a married woman for twenty years, and I have never seen such a thing, her not knowing something and then, just a few days later, all of a sudden knowing what she had not known before, that she had seen Eszter Solymosi, even at that time.

When Eötvös warned her that other witnesses had also seen Eszter later, Mrs. Vámosi responded: “The entire village can prove that she could not have seen her at that time; she could only have been seen at 11:00 or 12:00.” When the defense attorney asked her “did the villagers confront either you or your husband about your daughter testifying in support of the Jews?”, she first refused to answer. Later, she admitted that her husband had brought their daughter home from the Löventhals, where she was a maid, because he had heard that they wanted to beat her to death. “Friedmann: »Who told you that they wanted to beat her to death?« Witness: »It was word of mouth in the village.« Friedmann: »And why did your husband go there?« Witness: »To calm folks down.«”78

Under all this pressure, Julcsa Vámosi admitted on July 20 that she had made a false statement earlier, and that it had been Samu Lichtmann, the son of influential Jakab Lichtmann, former head of the Jewish community, who had convinced her to say 1:00 o’clock. By then she allegedly remembered having seen Eszter before the bells were tolled at noon, and she noted that she had not received anything other than the 50 krajcárs that the court of law offered to witnesses. In response to a question asked by Eötvös, she recalled a scene that had taken place in the village:

Eötvös: “Did they want to beat you to death, did they swear at you?” The witness: “They often said so.” Eötvös: “Was that when you went to fetch water from the Tisza?” The witness: “Yes, Sir.” Eötvös: “Who told you there that you had sworn falsely?” The witness: “Mrs. András Farkas, Mrs. Bálint Cseres, and the third one was Mrs. József A[r]dai.”79

The girl’s father and even the Jewish woman she had served were heard the same day. The father, a 42-year-old man employed as a servant guarding the vineyards of the village, stated that he had met and had talked to Mihály Cseres—who was also heard in Nyíregyháza—in the vineyard, and Cseres had said “your daughter did not say the right thing, … so no wonder the villagers almost beat her to death.”80 Mrs. Löventhal, the 30-year-old Jewish woman, gave an account of how their maid had been taken out of service.

[Mrs. Löventhal, asking the mother]: “When are you bringing her back? I ask her. Look, I cannot give her back to you right now, folks are way too agitated around here.” Mrs. József Papp, the wife of the adjunct judge [the second elected official of the village] confronted me and told me, “I will kill your daughter myself if you ever allow her to come back!” Judge Gábor Farkas said, “Your daughter had better not come back to the village, it wouldn’t end well.”

Mrs. Löventhal also recalled the incident that took place along the road to the Tisza. “We went to the Tisza and those four women surrounded her right away, »You Jewish witness this, you Jewish witness that.«” Asked by Eötvös, she identified the four women they had encountered on their way to the river.81 Eötvös was not especially interested in the chorus of the four women along the embankment; it is, however, of interest to this inquiry. The women surrounding Julcsa lived in the same general area, but were not next door neighbors. The shop and home of the Löventhals was located right in the middle of the circle along the road leaving Ófalu towards the south. It was a narrow plot of land with a long house on it. Originally, they were not listed among the persons accused; however, they were now heard as witnesses because of their maid. Salamon, the father of the young Jewish grocer, had had a shop in Eszlár already in 1848. The women who surrounded the Vámosi girl all represented socially well embedded fates, with strong links to one another, coming either from lesser noble or wealthy peasant families, or they were descendants of former cottagers (zsellér). In contrast, the Vámosi family held a peripheral, highly dependent position in the society of the village. They lived in the vineyard guard’s house outside of the village limits, and the wife was not even from the village to begin with. Having heard the threats of these angry women, all of whom were influential in public opinion in the local society, they may well have feared for the life of their daughter and for their home, which they could only keep as long as they served the village by working in the vineyard. During the trial, there was gossip according to which the father, perhaps to release stress after the great scare, beat his daughter in order to impress upon her the importance of solidarity with the village community.

The third example took place when the trial was already in process and Mrs. András Cseres, who lived in Újfalu on the row of the cottagers, volunteered to make a witness statement to the municipal authorities. The Cseres family lived in Újfalu, across the street from the Groszberg family, and as is even more important from the perspective of this inquiry, the woman spoke “Jewish.” She had learned the language in Tiszalök, where she had served the local shochet for one and a half years. On April 1, her husband had been hoeing the vineyard on the slopes of the Tokaj mountain and had come home very tired. She was trying to wake him, in vain, to show him what she saw, looking out the window, across the street, which was just a few meters wide: Jews gathered in the courtyard of the Groszberg family late in the evening. The husband objected to the wife testifying, although the wife, allegedly, did not tell her husband what she had seen. “One should not tell him things of that sort because he does not like gossip,” the woman said. The husband tried to convince the wife not to testify, saying “We are poor people; we must work... I’m telling you, you’ll get yourself into big trouble.”82 The most interesting part, however, is Mrs. Cseres’s explanation as to why, one year later, in the summer of 1883, she still decided to make a witness statement: “Witness: »There was talk in Tiszaeszlár that Christians were about to lose and Israelites were about to win; that’s what drove me to go and talk to the judge lest my soul should burn in hell.«” Eötvös put some pressure on her, asking:

“Who told you the Christians were about to lose and the Jews were about to win?” Witness: “It was word of mouth all over the village, all the righteous people said so.” Eötvös: “Were folks upset?” Witness: “Very much so.” Eötvös: “Was there a gathering of people?” Witness: “Oh, yes, indeed.” Eötvös: “At whose house?” Witness: “We never went to that house; I was just coming home from hoeing when I heard so.” Eötvös: “Who told you?” Witness: “The Lord Almighty knows.” Eötvös: “What did you mean by saying that the Christians were about to lose and the Jews were about to win?” Witness: “That the Christians wasted Eszter... that they wasted Eszter and were now going to put the blame on the Christians.” Eötvös: “The Jews did?” Witness: “Yes.” Eötvös: “So did the Jews waste Eszter?” Witness: “It’s supposed to be them, isn’t it, not the Christians.”83

I have presented three examples, one from each part of the community: Ófalu, Tótfalu, and Újfalu. One incident took place on the way to the river, one took place on the way home from the goose grazing land or on the way to the mill, and one took place on the way home from hoeing the vineyard. The sites are everyday locations. The communication is purely oral. A bit of hearsay, a bit of gossip. However, the situation is extraordinary. The point of reference that weighed most (“It was word of mouth all over the village...”) suggested that Christianity as such was at stake. For if it was not the Jews who had killed Eszter Solymosi, then the sin would revert to it was the Christians, or rather some person or people belonging to one of the (competing) Christian denominations. The peasants followed the imperative of their instinct for self-defense, and that imperative was mediated by everyday coalitions consisting of neighborhood and kinship networks among women. The mobilization of the witnesses during the investigation and trial forged the majority of the Christian inhabitants together against the Jews. Although the Lichtmanns were not sitting in the dock in the court (they were present also as witnesses), the thinly veiled message to intimidate the whole Jewish community had been sent to its informal leaders.


“Popular excitement” (May 29, 1882)

On one occasion during the investigation, emotions flew so high in Eszlár that there was a real chance that things would get out of hand. At the time, there were already dozens of news reporters on the lookout for any new development in the investigation. On May 30, 1882, dailies reported in their dedicated “The Eszlár Case” column that the previous day, which was Pentecost Monday, a group of Jews had gathered at the southern end of Tiszaeszlár alongside the road to Tiszalök, something that created major tensions and revived old memories of collective violence in the villagers. It is therefore an essential component of this conflict that by this time the case was gaining significance beyond that of a village affair in a narrow sense. Wider localities (the manor, the district, and the county) exerted more and more influence on the course of events.

The story was reported by Verhovay’s Függetlenség (“Independence”), a newspaper known for its anti-Semitism, which emphasized, that “several hundred Jews gathered from within and outside of the village, raiding the house of Mrs. Solymosi”.84 According to Miksa Weinstein’s account, it was not only the Jews or people from outside the area who participated in the search for Eszter.85 The explanation: a reward was offered to whoever might succeed in tracking the girl down.

The case cannot be interpreted simply at a local scale. “People from the neighboring villages continuously provoked and incited the people of Eszlár: “We can hardly wait for the people of Eszlár to start beating the Jews so we can follow suit.”86 Not even three weeks after Pentecost, the population of Eszlár—due to the efforts of both pastors—appeared a paragon of calmness—at least according to the report. All these journalistic interpretations show that the Eszlár case (the conflict) was not simply mirrored but at the same time was also shaped by the agents of the local and national press (and politics).

During the semi-annual county assembly, deputy lord lieutenant János Zoltán presented an official report on the events that took place around Pentecost (also outlining the types of county-level measures he believed necessary to implement). The deputy lord lieutenant also had to report to the minister of the interior.87 It is worth taking a look at the original minutes surviving in the estate of Investigating Judge József Bary. Bary was indeed personally present on site adopting measures, and he provided the information on the basis of which the deputy lord lieutenant drafted his report. According to these minutes, village judge Gábor Farkas approached Bary at about 9:00 o’clock in the evening, saying:

large groups of villagers are heading towards the part of the village called Újfalu where, people say, large numbers of Jewish strangers are gathering and standing around at the end of the village with unknown intentions, whose unexplainable appearance has provoked the Christian population of the village, whereby it is to be feared that the people, partly agitated over the events and partly fuelled by the alcohol they have consumed during the Pentecostal festivities, might resort to physical violence against the suspicious strangers.

Riding on a cart, the investigating judge, the deputy prosecutor, the judge, and a municipal bailiff passed the groups walking towards Újfalu, checking the identity documents of three Tiszalök Jews in Újfalu and of another eight at the end of the village and ordering them to leave the settlement, “or else they will be held responsible for any and all consequences of the popular excitement provoked by their unjustified presence.” The Tiszalök Jews complied with the order. Soon after this, “a group of some 200 to 300 locals” appeared armed with “pitchforks, sticks, bars, and similar utensils suitable for striking.” As they claimed, “they were afraid that the suspicious Jewish strangers would set fire to their houses at night, so it was their intention to remove them from the village and its vicinity by any means necessary.”88 The next morning, Bary had a number of witnesses testify to the veracity of his report.89 Actually, it was he who—writing about the sequence of events he had just experienced—came up with the term “popular excitement” to describe the events in the title as well as in the body of his report.

The press continued to report on the events for quite some time. Author Sándor Teleki asked Eszlár judge Gábor Farkas why he believed “the Jews came to the village and rushed to the house of Mrs. Solymosi. »Just to provoke, so that they can call in the military. Much to our luck, the investigating judge was right there with us; our good village folks listen to reason, and those gentlemen clearly told the villagers that there was no point in picking a fight.«”90

These reports—divergent as they may be—help one reconstruct the sequence of events in a highly plausible manner. The tabloid-style exaggerations and absurdities presented by some of the newspapers can also be discarded. It is highly improbable to assume that, as a result of the atrocities allegedly committed, the house of Mrs. Solymosi suffered any damage without this ever being even mentioned in the Bary report dedicated to the disappearance of Eszter. If, as some stated, 600 Jews gathered with the intention of launching such an attack, could 200 to 300 drunk locals armed with pitchforks and sticks have really driven them out of the village? The estimates concerning the number of people who allegedly gathered at the outskirts of the village vary widely, from ten to several hundred. Did the Jews of Eszlár really need to have all the strangers arriving from the neighboring villages beaten up only to have an excuse to provoke the deployment of the armed forces in the village? How can one speak about collective violence when people standing around in groups must face the full force of the law while those unnamed few instigating an atmosphere of lynching are “tactfully” dissuaded by an investigating judge?

The “quasi violence” of Pentecost was not the sole anti-Semitic excess in the village. The synagogue of Tótfalu, where Eszter Solymosi had been murdered according to the accusation, was vandalized as well. The fact itself that Bary conducted an investigation on the spot two times (May 20, September 11) emboldened some rabble-rousers (leading to window smashing and damaged interiors).91 The decisive impetus, nonetheless, came again from the outside: on July 25, 1882, Gyula Verhovay traveled to the settlement in the company of adjunct judge József Papp. He wrote of the “filthiness of the ghetto” in his newspaper.92 Moreover, according to some reports, several days later a few women from the village took a wooden crucifix into the building. After this gesture of “sacrilege,” the Jewish community allegedly left the synagogue and held the Saturday sermons in Lichtmann’s nearby residence.93

Of course, an interpretation of the local “popular excitement” would also be possible within another framework of reference, that of mass psychology or, possibly, mass hysteria—these concepts were emerging right in the era under review, even though the study of the related symptoms only really commenced in the twentieth century.94 However, what makes this phenomenon special is that the promise of legality and fair procedure did appeal to the reason of those concerned. Nationally, things only got out of control when on August 3, 1883 the Nyíregyháza court acquitted the defendants. Once again, for the last time, sentiments flared up in Eszlár. Péter Soltész wanted to throw one of the daughters of Weiszstein, an acquitted defendant, into the fire, and he hit Farkas Wertheimer (the estate steward) in the head with a hayfork, although Wertheimer had not even testified. In his own defense, the perpetrator claimed having been drunk at the time.95 He was duly punished. And in the spring of 1884, the emperor decorated judge Gábor Farkas with the crowned silver medal of merit for the role he played in keeping order.96 However, cantor and schochet Salamon Schwarz, who was the number one defendant in “the case of the girl gone missing,” and synagogue sexton József Scharf, who was accused of aiding and abetting (and after whom the trial was named), were never able to return to the village, and neither were their families.


* * *

Victor Turner’s concept of social drama has proven especially inspiring when interpreting all these cases in the history of Eszlár. Going beyond the limitations of the positivist concept of structures, he drew a distinction between formalized structures on the one hand and temporary structures generated by social dramas mainly in the course of conflicts. These are open, and the observer may recognize them in retrospect. Their organizational focus is not in the intersection of diagrams. Instead, they surface in the minds of the actors as objectives of actions and efforts. They encompass alternatives and they can be grasped through analyses of psychological factors.97 When examining various conflicts, apparently everything happens the way it usually does, as might be expected, and yet, everything might change completely in a split second. Coexistence, rivalry, and conflicts are inevitably intertwined. Rivalries between the approved Christian denominations manifested themselves either in conversion or in mixed marriages. There was never a plan to crowd out the other party, though. However, in this region, in this time period, after the emancipation of the Jews, the Christian–Jewish conflict could still take the form not only of blood libels98 but also of the ritual forms of intimidation and violence. This is what international literature calls “exclusionary violence.”99 However, after the trial ended with acquittals, and after the flames of collective violence went out, the various forms of local coexistence once again reorganized themselves in a business-as-usual manner.

It is no coincidence that, speaking of the Dreyfus affair, social psychologist Serge Moscovici makes the following claim: “Great thunderstorms, great discharges of human energy, great breaks of tension in society remain opaque to contemporaries and are seen in their true light only after a time. But their riddle never seems to receive any unquestionable solutions. This is what makes their fascination, which can last a long time.”100 In our case hopefully not for another thousand years.

Archival Sources

Egri Főegyházmegyei Levéltár (=EFL) [The Archives of the Archdiocese of Eger], Tiszaeszlár (= TE)

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltár (=MNL OL) [Hungarian National Archives, National Archives]

A 900 R. kat. anyakönyvek [Roman Catholic Registers of Births] (TE)

A 2568 Ref. anyakönyvek [Protestant Registers of Births] (TE)

A 4677 G. kat. anyakönyvek [Greek Catholic Registers of Births] (Tokaj)

S 78 225. téka Kataszteri térképek [Cadastral Maps] (TE)

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg Megyei Levéltára (=MNL SZSZBML) [The Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County Archives of the Hungarian National Archives]

IV.B.402.8.k. Szabolcs megye közgyűlési jegyzőkönyve [Minutes of the Meeting of the General Assembly of Szabolcs County]

IV.B.404. Szabolcs megye Közigazgatási Bizottság iratai [Documents of the Public Administration Committee of Szabolcs County]

IV.B.411. Szabolcs vármegye alispánjának iratai [Documents of the Deputy Lord Lieutenants of Szabolcs County]

Országos Széchényi Könyvtár Kézirattár (=OSZK Kt) [The Manuscript Collection of the National Széchényi Library]

Fol. Hung. 1847/ I–II. Bary József tiszaeszlári vizsgálattal kapcsolatos iratai [József Bary’s Documents Related to the Tiszaeszlár Investigation]

Tiszaeszlár ref. egyházközség irattára (=TEREI) [The Archives of the Calvinist Parish of Tiszaeszlár], A tiszaeszlári helv. hitv. Egyház tanácskozási és határozati jegyzőkönyve [Minutes of the Council Meetings and Decisions of the Evangelical Helvetic Confession Parish of Tiszaeszlár]. Vol. 1.

Tiszántúli Református Egyházkerületi Levéltár (=TtREL) [The Archives of the Tiszántúl Calvinist Diocese]

I.1.b. 209. Egyházkerületi közgyűlési iratok [Documents of the Meetings of the General Assembly of the Diocese]

I.8.d. Lelkész-adattár [Database of Parsons]

I.28.c. Egyházlátogatási jegyzőkönyvek [Visitation Minutes]

I.28.j. Felsőbbhatósági körlevelek [Circulars of the Higher Authorities]



Primary Sources

A tiszaeszlári bűnper. Bary József vizsgálóbíró emlékiratai [The Criminal Trial of Tiszaeszlár. The Memoires of Investigating Judge József Bary]. Budapest: Egyetemi Nyomda, 1933.

Az első magyarországi népszámlálás (1784–1787) [The First Hungarian Census]. Edited by Dezső Dányi and Zoltán Dávid. Budapest: KSH Könyvtára–MÜM Levéltári Osztálya, 1960.

Bölöny, József. Magyarország kormányai 1848–1975 [The Governments of Hungary 1848–1975]. Budapest: Akadémiai, 1978.

Eötvös, Károly: A nagy per mely ezer éve folyik, s még nincs vége [The Great Trial that Has Been Going On for a Thousand Years and Has Not Yet Concluded]. Vols. 1–2. Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1968.

Magyarország településeinek vallási adatai (1880–1949) [The Religious Data of the Villages of Hungary (1880–1949)]. Vol. 2. Budapest: KSH, 1997.

Scharf, Móric. “Emlékeim a tiszaeszlári pörből” [My Memories of the Trial of Tiszaeszlár]. Egyenlőség, 46. September 10 through December 3, 1927.

Schematismus venerabilis Cleri Archi-diocesis Agriensis ad annum Jesu Christi 1831, 1840, 1851, 1860, 1871, 1880, 1889. Agriae.

Debreceni Ellenőr [The Debrecen Monitor], 1882.

Egyenlőség [Equality], 1882–1884.

Egyetértés [Concord], 1882.

Függetlenség [Independence], 1882–1883.

Nyírvidék [The Nyírség Region], 1882.

Pesti Napló [The Pester Journal], 1882.

Tisza-Eszlár (Napi Értesítő) [Tiszaeszlár (Daily Gazette)]. A tisza-eszlári bűnper végtárgyalása alkalmából gyorsírói felvétel nyomán kiadja a Nyírvidék szerkesztősége [Published by the Editorial Office of the Newspaper Nyírvidék on the basis of the shorthand records of the final session of the criminal trial of Tiszaeszlár], 1883. No. 1–29 [T-E (Napi Értesítő)].

Secondary Sources

Ascough, Richard. “The Canadian Society of Biblical Studies’ Religious Rivalries Seminar: Retrospection, Reflection and Retroversion.” Studies in Religion /Sciences Religieuses 32, no. 1–2 (2003): 153–73.

Fox, Jonathan. “Towards a Dynamic Theory of Ethno-Religious Conflict.” Nations and Nationalism 5, no. 4 (1999): 431–63.

Hoffmann, Christhard. “Political Culture and Violence against Minorities: The Antisemitic Riots in Pomerania and West Prussia.” In Exclusionary Violence. Antisemitic Riots in Modern German History, edited by Christhard Hoffmann, Werner Bergmann, and Helmut Walser Smith, 67–93. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Kieval, Hillel J. “The Importance of Place: Comparative Aspects of the Ritual Murder Trial in Modern Central Europe.” In Comparing Jewish Societies, edited by Todd E. Endelmann, 135–65. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Kiss, Arnold et al. A nagy per (Zsidókérdés) [The Great Trial (The Jewish Question)]. Budapest: Soli Deo Gloria, 1933.

Kósa, László. A gyulai református egyház története [The History of the Protestant Church of Gyula]. Second Unchanged Edition. Gyulai Füzetek [Gyula Booklets] 17. Gyula: Békés Megyei Levéltár, 2008.

Kövér, György. A tiszaeszlári dráma. Társadalomtörténeti látószögek [The Drama of Tiszaeszlár. Perspectives of Social History]. Budapest: Osiris, 2011.

Le Bon, Gustave. La Psychologie des foules. [English translation: The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. 1896.] Paris: Alcan, 1895.

Mayer, Wendy. “Religious Conflict: Definitions, Problems and Theoretical Approaches.” In Religious Conflict from early Christianity to the Rise of Islam, edited by Wendy Mayer and Bronwen Neil, 1–19. Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte 121. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013.

Moscovici, Serge. „The Dreyfus Affair, Proust and Social Psychology.” Social Research 53, no. 1 (1986): 23–56.

Rácz, István. Egyház és társadalom. A Debreceni Tractus vagyona és gazdálkodása a 18–19. század fordulóján [Church and Society. The Assets and Asset Management of the Debrecen Tractus at the Turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century]. Debrecen: Kossuth Egyetemi Kiadó, 2002.

Smith, Helmut Walser. “From Play to Act: Anti-Jewish Violence in German and European History during the Long Nineteenth Century.” In idem. The Continuities of German History. Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long Nineteenth Century, 115–67. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Szilágyi, László. A „kuruc vármegye.” Parlamenti képviselők és választóik a dualizmus kori Szabolcs vármegyében [The “Kuruc County.” Members of Parliament and their Electorate in Szabolcs County During the Age of Dualism]. Nyíregyháza: Örökségünk Kiadó, 2006.

Turner, Victor. Dramas, Fields, and Methaphors. Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca–London: Cornell University Press, 1974.

Ugrai, János. “Szoknyák, versek, viszályok (Egy lelkész kétszeres rangvesztése)” [Skirts, Poems, Animosity (How a Pastor Lost His Social Standing Twice)]. Aetas 21, no. 4 (2006): 71–88.


Translated by Attila Török

1 Károly Eötvös, A nagy per mely ezer éve folyik, s még nincs vége, vol. 1 (Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1968), 12.

2 As early as the 1930s, in the foreword to a collective volume published by a Hungarian Protestant student organization, Soli Deo Gloria, the case was already thematized as “the Jewish question.” Arnold Kiss et al., A nagy per (Zsidókérdés) (Budapest: Soli Deo Gloria, 1933), 4.

3 Jonathan Fox, “Towards a Dynamic Theory of Ethno-Religious Conflict,” Nations and Nationalism 5, no. 4 (1999): 432–42.

4 This system of four categories proposed by the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies defined the potential mutual relationships between the religions present in the marketplaces of early Christianity. The history of the research was summarised on the basis of Terry Donaldson’s original project plan by Richard Ascough, “The Canadian Society of Biblical Studies’ Religious Rivalries Seminar: Retrospection, Reflection and Retroversion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 32, no. 1–2 (2003): 158.

5 Wendy Mayer, “Religious Conflict: Definitions, Problems and Theoretical Approaches,” in Religious Conflict from early Christianity to the Rise of Islam, ed. Wendy Mayer and Bronwen Neil, Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte 121 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), 1–19.

6 György Kövér, A tiszaeszlári dráma. Társadalomtörténeti látószögek (Budapest: Osiris, 2011), 94–95.

7 Az első magyarországi népszámlálás (1784–1787), ed. Dezső Dányi and Zoltán Dávid (Budapest: KSH Könyvtára–MÜM Levéltári Osztálya, 1960), 160; Magyarország településeinek vallási adatai (1880–1949), vol. 2 (Budapest: KSH, 1997), 264.

8 Schematismus Cleri Archi-diocesis Agriensis ad annum Jesu Christi 1831, 1840, 1851, 1860, 1871, 1880, 1889. Agriae.

9 Egri Főegyházmegyei Levéltár (=EFL), Tiszaeszlár (=TE) 1765/1888 (April 23, 1888).

10 Count Géza Teleki led the Ministry of the Interior between June 16, 1889 and March 15, 1890; József Bölöny, Magyarország kormányai 1848–1975 (Budapest: Akadémiai, 1978), 164.

11 EFL TE 2580/1889 (June 1, 1889).

12 Cited by Szomjas, February 25, 1890; Tiszántúli Református Egyházkerületi Levéltár (=TtREL) I. 1. b. 209.

13 Ibid., Parson János Lápossy, chief curator Géza Ónody (1889, undated copy).

14 Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára (=MNL OL) S 78 225. téka.

15 TtREL I.1.b. 209. (April 22, 1890).

16 István Rácz, Egyház és társadalom. A Debreceni Tractus vagyona és gazdálkodása a 18–19. század fordulóján. (Debrecen: Kossuth Egyetemi Kiadó, 2002), 103–07; János Ugrai, “Szoknyák, versek, viszályok (Egy lelkész kétszeres rangvesztése),” Aetas 21, no. 4 (2006): 74; László Kósa, A gyulai református egyház története, Gyulai Füzetek 17, (Gyula: Békés Megyei Levéltár, 2008), 89–102.

17 Előterjesztés… TtREL I.28.c. 24 (February 1, 1867); Előterjesztés… Ibid., 25 (January 15, 1869).

18 Előterjesztés… Ibid., 24 (February 1, 1867).

19 Tiszaeszlár ref. egyházközség irattára (=TEREI), A tiszaeszlári helv. hitv. Egyház tanácskozási és határozati jegyzőkönyve, vol. 1 (December 15, 1872).

20 TtREL I.28.j. 15 (Gábor Farkas, February 20, 1874).

21 Ibid., 15, Miklós Pásztor, Gábor Farkas, Sámuel Erdőss, and others, March 4, 1874. When they delivered the complaint personally on March 7, Miklós Pásztor threatened that “he would convert into Catholicism.” Ibid.

22 Ibid., 15, Csiszár–Pápay, March 17, 1874.

23 TtREL I.28.c. 30, Egyházlátogatási jegyzőkönyv, TE, (June 3–4, 1874).

24 TtREL I.28.j. 15, Borus–Pápay, Tiszalök, July 29, 1874.

25 Ibid., 15, (April 5, 1875).

26 Ibid., 15, (April 28, 1877). The complaint was delivered to the bishop as an attachment to a letter written by chief curator Géza Ónody on April 30. Talking about the case, he makes reference to “a scandal of a trial.” Ibid., April 30.

27 Ibid., 15. Nyíregyháza, August 29, 1877.

28 Ibid., Borus–Pápay, Tiszalök, August 31, 1877.

29 Ibid., Az egyházmegyei törvényszéki tanács jegyzőkönyve, Püspökladány, September 11, 1877.

30 Ibid., October 28, 1877.

31 Ibid., Csiszár–Pápay, TE, October 16, 1877.

32 TEREI Jegyzőkönyv I (November 18, 1877).

33 TtREL I.28.j. 16 (August 1, 1878).

34 TEREI Jegyzőkönyv I (July 31, 1878).

35 TtREL I.28.j. 16 (August 1; August 2, 1878).

36 EFL Acta Personalia 1460/1884, József Adamovics (1845–1887) was appointed as the parson of the Eszlár parish in 1878.

37 In comparison with the Csiszár case, it is interesting to see how often the offensive statements made by the reverend allude to the “dirtiness” of the people attacked, regardless of the denomination to which they belonged or the sensitivity of the congregation.

38 EFL Acta Personalia 1460/1884 (March 1, 1884).

39 Ibid., March 15, 1884. One might recall Soma Csiszár’s “bread and whip” (carrot and stick) approach to managing his congregation.

40 Ibid., 1651, Tiszaeszlár, ad 392/1885 (January 26, 1885).

41 Ibid., 1460/1884. Eger, April 17, 1884 (draft).

42 Tisza-Eszlár (Napi Értesítő). A tisza-eszlári bűnper végtárgyalása alkalmából gyorsírói felvétel nyomán kiadja a Nyírvidék szerkesztősége, 1883, no. 1–29 [=T-E (Napi Értesítő)] József Scharf (June 19, 1883).

43 Ibid., Jakab Szüszmann (June 24, 1883). Until May or September 1879 Jakab Lichtmann formerly hold the office of the ‘chief curator’ in the Jewish religious community. Afterward Szüszmann became ‘curator’ only. Országos Széchényi Könyvtár Kézirattár (=OSZK Kt) Fol. Hung. 1847/1 (Bary) 583 (Italics: Gy. K.).

44 Ibid., József Einhorn (June 23, 1883).

45 Ibid., Jakab Lichtmann (June 28, 1883).

46 TtREL I.28.c. 49; 31; I. 28. h. 20. d.

47 Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg Megyei Levéltára (=MNL SZSZBML) IV.B.404. 34. d. 590/880.

48 MNL SZSZBML IV. B. 404. 39. d. XIV. 1883/237 Velkey–KB, April 1, 1883.

49 “Initially, just for a few weeks, I went to the school of the village, but then my father enrolled me in the Jewish elementary school.” Móric Scharf, “Emlékeim a tiszaeszlári pörből,” Egyenlőség, 46, September 17, 1927, 6.

50 MNL SZSZBML IV.B.404. 33. d. 1069/79. Tiszaeszlár község képviselőtestületi gyűlés jegyzőkönyve [Minutes of the Meeting of the General Assemby of the Village of Tiszaeszlár] (November 22, 1876).

51 MNL SZSZBML IV.B.402. 7. k. Szabolcs megye közgyűlési jegyzőkönyve (November 28, 1878).

52 MNL SZSZBML IV.B.404. 33. d. 1069/79. The application contrasted public interest with private interests: “in such a noble case as the spiritual well-being of an entire village, which indirectly also affects the advancement of our country, the selfish objections of a few who claim that they and their families do not benefit from this arrangement should not be considered when they go against the general intentions of an entire village.” (March 15, 1879).

53 MNL SZSZBML IV.B.404. 33. d. 1069/79 (May 26, 1879).

54 The minutes of a 1871 meeting of the presbytery expressis verbis only stated that “Any child belonging to any Christian denomination shall pay the same tuition fee in both schools.” TEREI Jegyzőkönyv, vol. 1 (May 6, 1871).

55 EFL TE 974/1878 Bertalan Ferenczy (March 14, 1878).

56 TEREI Jegyzőkönyv, vol. 1 (July 22, 1883)

57 MNL SZSZBML IV.B.411. 99. d. 10 205/1881 Kimmerling János segédszolgabíró jelentése [Report by Assistent District Officer János Kimmerling] (TE, December 28, 1881).

58 Ibid., (December 30, 1881).

59 László Szilágyi, A “kuruc vármegye.” Parlamenti képviselők és választóik a dualizmus kori Szabolcs vármegyében. (Nyíregyháza: Örökségünk Kiadó, 2006), 76–85; Nyírvidék, January 1, 1882, 3.

60 MNL OL A 4677 G. kat. anyakönyvek (Tokaj) 83 (September 10, 1834); A 2568 Ref. anyakönyvek (TE) 38 (October 3, 1864).

61 MNL SZSZBML IV.B.411. 1. d. 101/1872, Dobozy Ferenc jelentése [Report by Ferenc Dobozy] (February 27, 1872).

62 EFL Acta Personalia 1460/1884. According to the register of the county archives, Géza Ónody submitted an application in 1880 “concerning 117 forints missing from the accounts of the village judge Ferenc Nagy.” MNL SZSZBML IV.B.411. 1153. k. 1880.

63 Ibid.

64 Ibid., 99. d. 7935/1881. Ónody Géza levele [Letter by Géza Ónody] (September 9, 1881).

65 TtREL I.28.j. 16. 3/1882 Lápossy János, TE–Pápay Imre alsószabolcs-hajdúkerületi esperesnek, Hajdúböszörmény [János Lápossy, TE to Imre Pápay, the Dean of Alsószabolcs-hajdúkerület, Hajdúböszörmény] (January 12, 1882).

66 As far as the person and family of Gábor Farkas are concerned, see Kövér, A tiszaeszlári dráma, 285–94.

67 (Guszti) Ferenc Ailer was born around 1839–40. MNL OL A 900.

68 EFL Acta Personalia 1460/1884.

69 Függetlenség, June 22, 1883. A tárgyalások képe [The Standing of the Trial]. Even József Bary, the investigating judge of the affair remembered to reference this sentence in his memoires. Bary seems to have either not known or forgotten the antecedents of the election of the judge in early 1882 in Eszlár: “Had Ferenc Nagy, the person we wanted to elect, been the judge, Eszter’s disappearance would not have caused any trouble.” (Italics – Gy. K.) A tiszaeszlári bűnper. Bary József vizsgálóbíró emlékiratai (Budapest: Egyetemi Nyomda, 1933), 37.

70 Eötvös, A nagy per, I 82–83.

71 T-E (Napi Értesítő), June 22, 1883.

72 Ibid.

73 MNL OL S 78 225. téka.

74 T-E (Napi Értesítő), Mrs. Mihály Soós, June 23, 1883. In fact, she even remembered that “his mother never allowed [Samu] to go there ever again. I asked her why. She told me »because he always gossips.«” Ibid.

75 Ibid., Mrs. András Sós, June 22, 1883 (Interruption: József Scharf).

76 Ibid., June 23, 1883.

77 Ibid., Vámosi Julcsa [első] tanúvallomása [The [First] Witness Statement of Julcsa Vámosi], June 25, 1883. It was evident, that after the end of the Jewish sermon, at noon, all the members of the community had left the synagogue and returned home.

78 Ibid., Vámosiné tanúvallomása [The Witness Statement of Mrs. Vámosi], July 9, 1883.

79 Ibid., Vámosi Julcsa [második] tanúvallomása [The [Second] Witness Statement of Julcsa Vámosi], July 20, 1883.

80 Ibid., Vámosi József tanúvallomása [The Witness Statement of József Vámosi], July 20, 1883.

81 Ibid., Löventhal Salamonné tanúvallomása [The Witness Statement of Mrs. Salamon Löventhal], July 20, 1883.

82 Ibid., July 9, 1883.

83 Ibid., July 9, 1883. Of course, it turned out that there were petty conflicts between the women in the background. Mrs. Groszberg shed some light on the conflict: “I had March chickens and her swine ate all of them up. I asked her to come to the parish hall; there, she told me she would work for me because of the chicken. The judge told her to go and come to a settlement with me, and now she refuses to even put in that one day of work.” Ibid.

84 Függetlenség, May 31, 1882 (Királytelek, May 30).

85 W. M. A tisza-eszlári eset [The Case of Tiszaeszlár] (Dated: TiszaLök, May 30). Debreceni Ellenőr, May 31, 1882 (later, as a publicist of Jewish weekly, Egyenlőség, he changed his name to Miksa Szabolcsi).

86 Egyetértés, June 22, 1882 (Nyíregyháza, June 21, 1882).

87 MNL SZSZBML IV. B. 411. 107. d. 4687/ 882 Zoltán János alispán–BM [Deputy Lord Lieutenant János Zoltán to the Ministry of the Interior] (Nyíregyháza, June 2, 1882, draft).

88 OSZK Kt, Fol. Hung. 1847/ I (Bary) 118–19. T. Eszláron május 29-én történt népizgatottság alkalmából felvett jegyzőkönyv [Minutes Taken On Account of the Popular Excitement Taken Place on May 29, in Tiszaeszlár] (May 30, 1882).

89 József Juhász, a 53-year-old farmer living at the very edge of Újfalu saw a total of more than ten, and, later, a cartload of Jews in the area. OSZK Kt, Fol. Hung. 1847/I. (Bary) 114.

90 Teleki, Sándor, Solymosiné [Mrs. Solymosi], Debreceni Ellenőr, July 6, 1882.

91 A tiszaeszlári bűnper. Bary József vizsgálóbíró emlékiratai, 56; OSZK Kt Fol. Hung. 1847/1 (Bary) 586.

92 Az eszlári zsinagóga és a fürdőház [The Synagogue of Eszlár and the Bathhouse], Függetlenség, July 30, 1882. In his anonymously published article, Verhovay did not state that he had entered the synagogue, but otherwise the description of its inner space could not be given.

93 A tiszaeszlári zsidó hitközség nyilatkozata [The Communiqué of the Jewish Community in Tiszaeszlár], Egyenlőség, November 5, 1882, 8–9. The Communiqué of the local community had been not signed by the Lichtmann family members. The action was interpreted in different ways in the press. Pesti Napló, August 9, 1882.

94 Károly Eötvös himself was also thinking of offering a description: “The masses, once they have had their tempers roused, seek success in revenge, and will not only excuse but in fact demand all the violence that may be needed to achieve that goal, so much so that they will easily resort to violence themselves. They do not care about the law, about formalities, about any sacred protections, or about the natural rights of man.” Eötvös, A nagy per, I, 80. As far as the phenomena related to the psychology of the masses and to mass hysteria in the early phases of these academic fields are concerned, see Gustave Le Bon, La psychologie des foules (Paris: Alcan, 1895).

95 These events were reported by Egyenlőség (August 12, 1883, 7); I have not found pertinent data in the documents of the deputy lord lieutenant.

96 Egyenlőség, February 10, 1884.

97 Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Methaphors. Symbolic Action in Human Society, (Ithaca–London: Cornell University Press, 1974), 35–37.

98 Hillel J. Kieval, “The Importance of Place: Comparative Aspects of the Ritual Murder Trial in Modern Central Europe,” in Comparing Jewish Societies, ed. Todd E. Endelmann (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 135–65.

99 Christhard Hoffmann, “Political Culture and Violence against Minorities: The Antisemitic Riots in Pomerania and West Prussia,” in Exclusionary Violence. Antisemitic Riots in Modern German History, ed. Christhard Hoffmann, Werner Bergmann and Helmut Walser Smith (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 67–93; Helmut Walser Smith, “From Play to Act: Anti-Jewish Violence in German and European History during the Long Nineteenth Century,” in idem, The Continuities of German History. Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long Nineteenth Century. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 115–67.

100 Serge Moscovici, “The Dreyfus Affair, Proust and Social Psychology,” Social Research 53, no. 1 (1986): 27.


Volume 4 Issue 1 CONTENTS

pdfVladas Sirutavičius

National Bolshevism or National Communism: Features of Sovietization in Lithuania in the Summer of 1945 (The First Congress of the Intelligentsia)


In this article I discuss the problem of the sovietization of Lithuania in 1944–1945 from the perspective of the goals pursued by the Communist Lithuanian government in convening the First Congress of Lithuanian intelligentsia and the demands made by some of the congress delegates on the government. The research is based on the idea that the incorporation of elements of nationalism into the Soviet system was regarded as a means of making the regime more acceptable to the titular nationality and was also intended to facilitate the sovietization of societies. Some representatives of the leadership of the Lithuanian SSR thought that it would be possible to strike a deal with the Lithuanian cultural elite: the Soviet government would satisfy the most important (national) expectations of the intelligentsia, while the intelligentsia would support the government’s policies. However, no such policy was ever adopted. Instead, Moscow simply began to force Lithuania’s sovietization.

Keywords: National Communism, Intelligentsia, Lithuanian Communist Party, Sovietization


Historians who have analyzed the evolution and features of sovietization in Central Europe in 1944–1947 note that during this period Moscow maintained a fairly moderate political course. In some cases, the local Communists were warned to refrain from taking more radical political steps. Thus, the conclusion is reached that the leadership of the Soviet Union, at least temporarily, for tactical reasons did not undertake forced revolutionary sovietization of the countries in the region.1 Such a cautious political course, which took into account the specific aspects of the local societies, was based on several assumptions. First, the purpose of this policy was to expand Moscow’s influence in the region while also preserving the relationship of cooperation with the Western allies. Second, the main political ally of the USSR in the region, the Communist Parties, were few and unpopular. The greater part of society considered the Communists politically dependent and not representative of national interests. Therefore, the first task with which the leaders of the Communist party were confronted was how to increase their influence and build social support. This goal could be achieved in two ways: by implementing social and economic reforms, which the greater part of the public supported, and by positioning itself as the party that defended “national interests.” Thus, the “national factor” became an important instrument in the practical policies of the Communist party, mobilizing society and legitimizing the new soviet social and political order. The question of how this policy was implemented in Central Europe, specifically in Poland and Hungary, was thoroughly studied by two historians, Marcin Zaremba and Martin Mevius.2 According to them, nationalism became an important instrument of the legitimization of new communist governments and the sovietization of societies.

Historian David Brandenberger has observed that even in the 1930s the leadership of the Soviet Union, seeking to strengthen the legitimacy of the regime, more actively pursued cultural policies that cloaked a Marxist–Leninism worldview within russocentric, etatist rhetoric.”3 According to him, in the Soviet Union this meant “a peculiar form of Marxist-–Leninist etatism that fused the pursuit of communist ideals with more statist ambitions reminiscent of czarist ‘Great Power’ (velikoderzhavnoe) traditions.”4 Historians refer to this political course as national bolshevism (some call it national Stalinism).5 With certain exceptions and specificities (depending on local conditions), this course was supported by Moscow in Central Europe as well. The incorporation of nationalism into the Soviet system was intended to make the regime more acceptable to the titular nationality and also to facilitate the sovietization of societies. Of course, historians have noted that in the policies of the Communist parties in Central Europe, one must distinguish between national bolshevism and national communism.6 Without dwelling too much on this question, I argue that the major difference between these ideologies and political practices was that national communism meant a certain political and cultural autonomy and sovereignty with regard to Moscow. In his discussion of the Polish version of national communism, American historian Martin Malia identified home rule as one of its most important features.7 It seems that the leadership of the Soviet Union tolerated certain manifestations of autonomy in Central Europe until at least 1947.

It is worth mentioning, as a side note, that according to some historians the process of the sovietization of the Baltic States in 1944–1947, while it had its own distinguishing features, nonetheless essentially was similar to the sovietization of the countries of Central Europe. According to the Russian historian Elena Zubkova, Moscow’s policy in regard to the Baltic republics in the initial period of sovietization (up to 1947) depended on the social and political situation of the republics, the situation in the Soviet Union, and the relations between the Western allies and Moscow.8 Therefore, the policies of sovietization were moderate: Moscow did not force Vilnius to implement collectivization, and Russia showed respect for national symbols, the Lithuanian language, and the national intelligentsia. Repressive measures were focused on members of the armed underground. Thus, in the process of sovietization attention was paid to the national specifics of Lithuania and the other Baltic societies.9 Of course, for the most part, the assessments that were penned by Lithuanian historians differ significantly. According to Lithuanian historians, as early as 1944 and 1945, the USSR leadership in Lithuania was already implementing a process of sovietization based ongeneral principles,without taking into account the national specifics of the republic.10 This was also due, at least according to this assessment, to the fact that among Lithuanian Communists a “nihilistic approach to their nation” and subservience to the Russians prevailed.11

In fact, with certain exceptions, the Soviet leadership’s political course of sovietization described by E. Zubkova could have been characteristic of the period until the fall of 1944 (or the beginning of 1945 at the latest). On the other hand, the Lithuanian historians who are critical of Zubkova overlooked certain nuances of the sovietization policies. Česlovas Laurinavičius noted that in the policies of the Soviet Union (from the middle of 1943 until the beginning of 1945) one can see clear efforts to “raise” the Soviet Republic of Lithuania in international politics, while at the same time efforts were made to “push the Republic of Lithuania out of the international arena.12 Also at roughly the same time, in the policies of the Lithuanian SSR leadership, “national aspects” began to be expressed more actively. In the Lithuanian programs on Moscow radio, the interwar anthem of Lithuania, which had been banned in 1940,13 began to be broadcast. Measures were taken to release from imprisonment some of the politicians and public figures of the Republic of Lithuania and use them in a propaganda campaign against the Germans and to proclaim the establishment of the Lithuanian SSR among the Lithuanian diaspora in the USA.14 Efforts were also made to assure the use of the Lithuanian language in the administrative and bureaucratic apparatus.15

In general, Moscow at the beginning of 1944 began the course of “strengthening” the so-called Soviet statehood of Soviet republics. The reorganization of the people’s commissariats of defense and foreign affairs into a system of Union–republic subordination was begun16 and suggestions were made regarding the restoration of the republics’ diplomatic services. In the fall of 1944, Soviet Lithuania, along with the Ukraine and Belarus, were proposed for acceptance into the UN.17 Around that time, the leaders of Soviet Lithuania began to think about the possibility of expanding the republic’sSoviet sovereignty.” Metaphorically speaking, in the activities of Lithuania’s Communists one can notice the tendency to move towards national communism.

I will present an example. In the spring of 1944, as the Red Army was approaching Lithuania, the leaders of the LSSR began to consider the possibility of returning to the country and restoring the Soviet social and political order, in all likelihood at the initiative of Moscow. In March 1944, Mečislovas Gedvilas, Chairman of the Council of the People’s Commissars (CPC) of the Lithuanian SSR, appealed for assistance to Lithuanian Communist Party (LCP) Secretary Antanas Sniečkus, suggesting that the Central Committee bureau discuss the principles of the restoration of the Soviet system in Lithuania.18 Unfortunately, we know little about how the debate actually occurred. However, we do have the decision of a joint project of the Lithuanian SSR CPC and the LCP Central Committee, by the same name, which was addressed to the USSR government and the Central Committee of Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU). In it, the leaders of the Lithuanian SSR “asked” the USSR leadership to determine the principles of the restoration of the Soviet system. According to the third point, the Lithuanian SSR would not adopt “automatically” the ordinances pertaining to the republics of the Union, but rather, having taken into account the general situation of the restoration of the Soviet system, it would accept the ordinances “by the resolutions and decrees of the organs of the republic.”19 We know nothing about the Kremlin’s reaction to the initiatives of Lithuania’s Communists, nor do we know in general whether such a project was sent to the USSR leaders. The point cited here remained only on paper, and there was no further mention of it anywhere, although, of course, it testified to certain “sovereignty” ambitions of the leadership of Soviet Lithuania.20

The leaders of the Lithuanian SSR returned to Lithuania in July 1944. In the fall of that year, Moscow sharply criticized the LCP leadership for a variety oferrors and failures in their work that testify to their inability to control the public and the political situation in the republic.Organizational conclusions were drawn: in November, the CPSU established the Lithuanian bureau. Michail Suslov was appointed chairman of the bureau.21 The bureau became the most important political institution of the Lithuanian SSR, almost all of the important decisions of the LCP, the Council of People’s Commissars and the Supreme Council presidium were adopted only with its consent.22 The establishment of such an institution not only in each of the Baltic republics, but also in the Moldavian SSR clearly testified to the strengthening of the centralistic and unification trends in the western borderlands of Soviet Union. From Moscow‘s point of view, the Communist parties in the region were weak and the Soviet government did not have significant support among the local populations. It was therefore necessary to consolidate Communist Parties. The situation in Lithuania was more complicated: the mobilization of Lithuanians into the Red Army (which began at the end of July and the beginning of August 1944) collapsed,23 and armed resistance grew stronger. On the other hand, after the defeat of the Warsaw Uprising, Moscow began increasingly to abandon the idea of “raising” the international “prestige” of the Baltic republics, first and foremost because the West perceived this policy as an attempt to obtain the recognition of the incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union.24 Thus on the basis of various considerations, these kinds of proposals were usually rejected. (Finally, Moscow abandoned the idea of inviting the Lithuanian SSR to the UN at the Yalta conference.)

The fight with the increasingly stronger partisan movement and various manifestations of “bourgeois nationalism” became one of the most important tasks of the Lithuanian bureau. On May 24, 1945, at a meeting of Lithuania’s bureau, it was decided to extend the fight against the armed and unarmed underground. In the summer, a major military operation against the guerrilla movement was planned and carried out.25 In the middle of July, the mass deportations of the families of partisans began.26 The Russification campaign of Lithuania’s Communist Party gained ever more momentum.27 Under these circumstances, the bureau of Lithuania and the Lithuanian government decided to organize the first congress of the intelligentsia of the Lithuanian SSR.28 The congress began on July 10 and lasted for a total of five days.

In this article, I will discuss the goals that were pursued by the Lithuanian SSR government in convening the congress and the demands that were placed by some of the congress delegates on the Soviet Lithuanian government. During the congress, some of the demands raised by the delegates had a clear national orientation and testified to the importance in the minds of the delegates of the goal of autonomy, albeit within the framework of the Soviet system. On the other hand, the policies of the government and the Moscow emissaries were increasingly coercive and were increasingly focused on centralization and unification.29

The Organization of the Congress and the Government’s Goals

Judging from the letter of bureau head M. Suslov to CPSU CC Secretary G. Malenkov, the idea of convening the congress of the intelligentsia arose in the spring of 1945. According to Suslov, the purpose of the congress was to expandourinfluence on the intelligentsia and to acquaint the intelligentsia with the achievements of the Soviet government.30 In general, formally, the congress of intellectuals was not a special event, and essentially it illustrated clearly the specifics of the Stalinist political system. The government would organize similar events,congresses,” in the hopes of acquiring the support of various social groups and thus buttressing its legitimacy. In Lithuania in the first half of the same year, congresses of “labor peasants” and trade unions were held.

And yet, this congress was special for two important reasons: first, it was a congress of Lithuanian intelligentsia in Vilnius; second, for the Soviet Lithuanian government, the support of Lithuania’s intellectuals, especially the older generation of the intelligentsia, which had taken formed in bourgeois Lithuania,” was particularly significant. Given the ever growing partisan movement and the complicated economic and social situation, nothing else could have done more to legitimize the government of Soviet Lithuania than the activeinvolvement in the construction of socialism” of the intellectuals, especially those who were members of the cultural elite.

The government therefore prepared seriously for the congress. The organization of the congress cost about 200,000 rubles. The participants were well fed. They were given cards with which they were able to purchase 500 rubles-worth of goods.31 (However, according to the Lithuanian SSR NKGB Commissar Aleksandras Gudaitis-Guzevičius, the goods were of poor quality and the logistics were poorly organized.)32 After the meetings, a cultural program was organized: there were lectures and performances, including even a ballet from Moscow. A total of about 540 delegates and 250 guests came to the congress. (According to the initial plans, there would have been 600 delegates and 300 guests.) Some guests came from Moscow, including Mikhail Jovchuk, who served as deputy head of the CPSU CC propaganda and agitation department, several employees of the CPSU CC apparatus and several members of the Academy of Sciences.

The government took care of more than just the everyday lives of the delegates. Judging from the reports of Commissar A. Guzevičius, 64 agents observed” the events of the congress and another 25 NKGB workers were sent asservice agents.33 Over the course of the whole congress, security officialsdetected” 27 “anti-Soviet elements,” two of whom were arrested. According to Guzevičius, the majority of the delegates (teachers, principals, physicians, agronomists, surveyors, etc.) were from rural areas, and they werechosen” by the local government and party committees.34 However, the representatives of the cultural elite (writers, directors, actors) and the academic elite (high school principals, professors), who played the most important roles in the congress (they were the main speakers), were invited to the congress. Some of them, for instance Vilnius Academy of Arts professor Justinas Vienožinskis, declined to participate in it.35 There were others who wanted to participate, but for one reason or another could not.36

The question arises whether the government in any way attempted to influence the speakers or the statements they made, i.e. to censor them in advance. I would dare to say that it did not. The content of the speeches the texts of which have survived, the reactions of the participants, and the discussions that were held during the congress testify that the government avoided direct interference or pressure.37 On the other hand, it should also be noted that the information in the press about the congress was presented in “doses”: the full speeches of Lithuanian SSR Supreme Presidium Chairman J. Paleckis and the LCP CC Secretary A. Sniečkus were published. The speeches (there were about 40) of the delegates were summarized or paraphrased, but in general those that were particularly critical with regards to the government were not mentioned. Basing his conclusions on the reports of agents, Guzevičius informed USSR NKGB Deputy Commissar Amajak Kobulov that the participants had the impression that they enjoyed complete freedom of speech. Some of the participants were pleasantly surprised. According to the Lithuanian SSR Security Commissar, there were some participants who thought that they would not be allowed to speak freely. Indeed they feared that they would be arrested and deported to Siberia. Among the arrivals from the rural areas such rumors were especially prevalent. 38

I mentioned that the congress can be called a congress of Lithuanian intelligentsia in Vilnius. I failed to find data on the national composition of the congress participants. Probably no such data were recorded. The press noted that the intellectuals arrived in Vilnius from all corners of Lithuania, however, I would guess that the overwhelming majority of them were Lithuanians, i.e. representatives of the titular nation. So my guess regarding the informal nature of the congress, as it was perceived by most members of the congress, was based on several assumptions: first, almost all the speakers were Lithuanians.39 Prominent representatives of the interwar Lithuanian intelligentsia took part in the congress and delivered speeches.40 Only a few of them were members of the Communist Party. The famous Lithuanian opera singer Kipras Petrauskas was “elected to the presidium” of the congress. Second, the report of Paleckis, although formally entitled “The Current Moment and the Challenges for the Intelligentsia of Soviet Lithuania,” also contained a subsection with the revealing title The Road of the Lithuanian Intelligentsia” (in other words the title emphasized the national belonging of the intelligentsia, an assertion which was at odds with the Marxist principle of internationalism); third, several of the delegates in their statements at the congress compared the gathering with the Great Seimas of Vilnius in 1905, at which “autonomy for ethnographic Lithuania with Vilnius was demanded from the czarist Russian government.41 Of course, such associations were not reflected in the official press. Indeed, in his introductory speech Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars Mečislovas Gedvilas even declared that the congress was the first such event in the history of Lithuania.

The objectives of the government were formulated in several editorial articles of Tiesa (Truth) and Tarybų Lietuva (Soviet Lithuania) and the statements made by Lithuanian SSR Supreme Council Presidium Chairman Paleckis at the congress. The articles published in the newspapers stressed the progressive role of the intelligentsia in history and also noted that the “most prominent part of the [Lithuanian] intelligentsia remained loyal to the people.” There was also talk about the mission of the intelligentsia, which was to educate in the “spirit of Soviet patriotism, to fight against “bourgeois nationalist ideology,” to promote the achievements of other Soviet republics, and to develop national culture (“national in form, socialist in content”). In order to carry out such a mission, the authors of the editorial articles asserted, it was necessary for the Lithuanian intelligentsia to “arm themselves with the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism,” to engage actively in the fight against bourgeois nationalism and generally to follow the principles of socialism.42 Thus, the principles of the cooperation of Soviet Lithuania and the intelligentsia were formulated: the intelligentsia acknowledges and accepts the “principles of socialism” and relies on the Marxist-Leninist worldview, while the Soviet Lithuanian government takes care of national culture, the content of which, of course, had to be socialist.

A similar ideas was proclaimed by Justas Paleckis on the first day of the congress. Lithuanian historians have noted that among other leaders of the Lithuanian Communist Party Paleckis was distinguished not only for his “liberalism,” but also as someone who “quite often voiced his dissatisfaction with the policy of Russification,” and in general was “a Communist of national consciousness.”43 Paleckis’ turn towards “national communism” is confirmed by “Lietuvos laisvos darbo respublikos kūrimo programa” (A Program for the Creation of Lithuania as a Republic of Free Labor), which he wrote as early as the autumn of 1939. The program encourages the fairly radical transformation of the authoritarian political system, but it does not call for sovietization; on the other hand, it speaks not so much on the behalf of the Lithuanian nation, but rather on behalf of the Lithuanian people. In other words, it is about a community that is defined more by class considerations than national sentiments; from the geopolitical point of view, the future Lithuania as a republic of labor was projected by Paleckis as a protectorate of the USSR.44 In fact, this political program matched the attitudes of the People’s Front that were promoted and actively supported by Moscow and the Comintern.

In the first half of 1940s, Paleckis was balancing between attitudes characteristic of Central European national communism and national bolshevism. He tried to emphasize the specifics of the historical development of Lithuania and its differences from other Soviet republics, in which the formation of the Soviet regime had begun earlier. According to him, the tradition of statehood made Lithuania a unique republic, and this circumstance should be taken into account in the transformation of Lithuania into a soviet. Paleckis was convinced that in order to make soviet authority more attractive to the Lithuanians, it would be necessary to cooperate with the nation’s cultural elite, in other words the interwar Lithuanian intelligentsia, and to promote the use of Lithuanian in public life. Also, Paleckis stressed the importance of “national revival,” and the most famous representatives of this revival, Jonas Basanavičius and Vincas Kudirka, for Soviet Lithuanian culture. Of course according to him, the “real liberation” of the Lithuanian nation from national oppression was crowned with the establishment of the Soviet government in Lithuania. Finally, Paleckis tried to incorporate national elements into the system of symbols of Soviet Lithuania. He actively supported the idea of making the hymn of the Lithuanian Republic, Kudirkas’ “National song,” the hymn of Soviet Lithuania. The Lithuanization of the symbols of Soviet power, must have hoped, would strengthen the legitimacy of the Communist government.45

So in his speech, Paleckis discussed the challenges that faced the Soviet Lithuanian intelligentsia. Essentially, he repeated what had already been written in the press, though he discussed the challenges that faced each group of intellectuals in greater detail. He mentioned the necessity, for the intelligentsia, of studying Marxism (he contended that the Lithuanian intellectual would find all the answers to his doubts in “the writings of the great sages of socialism from Marx to Stalin”). He drew particular emphasis to the importance of the historical relationship with Russia, stressing the positive impact of Russia’s civilization on Lithuania (communist Russia had liberated Lithuania from the yoke of czarism, returned Vilnius, and so on). He also explained the necessity of fighting against “bourgeois nationalists,” “Hitler’s laborers,” He ended the speech with the cry “Long live the great leader and teacher, comrade Stalin! According to what was written in the press, the hall was filled with “thunderous applause.” So for the time, it was a fairly ordinary, orthodox speech.

However, in the report there was a part entitled “The Road of the Lithuanian Intelligentsia,” and this section could hardly be called orthodox.46 It was an obvious reference to the national aspirations of Lithuanian intellectuals. In a speech by a spokesman for Marxism–Leninism, this, of course, was peculiar. In this part of the speech, Paleckis tried to combine two traditions that were, in his view, characteristic of the Lithuanian national movement: the struggle for social liberation and the struggle for national liberation. He asserted that the struggle for Lithuanian “national liberation” “coincided” with the solution to the social question, i.e. the struggle of the peasant against the landlord. In that struggle “from the depths of the common people” there arose the “new Lithuanian intelligentsia,” who carried out “the work of awakening Lithuanian nation.” According to Paleckis two most prominent activists represented the “new Lithuanian intelligentsia”: Vincas Kudirka (the founder of illegal Lithuanian paper Aušra (The Dawn) and composer of anthem of Lithuanian Republic) and Vincas Mickevičius-Kapsukas (the founder of Lithuanian Communist Party.) So they both began the fight for real Lithuanian folk matters, liberation from the yoke of czarism, as well as rights and land,” Paleckis explained.

In the end, according to Paleckis, the Soviet government completed the “liberation of the Lithuanian nation.” The interwar bourgeois Lithuania did not meet the “progressive ideals of the national movement,and in an attempt to emphasize the idea to the people assembled, he cited a stanza by famous Lithuanian poet and priest Maironis: Lithuania land of heroes / We have sung from long ago; But from that greatness only / the devils reap their benefits.” This organic interpretation of the nation’s history, according to which national liberation was naturally combined with the “people’sstruggle for social rights, is characteristic, according to some researchers, of national communism.47 This was an effort to demonstrate that the Soviet system was “compatible” with national ideals.

Of course, in Paleckis’ speech there were still a few important aspects. One of the parts of the speech was entitled “Bourgeois nationalists—Hitler’s laborers.” In this section, Paleckis argued that the armed underground had been engendered by the Nazi occupation and ultimately had the same goals, namely to destroy the Lithuanian nation. In his assessment, it was therefore, necessary to fight against it, and it was important for the intelligentsia to enter into this fight. And there was another important idea in the speech that is very often found in the official discourse, namely the necessity of strengthening ties and friendship with the Russian people. According to Paleckis, the Russian people and their Red Army had rescued the Lithuanian nation from Nazi extermination. Furthermore, the Lithuanian and Russian nations were bound by old “historical ties.” Both nations had long fought against the Germans invaders. According to Paleckis, “Mindaugas signed a treaty with Aleksandr Nevsky against the Teutonic knights, and together they crushed them.” The same event occurred “at Žalgiris,” where the Lithuanians defeated the Teutonic knights with the help of the Russians. The fight of the Russian populists against czarism had a significant impact on the Lithuanian national movement. Their influence had also been important in the “progressive Varpas movement” begun by V. Kudirka. Finally, the struggle of the Russian proletariat had awoken” Lithuania’s workers and peasants. So, Paleckis tried in every way to emphasize the progressive civilizing influence of the Russian nation: it was thanks to the Russian people that the Lithuanians freed themselves from the clutches of czarism and Vilnius was returned to the Lithuanians, etc. Russian culture was characterized as “humane,” a refreshing source that “also refreshes the culture of our nation,as the presidium chairman explained to those assembled.

Moscow began to promote very actively the idea of the common battle of the Slavic nations against German expansion to the east during the war. This pan-Slavic doctrine and pan-Slavic policies had some foundation. The victims of German aggression were largely Slavic states and nations. On the other hand, the idea of Slavic unity did not rule out the special role of the Russian nation (the Soviet Union) in the Slavic world.48 Of course, it should be noted that in the 1930s some political groups in Lithuania, such as the Young Peasant Populists, whose leader at that time was Paleckis, regarded the Soviet Union and the Russian people as the main ally of the Lithuanian nation in the fight against the “aggressiveness of the Germans.”49

Standpoints of the Congress Delegates

Paleckis’ programmatic speech became a subject of debate among the delegates. Virtually all of the speakers responded to it directly or indirectly.50 How did members of the congress, the delegates (the Lithuanian intelligentsia), respond to the speech, and, more generally, to what extent did they fulfill the government’s wishes? Judging from the available archival data, one can assert, of course, somewhat schematically, that among the intellectuals two main provisions dominated. Some of the delegates, characterizing socialism as a “global development trend” that guaranteed social progress and enabled the development of the national aspirations of the Lithuanians, endorsed and supported thepath of the development” of socialist Lithuania. Of course, they also saw the system’s imperfections and threats to national sovereignty, and they spoke about this publicly. After World War II, there were likeminded intellectuals in other countries, apart from Lithuania. Second, some of the intellectuals present at the congress were skeptical with regards to Soviet Lithuania or even rejected Soviet Lithuania in principle. They identified the Soviet government with Russification, and thought that Russification was inevitable and the sovereignty of the Lithuanian SSR was an illusion. Of course, they could not express themselves publicly, but security officials made notes regarding such non-public comments in the corridors of the congress.

What were these comments? Some members of the congress were concerned less with Paleckis’s speech and more with the question of whether an independent Lithuania would be “restored.” For some, it seemed that the “question of Lithuania” should finally be resolved at the “conference of the heads of three countries.” The director of the Raseiniai high school Karumas, who was already being observed by security forces “as a nationalist,” thought this way. In the opinion of agronomist Baltušnikas, “the word (of Paleckis) will not help anything, the English and American tanks will decide.”51 Another participant doubted whether Paleckis would be able “to resist Moscow’s will.” Someone called the speech by Paleckis a sermon that had little to do with reality.52 During the congress, professor and composer Balys Dvarionas, who in 1949 was awarded the Stalin Prize of the first degree and in 1950 wrote music for the Lithuanian SSR anthem, tried to comfort himself: I want to flee from Lithuania, now it is not Lithuania here, but Russia, and the University of Vilnius professor Gudaitis resented that those who had fought against the Fascists were being taken to Siberia.53 Writer A. Žukauskas mentioned the difficult plight of the peasants, who were oppressed both by the “bandits and the NKVD punishments.”54 Delegates from Telšiai and Kaunas recounted the rumors according to which at the end of the congress the government would force the participants to sign an appeal and then would deport them to Siberia. Overall, the delegates from the provinces feared what would happen to them when they returned home. Apparently, they feared reprisals from the partisans.

And how were the sentiments of support for the Lithuanian nation Lithuanian national autonomy expressed at the congress? One of the first speakers, professor Jonas Kairiūkštis (a physician, then non-party), approved of Paleckis’ views and invited the congress participants to “adopt and understand” the socialist system: “one can move forward only when you are convinced that the government will be on duty guarding national interests, only then are you calm for the happy future of the nation.” He continued: “We intellectuals ... patriots of our country, we love the antiquity of our land, the language, we love our nation’s traditions and culture.” (Incidentally, in the LCP official newspaper Tiesa, where the speech of Kairiūkštis was published, the passages cited here were omitted.) The professor concluded his speech by saying that “in socialism the loss of national identity does not threaten the Lithuanians.”55 I think that the principle of mutual cooperation between the intelligentsia and the Soviet government was formed as early as the very beginning of the congress: a government that would take care of the development of national Lithuanian culture was considered worthy of support. Similar thoughts and ideas were expressed by other delegates. Some drew more emphasis to the advantages of socialism and the prospects it would create (such as deputy rector of Vilnius University, professor of physics and chemistry Juozas Matulis, who became an LCP member in 1950). This motif was repeated in the reports of many speakers. Others stressed concern about the necessity of the culture of the Lithuanian nation, such as Borisas Dauguvietis (LSSR senior director of the theater, non-party). Recently returned from a Nazi concentration camp, writer Balys Sruoga addressed those assembled: “with the deepest respect and love I welcome every creative effort, every labor, great or small, that refreshes our land.”56 The writer thanked the party and the government for having rescued him, which is entirely understandable.57

However, the speeches of several people at the congress stood out specifically because of their national overtones and their critical attitudes towards the authorities. The speech of botanist and Vilnius University professor Jonas Dagys was remarkable in this regard (in Tiesa and Tarybų Lietuva there was only brief mention of his speech.) First, Dagys talked about the need to bring members of the Lithuanian intelligentsia whohad been shipped from Lithuania to various corners of the USSR, Siberia and Kazakhstan in 1941” back to Lithuania.58 Although according to the professor, that had been merely a precautionary measure, “it was carried out in haste and therefore many mistakes were made.It was necessary to rectify these errors, he declared. Therefore, the speaker appealed to the leaders of the Lithuanian SSR to “undertake measures and create conditions for the Lithuanian intellectuals to return to their homeland.(In the archival transcript of the speech, after this passage one finds the words “fierce applause.59) He also criticized NKVD Commissar Juozas Bartašiūnas for his article in Tiesa.60 According to Dagys, in the article commissar used many kinds of threats and harsh words.” Such words only dissuaded those who wanted to get out of the forest, and after all, one found not only criminals in the woods, but also people who wanted to avoid mobilization. In conclusion, Dagys noted that one should go to socialism not only armored in the science of Marxism, but also “with love and nurture,” It is clear the speech raised uncomfortable questions for the government. According to the accounts of the security officials, the speech was actively discussed behind the scenes of the congress. There were some who thought that the author would be punished one way or another. At the same time, the security officials noted that the professor’s ideas had far more supporters, and “only a very small percentage disagreed.”61 At the convention, only People’s Commissar of Education Juozas Žiugžda responded publicly to Dagys’ speech. (Understandably, in the pages of the newspapers, this criticism of the speech also was not published, although the greater part of the Commissar’s speech was printed.) Žiugžda attacked Dagys, accusing him of not knowing the theory and practice of Marxism, Leninism, and Stalinism and contending that it was inappropriate for the professor to talk from “the venerable rostrum about what he himself does not understand.”62

The national aspirations were highlighted even more strongly in the speech by Agriculture Academy Rector Matas Mickis (in 1940–1941, he served as minister of agriculture in the so-called People’s government, and he joined the party in 1949). I will offer more extensive citations from his speech because it was not published in the press. According to the rector, Lithuanians were a small nation. “Various invaders lay claim to its sovereignty”: Polish landlords, Germans, czarist Russia, which not only sought to enslave, but also took away the press.63 However, the “small nation” also wanted to be free. It wanted to preserve its culture and language. On the other hand, Mickis pointed out, Lithuanians had a “great history.” And this showed that Lithuanians were a mature nation,with their own national character and customs, which they valued, and they were no less proud of these customs than large nations were of theirs.64

Like the Russians, Mickis continued, the Lithuanian nation had many heroes, who nurtured its statehood. They know what Vytautas the Great, a hero of our nation, had given them. No one can deny the significance of his feats. He had been victorious at Žalgiris, and he had stopped the German onslaught from the West. He made a contribution to the history of mankind. V. Kudirka also gave a lot to the nation. (According to Mickis, Stalin was enthralled by the national anthem of Kudirka, by its dignity and beauty.)

He also emphasized in his speech that for a small nation the true road” is the socialist path: we Lithuanians do not want anything more than to be equal, not to be thrown in the shade, and only the socialist system provides such conditions.” The Soviet system, the professor said, also can solve the national question: “The essence of socialism is that it allows all nations to live their cultural lives freely.65

However, according to Mickis the practices of socialism do not always conform to the ideas proclaimed. In rural areas, “there was a lot of tactlessness and arbitrariness” from the Soviet administration. Arrivals from other republics, not knowing the Lithuanian language, insulted it. There were numerous institutions in which representatives and functionaries could not understand Lithuanian. All this was vexing to Lithuanians, Mickis explained. As a result, in his opinion, the fear of Russification arose. As an example, Mickis pointed out the Utena district policeman, who mocked the Lithuanian language. Below I will quote an extract from the archival copy of the speech: “He [the policeman] is the same kind of black hundred of whom there were many in the times of the czar. (applause) The government will throw such refuse out of our republic. (applause) They are not only enemies of our nation, but also enemies of socialism. (applause) The militiaman visits a peasant and tells him to open his suitcases... [he is robbing – author’s comment] (applause)”66 If you want socialism, Mickis ended his speech, you yourself must set an example.67

The national sentiments of the intelligentsia found expression in other forms in the congress. Even though at the very beginning of the congress Gedvilas had stated that it was the first congress of its kind, in their speeches several delegates publicly recalled the Vilnius Seimas, in which Lithuanians raised the political demand for the first time: “autonomy for ethnographic Lithuania, with the capital Vilnius.”68 Thus, the speakers emphasized the historic link between the Lithuanian SSR congress of the intelligentsia and the Great Seimas of Vilnius. (It is understandable that neither in Tiesa nor in Tarybų Lietuva were there any references to the Great Seimas of Vilnius.) Professor Pranas Mažylis (a member of the interwar Social Democratic Party and member of the Academy as of 1946) recalled that in the same hall in 1905 there had been “a large meeting of Lithuania’s peasants, workers and intellectuals, usually called the Great Seimas of Vilnius.69 He himself had participated in it, and the Seimas had had a significant impact on the revolution.Writer Karolis Račkauskas-Vairas also remembered the Seimas. According to him, it had been a congress of “Lithuanian peasants,” which had “pushed our people,” shaken the nation out of apathy, and shown it a new path.70

A few more meaningful facts merit mention that testify to the national ambitions of a sufficiently large number of the participants in the congress. These facts again exemplify how on some issues the approaches of the LSSR government and the intelligentsia, which promoted the “socialist road” but also emphasized the importance of the national factor, were different. Overall, it could be argued that part of the Lithuanian intelligentsia certainly supported the model of national communism. On the last day of the convention, after a sufficiently orthodox speech by A. Sniečkus, the text of an appeal to Lithuania’s intelligentsia was discussed.71 The literary critic Kostas Korsakas presented it to the congress. In the hall discussions arose on the text of the appeal and various additions were suggested.72 Academician Matulis, discussing the tasks of the intelligentsia, suggested adding “the Lithuanianization of Vilnius” to the appeal. According to him, the citizens of Poland were departing and Vilnius remained “half-empty.”73 He stressed the important of pursuing the Lithuanianization of Vilnius. This was met with “long applause.(According to Matulis, “Lithuanianization” was equally important in the case of Klaipėda, the major port city of Lithuania.) There were other proposals, including one regarding the return from the USSR to Lithuania of all Lithuanian intellectuals so that they could carry out restoration work in the homeland (this was also followed by thunderous applause). It is likely that the government did not expect such a proposal to be made. Council of People’s Commissars Chairman M. Gedvilas, who was chairing the meeting, agreed to include the provision concerning the Lithuanianization of Vilnius in the appeal. Regarding the second proposal, he contended that it would be meaningless, since the government was already making every effort to return them [the intellectuals].” In the end, the delegates scrapped this point.

The printed message in the official press on the work of the last day and the text of the appeal74 differed from the text agreed on by the Congress delegates and approved by the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars. In the official accounts in the press, there was no mention of making Vilnius more “Lithuanian,” a goal that was dear to the Lithuanian intellectuals who were willing to cooperate with the Soviet government. Rather, there were only references to the importance of the “reconstruction and accommodation” of Vilnius.


First, the government of Soviet Lithuania, by organizing the congress, sought to draw the intellectuals into the “constructionof the socialist system and the “fight against bourgeois nationalists.” The express approval of the intelligentsia for Soviet policies would have served the legitimization of the government. This was especially important, as the partisan movement was growing stronger. One should note that there were signs of such approval: the appeal to the intelligentsia of Soviet Lithuania was adopted, with greetings sent to Stalin. Second, the participants in the congress, the Lithuanian intelligentsia, the creative elite, in general agreed to support the “construction” of socialism under the condition that Lithuanian culture would be nurtured and favored. Not coincidentally, the congress proclaimed the necessity of making Vilnius, the old, traditional capital of Lithuania, “Lithuanian.” This goal was shared by various groups of intellectuals. Third, one can assume that some of the members of the leadership of the Lithuanian SSR thought that it would be possible to strike a deal with the “oldLithuanian intelligentsia, which had taken form “in bourgeois Lithuania.” The government would satisfy the most important (national) expectations of the intelligentsia, while the intelligentsia would offer support for the government’s policies. Unfortunately, while Lithuania’s Communists may have entertained such visions, they were never realized in practice. Moscow began to force Lithuania’s Sovietization. Not coincidentally, visitors from Moscow who observed the congress offered critical assessments of its results.75 Finally, if during the summer of 1945 the policies of the Soviet Lithuanian government were dominated by the spirit of national bolshevism, for some of Lithuania’s intellectuals, this was understood as national communism. This vision of a form of communism that would be at least in part a realization of national autonomy was to prove fleeting.

Archival Sources


Lietuvos Ypatingasis archyvas [Lithuanian Special Archive]. f.1771 [Central Committee of the Lithuanian Communist Party].

Lietuvos Ypatingasis archyvas [Lithuanian Special Archive]. f. 3377 [Central Committee of the Lithuanian Communist Party Institute of MarxismLeninism].

Lietuvos Ypatingasis archyvas [Lithuanian Special Archive]. f.K41 [State Security Committee of the Lithuanian SSR (NKGB-MGB-KGB)].

Vilniaus apskrities archyvas [Vilnius County Archive]. f.761 [The Executive Committee of Vilnius City].

Lietuvių literatūros ir tautosakos instituto bibliotekos rankraštynas [The Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore Manuscript Library]. f.1 [Writers and linguists].

Rossijskij gosudarstvennyj archiv socialno-politicheskoj istorii [Russian state archive of socio-political history]. f.597 [Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Lithuanian Bureau].


Published Documents

Už tarybinę lietuvių literatūrą. Lietuvos TSR tarybinių rašytojų susirinkimo, įvykusio 1946 m., medžiaga [For Soviet Lithuanian Literature. Materials of Meeting of Soviet Lithuanian Writers, held in 1946]. Vilnius: Grožinės literatūros leidykla, 1947.

SSSR i Litva v gody vtoroj mirovoj voiny. Sbornik dokumentov [Soviet Union and Lithuania during World War II. Documents]. Edited by A. Kasparavičius, Č. Laurinavičius, and N. Lebedeva, vol. 2, Vilnius: LII, 2012.

Archiv Stalina. Dokumenty vysshych organov partijnoj i gosudarstvennoj vlasti [Stalin’s Archive. Documents of Supreme Party and State Institutions]. Edited by V.N. Chaustov, V.P. Naumov, and N.S. Plotnikova. Moscow: Materik, 2006.



“Garbingi mūsų inteligentų uždaviniai” [The honorable Tasks of Our Intelligentsia]. Tiesa, July 10, 1945, 159.

Janušytė, Liūnė. “Ką kalba delegatai” [What Delegates Say]. Tiesa, July 12, 1945, 161.

“V. Molotovo pranešimas TSRS Aukščiausioje taryboje” [V. Molotov’s Report in the Session of Soviet Supreme Council]. Tarybų Lietuva, February 6, 1944, 6.

“Pirmojo tarybų Lietuvos inteligentijos suvažiavimo Kreipimasis į visus tarybų Lietuvos inteligentus” [Address of the First Congress of the Intelligentsia of Soviet Lithuania]. Tiesa, July 26, 1945, 172.

“Žengti išvien su visa darbo liaudimi” [Together with Working People]. Tarybų Lietuva [Soviet Lithuania], July 12, 1945, 153.


Anušauskas, Arvydas. Lietuvių tautos sovietinis naikinimas 1940–1958 metais [The Annihilation of the Lithuanian Nation by the Soviets, 1940–1958]. Vilnius: Mintis, 1996.

Anušauskas, Arvydas, et. al. Lietuva 1940–1990 m. Okupuotos Lietuvos istorija [Lithuania 1940–1990. The History of Occupied Lithuania]. Vilnius: Lietuvos gyventojų genocido ir rezistencijos centras, 2005.

Brandenberger, David. National Bolshevism. Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931–1956. Cambridge–London: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Grybkauskas, Saulius. Sovietinė nomenklatūra ir pramonė Lietuvoje 1965–1985 metais [The Soviet Nomenclature and Industry in Lithuania in 1965–1985]. Vilnius: LII, 2011.

Hosking, Geoffrey. Rulers and Victims. The Russians in the Soviet Union. Cambridge–London: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Ivanauskas, Vilius. Lietuviškoji nomenklatūra biurokratinėje sistemoje. Tarp stagnacijos ir dinamikos (1968–1988) [Lithuanian Soviet Nomenclature within the Bureaucratic System: Between Stagnation and Dynamics (1968–1988)]. Vilnius: LII, 2011.

Kašauskienė, Vanda. Istorijos spąstuose. Justo Paleckio gyvenimo ir veiklos bruožai 1899–1980 [In the Pitfall of History. The Life and Activity of Justas Paleckis 1899–1980]. Vilnius: Gairės, 2014.

Laurinavičius, Česlovas. “Vvodnaya statya” [Introduction] SSSR i Litva v gody vtoroj mirovoj voiny. Sbornik dokumentov [The Soviet Union and Lithuania during World War II. Documents], edited by А. Каsparavičius, Č. Laurinavičius, and N. Lebedeva, vol. 2, 31–44. Vilnius: LII, 2012.

Malia, Martin. The Soviet Tragedy. A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991. New York–Oxford: The Free Press, 1994.

Mark, Eduard. “Revolution by Degrees. Stalin’s National Front Strategy for Europe 1941–1947” Cold War International History Project. Working Paper no. 31. Washington: Wilson Center, 2001.

Mevius, Martin. Agents of Moscow. The Hungarian Communist Party and the Origin of Socialist Patriotism 1941–1953. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004.

Motieka, Egidijus. “Didysis Vilniaus seimas” [The Great Assembly of Vilnius]. Lietuvių atgimimo istorijos studijos. Vol. 11. Vilnius: Saulabrolis, 1996.

Paleckis, Justas. Pergalės saliutas [Victory Salute]. Vilnius: Mintis, 1985.

Paleckis, Justas. Ieškojome tikrų kelių [We Were Looking for Real Roads]. Vilnius: Vaga, 1987.

Pocius, Mindaugas. Kita mėnulio pusė. Lietuvos partizanų kova su kolaboravimu 1944–1953 metais [Far Side of the Moon. The Struggle of Partisans Against Collaboration in Lithuania, 1944–1953]. Vilnius: LII, 2009.

Pons, Silvio. “Stalin and the European Communists after World War Two (1943–1948),” In Post-war Reconstruction in Europe. International Perspectives, 1945–1949, ed. M. Mazower et al. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 121–38.

van Ree, Erik. “The Concept of ‘National Bolshevism’: An Interpretative Essay,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 6 (2001): 289–307.

Roberts, Geoffrey. Stalin’s Wars. From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953. New Haven–London: Yale University Press, 2008.

Rudokas, Jonas. “Tarybinė Vilnijos polonizacija 1950–1956 metais” [The Polonization of Eastern Lithuania in 1950–1956]. Gairės, 7 (2011): 16–20.

Sirutavičius, Vladas. “Tautinis komunizmas ir jo raiška. Istoriografiniai problemos aspektai.” [National Communism and it’s Expression. Historiographical Aspects of the Problem]. Istorija, 3 (2013): 48–58.

Sygkelos, Yannis. “The National Discourse of the Bulgarian Communist Party on National Anniversaries and Commemorations (1944–1948).” Nationalities Papers 37, no. 4 (2009): 425–42.

Stravinskienė, Vitalija. “Lietuvių ir lenkų santykiai Rytų ir Pietryčių Lietuvoje: 1944 m. antra pusė–1953 m” [Inter-Ethnic Relations in East and Southeast Lithuania: late 1944–1953], Lietuvos istorijos metraštis [Lithuanian Historical Yearbook]. 2007, no. 2 (2008): 101–20.

Stravinskienė, Vitalija. Tarp gimtinės ir tėvynės: Lietuvos SSR gyventojų repatriacija į Lenkiją. [Between Mother-country and Homeland: The Repatriation of Citizens of Lithuanian SSR to Poland]. Vilnius: LII, 2011.

Streikus, Arūnas. “Sovietinio režimo pastangos pakeisti Lietuvos gyventojų tautinį identitetą” [Attempts by the Soviet Regime to Change the National Identity of the Lithuanians]. Genocidas ir rezistencija, 1 (2007): 7–30.

Šadžius, Henrikas. “VKP (b) CK Lietuvos biuro veikla organizuojant tautinio pasipriešinimo slopinimą” [Activities of the Lithuanian Bureau of CC of the CPSU in Organizing the Suppression of National Resistance]. Lietuvos istorijos metraštis 1997. Vilnius: Žara, 1998. 240–70.

Mindaugas Tamošaitis, “Justas Paleckis ir jaunieji valstiečiai liaudininkai” [Justas Paleckis and Young Populist]. Vilniaus istorijos metraštis (2007): 137–60.

Tininis, Vytautas. Sovietinė Lietuva ir jos veikėjai [Soviet Lithuania and Its Agents]. Vilnius: Enciklopedija, 1994.

Tininis, Vytautas. Sniečkus. 33 metai valdžioje. Antano Sniečkaus biografinė apybraiža [Sniečkus. 33 Years in Power. The Political Biography of Antanas Sniečkus]. Vilnius, 2000.

Tininis, Vytautas. Komunistinio režimo nusikaltimai Lietuvoje 1944 – 1953/The Crimes of the Communist Regime in Lithuania in 1944–1953. Vilnius: Generolo Jono Žemaičio Lietuvos karo akademija, 2003.

Tininis, Vytautas. Prievartinė mobilizacija į raudonąją armiją [Forced Conscription into the Red Army]. Vilnius: LGGRTC, 2014.

Tismăneanu, Vladimir. Stalinizm na każdą okazję. Polityczna historia rumuńskiego komunizmu [Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism]. Krakow: Universitas, 2010.

Truska, Liudas. Lietuva 1938–1953 metais [Lithuania 1938–1953]. Kaunas: Šviesa, 1995.

Zaremba, Marcin. Komunizm, legitymacja, nacjonalizm. Nacjonalistyczna legitymacja władzy komunistycznej w Polsce [Communism, Legitimation, Nationalism. The Nationalistic Legitimation of the Communist Government in Poland]. Warsaw: Trio, 2001.

Zubkova, Elena. Pribaltika i Kreml. 1940–1953 [Baltic Countries and the Kremlin, 1940–1953]. Moscow: Rossijskaja politicheskaja enciklopedija, 2008.

1 Silvio Pons, “Stalin and the European Communists after World War Two (1943–1948),” in Post-war Reconstruction in Europe. International Perspectives, 1945–1949, ed. M. Mazover et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 124–29; Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin’s Wars. From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953 (New Haven–London: Yale University Press, 2008), 236–37; Eduard Mark, “Revolution by Degrees. Stalin’s National Front Strategy for Europe 1941–1947,” in Cold War International History Project. Working Paper no. 31, (Washington: Wilson Center, 2001), 6–7, 17–20.

2 Marcin Zaremba, Komunizm, legitymacja, nacjonalizm. Nacjonalistyczna legitymacja władzy komunistycznej w Polsce (Warsaw: Trio, 2001), 135–73; Martin Mevius, Agents of Moscow. The Hungarian Communist Party and the Origin of Socialist Patriotism 1941–1953 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), 87–110.

3 David Brandenberger, National Bolshevism. Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931–1956 (Cambridge–London: Harvard University Press, 2002), 6.

4 Ibid., 6.

5 For more about the National Bolshevik conception see: Erik van Ree, “The Concept of National Bolshevism’: An Interpretative Essay,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 6 (2001): 289–307.

6 However, even authors who emphasize the differences between the two “policies and ideologiesalso note that the relationship between them was sufficiently “dialectic,” i.e. one could easily “switch” to the other. See, for example, Vladimir Tismăneanu, Stalinizm na każdą okazję. Polityczna historia rumuńskiego komunizmu (Cracow: Universitas, 2010), 37–40.

7 Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy. A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991 (New York–Oxford: The Free Press, 1994), 322.

8 Elena Zubkova, Pribaltika i Kreml 1940–1953 (Moscow: Rossijskaja politicheskaja enciklopedia ROSSPEN, 2008), 128.

9 Recent Lithuanian historiography analyzes different manifestations of the autonomy, i.e. national communism, of the soviet Lithuanian nomenclature. However, this research covers the period from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s, and it is focused on the “local,” “indigenous” aspects of policy (economic and cultural). See Saulius Grybkauskas, Sovietinė nomenklatūra ir pramonė Lietuvoje 1965–1985 metais (Vilnius: LII, 2011), 111–38; Vilius Ivanauskas, Lietuviškoji nomenklatūra biurokratinėje sistemoje. Tarp stagnacijos ir dinamikos (1968–1988) (Vilnius: LII, 2011), 497–570. About the concepts of national communism, see: Vladas Sirutavičius, “Tautinis komunizmas ir jo raiška. Istoriografiniai problemos aspektai,” Istorija, 3 (2013): 48–58. The research was funded by a grant (No. VAT – 02/2010) from the Research Council of Lithuania.

10 Arvydas Anušauskas et. al., Lietuva 1940–1990 m. Okupuotos Lietuvos istorija (Vilnius: Lietuvos gyventojų genocido ir rezistencijos centras, 2005), 270–82; Mindaugas Pocius, Kita mėnulio pusė. Lietuvos partizanų kova su kolaboravimu 1944–1953 metais (Vilnius: LII, 2009), 54.

11 Vytautas Tininis, Sniečkus. 33 metai valdžioje. Antano Sniečkaus biografinė apybraiža (Vilnius: n.p., 2000), 66–68.

12 Česlovas Laurinavičius, “Vvodnaya statya,” in SSSR i Litva v gody vtoroj mirovoj voiny. Sbornik dokumentov, ed. А. Кasparavičius, Č. Laurinavičius, and N. Lebedeva, vol. 2 (Vilnius: LII, 2012), 42–43.

13 The hymn of the Republic of Lithuania – “The National Song” of Vincas Kudirka – was the hymn of the Lithuanian SSR from 1944 until 1950.

14 Lithuanian Communist Party daily Tiesa (Truth) in April 1944, no. 14 published a proclamation signed by the head of National Union of Lithuania Domas Cesevičius, which was named “A word to Lithuanians.” In the proclamation, the author called for the urgent “restoration of the free and soviet Lithuania” in which “all Lithuanians could live freely and beautifully.” Cesevičius was arrested in 1940 and released in 1944.

15 In April 1944, LSSR Council of People’s Commissars decided to “obligate the persons working in the Lithuanian SSR Soviet industrial and other offices to learn the Lithuanian language [...] To obligate the Education commissar to organize courses, provide them with programs and instructors. [...] To let employees attend the courses twice a week in the evening.” “Resolution No.49,” Moscow, 28 04 1944, Lietuvos Ypatingasis archyvas (LYA) [Lithuanian Special Archive], f.1771 [Central Committee of Lithuanian Communist Party], ap.7, b.28, 17.

16 “V. Molotovo pranešimas TSRS Aukščiausioje taryboje,” Tarybų Lietuva, February 6, 1944, no. 6.

17 Laurinavičius, “Vvodnaya statya,” 43.

18 “Gedvilas letter to Sniečkui,” March 1, 1944, LYA, f.1771, ap.7, b.82, 5.

19 The original version of this decision: “Общесоюзные указы, постановления, распоряжения, приказы в Литовской ССР невводятся автоматически. Они вводятся в соответствии с общим ходом советского строительства указами, постановлениями, распоряжениями и приказами центральных государственных органов республики.” “СНК Литоской ССР и ЦК КП (б) Литвы. Постановление. Проект” [Lithuanian SSR Council of People’s Commisars and Central Committee of LCP. Resolution. Project], [1944] LYA, f.1771, ap.7, b.80, 80.

20 The representative of the USSR NKVD-NKGB in Lithuania, Ivan Tkachenko, on the basis of intelligence reports, wrote to his boss Lavrentij Beria in Moscow in July 1945 about the views of Justas Paleckis, Chairman of the Presidium of the Lithuanian SSR Supreme Soviet. In a private conversation Paleckis explained: our Lithuanian Communist roads are different. God only knows what ugly directives Moscow sends, and we are obliged to fulfill them. We know perfectly well what our country and nation want, but we are helpless. The dark forces of the Kremlin that can lead and bring the Lithuanian people to degeneration and extinction operate everywhere.” “Lubianka. Stalin i NKVD-NKGB-GUKR ‘Smersh.’ 1939–mart 1946,” in Archiv Stalina. Dokumenty vysshych organovв partijnoj i gosudarstvennoj vlasti, ed. V.N. Chaustov, V.P. Naumov, and N.S. Plotnikova (Moscow: Мaterik, 2006), 531.

21 Zubkovaam, Pribaltika i Kreml, 139–42.

22 Henrikas Šadžius, “VKP (b) CK Lietuvos biuro veikla organizuojant tautinio pasipriešinimo slopinimą,” Lietuvos istorijos metraštis 1997 (Vilnius: Žara, 1998), 241–42.

23 LCP CC secretary Vladas Niunka in a letter to Georgy Malenkov on 4 August 1944 explained that the mobilization was not suitably prepared: the mobilization was carried out “without publicly proclaiming” it and summons were not distributed to the people. For this reason, and due to the German propaganda,rumors began to be spread that the mobilization was just an excuse to transport Lithuanians to Siberia. LYA, f.1771, ap.7, b.85, 40. Also see Vytautas Tininis, Prievartinė mobilizacija į raudonąją armiją (Vilnius: LGGRTC, 2014), 47.

24 Laurinavičius, “Vvodnaya statya,” 43.

25 Šadžius, “VKP (b) CK Lietuvos biuro veikla,” 247–49.

26 From July 17, 1945 until the beginning of September 1945 about 4,500 persons were deported. Arvydas Anušauskas, Lietuvių tautos sovietinis naikinimas 1940–1958 metais (Vilnius: Mintis, 1996), 320–21, 328–29.

27 From the summer of 1944 until the spring of 1945 more than 6,000 officials, most of them Russians, were sent to Lithuania, by CPSU. Pocius, Kita mėnulio pusė, 54.

28 The course of the congress was well publicized at the time in the official central press in the newspaper Tiesa (Truth) of the LCP CC, and Tarybų Lietuva (Soviet Lithuania) of the Lithuanian SSR Supreme Council presidium. Most of the speeches of the delegates and translations of the speeches into Russian are stored in the Vilnius County Archive (VAA). The agency reports of security officials and the accounts of the congress proceedings are stored in Lithuania’s Special Archive (LYA). Some of the material of the congress is stored in the Rossijskij gosudarstvennyj archiv socialno-politicheskoj istorii (RGASPI) [Russian State Archive of Socio-political History].

29 The congress of intelligentsia was not discussed in Lithuanian historiography. Only Vytautas Tininis mentioned the event. He also published a few archival documents related to the congress. See Vytautas Tininis, Komunistinio režimo nusikaltimai Lietuvoje 1944–1953/The Crimes of the Communist Regime in Lithuania in 1944–1953 (Vilnius: Generolo Jono Žemaičio Lietuvos karo akademija, 2003), 13–14, 135–45.

30 Suslov also asked that various cultural activists be sent to Lithuania with lectures. “Suslovo’s letter to Malenkov,” May 22,1945, RGASPI, f.597 [Communist Party of Soviet Union Lithuanian Bureau], op.1, d.16, 50.

31 In the official party newspaper Tiesa, even a feuilleton was printed about the routine of the delegates. It was also argued that the statements of those arriving from the provinces were boring and that they repeated one another. Liūnė Janušytė, Ką kalba delegatai,” Tiesa, July 12, 1945, no. 161.

32 “Aleksandras Guzevičius report to the USSR NKGB deputy commissar Amajak Kobulov,” July 13,1945, LYA, f.K41 [State Security Committee of the Lithuanian SSR (NKGB-MGB-KGB), 2 directorate], ap.1, b.163, 197–98.

33 “Guzevičiaus report to Kobulov,” draft, 1945, LYA, f.K41, ap.1, b.163, 152.

34 “Guzevičiaus report to Kobulovui,” draft, 1945, 149.

35 Security officials recorded on such “anti-Soviet” statement by Vienožinskis: “I do not need a ticket to the congress, I’m not an ass, I cannot be bought.” “Report of the head of the second department LSSR NKGB Izotov,” July 10, 1945, LYA, f.K41, ap.1, b.163, 171.

36 Writer Sofija Kymantaitė – Čiurlionienė in a letter to Kostas Korsakas, on 22 July 1945, wrote: I hear that the Congress was particularly interesting, for myself, as a writer it is especially important to observe such historical moments, but you can see what kind of a pilot I am now.” The Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore Manuscript Library (LLITI BR), f.1-4739 [Writers and linguists], no pages.

37 Suslov, head of Lithuanian bureau, participated in the work of the congress, but he did not speak.

38 “Guzevičiaus report to Kobulov,” draft, 1945, 151.

39 Only a few non-Lithuanians spoke up at the congress: Jewish writer Jacob Josadė and a visitor from Moscow, the previously mentioned Jovchuk.

40 Theatre director Borisas Dauguvietis, physician and professor Jonas Kairiūkštis, physicist professor Juozas Matulis, Vilnius university rector professor Kazimieras Bieliukas, physician professor Pranas Mažylis, director Aleksandras Kupstas, biologist professor Jonas Dagys, actress M. Mironaitė, painter V. Jurkūnas, Kaunas university vice-rector professor J. Kupčinskas, former diplomat and writer Karolis Vairas-Račkauskas, rector of the Academy of Agriculture Matas Mickis, writers Julius Būtėnas, Balys Sruoga, Ieva Simonaitytė, Aantanas Vienuolis (Žukauskas), professor Viktoras Ruokis, astronomer professor P. Slavėnas, composer B. Dvarionas, professor J. Vabalas-Gudaitis, professor J. Laužikas.

41 For more see Egidijus Motieka, “Didysis Vilniaus seimas,” in Lietuvių atgimimo istorijos studijos, vol. 11 (Vilnius: Saulabrolis, 1996.)

42 “Garbingi mūsų inteligentų uždaviniai,” Tiesa, July 10, 1945, no. 159; “Žengti išvien su visa darbo liaudimi,” Tarybų Lietuva, July 12, 1945, 153.

43 Vytautas Tininis, Sovietinė Lietuva ir jos veikėjai (Vilnius: Enciklopedija, 1994), 214–15; Liudas Truska, Lietuva 1938–1953 metais (Kaunas: Šviesa, 1995), 134–35; Vanda Kašauskienė, Istorijos spąstuose. Justo Paleckio gyvenimo ir veiklos bruožai 1899–1980 (Vilnius: Gairės, 2014), 497–504. In 1950, leaders of the LCP discussed the question of how to organize education in Polish-populated districts of east Lithuania. In the opinion of Paleckis and Gedvilas, after the repatriation of the Poles, the Poles who remained in the Vilnius region were just Polonized Lithuanians and their further Polonization through the development of education in Polish would not have been purposeful. The party discussions were won by Sniečkus and his supporters, and practical politics was based on the principle of “proletarian internationalism.” See Vitalija Stravinskienė, “Lietuvių ir lenkų santykiai Rytų ir Pietryčių Lietuvoje: 1944 m. antra pusė–1953 m.,” Lietuvos istorijos metraštis, 2007 metai, 2 (2008): 95–96; Arūnas Streikus, “Sovietinio režimo pastangos pakeisti Lietuvos gyventojų tautinį identitetą,” Genocidas ir rezistencija, 1 (2007): 22–23; Jonas Rudokas, “Tarybinė Vilnijos polonizacija 1950–1956 metais,” Gairės, 7 (2011): 17–18;

44 Justas Paleckis, Ieškojome tikrų kelių (Vilnius: Vaga, 1987), 134–36.

45 Idem, Pergalės saliutas (Vilnius: Mintis, 1985), 105. In summer 1944, the CC of LCP decided “to turn the national song [the hymn of Lithuanian Republic] into an instrument which could strengthen the soviet government.” Проект постановления к вопросу o гимне. Постановление ЦК КП (б) Литвы [Central Committee of LCP: the question of anthem, project and resolution], 1944 06 21, LYA, f.1771, ap.7, b.267, 41. The National song was formally the hymn of Soviet Lithuania till 1950.

46 Tiesa, July 18, 1945, no. 166.

47 Yannis Sygkelos, “The National Discourse of the Bulgarian Communist Party on National Anniversaries and Commemorations (1944–1948),” Nationalities Papers 37, no. 4 (2009): 426.

48 Roberts, Stalin’s Wars, 210; Geoffrey Hosking, Rulers and Victims. The Russians in the Soviet Union (Cambridge–London: Harvard University Press, 2006), 207–09.

49 The Young Peasant Populists maintained close ties with the LCP, and some were members of the Communist party. Some of the Young Peasant Populists, such as Paleckis, Gedvilas, Vaišnoras, Gregorauskas, Kežinaitis, Drobnys and others, pursued careers in Soviet Lithuania. Of course, most of them were gradually pushed out from active political life and a few faced measures of active repression. Juozas Vaišnoras, “Memories about People’s Front” (manuscript), 1966, LYA, f. 3377 [CC LCP Institute of Marxism–Leninism] ap.46, b.964, 1320. Mindaugas Tamošaitis, “Justas Paleckis ir jaunieji valstiečiai liaudininkai,” Vilniaus istorijos metraštis (Vilnius: VPI, 2007), 137–60.

50 The security officials in their reports very carefully recorded the non-public negative and positive comments about the Paleckis’ speech and came to the conclusion that the majority of the delegates reacted to the speech positively. Some even praised it. “Guzevičius report to Kobulov,” a draft, 1945, 157.

51 “Guzevičius report to Kobulov,” a draft, 1945, 152–53.

52 “Guzevičius report to Justui Paleckiui,” July 12, 1945 LYA, f.K41, ap.1, b.163, 176–77.

53 “Guzevičius report to Kobulov,” a draft, 1945, 152–53. “Guzevičius report to Kobulov,” July 14 193–94.

54 “Report of the head of second department LSSR NKGB Izotov,” 170.

55 “Kairiūkštis speech,” VAA, f.761 [The Executive Committee of Vilnius city], ap.9, b.35, 15.

56 “Sruoga speech,” typewriting, LLITI BR, f.1-5741 [Writers and linguists], 1–2.

57 However, in 1946 the writers congress Sruoga was harshly criticized by the LCP bureau member Kazys Preikšas. Preikšas accused the writer of continuing to be under the influence of “bourgeois culture” and representing a mentality that was “alien to the Soviet way of life.” The novel Forest of Gods, in which Sruoga potrayed the lives of inmates in the Nazi concentration camps, was banned from publication. Už tarybinę lietuvių literatūrą. Lietuvos TSR tarybinių rašytojų susirinkimo, įvykusio 1946 m., medžiaga (Vilnius: Grožinės literatūros leidykla, 1947), 22–23.

58 “Dagys speech,” VAA, f.761, ap.9, b.35, 61.

59 Ibid., 62.

60 The article by Bartašiūnas entitled “We will pull out at the roots the most wicked enemies of the Lithuanian nation—the Lithuanian German nationalists.” In the article, the commissar reminded his readers that the government amnesty for “members of gangs” was still valid: those who surrenderedwill be allowed to atone for their serious crimes.Those who did not surrender, according to the commissar, could expect fierce punishment.” Also, anyone who helped the “bandits” would be punished “with all the severity of Soviet laws.” Tiesa, May 25, 1945, no. 120.

61 “Guzevičiaus report to Kobulov,” July 14, 1945, 80.

62 Guzevičius called the statement of Žiugžda memorable.

63 “Mickis speech,” VAA, f.761, ap.9, b.35, 72.

64 Ibid., 73.

65 Ibid., 73.

66 Ibid., 76–77.

67 Neither Dagys nor Mickis was persecuted because of the speeches they held at the congress. (At the time, Dagys was under observation as “a nationalist” by the intelligence forces. See Tininis, Komunistinio režimo nusikaltimai Lietuvoje 1944–1953/The Crimes of the Communist Regime in Lithuania, 14.) However, later both of them experienced some pressure. In 1948, Dagys was severely criticized as the author of the handbook and was removed from his position as head of the Department of Plant Anatomy and Physiology at Vilnius University. In 1953, he was again appointed to this position, which he held until 1977. A. Merkys, “On the 100th anniversary of Professor Jonas Dagys.” Biologija, 53, no. 2 (2007): 3.

68 Motieka, “Didysis Vilniaus seimas,” 297.

69 “Mažylis speech,” VAA, f.761, ap.9, b.35, 54.

70 “Račkauskas speech,” VAA, f.761, ap.9, b.35, 124.

71 “Pirmojo tarybų Lietuvos inteligentijos suvažiavimo Kreipimasis į visus tarybų Lietuvos inteligentus,” Tiesa, July 26, 1945, no. 172.

72 “The discussion of the appeal,” VAA, f.761, ap.9, b.35, 176–77.

73 On 22 September 1944, the LSSR government and representatives of Poland’s national liberation committee signed an agreement on the repatriation of people. For more information, see Vitalija Stravinskienė, Tarp gimtinės ir tėvynės. Lietuvos SSR gyventojų repatriacija į Lenkiją (Vilnius: LII, 2011), 95–100.

74 Tiesa, July 15, 1945, no. 164.

75 In the report that was submitted to G. Malenkov, the controllers from the CPSU apparatus noted that the Congress of the intelligentsia was held late, that the LCP leaders could not get a handle on the moods of the intellectuals, and finally that during the Congress hostile statements were made. SSSR i Litva v gody vtoroj mirovoj voiny., Sbornik dokumentov, ed. А. Кasparavičius, Č. Laurinavčius, and N. Lebedeva, vol. 2 (Vilnius: LII, 2012), 891. In August, just after the Congress, Gudaitis-Guzevičius was removed from his office. According to the confidential report, he was dismissed because of his “incompetence” and “ineffectiveness” in the fight against the “Lithunian national underground.” (See Vytautas Tininis, Sovietinė Lietuva ir jos veikėjai (Vilnius: Enciklopedija, 1994), 183–84.) He was appointed the head of the Committee of Culture and Education in 1945. He later served as the head of the State Publishing House, and from 1953 until 1957 he was the Minister of Culture.

Volume 4 Issue 1 CONTENTS

pdfNikola Baković

“No One Here is Afraid of Blisters or Work!”

Social Integration, Mobilization and Cooperation in Yugoslav Youth Brigades. The Example of Čačak Region Brigades (1946–1952)


In this article I analyze the organizational mechanism of youth labor projects and the place of ideology and agitation-propaganda in the everyday lives of young laborers. I adopt a local micro-historical perspective in my analysis of the organization, documented activities and everyday functioning of youth brigades from the Čačak region of Serbia that participated in the earliest labor projects in Yugoslavia (1946–1952). The documentation on the brigades reveals omnipresent Party surveillance of brigadiers (with the ultimate aim of selecting the most “appropriate” elements for Party membership), but it also offers a glimpse into the ambivalent attitudes of youths (ranging from passive resistance to conformist participation and cooperation). The daily routine of brigade life helps further reflection on emancipatory and modernizing effects that transformed local society and proved notably more far-reaching and long-lasting than the superficial effects of agitprop efforts.

Keywords: Yugoslavia, labor actions, Čačak, youth, agitprop, shock workers

Voluntary youth labor actions organized by Yugoslav socialist authorities stemmed from the twofold set of influences, global and local. The most important external role model on which the Yugoslav projects were based was the Soviet Stakhanovite movement, together with the system of “shock-work,” public works and competitions, common to all socialist countries and the interwar corporatist societies.1 The local roots were sought in the pre-modern tradition of communal labor during harvests (moba) and the antifascist resistance in the Užice region (Serbia) and Sanička dolina (Bosnia), where locals helped the partisan army by harvesting crops within the range of German artillery in 1941/42.2 Upon liberation, a wave of initiatives aimed at providing winter fuel and clearing the war debris was instigated by the United Alliance of Antifascist Youth of Yugoslavia3 during the winter 1944/45.4 The network of similar local initiatives quickly spread among youths in liberated parts of Yugoslavia. This was just a prelude to grand infrastructural projects for which the voluntary youth labor was used as an asset of reconstruction and industrialization processes.

The first federally supported project was the “Youth Railway” Brčko–Banovići, which connected the fertile wheat fields of Vojvodina and Slavonia with coal mines in central Bosnia. From May until November 1946, over 62,000 members of the People’s Youth of Yugoslavia, with very little in the way of proper machinery, completed the railway 22 days before the deadline. The following year saw an even greater endeavor, the construction of the Šamac–Sarajevo railway, which was built by over 210,000 Yugoslav and 5,000 foreign youths.5 However, the most ambitious projects on the federal level were the construction of the Zagreb–Belgrade stretch of the Brotherhood and Unity Highway and the building of the city of New Belgrade.6 Together with numerous labor projects on the federal and local level, over one-million Yugoslav youths participated in the country’s reconstruction and fulfillment of the First Five Year Plan,7 with an astounding rate of 80 percent of eligible youngsters applying to work as part of the labor brigades.8

Already in 1950, some Yugoslav politicians and economists criticized this system for its alleged financial inefficiency, as well as for its potentially anti-industrial over-emphasis on manual labor. Consequently, there was a halt in federally backed projects beginning in 1952 and lasting until 1958, when the initiatives were reinvigorated with the construction of a new stretch of the Brotherhood and Unity Highway. The financial burden and the organizational complexity of federal actions were always weighed against their benefits for the Yugoslav regime. Although the maintenance of youth camps and the organization of brigadiers’ extra-labor activities cost far more than the hiring and lodging of qualified workers, Tito never underestimated the value of such endeavors for the ideological indoctrination of young Yugoslavs, whose loyalty was won by offering them professional, social and intellectual resources otherwise unavailable in their native environment. He believed that these expensive and demanding activities had to be provided to the brigades, should a sufficient recruitment rate be achieved, because “if youngsters are given only shovels and cramps, no one will go.” A strikingly militarized atmosphere in the camps was not a coincidence for Tito, since “people forged through work can hold on through every struggle, be it in work or in war.” Labor projects were an intrinsic part of the socialist project of creating a new man, a place “where the new people are forged, with a new understanding of work.”9

In this article, I analyze the “first wave” of youth labor projects as one of the tools of power in the creation of a sense of belonging to a cohesive multinational community of Yugoslavs during the immediate postwar period. Voluntary youth work was not only a convenient means to secure free labor for ambitious infrastructural projects, but also a “social adhesive,” aimed at bringing together youths from the most distant parts of the country in order to disseminate the ideological tenet of “brotherhood and unity” between various representatives of the Yugoslav nationalities. The primary role of members of the younger generations in this process was that of a far-sighted, “tempered” (but in the long run also “tempering”) political and social consolidator of the new system, which ultimately was supposed to solidify the newly re-conceptualized social relations and power structures, simultaneously internalizing the omnipresent revolutionary ideological narrative. Youth projects also served to enable the authorities to select a reliable future party cadre, ultimately expanding the Communist Party’s support basis. On the other hand, brigadiers used the projects as opportunities to gain otherwise unavailable material, social and educational resources and improve their chances for upward social mobility. The very act of volunteering for socialist reconstruction projects (although the truly voluntary nature of brigadiers’ recruitment in this period was always in question) entailed the youths’ implicit cooperation with the regime, the ideological “pills” of which were (willingly) swallowed, along with far more significant and longer-lasting benefits of emancipation and education.

I will examine the role of these projects by embedding a local micro-perspective of brigades sent from the region of Čačak (Serbia) during the reconstruction and First Five Year Plan actions (1946–1952) within the broader postwar historical context in Yugoslavia, as well as within the already existing body of scholarly work. The article’s shifting analytical focus, swinging between the official “top-down” and the local experience helps shed new light on the ambivalent relationship between the power-holding center and the potency of the agency of individual subjects in the circumstances of an overarching socio-political transformation. Thus, I explore the non-dichotomous character of the interaction between the “regulating” state and the “regulated” society, which was highly ambivalent and often a contingent process. The brigades under discussion came from the central Serbian municipalities (srez) of Ljubić-Trnava, Dragačevo and Rudnik, as well as from the towns of Kraljevo and Čačak. The following federal actions were included in the analysis: the Brčko–Banovići railway (1946), the Šamac–Sarajevo railway (1947), the construction of New Belgrade (1948–1950), the Brotherhood and Unity Highway (1948–1950), the Doboj–Banja Luka railway (1951) and the Konjic–Jablanica railway (1952). I analyze various features of organizational mechanisms and everyday modes of social integration, including recruitment process, motivational concepts of “shock status,” the screening of brigadiers for prospective Party membership, the involving of brigadiers in an array of physical, educational and cultural activities with a strong modernizing pretext, and the creation of trans-ethnic and trans-national social networks through contacts with peers from other republics and countries.

Until the first decade of this century, historical works dealing with Yugoslav youth labor projects were surprisingly sparse, probably because of the general post-socialist disinterest in the history of labor movements, a topic too closely entwined with the perceived communist utilization of science. Special monographs dedicated to individual actions, albeit devoid of much analytical value, remain an important source of information on the organizational setup of brigades, as well as sources of statistical data. They were usually published to honor anniversaries of certain projects, as well as to promote the ideologies on which these projects were based.10 Sociologists Rudi Supek and Srećko Mihailović did significant research concerning youth’s perceptions and motivational factors. However, their research mostly referred to the later phase of labor projects and is of little relevance to the period discussed here.11 Very important recent contributions to the historiography on labor actions, both because of the wealth of data they include and because of their analytical value, are found in Slobodan Selinić’s articles and Saša Vejzagić’s MA thesis.12 The importance of this secondary literature notwithstanding, however, the main sources for this article were youth labor brigades’ records kept at the Regional Historical Archives of Čačak, as well as the personal collection of lawyer Velimir Cvetić, a communist activist from Čačak and the commander of a 1946 brigade. I also used the relevant press coverage from the heavily ideologized local weekly Slobodni glas, which was published by the local Popular Front branch.

Organizational and Recruitment Mechanisms

Brigades from Čačak region, apart from their municipal designation (i.e. ljubićko-trnavska), were usually named after distinguished local communists or war heroes. Thus, the first brigades sent in 1946 were named after Ratko Mitrović and Bata Janković. On the other hand, high school brigades from the town of Čačak got their name in honor of Rade Azanjac, a 20-year-old political commissar shot in late 1941. Brigades were serially numbered, promoting the idea of a continuous and seemingly constant outflow of youth workforce to dispersed construction sites across the country. This way, the new regime tried to enforce its own traditions, drawn from the historical legacy of the persecution of communists in the interwar period and their subsequent fight against the occupiers and quislings, thereby passing these traditions on to generations that had been too young to have had personal experience of these events.13

The “Ratko Mitrovic” and “Bata Jankovic” brigades, which are best documented in the available sources, attracted predominantly (although not exclusively) agricultural youth from villages around Čačak, most of whom had already completed their education and thus were not tied to the school year schedule. They usually left for campsites in spring and late autumn, when the agricultural season allowed. The “Rade Azanjac” brigades mostly consisted of teenagers with urban and non-agricultural backgrounds who studied and lived in Čačak. They would be dispatched in July and August, when schools were not in session.14 It was not uncommon, especially in 1946/47, for the returning brigades to be greeted with lush public celebrations and agitprop slogans in the town center.

Figure 1. Citizens of Čačak await the return of the local brigade from Bosnia, November 1946 (Source: Regional Historical Archives of Čačak )


Youngsters from the neighboring town of Kraljevo were also part of Čačak brigades until 1949, when they started to form their own brigades.15 As far as the practical meaning of the term “youth” is concerned, the documents show that most brigadiers were between 16 and 25 years of age, although there were some exceptional cases of brigade members being in their late 20s and even early 40s.16

Mobilizing youth for labor actions was a complex task for mass organizations since it had to be (or at least seem to have been) performed strictly on a non-coercive basis. Yet, the Party’s youth organization, the Union of the Communist Youth of Yugoslavia (Savez komunističke omladine Jugoslavije, hereafter: SKOJ),17 and other organizers set ambitious plans with territorial recruitment quotas. These quotas depended on various specificities of the respective areas (for example, in regions with numerous ethnic minorities, organizers were not expected to draw in big numbers because the loyalties of the local populations were sometimes in question).18 Due to the centralized nature of establishing quotas, local SKOJ branches were often in a tricky situation. On the one hand, they needed to attract the required number of brigadiers, but on the other hand, it was an imperative that these youths apply voluntarily. There were many (albeit not numerous) cases of coercive collective recruitment, especially in regions notorious for their anti-Party stance.19 Moreover, certain categories of prisoners were also taken to construction sites as a part of their sentences, and some youths, such as 36 men from Kraljevo, fulfilled their military service obligations by participating in the construction of the Šabac–Zvornik railway.20

Although blatant force was not permitted (at least nominally), it can be assumed that multifaceted informal means of persuasion were used to increase the number of brigadiers. In the countryside, agitprop units developed extensive propaganda aimed at presenting labor actions as a catalyst for social mobility and a life-enriching experience, which would in no way handicap the families of the youths during periods of seasonal work (they were promised help with house chores while children would be away).21 Schoolchildren were recruited through a web of students who were either SKOJ members or had already participated in such projects, as well as teachers who organized special lectures on the importance of the initiatives. Students who were doing poorly in their studies were attracted by prospects of special assistance in preparing for their make-up exams while the projects were underway.22

At first, collective agitation was the most widespread recruitment method, entailing group lectures and promotion. However, the Party realized that this approach did not bear satisfactory results, so SKOJ members were urged to undertake more personalized, individual agitation, designing specific means of persuasion and motivational factors for each potential brigadier. This was especially important for schoolchildren, who often failed to apply because of their parents’ reluctance (to the great dismay of local commissars).23 Still, the Čačak branch of SKOJ had no major problems fulfilling their quotas. The first brigade sent to the Youth Railway in 1946 (initially supposed to gather 200 brigadiers) had 275 members selected from a pool of 350 applicants, including one who had been rejected but who then had to be accepted after he refused to get off the train to Brčko.24 Brigades were divided into troops (čete), usually hosting around 50 brigadiers each. The surprisingly high number of 1,331 brigadiers in 1946 increased SKOJ’s ambitions, and the planned 1947 quota was raised to 3,000 youths. This target proved easy to reach as well, since in early March the quota for Čačak was surpassed by 40 applicants.25 Village brigades usually had more members than the high school ones (counting up to 400 youths) due to their demographic prevalence.

Although the enthusiastic reports by SKOJ officials have to be taken with a grain of salt, it is obvious that it was a matter of prestige for local leaders not merely to fulfill their quotas, but also to have as great a percentage as possible of the youths of their settlements apply. According to these reports, in some villages, such as Mršinci, every eligible youngster applied for local or federal actions, and in Opaljenica the application rate was 96 percent.26 Despite the possibility of these numbers being inflated, internal brigade records show no hints of understaffing problems. Moreover, the fact that many 15-year-old applicants had to be rejected from drafts clearly shows that the youth of the Čačak region saw labor projects as a unique opportunity to improve their social, political and material standing under the new system (as well as to widen their career prospects), despite all probable forms of formal and informal pressure to volunteer. Despite the Party’s nominal dissatisfaction with agitation results, the prescribed quotas were always surpassed, significant differences between the republics notwithstanding.27 Yet, the success of the recruitment efforts should be credited not only to the enthusiasm or pragmatism of the youth, but also to SKOJ branches intentionally setting low quotas for fear of failing to meet them. The organizers were always pleased to accept more brigadiers than originally sought, although this simultaneously burdened them with additional board and lodging costs (which could have contributed to the temporary halt in the organization of federal projects from 1952 until 1958).

Becoming a Shock-Worker

Immediately after the revolution, the Yugoslav authorities introduced the system of competitions and shock-worker awards (udarništvo) to develop a culture of adulation of work, as well as to promote agency channels through which the working class could prove their devotion to the new order and be motivated to contribute to its solidification. This system, although it took its name from the Russian term for strike work (udarniki), was a virtual copy of the Stakhanovite movement developed in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1930s.28 Just as the Soviet precursor was named after the most prolific miner, Alexei Stakhanov, the Yugoslav version came to be best known by the name of the Bosnian Roma miner Alija Sirotanović, who allegedly broke the coal mining world record in 1949. Since the udarništvo movement and system of competitions was introduced in all production activities in the country, it was also an inseparable feature of youth actions. Work tasks in camps were usually set according to “decimal plans” (dekadni planovi, lasting 10 days), at the end of which the most industrious brigade (udarna brigada), as well as individual workers (udarnici), would be proclaimed.

In order to become a so-called shock-worker, one had to surpass the work norm by 20 percent continuously. If case there were no specified norm, one had to surpass the common work result of the brigade by 30 percent. Brigadiers could also gain the status of shock-worker by applying measures through which 10 percent of the raw materials, fuel or work hours could be saved, or by introducing innovative techniques and methods that improved overall efficiency. The shock-worker status lasted for three months. During that time, in addition to enjoying prestige and respect, the individuals who had been given the award also got convenient material benefits, including better meals, shopping coupons, discounts for various goods, etc.29 These benefits explain the often fierce competition among brigadiers at a worksite, as well as the obsessions of commanders with their brigade attaining the shock status. Although allegedly even Tito expressed concern that this insistence on surpassing norms would harm the health of the youths,30 the brigade documents show that competition and the striving for more were the order of the day in literally every brigade. Typical is the quote of one brigadier at the Youth Railway: “Look, I have 34 blisters. I have never had them before. Tell the others not to be afraid of blisters. No one here is afraid of blisters or work!”31 Although the percentage of shock-workers varied according to the respective brigade’s work efficiency, available shock-workers’ lists show that seven to twelve percent of the Čačak brigades were declared shock-workers at some point.32

Still, the workers had to participate in the competition in a comradely spirit, lest the rivalries lead to internal hostilities or intrigues among brigadiers. Overemphasizing one’s own work contributions and effort was strongly looked down upon, if not outright condemned by commanders. Such was the case of а 24-year-old brigadier who (apparently trying to make up for being put in a high-school brigade at such a late age) “had an tendency to show off blisters on his hands and dirt on his suit, overall one sick ambition for a shock-worker’s badge.”33 On another note, 20-year-old Pantelija Glišović, despite having surpassed norms by 70 percent, was criticized in personal evaluations for “not being an agitator.”34 The order of Main Headquarters of youth brigades on the construction of the Konjic–Jablanica railway in 1952 indicates that the overt enthusiasm (or the unconcealed ambition of their commanders) of some brigades to gain shock-worker status could eventually prove detrimental to the overall work dynamic. The youths were forbidden to work longer than the usual seven hours without the Headquarters’ prior approval, due to bad effect this would have on the overall performance.35 This case represents an interesting official condemnation of an exaggerated work ethic, quite unlike the usual public shaming of lazy brigadiers or those who invested less in their work than they were supposedly capable of.

Selecting the New Cadre

Brigade commanders, by unwritten rule Party members, wrote personal evaluations for each brigadier in order to support or hinder his or her nomination for SKOJ membership. These evaluations had a template-like character, with an established pattern for data input: year/place of birth, nationality, social background, family standing during the war, (non)participation in the Liberation Struggle. Furthermore, the categories for personal impressions consisted of: attitude towards authority, physical effort at work, treatment of state property, conduct with other brigadiers, activity in classes, proneness to (self)criticism and notes on private life. Evaluations concluded with the commander’s opinion on whether the respective comrade was eligible to become a SKOJ member.36 These documents represent a particularly valuable source, helping historians reconstruct different demographic structures of labor volunteers and testifying to the Party’s ever-watchful eye. In compiling their evaluations, commanders paid due attention to the conduct of members of the brigadiers’ families during the war, as well as to their current standing towards the Communist Party and “the state of today.” One of the more revealing cases was that of a 17-year-old Mileta Čvrkić, nephew of the interwar minister of posts Vojko Čvrkić (known to have supported a rival četnik movement37 during the war). Although Mileta’s characteristics were judged in a positive light, “special wariness” had to be paid to his education, because he “was surrounded by people with a negative attitude, who could tarnish his righteous development.”38 In several other evaluations, the family’s attachment to četnik movement, which was equated with having “rebel bandits” for relatives or clinging to “reactionary attitudes,” was mentioned as a potentially disruptive factor in the rearing of a youth. There was even a case of a former policeman who was fired and expelled from the Party after having beaten up one “reactionary” woman. This policeman went to the Brčko–Banovići action to atone for and recover from his past mistakes.39 However, there were relatively few cases of brigadiers being explicitly considered unreliable on the basis of their family’s political affiliations. A probable reason was that individuals coming from extremely hostile families would not volunteer for labor projects anyway and even if they did, their applications most probably would not have been accepted. Still, members of more “benignly hostile” families were accepted to brigades. This can be interpreted as an attempt on the part of the Party to “inject” itself into these families through their offspring or, conversely, as an attempt on the part of the “problematic” families to “whitewash” their past by encouraging participation in the new regime’s legitimization.

Available internal documentation of brigade party cells suggest that the cases of resistance and conflict within the brigades most often had a markedly non-political character. The usual incidents occurring at the worksites were mostly connected to bad maintenance of tools and the scarcity of machines, as well as violations of conduct, such as walking barefoot or wearing dirty uniforms,40 or simply sitting idly and failing to comply with the commander’s orders. At campsites, complaints mostly referred to bad hygiene habits, not making one’s bed, and being late for or avoiding morning gymnastics. Female brigadiers were frequently criticized for using their menstrual cycles as an excuse to stay in the camp for an entire day. One girl was reprimanded for taking leave on the pretext of visiting her ill father at home, but actually in order to celebrate Easter.41 In the course of the Brčko–Banovići project, a bizarre ideologically grounded “hygienic measure” caused a scandal among the brigade party leaders. A female brigadier, apparently from a better-off family, was the only one in her troop to own a toothbrush. The troop leader “expropriated” the toothbrush from its owner and declared it “common property” to be used by all brigadiers, in line with the collectivist spirit. This order was met with the superiors’ condemnation, both for breaching hygienic norms and for misrepresenting the “socialist lifestyle.” Yet there was no recorded disciplinary proceeding against the overtly diligent commander, nor is there evidence that this “expropriation” was corrected.42 However, it showed the extent to which the commanders’ lack of education, coupled with a relentless obedience to authority, could often lead to comical interpretations of the official party doctrines.

On the interpersonal level, conflicts usually derived from teenager pranks (such as smearing toothpaste on a comrade in his or her sleep at night), alcohol consummation (despite a strict ban, brigadiers frequently used their leaves to go to nearby villages and get drunk), or “inappropriate” interaction between male and female comrades. One of the commanders’ frequent concerns was keeping peace between their campmates and the locals, since cases of theft, drunken brawls or stealing fruit were quite commonplace.43 Cases of workers who were too rowdy with commanders or engaged in (arguably, a rather superficial sort of) dissent and confrontation were very rare and were connected to pragmatic material problems (i.e., brigadiers who were unsatisfied with their accommodation would sarcastically invite Tito to their luxury resort).44 One of the rare instances of open vandalism among Čačak brigadiers occurred in 1948, when some youths who had not been provided new footwear tore down the performance graphs as a sign of protest.45

One can offer several hypotheses regarding the reasons for this cooperative attitude. Firstly, brigadiers were mostly too young and immature to be actively politically engaged and form their own independent stance towards the communist regime. Secondly, the voluntary nature of the projects (casual, yet non-negligible aberrations of forced recruitment notwithstanding) made the “infiltration of reactionary elements” rather unlikely. Hence, this potential source of dissent and disobedience was apparently missing. Moreover, a great majority of brigadiers came from rather poor and backward areas, ravaged by the war and postwar poverty. Not only did labor projects present an opportunity for them to gain skills, knowledge, and personal contacts that could potentially improve their social status, but for many they were a rare place where they could secure their mere sustenance. Bearing this in mind, it is understandable that the few instances of resistance and conflict with party members and commanders usually derived from trivial reasons pertaining to personal character or simple material needs, rather than from any profound ideological stance or conflict. For most youths, eager participation in state’s reconstruction projects (coupled with occasional, rather unobtrusive resistance) offered much greater benefits and social capital than any sort of open opposition could ever have provided under the circumstances.

Youth Education and Politicization

The activities that the Party planned for brigadiers did not come to an end after the seven-hour shifts at the construction sites. The rest of the day was filled with different kinds of additional tasks and programs, which can roughly be grouped into two categories. The first included physical activities aimed at keeping brigadiers fit and increasing their stamina. These activities included regular morning gymnastics, pre-military training, driving lessons, sport matches and athletic competitions. The second group of activities nurtured intellectual and political growth, with a clear intention to educate the youth in various spheres of life and equip them with new skills, yet always within the ideological and theoretical confines of communist dogma. By attempting to engage every single brigadier in as many of these activities as possible, the authorities hoped to disseminate their ideological tenets into all pores of youth life, as well as to erase the old era’s accumulated social obstacles to the development of every individual’s creative potential.

Pre-military training was supposed to acquaint boys and girls with the basics of combat skills and firearms usage in order to improve their efficiency in case of a foreign invasion. This fear became all too realistic after the 1948 break with Stalin, making pre-military training compulsory for all youths older than 17. Each brigade was supposed to have at least one specially educated military instructor, often a distinguished Liberation Struggle soldier, who would teach these classes every other day.46 Lessons covered the skills necessary for the general functioning of camps (making beds, cleaning barracks, keeping guard), but also more strictly military topics (loading a rifle, shooting practice from various positions, bullet trajectory, marching steps, etc).47 Providing youngsters with an education in military conduct was seen as a peacetime perpetuation of the People’s Liberation Struggle, and indeed many instructors insisted that the wartime revolutionary combatant zeal must not falter in absence of actual battles. Yet many brigadiers avoided attending these programs, as can be seen from attendance sheets. Thus, except for the first two days of the shift, the 246-people-strong ljubićko-trnavska brigade working on the construction of New Belgrade in 1949 never had more than 190 brigadiers present at pre-military training (the overall participation at the Highway site that year was approximately 95 percent).48 Youths used various excuses, such as sickness or cleaning and cooking duties, but commanders also noted accusingly at Party cell meetings that even SKOJ members abused their political agitation duties as an excuse to skip gymnastics or military training. Another way to improve brigadiers’ fitness was to engage them in team sports. It was especially important for camp commanders to organize matches (sometimes in league form) between brigades from different parts of the country in order to strengthen interethnic ties and showcase the volunteer movement’s regional diversity. Athletic competitions were usually organized on state holidays (Tito’s birthday on May 25, Labor Day on May 1, Day of Republic on November 29), prior to which the athletically talented brigadiers underwent preparations that lasted for weeks, as these events were often attended by important Party officials, and the individual competitor’s success would increase the overall reputation of his or her brigade, eventually raising the brigade’s chances of gaining shock status.49

Political-ideological education was one of the most crucial non-labor programs organized for brigadiers, as it represented the most explicit means of influencing youth by exposing them to and indoctrinating them in the official ideology, as well as recruiting new members to the Party’s youth organization. The curriculum consisted of essential socialist literature (works by Marx, Lenin and Gorki), but also of works of the domestic Yugoslav canon (ideological literature by Tito and Edvard Kardelj). Classes on theory were followed by textual analysis and often fierce debates, in which individuals interested in Party membership had to excel should they wish to gain admission rapidly. These meetings were also used officially to denounce derogatory texts about Yugoslavia, which were being published in organs of the East European press after 1948, which often spread rumors (not always without any basis in reality) about abuses of child labor and deaths in campsites.50 This was supposed to prevent potential outbursts of political dissent during that critical period. It was not a coincidence that Tito himself visited the Highway construction site only 15 days after the 1948 Cominform resolution.51

Party members had additional ideological classes, which provided forums for discussion of more advanced theoretical questions, but also for agitation planning and evaluations of the behavior of non-members. A new set of lectures for members and non-members alike was introduced in 1948. They consisted of sessions dedicated to the analysis of Yugoslavia’s fall from Stalin’s grace. Naturally, the purpose of these “analyses” was to defend Tito’s position, proving that even Lenin himself established that every country had its own way to communism, regardless of the Soviet policies. The minutes from brigadiers’ discussions reveal the depth of this diplomatic twist, since the meetings in 1948 were often dedicated to badmouthing Bulgarian pretensions to Macedonia, whereas previously there had not been any negative remarks about any other socialist country whatsoever. Other topics discussed at these meetings included rumors about Yugoslavia being involved in the failed assassination of Palmiro Togliatti in July 1948, justification of Yugoslav cooperation with USA concerning the restitution of Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s gold reserves, the recommendation that Yugoslavia take part in the Danube conference, etc.52 Party cells also made decisions on future work norms, the organization of events, and disciplinary measures, regardless of the wishes of other brigadiers.53 In the meeting transcripts, one can discern the timidly expressed antagonism of non-members towards the Party members, who wished to exercise unquestioned authority over the rest of the brigade, as well as to enjoy small benefits, such as being spared more tedious or tiring duties. Thus the nominally democratic decision-making in brigades usually came down to party members presenting their decisions (or preferred choices) to the rest of brigade (which was supposed to accept them), whereas the egalitarian discourse was often twisted in order to provide small everyday “privileges” for individuals who were more politically engaged.

The “War” on Illiteracy

One of the main emancipatory and educational efforts (and arguably the greatest success) of the People’s Youth was the eradication of illiteracy among young people. This problem, which had already been a concern in previous decades, was especially acute in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when schools in many areas were destroyed or difficult to reach for many school-age children. It was one of the new regime’s priorities to advance the position of the working class (youth included) by ensuring that everyone was taught to read and write. Each youth brigade was thus supposed to have at least one instructor who specialized in such courses, and all illiterate volunteers were obliged to attend. The classes were organized in improvised classrooms or, weather permitting, in outdoor settings.

Figure 2. Literacy course of the 3rd Čačak brigade, 1946 (Source: Regional Historical Archives of Čačak)


Curiously enough, in addition to illiterate brigadiers (usually around a dozen per brigade), Čačak brigades had a much greater number (up to one third of all brigadiers) of “semi-literates,” proficient in only one script (in their case, Cyrillic). Commanders were adamant that both Latin and Cyrillic script be mastered, as this was considered one of the basic prerequisites for disseminating the ideology of brotherhood and unity of the Yugoslav nations.54 The brigadiers seemed to have diligently attended the courses. The internal diaries imply that most of them did master the basics of reading and writing both scripts, with only one mention of a former policeman who declined to learn the Latin script, claiming he did not need it.55 Such enthusiasm was understandable, as it would have been hard for anyone to fail to see the advantages of literacy. Moreover, these classes were one of the rare activities the practical purpose of which was not subjected to blatant ideologization (although the increase in literacy rates was certainly cited in state propaganda as an example of the successful emancipation of the working class). And a vast success it was, as it is estimated that more than 70,000 people learned how to read and write during the first wave of labor actions (1946–1952), although one could definitely call into question the effectiveness of such quick learning while pupils were also involved in hard manual labor.56

In addition to offering the workers a chance (or rather obliging them) to master the basics of reading and writing, labor camps and individual brigades also had their own modest libraries, and youths were constantly motivated to use them through involvement in literary circles. The book list of the library of the Camp “Jože Vlahović” on the New Belgrade site indicates the openly politicized nature of these libraries. Of the 215 titles, only around 30 did not explicitly pertain to communist theory and revolutionary history. Yet, a glance at the 56-item loan list from the second ljubićko-trnavska brigade shows that brigadiers overwhelmingly preferred the non-political literature, with the exception of the novels of Maxim Gorki. On the other hand, this same brigade had its own small library with 75 books that for the most part dealt with communist themes, but it also had works by Shakespeare, Jack London and Jules Verne.57 These details and other documented statistics indicate that one loaned book amounted to hardly two brigadiers from Čačak, which is even worse than the admittedly low ratio of just over one book per brigadier for the whole New Belgrade worksite.58

Yet this low ratio for the Čačak brigades should not be interpreted as a sign of the irrelevance of these libraries for the few youths who did use them, since for many it was their first contact with books. The collectivist nature of all daily activities in isolated camp communities and external peer pressure obviously enticed many otherwise disinterested youths to start reading, as can be seen from one brigadier’s quote: “Here we have better conditions for reading and studying than in the countryside, because here we are all together.”59 In addition to visiting camp libraries, brigadiers could improve their writing skills by compiling articles for wall newspapers, as well as writing letters about their camp experiences, which were sent to newspapers and various economic and political enterprises back in Čačak.

Quite contrary to some authors’ characterization of labor projects as “attempts to kill the youth’s creative cultural instincts through exhausting physical toil,”60 the documents of the Čačak brigades indicate that life in the camps was rich with lively amateur cultural and artistic activities. Choirs, theatre and recitation troupes were founded for individuals who prepared performances for their campmates. The surviving documents show that their repertoire consisted almost exclusively of material devoted to themes of communism and the Liberation Struggle. It included odes to Stalin (naturally, only up until 1948), plays and excerpts by Soviet authors (especially popular was Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered, as well as Chekhov’s Diplomat) and works by Yugoslav writers which could be interpreted in terms of social justice and class struggle (i.e. works by Branislav Nušić, but also Desanka Maksimović and Mira Alečković).61 Film screenings were also organized, either within the camp or by taking brigadiers to town cinemas, and for many it was the first time they had watched a motion picture. The choice of screenings was carefully premeditated, with a particular favorite being the first Yugoslav partisan film Slavica (1949), due to the “volatile reactions” of the viewers whenever they saw German soldiers on screen.62

Cementing Brotherhood and Unity

Alongside their apparent economic importance as a source of free workforce, the youth labor projects came to be seen by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia as one of the most effective ways of cementing the ideological concept of “brotherhood and unity” among the Yugoslav nationalities. This aim was particularly important because there had been numerous interethnic massacres during World War II, and chauvinistic movements had sown hatred among the nationalities. Under these circumstances, the victorious Communist movement inserted itself with its federal vision of Yugoslavia as a reconciliatory force, securing equal rights for all of the country’s ethnicities, some of which (Montenegrins and Macedonians) came to be recognized for the first time only after the communists’ accession to power. The most farsighted way of disseminating the “brotherhood and unity” ideology was to internalize it among members of the younger generations, whose worldview had not yet hardened and many of whom had been too young to remember the ethnically motivated atrocities that had taken place during the war. Federally organized actions proved an invaluable tool in this endeavor, as they attracted brigades from all of the republics. Tito himself emphasized their importance, deeming them even more important than local projects, the “localist tendencies of which might eventually gain a chauvinistic character.”63

Camps of federal labor actions provided the preconditions for the propagation of such ideas. They were mostly set in isolated areas, bringing together youngsters from the most diverse parts of the country to live together in conditions that resembled those in which the army functioned in a secluded environment where they had to interact with one another on a daily basis. This way, young people from ethnically homogenous areas (such as the Čačak region) had the opportunity to spend time and build friendships with members of other nationalities for the first time. The brigadiers’ reports and articles sent to Slobodni glas suggest that this experience left a most positive mark on them. Situations of cultural shock were all but rare, such as the bewilderment of Čačak men who for the first time saw Muslim women in their oriental clothes at the Brčko railway station,64 while the typically exalted reports described scenes from bonfire parties, where youths from regions as diverse as Dragačevo, Šid, Orašac and Mitrovica joined together in the partisan kozaračko dance.65 Some wartime mental wounds were healed, as indicated by a commander’s evaluation of one young man whose father had been killed by Croatian fascists, but whose interaction with fellow Croatian campmates helped him overcome his hatred.66 In order to ensure as much interethnic mingling as possible, commanders placed brigades from the most distant regions of the country in neighboring barracks and also organized sports matches between them.67

From the outset, the People’s Youth of Yugoslavia invited foreigners to participate in labor projects. Thus, as early as 1946 over 1,800 foreign youths from both capitalist and socialist countries took part in the Brčko–Banovići project,68 and in 1947 this number rose to 5,800 people from 42 countries. Several youths from Switzerland worked at the Brčko–Banovići action together with the Čačak brigade “Ratko Mitrović,” and despite the language barrier they developed strong friendships, as indicated by warmhearted farewell diary entries. Naturally, Swiss brigadiers had been professing a leftist political standing, as could be seen in their plans to “undertake an even stronger and more decisive fight against capitalism in Switzerland.” Such enthusiasm for spreading revolutionary zeal could not be tarnished by one incident, when a Serbian girl was accused of stealing a pair of trousers from a Swiss brigadier.69 That same year, Greek brigadiers were added to Čačak brigades, which fell in line with the Yugoslav interventionism concerning the civil war in Greece.70 This transnational exchange of voluntary youth labor was mutual. Already in 1946, a Yugoslav brigade went to Poland to help in the reconstruction of Warsaw, and another such brigade was sent to Czechoslovakia in 1947. Both brigades had members from Čačak and Kraljevo.71

The primary aim of hosting foreign brigades was not to increase their work capacity, but to propagate communist ideas among youths from the West, as well as to strengthen ties with “friendly” countries (until 1948 socialist, after that Western and non-aligned ones). The authorities often noted the practical uselessness of foreign brigadiers, who usually regarded their stay in Yugoslavia merely as a vacation. However, the propaganda value of having foreigners among the volunteers compensated for their inefficiency as workers. Much as isolated camps offered a perfect setting for creating social networks between members of different Yugoslav nationalities, they also served as an ideal site to establish personal connections between Yugoslavs and their peers from both ideological blocs in order to help address the political isolation of Yugoslavia after 1948.

Conclusions: Youth Projects – From Social Glue to Nostalgic Memento

In the immediate postwar years, the authority of the Communist Party was still not completely solidified, since many strata of the population opposed (mostly in a silent and passive manner) the new system for various reasons. The younger generations, however, especially those living in regions most stricken by the disastrous civil war and occupation, represented a tabula rasa on which the regime could “inscribe” its program for the future, to a greater or lesser extent, according to its own needs and ideological tenets. The local perspective of the Čačak brigades that were sent to participate in federal labor projects offers illuminating insights into political and social mechanisms of this early socialist social engineering project, often not perceptible in the “grand” perspective of the state-level narratives. The predominantly voluntary nature of the recruitment process (with sparse, yet notable exceptions of formally and informally coerced mobilization) ensured that the most “hostile” segments of the youth would be excluded. This prevented them from potentially disseminating politically inappropriate ideas among other youths. Thus, labor camps represented isolated “islands” where youths could be exposed to a diverse set of politicized influences and agitation by Party members. Spatial consciousness represented a very important feature of the ideological construct of the projects. Not only was the geographical seclusion of the camps essential for effective indoctrination, but at the very core of these projects was the idea of conquering and taming a previously uncontrollable space, be it static spatial entities (such as marshes on the left bank of the Sava river) or a dynamic reconceptualization of distance and movement (such as in connecting remote and inaccessible parts of the country with highways and railways).

Simultaneously, the performance of the brigadiers (be it at work, in extra-labor activities or interpersonal communication) was carefully scrutinized and evaluated in order to enable the authorities to select the most reliable and promising party cadre for the future. Thus, the social, regional and generational base of party membership and support was expanded and further diversified. The “bond by blood,” which had developed among partisan soldiers during the war, slowly evolved during the early peacetime years into the “bond by labor” among brigadiers who for the most part had been too young to have partaken in the Liberation Struggle. After leaving these “social laboratories,” former brigadiers were supposed to spread the newly acquired skills, knowledge and especially the freshly internalized political and social ideas. The youth also proved a reliable communicator of the “correct” interpretation of Tito’s 1948 conflict with Stalin to other segments of population. Through Tito’s personal visitations and an elaborate ideological homogenization within the camps’ classrooms, the brigades’ Party cells apparently succeeded in alleviating more harmful forms of ideological misgivings among the youth.

The generations involved in the first phase of youth labor actions grew up under wartime conditions, surrounded by destruction and devastating poverty. Most of these youths, even had they been spared a direct contact with the ravages of war, were nevertheless deprived of a proper education, and their economic situation was bleak, with very slow signs of improvement in the immediate postwar years. Labor projects, with their wide variety of extra-labor activities and educational and professional programs, offered a unique opportunity for young people to compensate potentially for these disadvantages and obtain skills that would improve their prospects for social mobility. For the state, these programs also meant improving the educational profile of its citizens. These efforts, which ranged from decreasing rates of illiteracy and “semi-literacy,” creating various literary circles and cultural troupes, and directly preparing rural youth for jobs in industry, were intended to improve the educational structure and diversify the vocational profile of the younger generations in order to overcome the general backwardness of the Yugoslav society. However, the effect of these short-term educational programs should not be overemphasized, since they often produced a workforce that was insufficiently qualified, far too swollen for the needs and capacities of the early period of industrialization, and ultimately unable to fulfill the authorities’ ambitious modernizing agenda, in the long run even burdening economic development itself.

Another important aspect of Yugoslav youth labor projects that was always stressed by the Party was their pan-Yugoslav character. For many youths, especially those living in the mono-ethnic regions (such as Čačak), participation in the projects was the first chance to meet and interact personally with peers from different ethnic, religious and cultural milieus. This element was especially valuable in light of horrifying memories of ethnic cleansing and mass exoduses from just a few years earlier. Thus, the Communist Party’s axiom of “brotherhood and unity” between the Yugoslav peoples could be developed in practice. Moreover, involving foreign youth brigades (or simply inserting foreigners into the domestic ones) helped promote Yugoslav efforts to build a unique type of society, especially in the critical period after the split with the Soviet Union in 1948. Mingling with foreign peers from both the eastern and western side of the Iron Curtain enhanced the desired perception that Yugoslav citizens belonged to a united global working class, despite the country’s diplomatic isolation at a time when conflict with USSR was in full swing but the support of the West had not yet been won.

With their far-sighted emancipatory measures in mind, all reservations of some Party officials concerning the financial viability of organizing and sustaining “mammoth” federally supported youth projects were eventually cast aside, as the projects came to represent the social glue for the up-and-coming generations, deemed able to build an intrinsically socialist and multicultural society (supposedly) from scratch. This was the reason behind the decision to renew grand federal volunteer-based projects in 1958, sustaining this system (with significant modifications during the 1970s) almost until the end of the federation itself.72 Labor actions subsequently moved into the sphere of national mythology, becoming one of the defining symbols of the socialist era, as well as one of the most widespread uncritically cherished nostalgic memories for many former brigadiers in the post-socialist times. On the other end of the political spectrum, they were also used as a notorious example of the communists’ supposedly totalitarian tendencies. Eventually, the projects’ primary political aim of blatant and omnipresent indoctrination of young people with communist ideology proved far more superficial and shorter-lived than their secondary effects, mirrored in a far-reaching (albeit in many aspects incomplete) reconfiguration of the postwar social habitus in Yugoslavia.

Archival Sources

Međuopštinski istorijski arhiv u Čačku [Regional Historical Archives of Čačak], fond Omladinske radne brigade [Youth Labor Brigades Collection] and Lični fond Velimira Cvetića [Personal Collection of Velimir Cvetić].


Published Documents

Krnjajić, Marija, ed. “Spomenar komandanta Čačanske brigade ‘Ratko Mitrović’ Miodraga Obrenovića sa Omladinske pruge Brčko–Banovići” [Diary of the Commander of the Čačak Brigade ‘Ratko Mitrovic’ Miodrag Obrenovic from the Youth Railway Brčko–Banovići]. Izvornik, Građa Međuopštinskog istorijskog arhiva 28 (2013): 203–30.



Slobodni glas (Čačak) [Free Voice].


Secondary Sources

Anastasijević, Predrag M. Voluntary Labour Actions of the Yugoslav Youth. New Delhi: Tanjug, 1952.

Beograd – Grad akcijaša [Belgrade – City of Actions]. Belgrade: Gradska konferencija Saveza socijalističke omladine Beograda, 1985.

Janićijević, Dušan V. Dobrovoljni rad omladine Kraljeva [Voluntary Work of Kraljevo Youth]. Kraljevo: JP PTT Srbija, 1999.

Mihailović, Srećko. Omladinske radne akcije. Rezultati socioloških istraživanja [Youth Labor Actions. Results of Sociological Surveys]. Belgrade: Istraživačko-izdavački centar Saveza socijalističke omladine Srbije, 1985.

Mihailović, Srećko, and Grujica Spasović. Tito, radne akcije. Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta [Tito, Labor Actions. Creators of Irresistible Vigour]. Belgrade: Istraživačko-izdavački centar Saveza socijalističke omladine Srbije, 1979.

Mitrović, Momčilo. Izgubljene iluzije. Prilozi za društvenu istoriju Srbije 1944–1952 [Lost Illusions. Contributions to the Social History of Serbia 1944–1952]. Belgrade: Institut za noviju istoriju Srbije, 1997.

Radne akcije Narodne omladine Hrvatske [Labor Actions of the People’s Youth of Croatia]. Zagreb: Centralni komitet Narodne omladine Hrvatske, 1949.

Ristanović, Slobodan V. To su naših ruku dela. Herojska i slavna epopeja omladinskih radnih akcija 1941–1990 [Heroic and Glorious Epic of Youth Labor Actions 1941–1990]. Belgrade: Kosmos, 2014.

Selinić, Slobodan. “Život na omladinskim radnim akcijama u Jugoslaviji 1946–1963” [Life at Youth Labor Actions in Yugoslavia 1946–1963]. Arhiv. Časopis Arhiva Srbije i Crne Gore 1–2 (2007): 119–37.

Selinić, Slobodan. “Omladina gradi Jugoslaviju (Savezne omladinske radne akcije u Jugoslaviji 1946–1963),” [Youth Building Yugoslavia (Federal Youth Labor Actions in Yugoslavia 1946–1963)]. Arhiv. Časopis Arhiva Srbije i Crne Gore 1–2 (2005): 87–101.

Selinić, Slobodan. “Počeci Novog Beograda – prva faza izgradnje Novog Beograda 1947–1950.” [Beginnings of New Belgrade. The First Phase of the New Belgrade Construction 1947–1950]. Tokovi istorije 4 (2007): 75–96.

Siegelbaum, Lewis H. Stakhanovism and the Politics of Productivity in the USSR 1935–1941. Cambridge: Cambrige University Press, 1990.

Supek, Rudi. Omladina na putu do bratstva. Psihosociologija radne akcije [Youth on the Path to Brotherhood. Psycho-sociology of a Labor Action]. Beograd: Mladost, 1963.

Vejzagić, Saša. “The Importance of Youth Labor Actions in Socialist Yugoslavia: A Case Study of the Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’.” MA thesis, Central European University, 2013.

Udarnici prve smene graditelja omladinske pruge [Shock-Workers of the Youth Railway’s First Shift]. Belgrade: Novo pokolenje, 1946.

1 See Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Stakhanovism and the Politics of Productivity in the USSR 1935–1941 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

2 Predrag M. Anastasijević, Voluntary Labour Actions of the Yugoslav Youth (New Delhi: Tanjug, 1952), 6; Srećko Mihailović and Grujica Spasović, Tito, radne akcije. Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta (Belgrade: Istraživačko-izdavački centar Saveza socijalističke omladine Srbije, 1979), 11–13.

3 This mass organization was renamed the People’s Youth (Narodna omladina) in May 1946.

4 Beograd – Grad akcijaša (Belgrade: Gradska konferencija Saveza socijalističke omladine Beograda, 1985), 18.

5 Mihailović and Srećković, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta, 23–27, 29–31, 114.

6 Slobodan Selinić, “Omladina gradi Jugoslaviju (Savezne omladinske radne akcije u Jugoslaviji 1946–1963),” Arhiv, Časopis Arhiva Srbije i Crne Gore 1–2 (2005): 88–89.

7 Slobodan Selinić, “Počeci Novog Beograda – prva faza izgradnje Novog Beograda 1947–1950.” Tokovi istorije 4 (2007): 75.

8 Srećko Mihailović, Omladinske radne akcije. Rezultati socioloških istraživanja (Belgrade: Istraživačko-izdavački centar Saveza socijalističke omladine Srbije, 1985), 9–10.

9 Mihailović and Spasović, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta, 21–31.

10 Anastasijević, Voluntary Labour Actions; Beograd – Grad akcijaša; Mihailović and Spasović, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta; Radne akcije Narodne omladine Hrvatske (Zagreb: Centralni komitet Narodne omladine Hrvatske, 1949); Udarnici prve smene graditelja omladinske pruge (Belgrade: Novo pokolenje, 1946). In this respect, a recently published monograph containing basic information on all labor actions in socialist Yugoslavia should be mentioned for its anthological comprehensiveness, despite its analytical dearth: Slobodan V. Ristanović, To su naših ruku dela. Herojska i slavna epopeja omladinskih radnih akcija 1941–1990 (Belgrade: Kosmos, 2014).

11 Mihailović, Omladinske radne akcije; Rudi Supek, Omladina na putu do bratstva. Psihosociologija radne akcije (Belgrade: Mladost, 1963).

12 Slobodan Selinić, “Život na omladinskim radnim akcijama u Jugoslaviji 1946–1963,” Arhiv, Časopis Arhiva Srbije i Crne Gore 1–2 (2007): 119–37; Slobodan Selinić, “Omladina gradi Jugoslaviju”; Saša Vejzagić, “The Importance of Youth Labor Actions in Socialist Yugoslavia: A Case Study of the Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity,’” (MA thesis, Central European University, 2013).

13Ratko Mitrović” brigades even had a slogan: “We bear his [Ratko Mitrović’s] name, the whole brigade is proud of him!” (Ratka Mitrovića mi nosimo ime, cela brigada ponosi se njime!”), Slobodni glas, August 3, 1946, 2.

14 D.Z., Treća ORB ‘Ratko Mitrović’ otišla na izgradnju Omladinske pruge,” Slobodni glas, September 7, 1946, 6.

15 Dušan V. Janićijević, Dobrovoljni rad omladine Kraljeva (Kraljevo: JP PTT Srbija, 1999), 61.

16 In brigades from other parts of Yugoslavia there were documented cases of brigadiers who were younger than fifteen (even twelve years old), probably due to the desperate insistence of the local organization on fulfilling the prescribed quotas (Selinić, “Omladina gradi Jugoslaviju,” 91; Selinić, “Počeci Novog Beograda,” 93).

17 In 1948, SKOJ and the People’s Youth merged into one youth supra-organization, keeping the latter’s name.

18 Selinić, “Omladina gradi Jugoslaviju,” 91–92, 95.

19 Vejzagić, “Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’,” 53–55. Selinić emphasizes the almost military nature of the recruitment process (not the least because in the sources themselves recruitment is often referred to as “mobilization”) (Selinić, “Počeci Novog Beograda,” 81).

20 Janićijević, Rad omladine Kraljeva, 95.

21 In the villages of Atenica, Katrga and Rošci, the local commanders’ forceful method of agitation was stigmatized as “unpolitical” and “hostile,” but it was also pointed out that “we still need a sufficient number of youths” (“Budući zadaci osnoвnih organizacija ljubićko-trnavskog sreza po pitanju formiranja frontovskih radnih brigada,” Slobodni glas, June 10, 1949, 2). However, a quote from the local newspaper vividly depicts the indirect and informal methods of pressure that were employed to entice youths: “There should be no youngster who would not apply for the Youth Railway construction!” (B. Kostić, “Do 16. aprila treba izvršiti izbor omladinaca,” Slobodni glas, April 12, 1946, 6).

22 Vejzagić, “Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’,” 51. In Čačak, the possibility of being accepted to labor projects was used as a motivational factor for bad students to improve their school marks (D. Grbić, “U našem odeljenju prijavilo se 29 učenika,” Slobodni glas, March 15, 1947, 2).

23 S.A., “Školska omladina Čačka učestvovaće na izgradnji auto-puta Bratstvo-Jedinstvo,” Slobodni glas, May 9, 1948, 4. Every attempt on the part of parents to prevent their children from participating in labor actions (or mass organizations in general) was strongly condemned (I. Pešić, O pogrešnom odnosu roditelja prema svojoj deci i omladinskim organizacijama,” Slobodni glas, October 1, 1948, 3).

24 B. Kostić, “Do 16. aprila treba izvršiti izbor omladinaca za sastav radne brigade koja će uzeti učešća na u radovima na izgradnji omladinske pruge,” Slobodni glas, April 12, 1946, 6; P.Đ., “275 omladinaca našeg okruga gradi omladinsku prugu,” Slobodni glas, May 8, 1946, 6.

25 Milisav Đurić, “Izgradnja nove omladinske pruge Šamac–Sarajevo najveći zadatak omladine u 1947. godini,” Slobodni glas, January 16, 1947, 2; Omladina okruga čačanskog sprema se za omladinsku prugu Šamac–Sarajevo,” Slobodni glas, March 8, 1947, 3.

26Na smotri u Čačku uzelo je učešća preko 4000 omladinaca iz sreza i grada,” Slobodni glas, April 2, 1948, 3; M.D. Rajčević, “Omladina moravičkog sreza u ovoj godini već je dala oko 7000 radnih dana na raznim lokalnim radovima,” Slobodni glas, April 2, 1948, 3.

27 For instance, the 1949 quota was surpassed by 27 percent in Bosnia and Herzegovina and only by 3.7 percent in Slovenia (Vejzagić, “Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’,” 52–53).

28 The term udarniki was widely used in the Soviet Union to designate shock brigades and workers prior to the institutionalization of the Stakhanovite system in 1935. Since the culture of productivity was introduced in Yugoslavia only after World War II, different systems of shock-work were not distinguished in Serbo-Croatian, but were jointly grouped under the label udarništvo.

29 Međuopštinski istorijski arhiv u Čačku (hereafter: MIAČ), fond Omladinske radne brigade (hereafter: ORB), kutija 2, fascikla 3, Udarnička legitimacija Nikolić Nikole iz Donje Trepče, December 5, 1948.

30 Mihailović and Spasović, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta, 34. One of the reasons for such excessive toiling was also the authorities’ pragmatic insistence during the period of reconstruction that the work effect of unpaid workers should be five times greater than that of paid workers, see Momčilo Mitrović, Izgubljene iluzije. Prilozi za društvenu istoriju Srbije 1944–1952 (Belgrade: Institut za noviju istoriju Srbije, 1997), 19.

31 B.M., “Orlova Stena, radni logor čačanske brigade,” Slobodni glas, August 30, 1946, 3.

32 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-4, Opšta arhiva 1. čačanske srednjoškolske ORB “Rade Azanjac,” Ruma, July–August 1948. This is a somewhat lower percentage compared to the overall average for the whole New Belgrade project, during which every seventh brigadier became a shock-worker (Selinić, “Počeci Novog Beograda,” 86).

33 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-4, Karakteristike brigadira 1. čačanske srednjoškolske brigade “Rade Azanjac” (1948).

34 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-3, Kratke biografije predloženih.

35 MIAČ, ORB, k-1, f-4, Odluka o zabrani prekovremenog rada, July 23, 1952.

36 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-1, Karakteristike brigadira; f-2, Prozivnik 2. ljubićko-trnavske brigade; k-3, f-2, Knjiga karakteristika brigadira 2. ljubićko-trnavske brigade (1948); f-3, Karakteristike brigadira 1. srednjoškolske ORB Rade Azanjac (1948); MIAČ, Lični fond Velimira Cvetića (hereafter: VC), Karakteristike par članova. Particularly interesting is the fact that brigade commanders put a high value on the contribution of brigadiers (or the lack thereof) to overall socialization within the barracks. Thus, the strongest remarks in some evaluations would be: “in crowds, he was closed off and introverted,” “he is many comrades’ favorite character,” “not serious in conversations with other brigadiers,” “he was always moody when among others,” “she was popular for her jolliness and her decent, comradely life and behavior”. MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-1, Karakteristike brigadira 11. srpske brigade, Železnik (1947).

37 Četnici is the colloquial term for the monarchist Yugoslav Army in the Homeland (Jugoslovenska vojska u otadžbini) that undertook a rebellion against German occupation as early as May 1941, fighting together with partisans until their ideological split in November 1941. They were focused on sparing ethnic Serbs from open confrontations with Nazis, as well as preventing communists from inciting a socialist revolution. Consequently, many četnik units entered into tacit collaboration with the Nazi regime, and some commanders ordered severe reprisals against Muslim civilians in Bosnia and Sandžak.

38 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-4, Karakteristike članova 1. srednjoškolske brigade “Rade Azanjac” (1948).

39 To make this case even more bizarre, his brigade commander suspected him of having belonged to četnici during the war (MIAČ, VC, Pismo sreskog komiteta SKOJ Okružnom komitetu u Gornjem Milanovcu, April 29, 1946).

40 The insufficient number of work uniforms, as well as of basic clothing (trousers, shirts and underwear), caused many problems during the 1946 project, but it seems that in later projects these procurements were much better planned, becoming yet another asset with which to attract poor youths to actions. Several brigadiers were strongly criticized for walking to and from the construction site in old and ragged uniforms, although they had received new ones. The commanders reminded them that they would not be allowed to take the new uniforms home, no matter how well they preserved them, whereas walking through the streets of Belgrade in ragged clothes put the brigade in a bad light and only provided malicious reactionaries with additional arguments. MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-5, Knjiga dnevne zapovesti 1. čačanske srednjoškolske ORB “Rade Azanjac” od 9.6. do 8.7.1949. i 2. čačanske srednjoškolske ORB “Rade Azanjac” od 8.7. do 5.8.1949. In the Highway construction camp, there were cases of brigadiers abandoning the brigade without returning their clothes. SKOJ officials back home were instructed to regulate this issue. MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-1, Spiskovi brigadira 1. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade (po četama).

41 MIAČ, VC, Pribeleške za sastanke (1947).

42 MIAČ, VC, Poleđina spiska članova SKOJ (1946).

43 MIAČ, ORB, k-1, f-4, Zapažanja dežurnog brigadira (1952); MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-4, Opšta arhiva 1. čačanske srednjoškolske ORB “Rade Azanjac” (July–August, 1948).

44 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-3, Zapisnici sa sastanka štaba i partijske ćelije (1949).

45 Some youths also threatened not to prolong their stay in the camp if there would not be more straw for beds and meat for lunch. The Party cell dismissed such complaints, claiming that there were “opportunists” who were taking two meal portions, thus leaving other comrades without any food. MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-3, Zapisnici sa sastanka štaba i partijske ćelije 5. Ljubićsko-trnavske brigade (1948).

46 Vejzagić, “Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’,” 66. Military instructors also used their veteran status to transmit their personal experiences of the Liberation Struggle to younger brigadiers (MIAČ, VC, Posetili su nas delegati našeg okruga).

47 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-2, Dnevnik zanimanja, June 30, 1949.

48 Ibid., Vejzagić, “Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’,” 68.

49 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-5, Knjiga dnevne zapovesti 1. и 2. čačanske srednjoškolske ORB “Rade Azanjac” od 9.6. do 8.7.1949. i od 8.7. do 5.8.1949; MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-1, Evidencija dnevne zapovesti 1. Ljubićko-trnavkse brigade, 20.4.-16.6.1950.

50 Mihailović and Spasović, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta, 29. According to Selinić, at least 185 cases of death can be documentarily proven for the period 1946–1963, most of which occurred at the New Belgrade and Highway projects (Selinić, “Život na radnim akcijama,” 123–124). The only documented case of death in Čačak brigades in this period was that of Radiša Stefanović, who was mortally injured by a truck at the New Belgrade worksite on August 1, 1950. This death was laconically mentioned in the brigade’s official diary, without any further notice or comment (MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-3, Dnevnik života i rada 3. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade na Novom Beogradu od 1.7. do 28.8.1950).

51 Vejzagić, “Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’,” 79.

52 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-3, Zapisnici sa sastanka štaba i partijske ćelije (1948).

53 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-3, Zapisnici sa sastanka štaba i partijske ćelije 5. ljubićko-trnavske brigade (1949).

54 Žika Marjanović, “Dopis sa omladinske pruge,” Slobodni glas, May 1, 1947, 3.

55 MIAČ, ORB, k-1, f-1, Izveštaji 2. čačanske ORB “Ratko Mitrović” (Bukinje – Orlova stena, August, 1946).

56 Selinić, “Život na omladinskim radnim akcijama,” 126.

57 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-3, Biblioteka logora ‘Jože Vlahović’ and Inventar knjiga 2. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade.

58 Selinić, “Život na omladinskim radnim akcijama,” 125.

59 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-3, Zapisnik kulturno-prosvetnog odbora 3. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade, July 9, 1950.

60 Janićijević, Rad omladine Kraljeva, VI–VIII.

61 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-3, Zapisnik kulturno-prosvetnog odbora 3. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade, July 9–August 22, 1950.

62 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-3, Dnevnik 5. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade od 7.9. do 29.11.1949. In this regard, it should be mentioned that the official discourse frequently accented cinema visits as an advent of modernization. All the more peculiar was the consternation of the 3rd ljubićko-trnavska brigade commander (working at New Belgrade in 1950) at the fact that during film screenings, apart from being very noisy and littering, some male comrades did not even realize that they were not permitted to urinate inside the cinema hall (MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-3, Knjiga zapovesti 3. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade, 4.7.–29.8.1950).

63 Mihailović and Spasović, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta, 78.

64 MIAČ, VC, Dopis Gvozdena Jovanića o pristizanju u Brčko (1946).

65 Ljubiša Lazarević, “Druga dragačevska brigada na autoputu proglašena za dvaput udarnu,” Slobodni glas, July 23, 1948, 3.

66 MIAČ, VC, Karakteristike članova ORB “Ratko Mitrović” (1946).

67 Ljubiša Lazarević, “Druga dragačevska brigada na autoputu proglašena za dvaput udarnu,” Slobodni glas, July 23, 1948, 3; Radisav Pajić, “Čačanska omladinska brigada vratila se triput udarna,” Slobodni glas, July 16, 1949, 4.

68 Mihailović and Spasović, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta, 29, 114.

69 Marija Krnjajić, ed. “Spomenar komandanta čačanske brigade ‘Ratko Mitrović’ Miodraga Obrenovića sa omladinske pruge Brčko–Banovići,” Izvornik, građa Međuopštinskog istorijskog arhiva Čačak 28 (2013): 211.

70 MIAČ, ORB, k-1, f-1, Fotografije sa Omladinske pruge Brčko–Banovići (1946).

71 Janićijević, Rad omladine Kraljeva, 313; Udarnici prve smene, 23, 72.

72 Janićijević, Rad omladine Kraljeva, 369.

Volume 4 Issue 1 CONTENTS

pdfSándor Horváth

Life of an Agent: Re-Energizing Stalinism and Learning the Language of Collaboration after 1956 in Hungary


In order for a secret police report to be taken seriously, it had to be lodged in the proper form, according to the discursive styles of the state bureaucracy, and in particular the secret police. Thus, the authors of the reports adopted numerous elements of style and rhetoric in order to ensure that their goals would be achieved. How was this bureaucratic style adopted in Hungary, and how did ordinary citizens decide to accommodate to or cooperate with the authorities under the communist regime after the 1956 Revolution? I argue that the creators and editors of the secret police reports (the “unofficial informants” and their case officers) were “sculpting” the official language as an artefact and mapping their social network in accordance with idealized images of the politico-social body. The first step in the implementation of massive, forceful coercion was to change the narratives and the social categories that were used to depict the social status of a “good citizen” and the local communities. In the early phases of their work, during which they learned what was expected of them and how to meet these expectations, the informants mastered the language of the secret police in order to ensure, in the meantime, that they were able to realize their own personal goals in their local communities by taking advantage of their access to the state security network. Thus the function of the reports on the one hand was rhetorical: they were made in order to feed the bureaucracy. On the other, they served as a means with which their authors won approval among other members of the network of their personal, everyday goals. The authoring of reports, which can be understood as a kind of period of training, thus was not simply a matter of exercising social control, but quite the reverse, it also served as a means of appropriating power by members of society in the interests of specific personal goals that had little or nothing to do directly with the agendas of the regime.

Keywords: communist regime, Kádár regime, bureaucratic language, secret police, cooperation, political participation, Eastern Europe, Hungary


Throughout the entire Kádár regime (the period between 1957 and 1989 in Hungary),1 a man referred to in the records as Gy. wrote reports from a mining village in Nógrád county, which is dotted with small villages nestled in valleys.2 Like a king in disguise, with his reports he dispensed justice in the everyday affairs of the village. Gradually, he mastered the language of the bureaucracy. As the president of the division of the local football team, which played in the second tier of the national championship teams when it was at its best, he traveled through the mining region. He was given his first task because of the figures who prompted a massacre by the Communist police in the city of Salgótarján on December 8, 19563 (a large part of the victims were from the village in which he lived) and because of his father-in-law, a Social Democrat who hailed from a mining family that had emigrated to Hungary from northern Italy. He was given his last task because of the reburial of Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister of the revolutionary government in 1956 who was executed in 1958. The reburial, which took place in 1989, was an event of great symbolic significance.4 Gy. himself was injured at the time of the 1956 massacre (according to his relatives, not in the actual violence of the massacre, but rather in an accident that took place elsewhere), but presumably the police did not use this in order to pressure him to write reports, but rather the fact that in 1948 he had been sentenced to ten years in prison as a war criminal (he had been released after having served 18 months). His refusal to cooperate with the state security forces, his alleged or presumed participation in the events of 1956 (Gy. had been a member of a workers’ council in 1956), and his conviction as a war criminal provided the police with ample material with which to blackmail and recruit him.

National politics repeatedly crisscrossed the life history of the informant referred to in the official documents simply by the letters Gy., in spite of the fact that, having gotten average grades in school, he spent the better part of his life working as a physical laborer or in a low-level office position in the railway service and later the mine. Using his life history, I attempt to make a local interpretation (in other words the “view from the bottom”) of the major events that shaped the twentieth century more understandable.5 In this article, I address, within this larger framework, how Gy. became part of the secret police network and how he mastered the official language with which he was able, on the one hand, to write reports that were considered acceptable by the authorities and, on the other, to achieve his own personal goals, using the network as a means.

According to Michael Shafir, when an official view of history, such as the Marxist–Leninist one, is abolished, memory and historical scholarship become competitors. Shafir makes this observation in connection with the report of the Tismăneanu Committee as the presentation of a kind of conclusive and absolute historical narrative.6 A similar process was underway following the events of 1989 which shaped the “agent-hunting” narrative mode based on the impassioned call to make the files of the secret police and the lists of operatives and agents accessible to the public.

After all, if society consisted exclusively of victims and perpetrators, then not only could the perpetrators be found out, on moral grounds they must be found out, as this would contribute to the consolidation of democracy, at least according to prevailing public opinion. According to this narrative, the denunciation of agents and the “cleansing” of public life of the “perpetrators” of the previous system (lustration) were both demands of civil rights activists and political tools.7 The demand to make the files accessible to the public was a campaign the emotional point of departure of which was the belief that the success of the committees “in search of the truth” depended on society’s fortitude. Thus, the many volumes that have been written on state security forces notwithstanding, as of yet no empirical studies have been done addressing the question of the extent to which the state securities actually constituted an element that stabilized the system. As by now has come to seem almost self-evident on the basis of source criticism on the documents of the state security forces, for the contents of these documents have been understood as reflections not of “reality,” but rather of the expectations of the state security forces and the party, and not only by scholars and researchers, but also by readers at the time.

For these reasons, relatively little attention has been devoted to the fact that the texts that were created and used by the networks were the products of a form of interaction in which the informers became part of the bureaucracy through a distinctive kind of training process. In order to be able to write reports that would meet the needs of the authorities, they had to learn the clichés that they were expected to use. As Katherine Verdery has written in connection with the Securitate on the last period of the era, “the Securitate increasingly became a pedagogical or didactic rather than a punitive institution.”8 As I intend to show in this article, however, the relationship between Gy. and his case officer was similar to the relationship between a teacher and a pupil, at least from their perspective, even from the outset, though in the case of Gy. we are speaking of a “pupil” who learned not only what was expected of him, but also how to achieve his own goals indirectly by making use of the reports.

I argue in this article that the function of the secret police reports on the one hand was rhetorical: they were made in order to feed the bureaucracy. On the other hand, however, they served as a means with which their authors won approval among other members of the network of their personal, everyday goals. The authoring of reports, which can be understood as a kind of period of training, thus was not simply a matter of exercising social control, but quite the reverse, it also served as a means of appropriating power by members of society in the interests of specific personal goals that had little or nothing to do directly with the agendas of the regime.

Towards the end of the 1960s, mining in Nógrád was irrelevant on the national level as the working class policy had become less and less important for the Kádár regime.9 Gy.’s mine was closed in 1968 because it was no longer regarded as economically viable,10 though the sedulous sentries of the state security forces continued to insist on the submission of reports by agents who took a fancy to writing them and who, by then, had provided ample proof of their reliability. More and more frequently, Gy. used the reports as tools with which to promote his own interests. He could enforce “justice” for the “little man” (for instance, in the tavern they were watering down the wine, or cars were being repaired on the black market in the neighboring street). The reports contain not calls for collective action, but rather numerous manners of attempting to further personal interests.

In this article, I seek the answer to the question of how Gy., as the author of texts used by the state security, reinterpreted his own identity and how he created a portrayal of himself as a useful member of society. This was the period in his life when, as the head of the division of the local soccer team, he had a large network of relationships, which he used when writing reports. His collaboration with the local authorities (in comparison with the transformation of the inhabitants of the village) was not striking by any means. The financial positions of his neighbors and relatives (which can be clearly traced in the census records) were closely linked to his cooperation with the regime.11

The Preconditions: A Life Story before the Secret Police

Gy. was born in 1923, the son of a mechanic who worked at the Salgótarján Coal Mine Company, which was sinking into financial ruin because of the new borders of the Treaty of Trianon, which severed the mines from many of the communities they have served. His mother used her mother’s Swabian name.12 Gy.’s mother, like her mother before her, gave birth to her first child at the age of sixteen as an unwed girl. Fortunately for her, one fine day towards the end of World War I she was introduced to a man six years her senior, a locksmith named Aladár whose family was part of the petty nobility and who would later become Gy.’s father. Until the beginning of the Communist era in Hungary, Gy. spelled his family name with the letter “y” on the end, an indication of noble rank, but he then changed it to “i,” which helped spare him the wrath of the authorities. Aladár’s father was a magistrate of an administrative district in Zagyvapálfalva, a village that later was inundated with miners, but according to the recollections of family members, after the war, having been caught embezzling money from the widows’ war relief fund, he shot himself in the head, either out of guilt or shame.13 Aladár had only one flaw: he limped, because during the war he had been shot in the heel while serving on the front by Isonzo. So he was slightly less popular among the women. This may explain why he was willing to marry a woman who had already given birth to an illegitimate child. She would give birth to six more children. The birth registries of her many children allow one to track the wanderings of the family in the mining region relatively easily. Gy. had two older sisters, but following the death of his older brother in childhood he was the oldest boy in the family. (His parents went on to have three more children, all girls.)14

Sociolographer Zoltán Szabó characterized Kisterenye, the village in Nógrád county where Gy. was born, in the 1930s as a community in which, in exchange for their submissiveness and compliance, workers could live a bit better: “they had the best opportunities regarding schooling for their children, they read the most bourgeois newspapers, and most of the radios were playing in their apartments.”15 The village had a public elementary school paid for by the mine, a tavern, a club for balls, a physician’s office and, in the middle of the settlement, a soccer field, which was the center of social life and the marriage market. Girls could gather to socialize near the field without having to fear people gossiping about them. Gy. met his wife by the soccer field, leaning on the fence. In the village, a house with two rooms, like the one in which Gy.’s family lived (with six children), counted as upper middle class in the local community. The careers of Gy.’s surviving brothers are tales of social mobility. One of his younger brothers became a factory director (towards the end of his life he was discharged with a pension after facing accusations of having abused his position as director for personal gain).16 His other brother became an accountant and was later found guilty of embezzlement.17

For Gy.’s family, schooling meant an opportunity to rise in the social hierarchy, and they strove to take advantage of this opportunity. In autumn 1929, Gy. began to attend school, and in the first class of elementary school he was already among the best students in the class. He was given the highest possible marks in every subject with the exception of reading.18 He may have been one of the favorite students of instructor Emil Sümeg. “Old man Emil,” as he was called, was the one-man organizer of the school in the village, and he was passionate about the task. He was regarded as the “voice of the people” in the village. He wrote petitions, as did Gy.’s social democratic father-in-law. For instance, after the occupation of the country by Germany in March 1944, old man Emil denounced the German soldiers in the village to the management of the mine because they had insulted three women and “did not respect the fence, […] in many places simply trampling them down.”19 Later his name was listed in the records of the secret service recruits, but whatever reports he may have made did not survive.20 In the end, Gy. wrote one of his first reports for the communist secret police about Emil.

Because of his excellent grades in school, Gy. was enrolled in the higher elementary school (a kind of middle school, called polgári, which means citizen) in the neighboring agricultural town. Because of his acuity, he was allowed to begin in the second form, where he paid discounted tuition. The pupils from the mining towns went in separate train cars to the school, which was intended to fashion citizens out of them who would be loyal to the state and could later fill positions in the local bureaucracy. In the first semester, Gy. got the highest possible mark in only one subject, religious instruction. In the other subjects he usually got the lowest passing grade, though a few times he got a decent mark. His form-master classified his handwriting as passably legible. This improved considerably with time. The handwritten reports that he submitted to the political police as an adult are written with precise, clearly legible letters, and as a young adult he also worked as a clerk at the mine. As the years passed, Gy. became better and better as a student, though he was never an outstanding talent.21

The representatives of the city of Pásztó were hesitant to vote on the establishment of a school because of the costs. The school commissioner convinced them to give their approval by informing them that if they were to resolve to have the school built, they would be eligible to receive support from the state, which could be a good source of income for local builders. If, however, the state were to order the construction of a school because of the size of the population of the city, then they would lose any possibility of funding. The local farmers continued to look with skepticism on the idea of a school.22

The railway employees, however, saw schooling as an opportunity to rise in the community, as did the miners who in the meantime had immigrated to and colonized the city. Gy.’s class was comprised almost entirely of the children of the local employees and miners.23 All of his siblings attended the higher elementary school, where they were given a patriotic education. As was noted in the school bulletin, the students began and ended the school day with prayer, as was common at the time. They commemorated the heroes of the battle of Limonowa (in late 1914, the troops of the Austro-Hungarian army defeated the army of the Russian Czar near the city of Limonowa in what today is Poland) and discussed the ties between the Hungarians and the Finno-Ugric peoples in Hungarian class (an idea that by then had gained widespread acceptance). In an attempt to support Hungarian industry, careful attention was paid to ensure that the students only used school supplies and materials for handicrafts that had been made in Hungary.24

When Gy. was in the third grade, the schools found themselves obliged to introduce a uniform text for prayer and exclude all other prayers. Religion functioned as an obligatory state and ideological framework in the process of fashioning the ideal citizenry. Gy., who like his father was a Calvinist, was almost alone in the almost entirely Catholic class. There were two Lutheran boys and also three Jews who, while the other students were reciting the text of the uniform prayer, were allowed not to make the sign of the cross.25

In 1937, following visits to the factory, Gy.’s class went on an excursion to Budapest. In Budapest, which to many of the students must have seemed like an enormous metropolis, they watched the military parade that was held in honor of the Italian king and queen on Mussolini Square (as of 1936, this was the name of the square that today is Oktogon). The school yearbook contained the following lines about the event: “They can take everything from us, Trianon can banish planes from the skies, forbid tanks, but there is one thing they cannot take from our souls, cannot kill in our hearts: the Hungarian Soldier.”26 The notion of the Hungarian soldier and the repudiation of the Treaty of Trianon (the post-war treaty according to which Hungary had lost roughly two-thirds of its territory to the surrounding states in the wake of World War I) were two pillars of the cultivation of a patriotic citizenry in the school.

The formal rank of the institution as a grammar school did not guarantee the pupils positions in offices.27 When he left the school, as the oldest male child in the family Gy. pursued the study of a trade in industry at the mine and waited for an opportunity to acquire a position at the railway, where salaries were much higher. In 1942, with his uncle’s help, he was given a position as a trainee at the Hungarian National Railway.28

Because of the program promoting industrialization (the so-called 1938 Győri program), the railway was expanding and needed more and more employees. In 1942, Gy. began to work as an apprentice in the stock room in the train station in Miskolc, a city in northeastern Hungary. However, one evening he was caught rummaging through boxes from the Cikta shoe factory (the Hungarian name for the Bata shoe factory) and also boxes of cigarettes. In the wake of the territorial changes according to which a strip of territory in southern Czechoslovakia became part of Hungary, the Czech company, Bata, founded a Hungarian factory. For Gy., the Cikta shoes were sort of like an entrance ticket into the world of the “middle class”. They did not actually find any shoes on him, but they did find two boxes of so-called Dames cigarettes for women. Dames were the favorite cigarettes of Katalin Karády, a popular actress at the time (the Hungarian Marlene Dietrich, as it were), and they were popular in part because of their elegant, decorative packaging. Gy. may have wanted to use them as part of a romantic conquest, because he smoked a different brand. He was given a reprimand and fired.29

He was nonetheless able to find a position as a traffic assistant at another railway post in Transdanubia, since the records were not coordinated on the national level. In 1944, the frontline reached his station in Fejér County. He served in Seregélyes, a settlement not far from Székesfehérvár, on the front, the so-called Margit-line, which was one of the best fortified defense lines in Hungary and in the winter of 1944 was becoming rigid. According to the locals, towards the end of the war the village went back and forth between the Soviet and the German forces seven times.30 Gy. escaped conscription, but at the time of the second occupation of the village by the Germans (which witnessed the vengeful acts of Arrow Cross men from the area around Székesfehérvár) he committed the act for which he was later convicted of being a war criminal. Indirectly because of him, a Ruthenian railway employee was executed. The man, who was accused of having helped the Soviet soldiers get women in the village and having robbed the official residence of the station agent, was executed. When the German soldiers recaptured the village (in the course of a maneuver called Konrad III), Gy. reported the Ruthenian man to the gendarmerie in Székesfehérvár, which at the time was working together closely with the Arrow Cross. Not once in the records of the people’s tribunal was the man’s name spelled correctly, but thanks to the digitalized documents and records of the Archives of the Hungarian National Railway and the assistance of an archivist (and also a bit of good luck), I was able to identify him and find his descendants. The history of the Ruthenian railway employee offers a pithy encapsulation of the experiences of the inhabitants of Sub-Carpathia between 1939 and 1944, as well as their relationship to Hungary. Without ever having changed places of residence, over the course of his life the man worked for the railway service of three different countries (since in the space of a mere two decades the territory was part first of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, then Czechoslovakia, and then Hungary). Then, like most people from Sub-Carpathia, he was labeled a “politically unreliable Ruthenian” and sent to the western Hungarian border and then the stations near the front.31 The conflict between him and the station agent arose because the station master failed to pay him three months’ salary in advance, which all the other employees had received with the approach of the front.32

After the war, Gy. became one of the targets of the Communist political police, which was beginning to organize in Székesfehérvár.33 In 1949, the officer responsible for his case, a man named Gyögy Székely, emigrated for the West, and the state security forces gathered a significant amount of material on him when he was abroad, because he was accused of collaborating with the English secret service.34 When the case involving Gy. was underway, Székely was not named chief of police in Székesfehérvár, which was a sign of the temporary relegation of the Communist police to the background.35 In 1945, Gy. was acquitted, the confessions that had been extracted from him by the police notwithstanding, as indeed was the overwhelming majority of people facing accusations in front of the people’s court in Székesfehérvár. What factors determined whether someone was convicted of war crimes or not?

The marginalization of the Communists in rural areas towards the end of 1945 made it possible for the accused who stood before the tribunal, which was by no means in the hands of the Communists, to withdraw confessions that had been made (often violently coerced) to the police, which was in the hands of the Communists.36 On the basis of the ruling, if someone helped the gendarmerie commit an act that was regarded as “necessary retribution” or that was in compliance with the laws at the time, this did not constitute a war crime. Since the police had acted in compliance with the laws that were in effect in 1944, according to this logic the deportations and the provision of assistance with the deportations were not illegal unless someone had been excessively “diligent.” The tribunal regarded Gy.s report, which had resulted in a man’s execution, as legal, and the members of the tribunal were able to portray the victim, whose name they could not spell and about whom they knew next to nothing, as guilty without any discussion.37

Having been acquitted, Gy. returned to his village. With the help of his family, he found a position at the mine as a clerk. In 1946, he wrote a few lines in Népsport (“People’s Sports”) about the local miners’ soccer team, which was doing well at the time. Few people knew anything about his case. He married the daughter, a girl sixteen years of age, of a prominent local Social Democratic miner who, as a something of an active agitator, paid visits to prisons between 1917 and 1957, under several different political systems. His father-in-law, furthermore, was an important figure of the Social Democratic party in Nógrád, which to an extent broke from “mainstream” Peyer Social Democratic ideas.38 He was present at strikes that were held in the village of Etes during World War I and in the crowd that gathered before the massacre in Salgótarján in 1956. His political activism made him a symbolic figure in the area. Gy. argued about politics with him more than with anyone else.

In 1948, before he emigrated, Székely, the police captain who had interrogated and beaten Gy. in 1945, traveled to Budapest, where he met with the National Soviet of the People’s Tribunals. Gy.’s case was reopened and he was sentenced to ten years of forced labor, though the sentence was changed to imprisonment.39 He was put in the prison on Kozma Street in Budapest, which at the time was one of the strictest prisons in Hungary. I was allowed by the director of the prison to examine prison files that have not yet been turned over to the archives.40 In 1950, the Hungarian State Security Authorities took over control of the building, and there was greater need for space in the cells, which had once been crowded with the accused who had been convicted by the people’s tribunals.41 In early 1950, Gy. was granted amnesty in order to help address the lack of space. Initially, he worked as a barrowman in the mine, but as he was not accustomed to difficult physical labor and was able to write well, with the help of sympathetic souls who had gathered around him, he was given a position—of no great prominence—in an office.42

In 1956, Nógrád, which was regarded as a county rife with the spirit of rebellion, played an important role in national politics, since lack of coal due to the miners’ strike crippled industrial production.43 This is one of the reasons why the first Kádár government strove to restart production by using workers’ councils.44 Gy. was elected by his coworkers to serve as a member of the workers’ council at his workplace.45 Later, the workers’ councils were cast as enemies of the people in the official discourses of the Kádár era. By the end of 1957, the local Social Democrats had also come to be seen or at least cast by the regime as enemies of the people. Gy.’s first important task was to keep them under close watch, and his father-in-law, an old Social Democrat, was the first person of interest.

The Proper Report: Pedagogy of the Oppressed?

Reports and the bureaucratic forms of the reports (i.e. the written reports) were important elements of the “institutionalized culture of complaint,” as several historians have referred to it.46 It is not irrelevant, however, to consider who obtained the right to lodge complaints and how, and whose complaints were actually taken seriously. Anyone whose complaint was taken seriously unavoidably became part of the state exercise of power, since the complaint functioned as the point of departure for the series of measures that were taken by the state. In order for a complaint to taken seriously, it had to be lodged in the proper form, according to the discursive styles of the state bureaucracy. Thus the authors of the reports adopted numerous elements of style and rhetoric in order to ensure that their complaints would be heard. I analyze how these reports actually gave someone the opportunity “to get as close to a public sphere as one is likely to get” under the Kádár regime.47

In this section of my article I argue that the participants in the secret police network, which included the agents (informants), the case officers (who oversaw the work of the agents), and the people who read the reports, sought solutions to the problems of their private lives by presenting them as if they were communal issues. In part as a consequence of this, they blurred the border between the private and public spheres by divulging the details of their private lives, thereby making communal (and therefore state) control seem more acceptable. By revealing details of their private lives, the authors of the reports let the figures of the state bureaucracy into their bedrooms, which they were not actually obliged to do, making their private lives part of the state bureaucracy by seeking solutions, with their reports, to their personal problems. The decision to blabber about one’s private life was for the most part the result of a personal decision on the part of an author seeking to further his or her own personal interests. One of the goals of the network of informants was thus not simply to ensure knowledge of and control over the circles in which the agents moved, but also to transform the informants themselves into bureaucrats on whom the regime could rely. Moreover, the authors of the reports attempted to veil their personal interests by (over)emphasizing their sense of responsibility to the community. In other words, both sides used the secret police network to achieve their goals: the network was used not only by the regime for purposes of surveillance and control, but also the operatives (the case officers and the unofficial informants), who used it in their interests. Indeed, their personal interests were far more important from their perspectives. This raises an important question, namely, who had the right to lodge a personal complaint, and what was the proper manner of doing so.

Gy. was 34 years old when he was recruited as an agent. He had three small children. His older daughter, who had been born while he was in prison, was 9 and was in school. His son, who was 4, had not been accepted to the kindergarten, and his wife took care of their youngest daughter, who was barely more than one year old and who had been born in 1956, during the miners’ strike.48 Gy., who was not terribly accustomed to hard labor in an underground mine, first worked in an office. As of the beginning of 1957, he worked underground, and not just on paper, but in reality, as a barrowman, in three shifts. Workers were given bonus pay for working on Sundays, but in his case this bonus was withheld as punishment. His youngest daughter, who had been born in September 1956, was a year and a half old at the beginning of 1958, when the family was told she could attend the nursery school, which was a modest dream come true for them.49 She was accepted into the nursery soon after Gy. began writing reports. Gy. had many reasons to submit to the regime and write reports: the hope that he might be reassigned to a position in the office, the possibility that he might be able to find employment for his wife, and later the hope that his children would be given places in the nursery and kindergarten, since his wife had fallen gravely ill. (He even made specific mention of the question of admittance to the kindergarten in one of his reports, and the secret police helped him resolve the problem.)

Gy. and his case officer learned, largely in the course of their collaborative work, how to write a good report, and this enabled them to write numerous reports, and at their own initiative. Gy. found it difficult to imitate the style of the reports, and he had hardly had much instruction. As a mining clerk, he had grown accustomed to beginning a text by addressing its projected audience, but obviously he couldn’t address his first case officer, named Ecsegi, as “esteemed lieutenant, Sir,” or “esteemed comrade” because of the conspiracy, because this might imply collusion. He didn’t know quite how to start. In the end, he began his first report in an official tone: “I respectfully report that Sándor B., a resident of the Kossuth neighborhood of Kisterenye […]” This was followed by a brief description of the man in question, “brown-haired, tall,” and then a reference to his health as an identifying feature (he had a limp). The physical description was followed by an important characterization of his political stance, which later became one of Gy.’s favorite formulas: “he is an enemy of the people’s democracy.” This phrase he borrowed from the contemporary propaganda.50

Gy. had to be sure to write something that would be useful and incriminating, for he must have feared that if he were to submit a useless report, he himself might be dragged off to prison, as he had been in 1948 and as his coworkers had been after 1956. He was very afraid of prison. According to his wife, “he was badly beaten, he did not engage in politics.”51 However, of the members of his family, he engaged in politics more intensively than anyone else at that time.

Gy. provided—probably in response to a specific request—a dramatic description of a dialogue just before the Salgótarján massacre that he had heard more than a year earlier: “the aforementioned went over to the shaft [of the mine] and made the following declaration: ‘everyone out of the engine room and off to [Salgó]Tarján. Your place is there. Anyone who doesn’t come is an enemy of the people.’”52 Then another cliché regarding the enemy, which this time he put in the mouth of the enemy so that it would be understandable. Gy. submitted reports that clearly resembled denunciations. He thereby managed to ensure that his reports would be read and taken seriously, even if he wasn’t able to imitate the styles of the official discourse perfectly, and that he would be praised for his diligence.

Gy. managed to exceed expectations when completing his next task as well. His task, which was intended as a good warm-up for the novice agent, was to provide descriptions of the characters of two Social Democrats who were well-known in the village. The first of these two men was Gy.’s father-in-law himself, who was almost seventy years old, and Gy. provided a detailed characterization indeed. The warm-up task in other cases was also not something unusual, since first he had to learn the bureaucratic rules of the genre and the form of the report. In 1957, every Social Democrat was regarded as an enemy of the party, as they were seen as people who might insight workers to strike. Gy.s’ report on his father-in-law was not restrained. “He is right-wing in his biases, someone who is not pleased by the fact that the Communists are in power,” he wrote, in the precise handwriting he had learned in the higher elementary school. And in order to ensure that his audience appreciated his achievement, he added, “he was never pleased by the fact that in the elections in 1945 and then the next elections, MKP [Hungarian Communist Party] […] won. He was always an agitator of the former Social Democrat party.”53 But alongside the political concerns, Gy. also makes frequent mention of personal tensions: “He is very verbose and quarrelsome.”54

Gy. wrote this report at home. In the modest miner’s residence he seems to have found a corner where he could hide his deeds from his three children. He complained, however, that it was difficult for him to write reports in the tight space of his home. “Back home it was hard to write,” he complained. It was difficult to work, and he had not been given an office. His case officer, Ecsegi, liked his style, but Ecsegi’s superior wanted something different: “we must find out, by using the agents, what kinds of connections there are among the old Social Democrats in Kisterenye, Nagybátony, and Salgótarján. Are there any such people at all? Who are these people?”55 In the end, both Ecsegi and Gy. learned what their task was. They did not have to fumble in the dark. Later, the case officer switched the order of the first two reports in the file precisely for this reason. It became clear for them that the Social Democrats were the topic of interest, not the 1956 massacre in Salgótarján.

The third report was the first to bear this word, “Report,” as its title. They finally told Gy. to write this word at the top of the page. Ecsegi told him other things as well. Gy. begins the text with the “my task was to” formula. One of the first Social Democrats Gy. was instructed to observe was his former instructor, the former director of the elementary school in the miner’s settlement, Emil Sümegi, who had taught Gy. to write. Gy. contacted Sümegi, allegedly in order to request assistance ensuring that his four-and-a-half year old son would be given a place in the kindergarten. In his report, Gy. complains about the difficulty he faced securing a place for his child in the school: “When the enrollments were going on, on September 1, 1957 my son’s application was rejected. I asked him to dictate a petition to the Minister of Education or somewhere. I very much want him to be allowed to attend the school, since he cries about how badly he wants to be a kindergarten pupil. It would be easier for us too, his parents, if the task of caring for one of the children were entrusted to the kindergarten. He replied to my request by saying that we Social Democrats are oppressed.” (underlined in the original) Ecsegi found this last half-sentence of the text important, and he underlined it. The link between the agent’s task, his complaint, and his personal interest is clear.

Gy. wrote down Sümegi’s contention, according to which any petition authored by him would be rejected, no matter where he sent it. (Sümegi was mistaken in this, the secret police may have intervened, since in the end the boy was admitted to the kindergarten.) The question of the boy’s enrollment in the kindergarten became an issue with implications relevant to national politics, since according to their dialogue ultimately the issue depended on whether or not it was worthwhile to submit any petition regarding admittance to the school. According to Gy., Sümegi said the following: “In any event let’s wait for the Bulganin peace proposal.56 If they can reach an agreement, then elections will be held with oversight, and then we Social Democrats will win.” Following their discussion of the question of enrollment, Gy. asked Sümegi about his views of the peace negotiations. The last sentence of the report caught Ecsegi’s attention: “for the moment we must wait.” Clearly, the implication—that the retired Social Democratic instructor had been waiting for the opportune moment to topple Soviet power in a small village in Hungary—was absurd, but also useful to Ecsegi, since Sümegi was also a functionary of the system. Ecsegi found the report on Sümegi so important that he soon told Gy. to pay him another visit. Sümegi’s opinion, however, was not important because the authorities actually feared him, but rather because he too was an “agent of the department of internal affairs,” as Ecsegi wrote in his assessment of the report. So his political reliability and political inclinations were important from the perspective of his reports.57 Gy. and Sümegi were used to keep tabs on each other, while the two of them both used the network of connections to serve their interests (for instance the question of gaining admittance for a child to the kindergarten).

As his next task, Gy. was told to monitor the actions of four Social Democrats. He filled more than five pieces of paper with his observations. The possibility of gaining admittance for his child to the kindergarten made him particularly diligent.58 Like his report on his father-in-law, his report on the four Social Democrats also began with the “my task was to” formula (he only later adopted the practice of writing in the third-person singular in order to mislead the enemy years). Gy. began to think of himself as a person of no small importance. He was less afraid, and sometimes he even tried to save or help others. The more politically passive someone was, the more the network of power liked this. In his reports, Gy. noted someone’s political passiveness if he sought to avoid causing the person grief. According to him, in the depths of the mine “the current session of the National Assembly came up.” This observation regarding what transpired in the mines was seen as particularly significant, in part because it had been made by Gy. at his own initiative. It had not been part of one of his explicit tasks. He was therefore given a different shift in the mine so that he would be able to observe others while they worked. He was also given a raise.

The text of his next report, which was written less than two months after the first one, is testimony to his development as an agent.59 He had something to say. He wrote almost four pages of observations. A good half of his remarks did not directly involve the instructions he had been given and were introduced with the formula, “and in addition I note that…” He provided an account of the ball that was held in the mining community and the profiteering that was allegedly underway involving the sale of wine. In a manner that was thinly veiled at best, Gy. began to use the reports as a forum with which to take steps to improve his life and the lives of those around him. Like a king in disguise, he sought to dispense justice, or at least this is the portrait he paints of himself in the reports.

The detailed description of the costume ball was Gy.’s first carefully thought-out composition in which he himself chose the subject of his report. He wrote a kind of self-standing denunciation within the framework of the report. There are no surviving family pictures of the ball, but there are pictures of the ball that was held the following year. In the pictures, Gy. and the members of his family can be seen wearing their costumes. Gy. is dressed in traditional ceremonial Hungarian attire. His oldest daughter is dressed as one of the odalisque’s of the Turkish pasha. There is a picture of his wife and her younger sister. In his denunciation, Gy. stands up for the crowd at the ball with his contention that Dobrocsi and Ogulin, a miner and a retired miner who were in charge of serving the wine and spirits, were turning a personal profit on the wine. As a conscientious consumer he took a stand and used his connections, though this stance, of course, was little more than a discursive posture that he adopted in order to achieve his personal goals. In fact, Gy. himself could have served the wine, instead of the two “profiteers,” since he and his father-in-law had a good relationship with a wine-grower in the city of Verpelét (a village that was known in the region for its fine wines). The issue at hand was a question of business interests. According to Gy,’s report, “many people say that Dobrocsi and his lot charge as much as they want for wine.” Gy. sometimes also breaks the rule according to which he should use the third-person singular: “On one occasion I asked for a wine spritzer […] Gy. also asked for a wine spritzer, but they didn’t give him one because there was no soda water.” In order to attain his goal, he even adopted a rather underhanded strategy and referred in his report not only to the alleged profiteering, but also to the acts Dobrocsi and Ogulin had (purportedly) committed in 1956 during the Revolution. According to his report, in 1956 they had “transported the drinks, the wine and brandy.”

Gy. wanted to play a central role among the “sport friends” (this was the term that was used for the regular spectators at the soccer games and the people who participated in the organizational work related to the team). After 1956, however, his chances were not good, given his political past. However, years later he became the president of the local soccer division, which was important because at the time as many as 1,000 people might attend a given match, i.e. half of the population of the mining town. The soccer games were the most important social events, after the miners’ balls.60 It’s possible that he accused Dobrocsi of wrongdoing because Dobrocsi, who lived with his family next to the soccer field and across from the sports club, was doing a bit better than he was. He was accused of embezzlement from his workplace, though his daughter and his widow have no recollection of any sanctions or punishment.61 Gy.’s report did not bring about the result he had hoped for, though officer Ecsegi did send it on to the criminal division.

When the threat of a possible strike had been averted, Gy. was given another range of duties. He was charged with the task of observing his old “bird-of-a-feather colleagues,” the former sympathizers of the Arrow Cross. He had to report on people who were regarded as “Arrow Cross” or “gendarmes.” Since he himself was on file as a “bird-of-a-feather” (in spite of the fact that he was also considered a Social Democrat because of his father-in-law), he knew who the authorities were thinking about.

In his reports, Gy. frequently recounts how, in the course of soccer matches, he would begin conversations with the people under observation in order to learn more about their political views. The Salgótarján soccer team was one of the best teams outside of Budapest at the time. As a supporter of the local team, the organizer of the various tasks regarding the its upkeep was able to chat with almost anyone about the games, and he could use these opportunities to discover details about people’s political views, even the people who were the most reluctant to talk on the subject. Gy. sought to cast aspersions on one of the local “petty monarchs,” a man name Racskó, whom he portrayed as someone loyal to the old system.62 Thus, he was able to present himself as a righter of wrongs, who was acting not in his own personal interests, but rather in the interests of the community, even if there was some overlap between the two.


As an examination of the early reports submitted by Gy. reveals, in order to attain his goals he first had to learn the style necessary in order to write reports that would be met with interest among the authorities. Later he attempted to portray his work, which was done primarily in the service of his interests, as a kind of process of dispensing justice, a process that was, according to his depiction, closely tied to the exigencies of the state. But loyalty alone would not have been enough to have enabled him to obtain admittance for his child to the kindergarten with the help of the department of internal affairs, or later, in the 1970s, to get permission for a private enterprise of his son. When he wanted to achieve a specific goal, he began to go into copious detail, and he transformed his reports into denunciations, sometimes using articles in the local newspaper for help. On other occasions, when he submitted reports that were curt and offered little detail, this could be interpreted as a form of political passiveness, and he also helped others avoid the wrath of the authorities by characterizing them as politically passive, which at the time was the kindest thing one could say about someone under observation by the state. He portrayed himself as politically passive as well, though by submitting reports he continuously influenced the lives of those around him, since he often steered their conversations in the direction of politics specifically because he had been charged with the task of doing so. He was a bureaucrat without a desk or office. His “friendships” were little more than official affairs. The details of his reports, which were intended to demonstrate his aptness for the role, were as much a part of the game as the reports written in self-defense, the primary goal of which was to ensure that he himself would not be seen as responsible for anything. An act of vengeance motivated by envy (in the case of alleged profiteering with wine) was written in the style of a petition, however, so that it would be sure to catch the attention of the authorities.

He was as passionate in his denunciations of the local “petty monarchs” (people who played influential local roles because of their access to political power) as he was in his purported role as the defender of the oppressed and defenseless. In the state bureaucracy, which followed characteristically paternalistic traditions, this mode of administration was entirely commonplace and long-standing. In practical affairs, archaic rhetoric that rested on references to supporters and principles that were little more than matters of terminology harmonized perfectly well with Communist ideology because of the inclination of communist thinking in a normative system.

One of the recurring questions historians who deal with the communist era must address is whether or not the “ordinary people” whose cooperation was instrumental to the functioning of the state actually identified with or how far accepted the goals of that state.63 According to the totalitarian paradigm, the state and the citizen were locked in a struggle like David and Goliath, and in the end the weaker but more clever and cunning of the two would triumph. These are stories of oppression and resistance, the stories of perpetrators and victims, stories the in adequacies of which, as narratives of the past, have already been clearly shown time and time again by representatives of the so-called revisionist school of Sovietology. Gy.’s story and the texts he crafted clearly illustrate that the personal decisions of ordinary people and the methods they used in order to achieve their aims influenced the functioning of the state. Furthermore, the self-portrayals and discourses of the people who used the system for personal advantage also changed, since the acceptance of the rules of the game left its mark on them. The Kádár system, which maintained power in part by searching for compromises, nonetheless still rested on essentially Stalinist principles, though it gave the people who took part in the mechanics of the system the impression that they could exert an influence on it. The sense of an open (or at least somewhat open) public sphere contributed to this, as did the (pseudo) debates in the press or the apparent attention that was given to the reports submitted by the informants who helped the state security forces. All of this provided new energies for the everyday workings of the system, which thus enjoyed a significantly greater degree of acceptance and stability by the 1960s than it had before 1956. Ultimately, to the extent that the Kádár regime represented a rupture with the classic Stalinism of the early 1950s, this break lay in its more perceptive grasp of people’s everyday lives and inclinations and the discourses on experience.64 The denunciations bundled into the reports offered an opportunity for an agent to realize personal aims as if he or she were fighting in the interests of the larger community and sought to take part in the functioning of the state by playing an active role in politics. Dispensing justice like a king in disguise, the agent, who was thus a representative of political power, would obtain his goals by alternately pursuing personal aims and playing the necessary bureaucratic roles. This not only strengthened the appearance of the legitimacy of the state, but also made the role of an agent acceptable to people who portrayed themselves as if they were writing reports on the community (including relatives and neighbors) in the very interests of that community.


Archival Sources

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Budapesti Fegyház és Börtön Irattára [Archive of the Budapest Correctional Facility and Prison]. Fegyencnapló [Inmate Log] 3296-3599. Napi parancsok [Daily Orders] 1947–1952.

Budapest Főváros Levéltára [Budapest City Archive] (=BFL)

XXV. 1.a. Budapesti Népbíróság [Budapest People’s Court].

XXV. 2-b. Budapesti Népügyészség. Büntetőügyek. Gy. bűnügyének iratai. [Budapest People’s Prosecutor’s Office. Criminal Cases. Documents of the Criminal Case of Gy.] 689/1948.


Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára [Hungarian National Archives] (=MNL)

XXXII-23-a  1970. évi népszámlálás [National Census Records, 1970]. Nógrád, Kisterenye, 1970. évi 019 számlálókörzet anyagai [Materials of the 019 Census District of Kisterenye from 1970].

MNL Fejér Megyei Levéltár (=FML) [Fejér County Archive of the Hungarian National Archives]

IV. 402. Fejér Vármegye Törvényhatósági Bizottságának iratai [Documents of the Fejér County Council].

XXIV. 18. Székesfehérvár Városi Rendőrkapitányság [Székesfehérvár Police Headquarters].

XVII. 401. Fejér Vármegye Központi és Székesfehérvár Járási 3. sz. Igazoló Bizottság [Fejér County Central Székesfehérvár Municipal Justificatory Council 3]. 1. d. 22/1945. Törvényszéki alkalmazottak [Employees of the Court of Law].

MNL Nógrád Megyei Levéltár (=NML) [Nógrád County Archive of the Hungarian National Archives]

VIII. 202. A Pásztói Állami Polgári Fiú- és Leányiskola iratai. Anyakönyvek. 4. d. [Documents of the Public Boys and Girls Elementary School of Pásztó. Registers of Students. 4. d.] 1934–1935 második b osztály anyakönyve [Register of the Students in the Second Year, B class in 1934–35].

VIII. 287. g. A Kisterenye-Chorin telepi Bányatársulati Elemi Iskola iratai. Osztálynaplók [Documents of the Mining Society Elementary School of Kisterenye-Chorin. Class Registers].

VIII. 604. A Pásztói Kereskedelmi Szaktanfolyam iratai [Documents of the “Pásztó Course in Commerce”].

XXV. 4 c. Balassagyarmati Büntető Törvényszék [Balassagyarmati Criminal Court]. B 273/ 1954.

XXIX. 681. I. A. 16. Nógrádi Szénbányászati Tröszt [Coal Mining Trust of Nógrád]. (NSZB). Újlaki bányaüzem. Csigai lejtősakna [Mining Works of Újlak. Spiral Mine Shaft].

XXXIII. Anyakönyvi kivonatok másodpéldányai. Születési anyakönyvek [Duplicates of Registration Certificates]. Zagyvapálfalva. 1915–1924.

MNL Heves Megyei Levéltár [Heves County Archive] XXXV. 22/2. MSZMP Heves Megyei Pártbizottságának ülései [Sittings of the Heves County Party Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party].

MÁV Irattár [Archives of the Hungarian National Railways].


Barna, Ildikó, and Andrea Pető. Political Justice Budapest after World War II. Budapest: CEU Press, 2014.

Benziger, Karl P. “The Funeral of Imre Nagy: Contested History and the Power of Memory Culture.” History and Memory 12, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2000): 142–64.

Betts, Paul. Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Connelly, John. “The Uses of Volksgemeinschaft.” The Journal of Modern History 68, no. 4. (December 1996): 899–930.

Deák, István, Jan T. Gross, and Tony Judt, eds. The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “Supplicants and Citizens: Public Letter-Writing in Soviet Russia in the 1930s.” Slavic Review 55 no. 1. (Spring 1996): 78–105.

Ittzés, Gábor. “Ritual and National Self-Interpretation: The Nagy Imre Funeral.” Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe 1 (November 2005). Accessed February 3, 2015. http://www.rascee.net/index.php/rascee/article/view/26/7.

Lo, Maria. “Lustration and Truth Claims: Unfinished Revolutions in Central Europe,” Law and Social Inquiry 20 (1995): 117–61.

Majtényi, György. Vezércsel. Kádár János mindennapjai [King’s Gambit. The Everyday Life of János Kádár]. Budapest: Libri Kiadó, 2012.

Majtényi, György. What Made the Kádár Era? The Hungarian Historical Review 2, no. 3 (2013): 667–75.

Mayer-Rieckh, Alexander and Pablo de Greiff, eds. Justice as Prevention: Vetting Public Employees in Transitional Societies. New York: Social Science Research Council, 2007.

Nagy, Tibor Péter. A növekvő állam árnyékában. Oktatás, politika 1867–1945 [In the Shadow of the Growing State. Education, Politics, 1867–1945]. Budapest: Gondolat, 2011.

Pásztói Polgári Értesítője [Gazette of the Pásztó Polgári School].

Pintér, Nándor, Ferenc Vincze, and István Csépány. Pásztó története [History of Pásztó]. Pásztó: a Pásztói Községi Tanács Végrehajtó Bizottsága, 1970.

Pittaway, Mark. The Workers’ State: Industrial Labor and the Making of Socialist Hungary, 1944–1958. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.

Rainer, János M. Bevezetés a kádárizmusba [Introduction to Kádárism]. Budapest: 1956-os Intézet–L’Harmattan Kiadó, 2011.

Schwartz, Herman. “Lustration in Eastern Europe,” Parker School Journal of East European Law 1 (1994): 141–71.

Staadt, Joachim. Eingaben: Die institutionalisierte Meckerkultur in der DDR. Berlin: Forschungsverbund SED-Staat, 1996.

Stan, Lavinia,  and Nadya Nedelsky, eds. Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice. Cambridge–New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Stan, Lavinia. “The Vanishing Truth? Politics and Memory in Post-Communist Europe.” East European Quarterly 40 (2006): 392–410.

Szabó, Zoltán. Cifra nyomorúság [“Poverty in Fine Dress”]. Budapest: Cserépfalvi, 1938.

Szomszéd, András. Zagyva mentén “egybekelvén”. Bátonyterenye [Married by the River Zagyva. Bátonyterenye]. Bátonyterenye: Önkormányzat, 2002.

Szvircsek, Ferenc. Bányászkönyv [Miner’s Book]. Salgótarján: Nógrád Megyei Múzeum, 2000.

Varga, László Á., ed. 1956 Nógrád megyei kronológiája és személyi adattára: a forradalom eseményei és aktív szereplői a megyében [Chronology and Personal Documentation of 1956 in Nógrád County: the Events and Active Participants of the Revolution in the County]. 2 Vols. Salgótarján: Nógrád Megyei Levéltár, 1996.

Verdery, Katherine. Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police. Budapest: CEU Press, 2014.

Veress D., Csaba. “A II. világháború hadműveletei Fejér megyében (1944. december 3 – 1945. március 23.)” [Military Operations of the WWII in Fejér County, December 3, 1944–March 23, 1945]. In Harcok és bűnök [Fights and Crimes], edited by József Csurgai Horváth, Tamás Tihanyi, and Csaba Veress D., 7–165. Székesfehérvár: Fejér Megyei Önkormányzat, 2002.

1 More on the Kádár regime see János M. Rainer, Bevezetés a kádárizmusba (Budapest: 1956-os Intézet–L’Harmattan Kiadó, 2011); György Majtényi, “What Made the Kádár Era?,” The Hungarian Historical Review 2, no. 3 (2013): 667–75; and Majtényi’s seminal book regarding the social functions of the Kádár cult. György Majtényi, Vezércsel. Kádár János mindennapjai (Budapest: Libri Kiadó, 2012).

2 Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára [Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security Services, hereafter: ÁSzTL]. M-42230/1-3.

3 More on the local history of 1956: 1956 Nógrád megyei kronológiája és személyi adattára: a forradalom eseményei és aktív szereplői a megyében, ed. László Á. Varga (Salgótarján: Nógrád Megyei Levéltár, 1996).

4 Karl P. Benziger, “The Funeral of Imre Nagy: Contested History and the Power of Memory Culture,” History and Memory 12, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2000): 142–64; Gábor Ittzés, “Ritual and National Self-Interpretation: The Nagy Imre Funeral,” Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe, 1 (November 2005), accessed February 3, 2015, http://www.rascee.net/index.php/rascee/article/view/26/7.

5 This study is a part of a larger monograph based on the life story of Gy. with the support of program number K-104408 of the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (OTKA).

6 Michael Shafir, “Memory and History in Postcommunism: Preliminary Theoretical Remarks,” Sfera Politicii 120–121–122 (2006), accessed December 15, 2014, http://www.sferapoliticii.ro/sfera/120-121-122/art21-shafir.html.

7 On lustration in Eastern European see: Herman Schwartz, “Lustration in Eastern Europe,” Parker School Journal of East European Law 1 (1994): 141–71; Lavinia Stan, “The Vanishing Truth? Politics and Memory in Post-Communist Europe,” East European Quarterly 40 (2006): 392–410; Maria Lo, “Lustration and Truth Claims: Unfinished Revolutions in Central Europe,” Law and Social Inquiry 20 (1995): 117–61; Alexander Mayer-Rieckh and Pablo de Greiff, eds., Justice as Prevention: Vetting Public Employees in Transitional Societies (New York: Social Science Research Council, 2007); Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice, ed. Lavinia Stan and Nadya Nedelsky (Cambridge–New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

8 Katherine Verdery, Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police (Budapest: CEU Press, 2014), 17.

9 For more on the state policy regarding industrial workers during the 1950s, especially at the beginning of the Kádár era, see: Mark Pittaway, The Workers’ State: Industrial Labor and the Making of Socialist Hungary, 1944–1958 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).

10 Ferenc Szvircsek, Bányászkönyv (Salgótarján: Nógrád Megyei Múzeum, 2000), 403.

11 Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára [Hungarian National Archives, hereafter: MNL]. XXXII-23-a 1970. évi népszámlálás [National Census Records, 1970]. Nógrád, Kisterenye, 1970. évi. 019 számlálókörzet anyagai.

12 MNL Nógrád Megyei Levéltár [Nógrád County Archive], hereafter: NML. XXXIII. Anyakönyvi kivonatok másodpéldányai. Születési anyakönyvek. [Duplicates of Registration Cerficiates. Birth Certificates]. Zagyvapálfalva. 1915–1924.

13 Most of these details could be reconstructed from the registers of birth and recollections of family members. Interviews with Mrs. Gy., Veronika G., the widow of Gy., and Mrs. M. Ilonka G., his sister-in-law. Interviews were done by the author in October 2011 in Kisterenye.

14 NML. XXXIII. Duplicates of registration certificates. Registers of births. Zagyvapálfalva, Kisterenye.

15 Zoltán Szabó, Cifra nyomorúság [“Poverty in Fine Dress”] (Budapest: Cserépfalvi, 1938), 88–89.

16 As the general manager of the Mátraaljai Coal Mines, he was awarded numerous state distinctions. In 1988, many complaints were lodged against him, and indeed this was even mentioned at sittings of the party committee. MNL. Heves Megyei Levéltár. XXXV. 22/2. Sittings of the Heves County Party Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. 14. box 187. custody section: Minutes of the Sitting of the Party Committee, March 31, 1988. 129.

17 NML. Balassagyarmati Büntető Törvényszék. XXV. 4 c. B 273/1954.

18 NML. VIII. 287. g. Documents of the Elementary School of the Mining Company of Kisterenye-Chorin. Attendance books.

19 Emil’s Sümegi’s letter quoted in András Szomszéd, Zagyva mentén “egybekelvén”. Bátonyterenye (Bátonyterenye: Önkormányzat, 2002), 134.

20 M-42230/1. 85­–86 and ÁSZTL. 3.1.9. V-150373. Summary report on the armed counter-revolutionary groups and organizations of Nógrád County. March 23, 1959, 81.

21 NML. VIII. 202. A Pásztói Állami Polgári Fiú- és Leányiskola iratai. Anyakönyvek. (=Pásztói Polgári anyakönyvek). 4. d. 1934–1935 második b osztály anyakönyve.

22 Nándor Pintér, Ferenc Vincze, and István Csépány, Pásztó története (Pásztó: a Pásztói Községi Tanács Végrehajtó Bizottsága, 1970), 37–39.

23 Pásztói Polgári Értesítője 1934–1935, 2–3; 34­–35.

24 Ibid., 7–8.

25 NML. VIII. 604. A Pásztói Kereskedelmi Szaktanfolyam iratai, benne a polgári iskolákra is vonatkozó körlevelek 1. d. Körlevél az egységes iskolai imádság bevezetése tárgyában, April 20, 1936.

26 Pásztói Polgári Értesítője, 1936–1937, 5.

27 See Tibor Péter Nagy, A növekvő állam árnyékában. Oktatás, politika 1867–1945 (Budapest: Gondolat, 2011), 312–13.

28 Recollections of his widow. Interview done by the author in October 2011.

29 MÁV Irattár. 7352/1942. Csontos István főraktárnok jelentése, Miskolc, March 2, 1942.

30 For more on the battles near this front line see: Csaba Veress D., “A II. világháború hadműveletei Fejér megyében (1944. december 3 – 1945. március 23.),” in Harcok és bűnök, ed. József Csurgai Horváth, Tamás Tihanyi, and Csaba Veress D. (Székesfehérvár: Fejér Megyei Önkormányzat, 2002), 115–18.

31 MÁV Irattár. Szmolánka László szolgálati aktája; MÁV Irattár. 290/1940. Bánhegyi István. Áthelyezések Kárpátalja területéről. A Magyar Királyi Államvasutak igazgatóságának bizalmas levele valamennyi üzletvezetőségnek. 1940. július 24.

32 Budapest Municipal Archives (=BFL) XXV. 2-b. People’s Prosecutor of Budapest. Criminal Cases. Documents of the Criminal Case of Gy. 689/1948. consolidated with 88425/1949. Confession of the Station Master of Mezősi.

33 MNL. Fejér County Archive (=FML) XXIV. 18. Székesfehérvár Városi Rendőrkapitányság Általános Iratok, 1.d.

34 ÁSzTL. 3.2.5. “Colorado” O-8-018/1. 520. Jelentés Székely György százados ügyéről. Sütöry Lajos áv. ny. alhadgy. Székesfehérvár, 1950. július 10.

35 FML. IV. 402. Fejér Vármegye Törvényhatósági Bizottságának iratai. Közgyűlés. 1945. szeptember 26.

36 FML. XXIV. 18. Székesfehérvár Városi Rendőrfőkapitányság. Általános iratok. 1.d; FML. XVII. 401. Fejér Vármegye Központi és Székesfehérvár Járási 3. sz. Igazoló Bizottság. 1. d. 22/1945. Törvényszéki alkalmazottak. Boda József, a Gy. ügyében tanácsvezető bíró életrajza az igazolási eljáráshoz.

37 BFL. XXV. 2-b. Budapesti Népügyészség. Büntetőügyek. 689/1948. On the functions of people’s courts in Hungary and in Eastern Europe see: The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath, ed. István Deák, Jan T. Gross, and Tony Judt (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000); and recently Ildikó Barna and Andrea Pető, Political Justice Budapest after World War II (Budapest: CEU Press, 2014).

38 BFL. XXV. 1.a. Budapesti Népbíróság. 1949 – 1081. G. János ügye.

39 BFL. XXV. 2-b. Budapesti Népügyészség. Büntetőügyek. 689/1948. Nb XII. 802/1948/2. Ítélet. 1948. október 15.

40 Budapesti Fegyház és Börtön Irattára. Fegyencnapló 3296-3599. No. 3299.

41 Ibid., Napi parancsok. 1947–1952.

42 The source of his precise position: NML. XXIX. 681. I. A. 16. Nógrádi Szénbányászati Tröszt (NSZB). Újlaki bányaüzem. Csigai lejtősakna. Kisterenye. NSZB. Baleset-jelentőkönyv.

43 László Á. Varga, ed., 1956 Nógrád megyei kronológiája és személyi adattára: a forr. eseményei és aktív szereplői a megyében (Salgótarján: Nógrád Megyei Levéltár, 1996).

44 One of the functions of the worker council’s from the point of view of the government at the end of 1956 was to start industrial production in the wake of several strikes; however, for the most part they did not fulfill this task. For more on this see: Pittaway, The Workers’ State, 230­–56.

45 ÁSzTL. V-141818. Vizsgálati dosszié Filep Lajos ügyében; ÁSzTL. O­–15325. 1a. 487–88.

46 Cf. Joachim Staadt, Eingaben: Die institutionalisierte Meckerkultur in der DDR (Berlin: Forschungsverbund SED-Staat, 1996); Paul Betts, Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 173.

47 Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Supplicants and Citizens: Public Letter-Writing in Soviet Russia in the 1930s”, Slavic Review 55, no. 1 (Spring 1996), 78. Fitzpatrick raises this question regarding the Stalinist period of the 1930s.

48 NML. Kisterenyei születési anyakönyvi kivonatok.

49 Recollection of Veronika Gy., Gy.’s widow.

50 ÁSzTL. M-42230. 59–60. Gy.’s report of December 22, 1957.

51 Recollection of Veronika Gy., Gy.’s widow. Interview made by the author October 25, 2011 in Kisterenye.

52 ÁSzTL. M-42230. 59–60. Gy.’s report of December 22, 1957.

53 The 1945 national elections in the village were won by the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP: 46.5%). The Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKgP) got only 28.5% of the vote and the Social Democrats only 21.2%. Szomszéd, Zagyva mentén “egybekelvén”, 140–41.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid., 54.

56 For more on this conflict (accessed February 15, 2015), see: http://web.stanford.edu/group/tomzgroup/pmwiki/uploads/200-1956-11-KS-f-LIZ.pdf.

57 ÁSzTL. M-42230. 85­–86.

58 Ibid., 64–69. Gy.’s report of January 30, 1958.

59 Ibid., 73–76.

60 Recollections of János V., deputy-president of the local soccer division. Interview done by the author. October 25, 2011 in Kisterenye.

61 Recollections of Dobrocsi’s widow and daughter. Interview done by the author with Mrs. István Dobrocsi (1919) and her daughter, Mrs. Gábor O. (1942), October 21, 2011, Budapest.

62 ÁSzTL. M-42230. 95–96. Report of March 27, 1958.

63 See John Connelly’s inquiry on this matter with regards to Nazi Germany, John Connelly, “The Uses of Volksgemeinschaft,” The Journal of Modern History 68, no. 4. (December 1996): 899–930.

64 Cf. János M. Rainer, Bevezetés a kádárizmusba (Budapest: 1956-os Intézet–L’Harmattan Kiadó, 2011), 144.

Volume 4 Issue 1 CONTENTS

­pdfAlexander Mirescu

A Curious Case of Cooperation and Coexistence: Church–State Engagement and Oppositional Free Spaces in Communist Yugoslavia and East Germany


The communist parties of Eastern Europe sought to organize power relations to preclude potential opposition. While successful in aligning society, the economy, culture, education and politics in party institutions, East Germany and Yugoslavia approached the execution of religious policy from a contrasting perspective. Unable to marginalize religion completely, the party and national churches entered into a vibrant, incentives-based back-and-forth. Over time, Church–state accommodation crystallized, producing Church-based free spaces located outside of the standard communist power structure. However, the ways in which East Germany and Yugoslavia engaged their churches generated different forms of Church-based free space, which, by the late 1980s, produced variegated forms of anti-communist opposition.


Keywords: Eastern Europe, Civil Society, Church, Communism, Religious Policy, Nationalism, Oppositional Movements


Government policy affects the spaces in which social actors work, designates and delineates boundaries and creates distinguishable spheres in which stakeholders act. While laws and legislation demonstrate where the lines of acceptable political behavior lie, often they are subject to negotiation, mutual agreements or contentious dispute. These back-and-forth exchanges produce policies that rarely remain static. Over time, fluid, dynamic relationships evolve between key stakeholders and elites, which further modify the policy’s trajectory, opening doors for new interpretations and new modes of acting.

Even in communist East Germany (GDR) and Yugoslavia, where authority was concentrated in single-party authoritarianism, power relations were neither a one-way street, nor were they monopolistic. There was one policy arena, in which one finds an illustrative example of fluid two-way, agent-to-agent engagement and cooperation: the arena of Church–state relations. Despite times of marginalization and suppression, it was the only policy arena that necessitated negotiation and active quid pro quo.1 This study claims that decision-making processes in East German and Yugoslav Church-state relations led to variegated forms of Church-based oppositional free spaces, in which people were able to plant the seeds of opposition to the legitimacy of communist rule.2 In this essay, I claim that if religious policy allows Churches to influence social issues, it is more likely that free spaces will emerge in which principles of non-violence, peaceful resolution and human rights prevail, and these spaces may play active roles in mediation in times of unrest. If, however, religious policy excludes the Church on issues of social policy, this will lead to the emergence of free spaces, the actors of which will be less loyal and less invested as social stakeholders. Since its intermediary role is thwarted, the Church will be less interested in liberal-democratic reform and will make fewer demands based on non-violence, inclusion and peace.

Religion policy and Church–state engagement under a communist regime was highly unique. The GDR and Yugoslav communist regimes devoted tremendous human and financial resources to the regulation of religious life, entrusting the various tasks to state secretariats, commissions for religious affairs, and security agencies. Despite their monopoly on authority, these regimes were never monolithic and, in turn, Churches were never passive victims. Rather, there arose a pragmatic exchange and vibrant Church-state dialogue based on negotiated responses to incentives: the state needed the Church for popular legitimacy, the consolidation of power and international credibility, while the Church was dependent on the state for material goods, social services and sheer survival. Neither could function properly without the other, so a symbiotic necessity emerged, marked by micro-level discussions, communiqués, backroom deals and public deliberations. This fluid quality was the fundamental mechanism that linked a set of conditions to the outcome of free spaces.3

Categorizing Conditions of Church–State Engagement

The first set of conditions accounts for the initial types of religious policy from 1945 to the early 1950s. The end of the Second World War constituted a clear historical break from the recent past and a new political existence for the GDR and Yugoslavia. Each state approached its Churches in unique ways, while trying to solidify the supremacy of the Communist Party. In the Soviet Zone of Occupation (hereafter, SBZ) that would become East Germany, German communists needed to have a steady hand in navigating the chaotic post-war waters. The Communist Party (hereafter, SED) was institutionally weak and lacked popular support. Hence, it sought to avoid unnecessary challenges from the Church in an effort to build support. As a type of participatory religious policy, the SED extended an olive branch to the Church and publicly supported its participation in the establishment of the new state.

Yugoslav religious policy from 1945 to the mid-1950s can be characterized as extremely repressive. Since Tito’s partisans had secured Western support in their struggle against fascism, their power base required less consolidation in the post-war period. Still, Yugoslav communists viewed religious institutions with trepidation since some segments of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and, more notably, the Catholic Church had aligned themselves with anti-Yugoslav forces. Yugoslav religious policy in this initial period, by virtue of its repressiveness, re-entrenched the Churches in a critical posture vis-à-vis the state, giving them no other options but to embrace nationalism.

The second condition accounts for how the regimes dealt with their national Churches from the mid-1950s to the late-1980s. As public dissent against the regime and repression of the Church became repetitive, party leaders were forced to employ different methods to pacify unrest and suppress challenges to their authority. As a means of restoring order and preserving a good international reputation, the option emerged to engage the Church as the only mediator between the state and protestors. As multiple incidents of protest and unrest occurred and as non-Church oppositional groups sought protection in Church spaces, communicative cooperation between Church and state became more robust.4 Each profited from this back-and-forth relationship: the state was able to re-establish its authority, while the Church received considerable concessions and established its role as chief mediator, thereby becoming useful to the state and indeed almost indispensable.

Within this second typology, my cases bifurcate along two distinct lines: inclusive and exclusionary engagement. Regimes that inclusively engage include their religious groups in ending periods of national unrest make them part of the confidence-building process after periods of violence. Going against Marxist ideology, the East German regimes willingly assigned the Church the role of primary negotiator in mediation. By the late 1980s, as the East German regime reverted to repressive measures against opposition, the Protestant Church carefully articulated liberal-democratic demands, such as respect for human rights, freedom of expression and non-violence, often phrased in masterfully-expressed socialist language. However, since the Protestant Church had experienced significant drops in Church membership, the SED was not constrained to seek out the Church’s good offices for challenges to regime authority. The weak position of the Church meant that inclusive regime engagement was possible. Moreover, East Germany could embrace a more receptive stance to the Church, when its own institutions were unsuccessful in responding to oppositional challenge. This institutional weakness necessitated inclusionary engagement.

Yugoslavia’s exclusionary regime engagement stands in stark contrast. High levels of Church repression from 1945 to 1953 were replaced in the mid-1950s by liberalization and political decentralization within the party and its federal-level and republic-level institutions. After two decades of repression, church life was suddenly allowed to expand, and this opened the door for initial critical expression. Congruent with its refusal to incorporate the Churches into the governance of immediate post-war Yugoslavia, Tito and Yugoslav communists never looked upon Church leaders as mediators in times of unrest. Unable to erase prior repression and having offered a maximum amount of space for Church activity, the regime could neither regain the confidence of the Church, nor could it offer concessions. The regime lost the carrot and the stick. This opened up avenues for Church spaces to embrace critical stances against religious policy by using language and symbols that questioned and ultimately rejected the supra-ethnic Yugoslav mantra of “brotherhood and unity.” Since both the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and the Croatian Catholic Church had been thoroughly excluded from statecraft, there was neither significant sympathy nor convincing incentive for them to intervene on behalf of a weakened regime, which they had never viewed as a social partner.

East German Participatory Church–State Engagement: 1945–1953

From its inception, the SED was faced with the daunting task of convincing the public of its socialist mission, while concomitantly discrediting Western democratic legitimacy. Working from such a weakened position in an ideological minefield, it was necessary to concede substantial points from its party platform by acknowledging “a special German road to socialism.”5 SED General-Secretary Erich Honecker reflects:


We calculated that the situation in Germany at that time did not provide the necessary requirements for the immediate establishment of socialism. That’s why the goal of the German Communist Party (KPD) was to create an antifascist, democratic regime, a parliamentary republic with all the democratic rights and freedoms for the people.6


Behind the façade, hardliners altered the party’s institutional core, securing a maximum amount of space in all realms of political, public and private life.7 Religious policy would be the only exception. In July 1946, Central Committee documents demonstrate the policy of the regime of binding the Church to the new state:


Churches have a stake in East Germany’s reconstruction. Their positive cooperation is to be welcomed… Reasonable requests by the Church for the return of occupied Church buildings for religious purposes should receive support from our representatives in administration, in command structures and in the SMAD.8

Spaces for political participation corresponded to physical spaces at the national level. Properties belonging to convicted Nazi party members and estates larger than 100 hectares were summarily brought under governmental administration.9 However, so as not to disturb the delicate Church-state balance, the SED exempted all Church properties from land reforms.10 As a further measure of avoiding confrontation, GDR security organs protected the Church from intervention. In January 1947, Soviet and East German officials established the K-5 security apparatus (a precursor to the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi) under the command of the Soviet–East German Central Administration of the Interior.11 K-5 contained special units for de-Nazification, the elimination of political opponents and monitoring the Evangelical Church.12 To avoid potentially explosive situations, all interaction between K-5 officials and the Church required high-ranking approval from the Ministry of Interior.

Not only were its institutional autonomy and organizational structure left intact, but the Church reclaimed and expanded its pre-war position. Properties confiscated by the Nazis were returned to the Church and theological centers, which had been closed during the war, reassumed full activity.13 The SED granted construction permits for new buildings and provided funding for damaged dioceses.14 With state collection agencies placed at the Church’s disposal, Church coffers were replenished with the reintroduction of Church taxes. Moreover, unlike the other Allied sectors, the Evangelical Church was free to introduce pastoral care service for university students.15 Lastly, Church radio programs, newsletters, periodicals and newspapers further attest to the regime’s desire to avoid conflict with the Church.16

The official founding of the GDR on October 7, 1949 and the period of Stalinization rapidly consolidated party structures and vigorously centralized all state institutions. The SED injected a new ideological moniker in public debate: pacifist policy (Friedenspolitik), upon which it crafted its utopian commitment to the advancement of peace. ‘Peace committees’ and public panel discussions on non-violence were established statewide to disseminate the regime’s pacifist message. Though aimed at external threats, East German pacifism discreetly targeted domestic provocateurs with links to the West.

During this Kirchenkampf period, the repression of the Church became more direct. Seeking to create a cadre of regime-friendly priests, the regime kept them under active surveillance and assessed their attitudes, which were characterized either as progressive or “reactionary” (critical of the regime).17 This would later create fissures among East German bishoprics: Berlin-Brandenburg Bishop Otto Dibelius was a defiant critic of East German communism, while, for example, Bishop of Thüringen, Moritz Mitzenheim, followed a much more conciliatory, less-critical line.18

The 1949 East German constitution guaranteed the separation of Church and state. This afforded the SED a legal justification officially to include Marxist scientific materialism and atheism in all school curricula. This prompted several synods in 1951 to issue letters of protest:


The constitutionally guaranteed right to the freedom of religion is effectively removed, so school lesson plans recognize only historical and dialectical materialism. We realize that belief is not for everyone… but we request that no one be pressured to accept the absence of faith. The freedom of belief in schools can only exist, if instruction in all subjects is carried out in such a way so that Christians and non-Christians can participate with the same amount of personal freedom.19


Still, the SED demonstrated veiled caution by instructing teachers and school directors to “avoid under all circumstances creating the impression of a state-controlled campaign against religion.”20

The SED also pressured the Church to move its headquarters from the British Sector to the territory within GDR borders. Even before the 1949 state declaration, Evangelical leaders refused to recognize inter-zonal borders, since several parishes straddled the frontiers.21 Party leaders demanded a relocation so that

priests in leading positions of the National Front and peace committees will no longer be hindered by restrictions, reprimands and threats from the Church leadership in West Berlin… The ministerial council for the province of Brandenburg is of the opinion that it is no longer tolerable that the West Berlin Church administration threatens its priests, citizens of the GDR, simply because they fight for peace.22

The SED countered with threats of allocating funding only for religious groups that were in SBZ.23 Pastors and theology students from the West were prevented from entering the East.24 While workers easily traveled to their factories in East Berlin, Church employees were singled out as undesirable visitors.

Against this growing tension, high-ranking Evangelical officials agreed on June 6, 1952 to an informal exchange with state representatives in the home of Brandenburg General-Superintendent Braun. Despite the informal nature and the palpable strains, both entities conducted an unexpectedly cordial discussion. The Church emphatically expressed its concerns regarding the wellbeing of its youth, travel restrictions for West Berlin priests and the party-run Free German Youth’s agitation against the Church youth movement (Junge Gemeinde).25 Bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg and chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany Dibelius unambiguously confirmed the Church’s bond to the Holy Scriptures as its sole source of guidance. He reiterated the independent nature of the Church and its resistance to political manipulation.26 Provincial Vice-Minister Jahn of Brandenburg urged the Church to repeal its 1950 consistorial order blocking priests from joining political groups.27 Though it concluded with little more than a handshake, this micro-level encounter proved that informal agent-to-agent dialogue was not only possible, but would be the necessary mechanism for future interaction and reconciliation.

By 1953, East German mismanagement had produced a struggling, dysfunctional economy that ideologically diverted resources to heavy industry instead of addressing consumer needs, and this in turn created shortages of basic goods and food, as well as prohibitive taxes. Over 330,000 young, educated members of the East German workforce left for the West. Due to overzealous goals, the SED brought the country to near economic collapse. According to an SED document, Ulbricht recognized the possible gains to be won from policy “liberalization”:


It is not necessarily effective to lead a campaign of protest resolutions and demonstrations against Church leadership. Instead of intervening in religious events and Church services, religious policy should publish concrete evidence of the subversive activity of individual priests.”28 We are neither leading a Church conflict, nor do we recognize any such Church conflict. We are simply looking for certain bases of the enemy… And when the Church positions itself in solidarity with such people, well then it’s too bad for the Church.29


Ulbricht and other high-ranking SED officials were ordered to report to Moscow on June 2, 1953. Fearing a collapse of the GDR, the Soviet Council of Ministers demanded a reversal of SED Church-state relations.30 As a result, the SED announced a high-level church-state summit scheduled for June 10, 1953, just days before the June 17, 1953 Berlin Workers Revolt. However, the eleventh-hour implementation of the Council’s orders proved to be insufficient in averting the revolt.31

Leading up to 1953, the Evangelical Church expanded its position and social presence to levels not seen since before the Third Reich and, as the only other significant social stakeholder, it tacitly participated in the formation of the new state. Moreover, the regime’s calculated policy of non-confrontation allowed the Church to maintain institutional autonomy in its decision-making processes, social outreach and public activities. By actively seeking out the Church’s support in crafting a new, socialist German state, the SED’s overarching design of integration produced only low-levels of anxiety among its decision-makers. At the time of Stalin’s death in March 1953, Church-based free spaces were intact and vibrant.

East German Inclusive Engagement from 1953–1989

As part of the SED’s inclusive engagement, two salient features emerged in this period. Firstly, the state sought to elevate socialism above religion by coopting progressive pastors from ones that were critical of the regime. This policy of differentiation gave rise to the second feature of this period: conciliatory, cooperative factions in Church ranks, which led to visible fissures among Church leaders. Inclusive engagement could take place with a weakened Church not only because secularization became an increasingly measurable characteristic of East German society after the mid-1950s, but also because the state had succeeded in changing people’s attitudes toward religion.

State-lead high-level talks of June 10, 1953 signaled the adoption of an approach based more on dialogue. The resulting communiqué codified an agreement, whereby both entities negotiated a halt in all repressive action against Church youth. Imprisoned Church members were released without delay32 and students who had been expelled or blacklisted could resume their studies.33 Teachers, sacked based on religious belief, were reinstated.34 The Central Committee also promised to refrain from intervening in Church institutions.35 In exchange, Church leaders agreed to temper their reproaches of the regime, limit the use of the pulpit and retract their criticisms of economic and political life.36 Leaders from Church and state together released a joint statement celebrating the fruitful discussions, in which the regime had re-instated the Church as a social stakeholder.37

The June talks proved to be nothing more than a stopgap measure. Stasi directives reveal that it maintained its prior characterization of Church leaders as “reactionary, imperialist intelligence agents working in support of criminal activities against the GDR.”38 Open conflict with the Church was to be replaced with a covert, operative approach: publicly demonstrating willingness to engage in dialogue, while remaining inwardly uncompromising.

In 1954, alongside the Ministry of Interior, other state institutions were to craft religious policy. The Department for Church Relations served as the government mediator between the General-Secretary, the politburo, the Central Committee and the Church. The regime then established the Working Group for Church Questions of the SED’s Central Committee (die Arbeitsgruppe für Kirchenfragen or AK), which was to handle Church–state relations, monitor the political activities of religious groups and report their findings directly to the highest levels of government. While the AK set the overall policy tone,39 the Council of Ministers created the State Secretariat for Church Questions (SSCQ) in 1957, which served as the state contact and intermediary for Church leaders.40

By 1960, several theologians began to search for an identity in the now solidified Communist state. Günter Jacob, Evangelical General-Superintendent of Cottbus, introduced the first interpretations of the Scriptures into the Church–state debate. By liberating itself from political manipulation, the Church could create a space for itself in which “the true, apolitical message of the Evangelical scriptures” could find expression.41 At an extraordinary session of the EKD 1956 Synod in Berlin, the Union of Evangelical Priests in the GDR (Bund evangelischer Pfarrer der DDR or BEP-DDR) claimed that “concessions for greater religious freedoms within the realm of dialectical Marxist authority” were only possible if the individual… respected and reciprocally recognized the given borders between public life and the space of pure religion.”42


We are separate from any hyphenated-form of Christianity, unbound from a fantastical, civic-capitalist system, foreign to Evangelicals. We seek neither to be a center of conspiracy, nor a state-run propaganda institute. Rather, we in the BEP-DDR seek to offer brotherly help, to ponder theologically the existential question of the Church in our republic and at the same time to be active as loyal and responsible GDR citizens. This union works for freedom in the world and supports the efforts of the German Democratic Republic towards this end, while being obligated to the social renewal that is taking place in the GDR.43


The Church’s contribution to the new path took form in the first observable expressions of a Kirche im Sozialismus, a position that was neither supportive of the regime, nor ostensibly against the regime, but rather existed parallel to it.

Due to the SED’s initial skepticism, Church leaders sent a delegation led by bishops from Thuringia and Pomerania to participate in discussions with the Ministry of Interior, SSCQ and the Council of Ministers.44 The delegates at the Church–state talks agreed to a monumental joint communiqué on July 21, 1958. Unlike the June 10, 1953 agreement, the church successfully weakened the state. The Church offered its most demonstrative statement yet:


The representatives of the Evangelical Church in the GDR declare that the Church, with all means at its disposal, strives for peace amongst all peoples and hence is principally in agreement with the peaceful efforts of the GDR and its government. In accordance with their conscience, Christians shall fulfill their civic duties based on the legal foundations. They respect the socialist development and shall contribute to the peaceful construction of civic life.45


Short of declaring loyalty, the Church recognized the existing political conditions and Marxist socialism. Regime officials promised only to review certain measures taken in public education and reiterated their constitutional responsibility to protect the rights of religious practice.46 This stood in stark contrast to the 1953 point-by-point retraction of repressive measures against the Church. The policy of differentiation had accomplished its goals. Church membership and congregations fell rapidly throughout the 1950s and 1960s.47 Only one-third of the children from religious households were confirmed in the Church, while the Jugendweihe exploded in popularity from 26 percent of school classes in 1955 to over 80 percent in 1960.48 With the beginning of the construction of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961, rather than expand its administrative reach to near totalitarian domination, the regime chose begrudgingly to accommodate the Church.49

Under state expansion, the SED began to militarize society: military service in the People’s National Army (NVA) was mandated for all men in January 1962 without the option of conscientious objection.50 Since the majority of objectors were from Christian households or theology students, the move gave the Churches a new lifeline. Church leaders approached the regime about the negative effects of forcing Christians to carry arms against their will.51 Ulbricht and the National Defense Council, keen on avoiding confrontations, conceded their position to the Church on September 7, 1964 and ordered the creation of unarmed NVA ‘construction units’ that exempted Christians from weapons exercises. The Bausoldaten were tasked with building military installments, housing units and transporting material. With this, the GDR became the only Communist state that allowed for conscientious objection.

By the late 1960s, the Evangelical Churches decided territorially and institutionally to re-organize themselves from the all-German Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD). After much debate, East German bishops in 1969 formally separated themselves from the EKD, establishing the regime-friendly Union of Evangelical Churches in the GDR (BEK-DDR). Despite the BEK’s separation from the EKD, the two entities maintained close lines of communication up to 1989.

In 1971, Walter Ulbricht’s successor, Erich Honecker, sought a more conciliatory approach to Church–state relations. His approach included the establishment of a Church media service,52 construction permits and the expansion of the Church’s presence in religion-free “workers cities.” Moreover, in hopes of improving the GDR’s international image, Evangelical bishops’ were encouraged to participate in international ecumenical conferences.53 Church–state interaction demonstrated the GDR’s new readiness to seek a modus vivendi. For its part, the Church again expressed its readiness to


neither inflate, nor downplay the existing contrasts between Marxist-socialism and theology. Neither option is in our interest. Rather, we need better to understand what occurs in this country, which is also our home. We shall soon discover the real commonalities in our responsibility to man and those social areas, where we are needed. In the past, anti-communism distorted our vision from our real opportunities and true challenges.54


The purpose of the Church was to be firmly located in working within East German society for the good of its citizens.55

On August 18, 1976, Church–state relations were profoundly unsettled by an act of self-immolation. Before pouring petrol over himself, Pastor Oskar Brüsewitz had unrolled a banner with the words “the Church in the GDR condemns communist repression of school children!” While the regime claimed the priest suffered from delusion, it feared a public protest, a damaged international image. Honecker and Church representatives met for another round of talks on March 6, 1978, which introduced conditions that set the stage for the largest expansion of Church space.56 In quid pro quo¸ the Church agreed to respect the SED’s request to halt all political criticism and accept the existing power relations of the GDR. In turn, the SED offered a lengthy list of concessions and policy liberalizations, including more construction permits, 2.2 million Marks for restoration projects, lifelong health care for all Church employees, pastoral care in prisons and retirement homes, pay increases for priests57 and greater access to state media for holy days.58 While Honecker viewed the talks as a “crowning moment and new beginning,” the Church secured a long sought after document that better outlined its legal position in the GDR.59

Despite the March 1978 talks, the SED became increasingly suspicious of Church-based peace initiatives60 and “the serious security concern of broader peace movements solidifying around Church.”61 Indeed, by 1982, a number of students, theologians, Church congregants and veteran Bausoldaten had found a protected space in the Church.62 Ulrike Poppe, founder of “Women for Peace” and the “Initiative for Peace and Human Rights,” recognized that the existence of these groups was best guaranteed under the protective umbrella of the Church.63 Equally, Church leadership was aware of the fate that would await these individuals, if the activism and pacifist message of these groups were to take on stronger contours. The Church’s protective stance assumed a more communicative quality, acting as the mediator and ‘translator’ between the two entities.64 Bishops oversaw cooperation among the groups, warned of risks, advised the opposition and the regime on better forms of communication and diluted their messages in the interest of maintaining public order. Despite this protective cover, oppositional groups had grown skeptical of becoming too compromised by the Church. Poppe was aware that “oppositional groups were at times afraid of the Church’s paternalist role vis-à-vis East German human rights groups.”65 Hence, the relationship between Church and opposition was not without contention. Nevertheless, if peaceful resolutions to conflict and the avoidance of human rights violations were topics for both Church and opposition, they had now become salient issues between Church and state.

The SED’s lack of preparation in adapting to a third, new critical element became apparent. By 1982, Stasi documents warned of Church-based “enemy-negative forces attempting to establish an independent movement for peace under the guise of pacifism.”66 Attempts were made to remove students from schools and universities based on membership in illegal organizations, while other peace activists were taken into police custody. The SED resorted to more extreme measures: the regime quietly offered leading members of oppositional groups travel permits or stipends to study in the West; others were forcefully expatriated.67 But even state security organs feared that overt repressive measures could push the Church to become confrontational. Intelligence reports pressed the SED to engage in another round of talks with the SSCQ and Church leaders to ease tensions. Stasi reports even suggested using the Church leadership to steer the peace movements away from the public sphere.68 The regime desperately resorted to its old Janus-faced playbook: it actively engaged with Church leaders, using their mediation between regime and opposition, while cracking down on those who drifted beyond the accepted boundaries.69 Police and Stasi units increasingly stormed Churches and parish halls and confiscated printing presses and Church libraries. At the Zionskirche in East Berlin, Stasi units arrested members of a Church-based environmental initiative. The regime’s desperate show of force not only made it more dependent on the Church’s communicative role, it also improved the Church’s image and increased the public’s solidarity with it.

By late 1989, Evangelical Churches were ready to channel massive public frustration peacefully and prevent a potential violent state intervention. In Leipzig, Monday prayers for peace at the Nikolaikirche by October 9, 1989 drew 70,000 demonstrators; one week later, over 120,000 gathered before the Church. Trying to stave off unrest, the politburo replaced Honecker with Egon Krenz on October 18. With change evident, over 320,000 called for peaceful reforms in Leipzig. Tensions grew to a fever pitch as rumors spread amongst the peaceful protestors that units of the NVA, riot police and undercover Stasi agents had been given orders to use force to control the growing protest.70 But by now, word had spread throughout the GDR that Church buildings and squares were safe areas for expressing popular frustration and desires for reform.

The GDR reached a point of no return on November 9, 1989, when Party Secretary Krenz ordered the opening of border crossings between East and West Berlin. Upon hearing the news from West German media sources, East Germans gathered at the border crossings by the thousands. Overwhelmed East German border guards, at first unsure how to proceed, yielded to the swelling masses. Once the barriers were raised, West and East Berliners were united in a celebration of peace.

Post-War Yugoslav Religious Policy: More Soviet than Thou

In this section I claim that a unique set of processes stemming from Yugoslavia’s particular Church–state engagement planted the seeds for the exclusionary characteristics of Church-based free spaces that later generated nationalist sentiment. Yugoslav religious policy was not marked by public agreements or joint communiqués resulting from regular high-level Church-state negotiations. Once the country swung from a repressive model to an open, quasi-Western one, freedoms in economics, labor, media and travel undermined the necessity to lodge human rights complaints. By liberalizing religious policy, Yugoslav communists gave up an important bargaining chip: they could not offer concessions to Churches, since the Churches already enjoyed the most open religious atmosphere in the communist world.

From end of the war to the late 1950s, the Yugoslav regime maintained a posture of extreme repression. The decision to take immediate measures against the Catholic and Orthodox Churches was a manifestation of Tito’s distrust and the Yugoslav Communist Party’s (CPY) rapid consolidation of power. Neither the Catholic Church nor the SOC became participants in the reconstruction of the new Yugoslav state. As a result, the regime’s position offered the Churches no other option but to look upon the authorities with suspicion, if not enmity. Such distrust bolstered the Churches’ unwillingness to support the regime, which created a crucial by-product for later periods: the regime could never request the Churches’ mediation in times of unrest.71

Two points are crucial to understanding the post-war phase in Yugoslav Church-state relations. Firstly, the CPY systematically applied the Soviet playbook, which erased the political landscape of subversives and prevented religio-nationalist rhetoric from challenging the state, a type of post-war tabula rasa devoid of opposition.72 The second approach involved state institutions confronting the Churches through nuanced repression that targeted their greatest weakness. This individualized method removed the presence and visibility of Church space from the public sphere. In 1945, the Yugoslav Council of Ministers established the Federal Commission for Church Questions (SKVP), which passed down party directives to republic-level Commissions for Religious Relations (KVP), the purpose of which was to


research all questions concerning life outside the religious communities, their inter-confessional relations and the position of the Churches vis-à-vis the state and the People’s authorities, as well as the preparation for all legislative solutions on relations between religious communities and the state.73

Yugoslav authorities considered religious groups to be a security threat and therefore placed the SKVP under the command of the Ministry for State Security (UDBA). Authorities detained, physically assaulted and murdered hundreds of Orthodox and Catholic bishops, priests, nuns, and laypersons. Judges in politically rigged trials speedily handed down execution sentences and lengthy jail times.74 Grand show trials served as a means of eradicating Church-linked regime-opponents.75 In a politically rigged court in 1946, anti-communist Royalist Četnik commander Draža Mihailović was found guilty of collaborating with Nazi Germany and summarily executed by firing squad. Mihailović’s stature in the SOC was considerable. The SOC leadership perceived the court’s decision as a volley across its bow.

Similarly, the 1946 trial of Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb Aloizije Stepinac for his alignment with German and Croatian fascists highlighted the regime’s intent to silence any opposition. On May 8, 1945, Stepinac publicly demanded an explanation for the maltreatment of Catholic priests,76 which was followed by a pastoral letter slamming the regime’s repression.77 However, he offered no word of atonement to either the regime or the SOC for wartime atrocities perpetrated by Croatian clergy.78 As a result, Tito personally engaged him to consider the possibility of an independent, Yugoslav Church.79 Meeting with Stepinac, Tito states


the Church should be more national, more adapted to the nation: perhaps you are surprised that I approach the subject of nationality with such emphasis. Too much blood flowed, I have seen too much suffering of the people, and I would like the Catholic clergy in Croatia to be more deeply linked in its national feeling with the people than it now is […] We want to create a great community of South Slavs in which there will be both Orthodox and Catholics […] linked with all the other Slavs.80

This effort sought to “yugoslavize” the Church and, as was being done in the GDR, align it with the state’s new identity.81 After such repression, Stepinac refused any such agreement and was placed on trial for collaboration, the dissemination of Fascist ideology in Church media and the forced conversion of Orthodox citizens.82 Stepinac was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor followed by house arrest.

The CPY continued its drastic reduction of Church space. Religious instruction in state-run secondary schools was discontinued in 1945 without negotiation.83 Partisan units physically removed all religious symbols from schools and public buildings and marriage documents were placed under civil code. A 1947 federal law prohibited the public celebration of religious holy days. Instead, the official Socialist calendar replaced holy days with workdays.84 In 1949, the Ministry of Education declared all theological faculties private institutions and removed them from public universities.85

The nationalization of property rounded out the palette of policy instruments. In a move against the Catholic Church, the army and security forces placed all Church-administered hospitals, nursing schools and pension homes under governmental administration. Moreover, chapels, prayer rooms, religious artwork and crosses in hospitals were removed and nuns, though still allowed to work, had to remove their habits and other displays of religious symbolism.86 The regime undertook a similar, nuanced measure against the SOC by targeting its property holdings, one of its sources of income. From 1946 onward, security forces again occupied hundreds of SOC buildings, parish halls, secretariats and residencies.87 In Bosnia, over 140 Churches and offices were placed under rent-free military and police occupation.88 In cases where non-military individuals occupied Church land, the regime refused requests for compensation.89 As the party predicted, critique of this measure remained limited only to protest letters by the synod90 and Patriarch Gavrilo to the federal and the Serbian KVP.91

By 1953, the LCY had neutralized the last forms of domestic opposition and now had a free hand in pursuing socio-economic policies, which anticipated a sharp about-face from centralized resource allocation to one of “workers’ self-managed” production.92 They laid the groundwork for political re-adjustments in Church-state relations. In 1953, the Yugoslav Federal Assembly adopted the Law Concerning the Legal Status of Religious Communities, which formalized the separation of Church and state, guaranteed freedom of conscience and religious belief and stipulated the rights of atheists and the consequences of abusing religion for political purposes.93 By the late 1950s, the regime had increased the number of construction permits and funds for damaged buildings.94 Lastly, the weekly newspapers, the Catholic Glas Koncila and the Orthodox Pravoslavlje were allowed to circulate in larger numbers.95

The Rise of the Churches from 1966 to the Late 1980s

In 1966, the Fourth Plenum of the Central Committee and the six republic Central Committees introduced extensive political liberalizations.96 Centrist factions gave way to decentralist forces that favored devolution of powers to the republics.97 With this came a new stance on Church-state policy: the SKVP and KVPs were removed from UDBA oversight and transformed into independent governmental units, ending the regime’s security and intelligence gathering approach. State institutions were mandated to engage in dialogue, monitor media and manage Church life through quid pro quo, but also to prevent Churches from weighing in on social issues. With this change, the SOC and Croatian Church became less constrained in expanding Church media, holding public masses and criticizing the regime. One could hardly imagine a more comprehensive change.

Although calls for decentralization first came from the Serbian and Slovenian parties, Croatian communists most demonstratively demanded for a loosening, beginning with appeals for a constitutionally recognized Croatian language, separate from its almost identical Serbian counterpart. This peaked with the Croatian Spring or Mass Movement (Masovni Pokret, Maspok) from 1967 to 1972, which took on more alarming contours. Calls were made for the establishment of an independent Croatian national bank, greater autonomy in education and economic policy and territorial defense units.98 Maspok supporters criticized the Yugoslav National Bank’s distribution of federal development funds to poorer regions, while extremist fractions demanded a separate seat at the United Nations and revisions of official Yugoslav history.99

Maspok coincided with the rise of the Catholic Church’s renewed organization of large-scale masses and celebrations. A symbolic start took place with the Marian Congress and the consecration of the holy shrine at Marija Bistrica in August 1971 in front of 150,000 pilgrims.100 At the same time, Glas Koncila profited from limited state censorship by publishing criticisms of Yugoslav socialism, while celebrating the upsurge as solidifying the Croatian nation. As violent Maspok demonstrations in Zagreb threatened to destabilize the regime in 1972, Tito quickly purged leaders en masse and imprisoned activists.101 Under the threat of irredentism, Tito and Executive Bureau Secretary Stane Dolanc cleansed the Croatian League of Communists and other republican leagues.102 Faced with the threat of violence, Yugoslav communists never requested mediation from the Church. Unlike in the GDR, in Yugoslavia there was no rapprochement between Tito and Catholic bishops to restore peace. Despite the regime’s later inclusion of Maspok’s demands in the 1974 constitution, the crackdown shifted outlets for critical expression into the hands of the Church.103

The Church wasted no time in expanding its free space. In September 1974, the episcopate began the Great Novena, celebrating 1,300 years of Christianity. The icon of Our Lady of the Great Croatian Christian Covenant was paraded around the countryside, accompanied by liturgical celebrations, pastoral theater plays and a children’s educational course. Large Eucharistic festivals followed: the 1977 celebration of King Zvonimir, the 1979 declaration of the Year of Prince Branimir and the 1981 National Eucharistic Congresses in Split and Zagreb. The pinnacle was reached in September 1984 at the final celebration of the Great Novena, where over 400,000 convened at Marija Bistrica.

The SOC in this period became equally active with its social presence, organizing numerous public liturgies, jubilees and celebrations. In May 1968, the SOC organized a commemoration of the ancient Serb ruler, Czar Dušan. In September 1969, the SOC celebrated the 750th anniversary of autocephaly before a crowd of nearly 10,000 Orthodox faithful. The jubilee was continued at the Žiča monastery, where the conciliatory Archbishop German stated the following:


All who live with us here in our common home, in our common fatherland of Yugoslavia want to live in concord with all, in brotherhood, in love, in community. We have in our present homeland many different nationalities and religious communities… We want to live with all as with brothers and sisters in one single house.104


Church-organized celebrations continued throughout 1970 as the SOC commemorated the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the Serbian patriarchate (1920–1970) and in 1971 the 300th anniversary of Saint Basil of Ostrog.105

This atmosphere empowered the SOC to articulate grievances vocally. It initiated criticism of the regime’s inability to resolve brewing conflicts in regions considered important to the Church. Since Kosovo’s post-war inclusion in Yugoslavia, ethnic Albanians had long been dissatisfied with its position as a non-Slavic minority without its own republic.106 To ease tensions in 1966, Tito greatly expanded Kosovar rights and obliged the wealthier Northern republics to assist in the economic development of the territory. Nevertheless, Kosovo’s frustration gradually became violent. Orthodox churches, shrines and gravestones were increasingly desecrated and priests, nuns and monks harassed. Tensions exploded in November 1968, when large-scale demonstrations and violent riots broke out.107 Under media suppression, Tito deployed the JNA to quell the unrest. While quick to crackdown, Tito made no attempt to seek other forms of resolution. Despite being one of the targets of the riots, neither the SOC nor Kosovar party representatives were asked to cooperate to reduce the tensions. Again, an opportunity for inclusive Church engagement was missed.

On May 4, 1980, Josip Broz Tito passed away. Millions of shocked Yugoslavs gathered, tearfully laying flowers, holding military memorials and paying their last respects. However, the country would again be rocked by violent demonstrations in Kosovo. The March 1981 riots were fuelled by demands for republic status, only this time, accompanied with violence against Serb symbols and the SOC and rioters demanding “Unification with Albania.”108 Again, the regime answered with force, sending in militia and tank units and arresting hundreds of protestors.109

Less hindered by the 1966 accords, several SOC clerics penned an “Appeal for the Protection of the Serbian Population and their Sacred Monuments in Kosovo” on Orthodox Good Friday 1982 to the Presidency of the Yugoslavia, claiming that Albanian plans for “genocide” were being carried out.110 Using its publication outlets, it published the entire text in Pravoslavlje and other media, as Church spaces increasingly became the only venue where grievances could be expressed. Once again, aside from heavy-handed repression, no efforts were undertaken to bring the major stakeholders together to calm Kosovo.

The final years of the Yugoslav project were characterized by greatly expanded activities of protest. The federal SKVP and the republican KVPs were ineffectual in reeling in the Churches, which began to mobilize their spaces to fill the social vacuum. Tito’s passing and his apparent indifference to grooming a successor left many asking what might become of Yugoslavia. The party’s fear of a situation in which religion would align itself with anti-Yugoslav political forces would come true by the mid-1980s. The SOC Holy Bishop’s assembly began publicly to chronicle criminal acts perpetrated by Kosovar suspects against the Church. Pravoslavlje echoed the Church’s concern in regular columns and articles on the rise of the “Albanian terror,” as well as in seminars and discussions on the topic held by the Church.111 The Church submitted formal complaints to provincial authorities in Kosovo, the Serbian KVP and the republican government, but they were never thoroughly investigated. The continued failure by Yugoslav governmental structures to have at least a cursory review of the legitimacy of such claims and take measures against perpetrators contributed to the SOC’s heightened sense of being placed at an institutional disadvantage. With no credible guarantor, the SOC gradually began to instrumentalize its rich nationalist history of suffering.112

By 1987, Slobodan Milošević had risen through the party ranks to become head of the Serbian Communist Party. His springboard to political power took place at the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. Flanked by ranking party members from the republics and SOC bishops, Milošević addressed a crowd of nearly one million. Though sanctioned by the Yugoslav federal government and couched in socialist language, the event resembled a Church celebration. As one of the first high-ranking Serb officials to call for a comprehensive change in policy toward Serbia, Milošević found an ally in the SOC. Religion, religious symbolism and politics had now become inextricably intertwined in a self-reinforcing dance.

The Catholic Church also strengthened its social profile. By the mid-1980s, the large-scale Catholic celebrations began to take on more ethno-nationalist symbolism. While grand Church events continued to demonstrate the Church’s organizational ability, Glas Koncila had become the key voice in Church media. With little governmental censure, Glas significantly contributed to creating a distinct Croatian identity. By 1989, the Catholic Church in Croatia had successfully carved out its own space for re-assessing the foundation of Croatian identity within a larger Yugoslavia. The rise of Croat nationalist Franjo Tudjman in the late 1980s corresponded with that of the Church. In 1987, Tudjman and his far-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) turned to ultranationalist diaspora Church centers in Western Europe, Australia and North America.113 By 1989, the HDZ’s platform was thoroughly laden with revisionist ideas of historical injustices, Croat nationalism, conservative Catholic values and anti-Yugoslav, anti-Serb populism. Like Milošević, Tudjman received massive support from all elements of the clergy. The marriage of growing political nationalism and a potent religious element gave even more popular credibility to the HDZ.

As the fronts began to harden between Serbia, which was seeking to re-centralize Yugoslavia, and an increasingly independence-minded Croatia, which sought to rid itself of the rest of Yugoslavia, each camp gained political legitimacy from their respective Church. Set in motion by Tito’s liberalizations of the Yugoslav system 1966, the departure from a repressive to a open religious policy channeled Serb and Croat frustrations with the direction of Yugoslavia’s path into the hands of national Churches.

Conclusions: Assessing Church–State Engagement and Free Spaces

Challenges to authoritarian rule can take on different forms, while factors that affect the complex institutional interaction between a regime and its stakeholders can be infinite. Moreover, anti-authoritarian opposition is made increasingly complex by case-specific experiences. Attempts to explain changes in power structures through the scope of elections, voter behavior, civil society, democratization, ethnicity and identity, revolution or violence have yielded endless lists of works from across the landscape of ancient and modern political science. It is a common trait of human behavior and demonstrates one of the most essential pillars of political science: the struggle to attain, maintain and challenge power and accommodate competing ideas.

To try to capture the vastness of this central component is beyond the scope of this article. However, I claim that the uniqueness of this study lies not in explaining the end of East German and Yugoslav communism, although it does contribute to a more nuanced understanding of this. I offer here an alternative explanation to a different question: which set of conditions and types of processes help us to temporally locate, theoretically identify and comparatively explain the variegated forms of Church–state engagement which brought forth Church-based free spaces. The momentous year of 1989 in Eastern Europe is not the point of departure here. Rather, it is the outcome of a near 45-year-long history of debate on religious policy.

The empirical focus of this study seeks to paint a picture in which free spaces are neither the natural outcome of private meetings between small numbers of individuals working in safe havens, nor do I claim that national Churches retained an innate oppositional quality. Contrary to the debate surrounding the development and role of civil society, which tends to overlook the precise policy mechanisms and agent-to-agent interactions at the micro-level, this contribution demonstrates that Church-based free spaces are in fact a constructed social phenomenon, resulting from negotiated, institutional interactions by Church and state elites. To conclude, the complex interaction between Church and state in the execution of religious policy across temporally organized periods offers us an additional tool in explaining the rise of Church-based free spaces in authoritarian societies and the relationships between the rise of these free spaces and end of the European communist project.

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1 Steve Bruce, Politics and Religion (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), 172.

2 Free spaces are an integral pillar for oppositional groups working in authoritarian societies, without which the chances of success in challenging, reforming or toppling illiberal regimes may be significantly lessened. The ability to organize, cultivate and articulate critical expression, free of governmental intervention or violent crackdown, are the very heart of what makes oppositional movements successful. While they may not be necessary for every movement and while each authoritarian regime may deal with its undesired, unsanctioned oppositional agents in different ways, the growing number of successful regime-critical groups which have demonstrated or currently demonstrate the usage of similar forms of free space, from Africa to Latin America, North America to Arab states, can no longer be ignored by social scientists.

3 Derek Beach and Rasmus Brun Pedersen, “Taking Process Tracing Seriously – The ‘Mechanismic’ Understanding and Tracing Causal Mechanisms,” paper presented at the Southern Political Science Association, New Orleans, Louisiana, January 5–8, 2011.

4 John T.S. Madeley, Church and State in Contemporary Europe: The Chimera of Neutrality (London: Cass Publishers, 2003), 13.

5 Monika Kaiser, “Change and Continuity in the Development of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History 30 (1995): 688.

6 Erich Honecker, Aus meinem Leben (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1988), 181.

7 Monika Kaiser, “Die Zentrale der Diktatur – organisatorische Weichenstellung, Strukturen und Kompetenzen der SED-Führung in der SBZ/DDR,” in Historische DDR-Forschung: Aufsätze und Studien, ed. Jürgen Kocka (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1993), 78–79.

8 Gerhard Besier, Der SED-Staat und die Kirche: Der Weg in die Anpassung (Munich: Bertelsmann Verlag, 1993), 55.

9 Arnd Bauerkämper, “Bodenreform und Kollektivierung,” in Handwörterbuch zur ländlichen Gesellschaft in Deutschland, ed. Stephan Beetz, Kai Brauer, and Claudia Neu (Berlin: VS Verlag, 2005), 17–18.

10 Clemens Vollnhals, “Zwischen Kooperation und Konfrontation: Zur Kirchenpolitik von KPD/SED und SMAD in der Sowjetischen Besatzungszone,” Deutschland Archiv 27 (1994): 486.

11 Monika Tanztscher, “In der Ostzone wird ein neuer Apparat aufgebaut: Die Gründung des DDR-Staatssicherheitsdienstes,” Deutschland Archiv 31, no. 1 (1998): 48–49.

12 Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Maasenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv/SAPMO-BArch, nr. 002071, Establishment of Division E in Department V, 1947.

13 Detlef Pollack, Kirche in der Organisationsgesellschaft: zum Wandel der gesellschaftlichen Lage der evangelischen Kirchen in der DDR (Berlin: Kohlhammer Verlag, 1994), 95.

14 “Kirchen entstehen neu!” Die Kirche, October 30, 1949, 1.

15 “Tätigkeit des Evangelischen Konsistoriums Berlin-Brandenburg,” Provinzialsynode Berlin-Brandenburg 1951 (Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1951), 27.

16 Pollack, Kirche in der Organisationsgesellschaft, 96.

17 Brandenburgisches Landeshauptarchiv (BLA), Repository 203, nr. 144, Positive zur Nationalen Front eingestellte Pfarrer des Landes Brandenburg.

18 Pollack, Kirche in der Organizationsgesellschaft, 131.

19 Ralf Altenhof, “Aufarbeitung von Geschichte und Folgen der SED-Diktatur in Deutschland,” Die Enquetekommission des deutschen Bundestages (Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1993): 164.

20 SAPMO-BArch, Sensitive Information – Directive from the Central Committee of the SED and the Department of People’s Education to regional SED party offices and Departments of People’s Education, January 7, 1950.

21 Ehrhart Neubert, Geschichte der Opposition in der DDR, 1949–1989 (Berlin: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1998), 76.

22 “Kirchenleitung gehört in das Land Brandenburg!” Märkische Volksstimme December 6, 1950, 2.

23 BLA, Repository 202A, nr. 531, Letter from the Brandenburg Provincial Prime Minister to Evangelical Superintendents, Priests and Parish Commissioners, Pg 2. January 26, 1951.

24 BLA, Repository 202G, nr. 45, Special Report on the meeting between state representatives and those of the Church on 06.06.1952 in the home of Superintendent-General Braun, Potsdam, June 10, 1952.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 SAPMO-BArch, Repository IV 2/3/380, “Opinion of the Schwerin District Administration Report and the Gera District Administration on the Reactionary Activity of Priests,” Protocol of the SEC Central Committee, May 4, 1953.

29 Martin Georg Goerner, Die Kirche als Problem der SED: Strukturen kommunistischer Herrschaftausübung gegenüber der evangelischen Kirche 1945 bis 1958 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997), 109.

30 Christian F. Ostermann, “Keeping the Pot Simmering: the United States and the East German Uprising of 1953,” German Studies Review 19, no. 1 (1996): 63.

31 “Kommuniqué der Sitzung des SED-Politbüros vom 9 Juni 1953,” Dokumente der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands: Beschlüsse und Erklärungen des Zentralkommittees sowie seines Politbüros und seines Sekretariats 4 (Berlin: Berlin, 1953), 428.

32 Kommunique der Sitzung des SED-Politbüros, Juni 9, 1953, 428.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid.

35 “Entschließung der 15 Tagung des SED-Zentralkomitees vom 24. bis. 26. Juli 1953 – Der neue Kurs und die Aufgaben der Partei,” Dokumente der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands: Beschlüsse und Erklärungen des Zentralkommittees sowie seines Politbüros und seines Sekretariats 4 (Berlin: SED, 1953), 449.

36 BLA, Repository 530, nr. 2188, SED Provincial Secretariat’s Report entitled “On the Activity of the Church after the Communique from June 10, 1953 and Suggestions for Improvements in the Arena of Religious Policy” Potsdam, January 8, 1954.

37 BLA, Repository 530, nr. 2187, Bishop Otto Dibelius’ pastoral letter entitled “To all Parishes in Germany,” Berlin, June 12, 1953.

38 BLA, Repository 530, nr. 2188, SED Provincial Secretariat’s Report entitled “On the Activity of the Church after the Communique from June 10, 1953 and Suggestions for Improvements in the Arena of Religious Policy” Potsdam, January 8, 1954.

39 SAPMO-BArch, Repository DY 30/J IV 2/2/516, Protocol nr. 62/56 of the Meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee, November 27, 1956.

40 SAPMO-BArch, Repository DC 20/4/228, Decision 53/14 of the Council of Ministers for the Appointment of a State Secretariat for Church Questions, February 21, 1957.

41 Günter Jacob, Der Christ und die Mächte (Stuttgart: Lettner Verlag, 1960), 330.

42 Günter Jacob, “Der Raum für das Evangelium in Ost und West,” Kirchliches Jahrbuch 1956 (Gütersloh: Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1956): 13.

43 Evangelisches Zentralarchiv Berlin (EZB), Repository 4, nr. 666, Newsletter nr. 1 from BEP-DDR in the German Democratic Republic to all Pastors, June 19–20, 1958.

44 Besier, Der SED-Staat und die Kirche, 71.

45 Kirchliches Jahrbuch 1958, 241.

46 Ibid.

47 “Statistical Report on Exiting the Church – 1950 to 1956,” Amtsblatt der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland 19. no. 6 (1958): 17.

48 Pollack, Kirche in der Organizationsgesellschaft, 150.

49 “Programm der SED,” Neues Deutschland January 25, 1963, 1.

50 Neubert, Geschichte der Opposition in der DDR, 1949–1989, 187.

51 Ibid.

52 EZB, Repository 4, nr. 304, Letters between the Berlin Church Council and Reinhard Henkys of the Berlin Arbeitsgemeinschaft für kirchliche Publizistik, July 12, 1973.

53 “Hohe DDR-Kirchenvertreter besuchen Genf – Ökumenische Verbindungen sollen ausgebaut werden, Werben für Anerkennung,” Frankfurter Rundschau March 22, 1972, 1.

54 SAPMO-BArch, Repository DO4/320, State Committee for Radio Services – Department of Monitoring, July 2, 1971.

55 “Kirche will in der Gesellschaft der DDR künftig mitreden,” Der Tagesspiegel July 6, 1971, 45.

56 SAPMO-BArch, Repository DY IV 2/2036/49, Our Approach to the Talks with Representatives of the Evangelical Church of the GDR, May 10, 1977.

57 SAPMO-BArch, Repository DY 30 IV 2/2/1740, Decision of the Politburo supporting an increase in basic wages of Evangelical regional Churches, August 22, 1978.

58 Ibid., Addendum 1 on the Commitments to Concerns Brought by the Union of Evangelical Churches in the German Democratic Republic.

59 Bundesbeauftrage für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, (BStU), Protocol from a speech held by Bishop Albrecht Schönherr on the importance of the March 6, 1978 talks, MfS Document 8103, October 10, 1986.

60 SAPMO-BArch, Internal Party Document – Information on the Relationship between State and the Evangelical Church in the GDR, DY 2/3/119, December 2, 1980.

61 Ibid.

62 Interview with Manfred Stolpe and Joachim Heise, July 14, 2008.

63 Interviews with Ulrike Poppe, December 2008 and January 2009.

64 Interview with Manfred Stolpe, July 14, 2008.

65 Interviews with Ulrike Poppe, December 2008 and January 2009.

66 BStU, Internal document from Ministry of State Security to all working units of the Stasi, MfS Document 7604, March 17, 1982.

67 Interviews with Ulrike Poppe, December 2008 and January 2009.

68 BStU, Suggestions of talks with the State Secretary for Church Questions, Comrade Gysi, with the bishops of the provincial Evangelical Churches in the DDR, MfS Document 7605.

69 BStU, Quarterly Report – Church and Religious Communities in the GDR – Excerpts of an interview with Berlin-Brandenburg Bishop Albrecht Schönherr, MfS Document 8103, April 1985.

70 Interview with Hans Modrow, September 2008.

71 Interviews with Bishop of Australia and New Zealand of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Irinej Dobrijevic, April 2007 and the Vicar General of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sarajevo, Monsignor Mato Zovkić, September 2010.

72 Darko Bekich, “Soviet Goals in Yugoslavia and the Balkans,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 481 (1985), 2.

73 Arhiv Jugoslavije (AJ), Repository 144, no. 1-1, The Presidium of the Council of Ministers of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia brings forth the decree on the establishment of a federal commission for religious questions – Article 1 (Pretsedništvo Ministarskog Saveta Demokratske Federativne Jugoslavije donosi uredbu o osnivanja držvane komisje za verska pitanja – Član 1), September 21, 1945.

74 AJ, Inventory 144, nr. 1-4a, Executive of the Bishops’ Conference in Zagreb (Predsjedništvo Biskupih Konferencija u Zagrebu), no. 64, May 8, 1945.

75 Dunja Melčić, “Abrechnungen mit den politischen Gegnern und die kommunistischen Nachkriegsverbrechen,” in Der Jugoslawien-Krieg: Handbuch zu Vorgeschichte, Verlauf und Konsequenzen, ed. idem (Opladen: Westdeutsche Verlag, 1999), 198.

76 AJ, Inventory 144, nr. 1–3, Improving and renewing the Church – authorization for the collection of necessary resources (Predmet: Popravk i obnova crkvi – dozvola sabiranja portrebnih sretstava), Letter from Stepinac to the Vlada and the republic-level Commission for Religious Affairs of Croatia, August 14, 1945.

77 AJ, Inventory 144, nr. 1–4, Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishoprics of Yugoslavia, Publication of the Bishop’s Conference in Zagreb (Pastirsko Pismo Katoličkih Biskupa Jugoslavije, Izdano s Općih Biskupskih Konferencija u Zagrebu), September 20, 1945. Also see, Zvonimir Despot, Vrijeme Zločina: Novi Prilozi za Povijest Koprivničke Podravine 1941 – 1948 (Zagreb: Hrvatski Institut za Povijest, 2007), 258.

78 Milovan Djilas, Jahre der Macht: Im Jugoslawischen Kräftespiel – Memoiren 1945–1966 (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1992), 56.

79 Jozo Tomasevich, War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941–1945: Occupation and Collaboration (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 562–63.

80 Stella Alexander, The Triple Myth: A Life of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 117.

81 Margareta Matijević, “Religious Communities in Croatia from 1945 to 1991: Social Casualty of the Dissent Between Communist Authorities and Religious Communities’ Leadership,” Časopis sa Suvremenu Povijest 2, no. 1 (2006): 122.

82 Alexander, The Triple Myth, 146.

83 Katarina Spehnjak, Javnost i Propaganda Narodna Fronta u Politici i Kulturi Hrvatske 1945–1952 (Zagreb, 2002), 187–90.

84 Thomas Bremer, Kleine Geschichte der Religionen in Jugoslawien: Königreich-Kommunismus-Krieg (Freiburg: Herder Verlag), 86.

85 AJ, Inventory 144, no. 2-46, Briefing for the head of the Federal Commission for Religious Questions on the current state of Orthodox Faculty (Kratak referat o današnjem zalošnim stanju na našem Pravoslavnom Bogoslovskom Fakultetu), July 7, 1949.

86 Matijević, Religious Communities in Croatia from 1945 to 1991, 125.

87 AJ, Inventory 144, Decrees from SKVP no. 534 and no. 68 of 1946 identified these measures.

88 AJ, Inventory 144, 1-9, List of Church Buildings Occupied or Used by State Authorities (Spisak Crkvenih Zgrada Zauzetih i Upotreblijvih od Strane Gradjanskih Vlasti), February 1947.

89 Ibid.

90 AJ, Inventory 144, 1-9, Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, no. 346, Letter of protest from the synod of the SOC to the republican-level KPV of Serbia with a request to reverse the decrees, February 11, 1947.

91 AJ, Inventory 144, 1-9, Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, no. 1147, Letter of protest to the Executive of the Federal Government, March 31, 1947.

92 Thomas A. Marschak, “Centralized versus Decentralized Resource Allocation: The Yugoslav Laboratory,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 82 (1968): 566.

93 Radić, Država i Verske Zajednice, 1945–1970: Prvi Deo 1945–1953 (Belgrade: Institut za Novu Istoriju Srbije, 2002), 385–400.

94 Vjekoslav Perica, Balkan Idols: Religion and Nationalism in Yugoslav States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 121.

95 Marcus Tanner, Croatia: A Nation Forged in War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 194.

96 Radio Free Europe, Internal Affairs, Central Committee Plenums of Yugoslavia’s Six Republics Approve Purge of Ranković and Party Reforms, October 3, 1966: 1.

97 Sabrina Ramet, Nihil Obstat: Religion, Politics, and Social Change in East-Central Europe and Russia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 41.

98 Vjekoslav Perica, “The Catholic Church and the Making of the Croatian Nation, 1970–1984,” Eastern European Politics and Societies 14, no. 3 (2000): 532.

99 Viktor Meier, “Der Titostaat in der Krise: Jugoslawien nach 1966,” in Der Jugoslawien-Krieg: Handbuch zu Vorgeschichte, Verlauf und Konsequenzen, ed. Dunja Melčić (Opladen: Westdeutsche Verlag, 1999), 202.

100 Perica, “The Catholic Church and Making of the Croatian Nation,” 540–41.

101 Holm Sundhausen, Geschichte Serbiens: 19.–21. Jahrhundert (Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2007), 375.

102 David Binder, “Marko Nikežic, Yugoslav Liberal Forced to Quit by Tito, Dies at 69,” New York Times, January 9, 1991, 20.

103 Peter Palmer, “The Churches and the Conflict in the Former Yugoslavia,” in Religion and International Relations, ed. Ken R. Dark (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 2000), 87.

104 Perica, Balkan Idols, 51.

105 Ibid., 52.

106 Ger Duijzings, Religion and the Politics of Identity in Kosovo (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 38–45.

107 Hugh Poulton, “Macedonians and Albanians as Yugoslavs,” in Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea, 1918–1992, ed. Dejan Djokić (London: Hurst & Company, 2003), 129.

108 Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 334–35.

109 “Belgrade Sends Tanks to Rebellious Region,” The New York Times, April 4, 1981, 21.

110 Perica, Balkan Idols, 123–24.

111 Ibid., 124–25.

112 Mitja Velikonja, “In Hoc Signo Vinces: Religious Symbolism in the Balkan Wars 1991–1995,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 17, no. 1 (2003): 30–32.

113 Paul Hockenoos, Homeland Calling: Exile Patriotism and the Balkan Wars (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 76.

Volume 4 Issue 1 CONTENTS

pdfMarie Černá

From “Occupation” to “Friendly Assistance”: The “Presence” of Soviet Troops in Czechoslovakia after August 19681

The Warsaw pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 was without doubt a milestone in the history of Czechoslovakia. In the beginning, it mobilized and unified almost the whole nation against the enemy, whose status as enemy was quite apparent. But unified resistance to the occupation did not last long. It began to crumble as steps were taken to present a reinterpretation of the “occupation” as an act of “friendly assistance.” A shift in the image of the Soviet Army became a prerequisite of the normalization policy of the regime. This article identifies and explains the most important aspects of the changing image of the Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s and early 1970s and some of the consequences of these changes for Czechoslovak society. These changes occurred mainly at the level of official presentation. Nevertheless, the official politics of friendship had tangible consequences, reflected both in everyday life and the overall social and political climate.

Keywords: Soviet Troops, Czechoslovakia, occupation, normalization, friendship


The Warsaw Pact military intervention in August 1968 and the subsequent presence of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia2 unquestionably played an essential role in Czechoslovakia’s history. It is generally known that important changes took place in Czechoslovakia after August 1968. The regime came down hard on the population and limited civil rights and freedoms. These acts of interference ended the previous process of gradual relaxation, which had been accelerated mainly by the Prague Spring, which began in January 1968.3 In this process, called, in the jargon of the period, “consolidation” or “normalization,” the intervention played the key role. In this respect, various observers of and actors in the events of the past have pointed to, first and foremost, the reconfirmation of the limited autonomy of the Czechoslovak political elites in decision-making and their dependence on the Soviet leaders.4 In more general works about the normalization of Czechoslovak society, however, Soviet political and local military representatives are largely absent. Whereas the military and political aspects of the intervention5 and the numbers of victims6 are on the whole well charted, the impact in practice of the subsequent presence of the Soviet troops on Czechoslovak society and on its normalization has been neglected. This is surely also linked to the fact that we recall mostly the times during which most of Czechoslovak society, officially and unofficially, perceived the Soviet Army as an occupying force, that is, the period which began in the wake of the intervention and came to an end with the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1990–91.7 “Occupation” has thus become the lens through which the presence of the Soviet Army has usually been seen since 1989. Nevertheless, the term actually had a very short life in the post-August history of Czechoslovakia, and its gradual vanishing of the term “occupation” from the political scene, the mass media, and public life was of key importance for Czechoslovak society in this period. Just as significant is the fact that the term, with all its practical implications, did not officially return until the collapse of the Communist regime in late 1989.

If we want to consider the more complex question of the presence of the Soviet Army and its impact on Czechoslovak society and normalization, it is necessary first to identify the gradual essential change in the perception of the Soviet Army since the intervention. A shift in the image of the Soviet Army became a prerequisite of the normalization policy of the regime, which was based on discrediting the Prague Spring by describing it as an attempted counterrevolution. Only if the image of the Soviet Army as an occupying force were transformed into the image of a savior would it be possible to reinterpret the Prague Spring as an attempt at counterrevolution and condemn and discredit its leading actors. The social and political changes that took place in Czechoslovakia after 1968 would have been impossible or at the very least meaningless if the image of the Soviet Army as the occupier had not changed considerably. Other contemporaneous terms, such as “right-wing opportunism” and “anti-socialist elements,” acquired meaning only if the occupation by the Soviet forces was perceived as friendly assistance, and terms such as “occupation,” “collaboration,” and “democratization process” lost their meaning. Considering that the main shift in the official perception of the Soviet Army occurred in the first two years after the beginning of the intervention, it is obvious that a lot must have happened in this period. A great deal of effort at various levels must have been expended in order for a spontaneously shared image of the occupier and enemy to change into its complete opposite in this short period. It was mainly change at the level of official presentation. Nevertheless, even that had tangible consequences, reflected both at the level of everyday life and the overall social and political climate. With the gradual change of the official image of the Soviet Army, the declared attitude toward it necessarily had to change, too. Friendship became an integral part of state policy, and as part of policy rhetoric it was implemented across society. As the pressure demanding a reinterpretation of the August 1968 events increased, opinions about different forms of contact with the Soviet Army changed as well, from despised collaboration to valued cooperation. The initial covert cooperation of politically radical and socially ostracized individuals with Soviet officers gradually developed into an officially endorsed norm. In this article, I endeavor to identify and explain the most important aspects of the changing image of the Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s and early 1970s and some of the consequences of this change for Czechoslovak society.

The sources that I use in my research are of various provenances. A special source of information, particularly for the early stage of the presence of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia, is the collection of documents of the Government Commission of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic for Analysis of the Events of 1967–1970, which was established in the early 1990s. The collection is held at the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague. It contains records from various regions of the Czech Republic, which help the historian understand the problem at the local level in the very places where Soviet troops were based. Among the other local materials I have used are town chronicles, regional newspapers, and archive records from two former garrison towns, Vysoké Mýto, a town of several thousand people in east Bohemia, and Trutnov, a regional capital in northeast Bohemia.

The Occupation and the Community of Non-violent Resistance

When troops from the Soviet Union, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, and Bulgaria poured into Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968,8 most of the inhabitants of the country were shocked. The trauma that this event caused ranked with that of the other national tragedies, such as the annexation of the Sudetenland to the Third Reich in autumn 1938 and the German occupation that began in mid-March 1939. Today, it is recalled in respectful commemorations and written about in history books. The explanation for the significance of this trauma lies not only in the number of dead and wounded civilians,9 but also, perhaps mainly, in the great wave of non-violent national resistance that followed in its wake. What is essential, however, is that slogans in Czech and Russian10 and resolutions and declarations condemning the occupation as an illegitimate and violent intervention in the internal affairs of the state were written by almost everyone. Open political conflict with the Soviet Union was unthinkable for the Czechoslovak political leadership; nevertheless, among them, tendencies to condemn the military intervention triumphed. Thus, members of the top party and government bodies at first joined together with journalists and editors, employees of all kinds of institutions and enterprises, and students, school children, and other individuals in the nationwide protest. For having done this, they received extraordinary support. This unity experienced immediately after the August military intervention went beyond the political protests, which were ultimately doomed to failure. One finds signs of solidarity that resemble what the political scientist James Krapfl referred to, when examining Czechoslovak society in 1989, as a “sacred sense of community.”11 Both in 1968 and in 1989, in addition to protesting and referring to the occupiers as the enemy, people expressed solidarity with one another, and they identified common values and basic principles of community, creatively ascribing special meaning to the August events by doing so. In parallel with the everyday danger, frustration, humiliation, and sense of powerlessness when face to face with tanks, a wave of expression welled up, which was a celebration of national solidarity and declarations of shared values. Those values were not just values of resistance, but also, and indeed mainly, prudence and non-violence. The general sharing of these values became a further source of pride at the time.12 At this level, the actual impossibility of effectively preventing the military intervention could be recast into the positive value of non-violence, from which society could draw a sense of moral superiority. The basic principle upon which solidarity was being formed after August 21, 1968 was, apart from prudence and non-violence, rejection of the military intervention. And the intervention was considered chiefly a Soviet affair.


Any community threatened by an external enemy seeks to defend certain values, prescribing appropriate conduct with regards to the enemy and, by contrast, condemning inappropriate conduct. This code was embodied in a number of ceremonial commitments incorporated into numerous statements, such as “We shall not be traitors,” and also in the slogans that surfaced on occasion, such as “Not a slice of bread or drop of water for the occupier!” and “Shame on collaborators!” It would be wrong to think that everyone was of the same opinion on that point, for had there been unanimity, there would have been no “letter of invitation.”13 There were definitely many people who were nervous about the developments leading towards the democratization of Czechoslovakia, and they felt that things were getting out of hand and moving in the wrong direction. There were also people who were afraid, insulted, and abused by developments in the weeks and months before the August intervention.14 One would be better off assuming that the voices of these people were not really heard in the turmoil of late August, and that when they were heard, these people faced threats of revenge from others.

For example, the general manager of Dioptra, a state-owned business in the town of Turnov in northern Bohemia, was with his apprentices on an excursion in Hungary when the Soviet-led troops arrived, and he openly praised the intervention. At a Communist party meeting of the factory after he returned, he was called a collaborator and was subsequently dismissed from his post as general manager.15 Today, of course, it is hard to ascertain the exact motives and facts of such stories. We will never learn what the Dioptra general manager said in Hungary or who said what about him or to him. We do not know what resentments, interests, and passions played a role. What is important, however, is that the accusations of collaboration, of improper conduct with regards to the occupiers and inappropriate opinions, could have real power and lead to tough and often officially approved sanctions. That, however, could only have been the case under circumstances in which the generally shared norm of rejecting the “occupation” was expressed by a wide range of more or less practical or symbolic acts of protest.


Unified resistance to the occupation did not last long, in spite of the fact that the resistance found significant support in all of the social strata of the country. The pressure exerted by the Soviets in their power politics was relentless. The physical presence of armed Soviet soldiers, who often crudely intervened in local events, was combined with systematic pressure by Soviet politicians on their Czechoslovak counterparts.16 This pressure began immediately after the military intervention with the Soviet “abduction” of the Czechoslovak state and party leaders to Moscow. During the talks with the Soviets, the Czechoslovak delegation was forced to accept a number of compromises, including the invalidation of the Extraordinary Party Congress (Mimořádný sjezd KSČ) on August 22, 1968, and all of its resolutions. They also had to accept limitations on the freedom of speech and association, the withdrawal of Czechoslovak demands to have the crisis put on the agenda of the UN Security Council, and mainly the de facto legitimation of the “temporary presence” of Warsaw Pact troops in Czechoslovakia.17 These compromises were confirmed by the signing of the “Moscow Protocol.”18 Of all the generally known facts, I would emphasize that among the basic demands of Moscow was a reinterpretation of the Warsaw Pact intervention and the establishment of “friendly” relations. It is clear that the designation “occupier” profoundly upset and offended the Soviet politicians. At the end of August, General Nikolai Ogarkov (1917–1994), a plenipotentiary of the Soviet Minister of Defense, in a conversation with Josef Smrkovský (1911–1974), the Chairman of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly, demanded that in their speeches the representatives of the Czechoslovak state should “speak a normal language” and not use words like “occupier,” because it prevented “normalization.”19

This was definitely not merely the reaction of a jilted partner, who jealously seeks to compel a rebel to return to his or her former devotion and compliance. The continuous push for Soviet interests in “twinning” (družba) and cooperation between the Soviet troops and various institutions (including factories, schools) and in personal contacts between Soviet officers and Czechoslovak citizens, officials, and institutions was mostly strategic. Not merely a matter of ceremony, it was an effective means of gathering intelligence and gaining control over otherwise unpredictable events. It is therefore no surprise that the planning of “friendly” relations became the subject of official reports of leading Soviet ideologues. For example, as early as September 4, 1968, the Chief of the Main Political Directorate, General Alexei Yepishev, was proposing ways for the Soviet Army to contribute to the “normalization” of Czechoslovakia to the Central Committee of the CPSU. Part of his proposal was a broadly conceived “buttressing of twinning and comradely relations with the population and members of the Czechoslovak People’s Army,” including military and political contacts with local party and state bodies, the Czechoslovak Armed Forces, social organizations, industrial and agricultural enterprises, and schools. These contacts entailed, among other things, “twinning evenings” (večery družby), participation of members of the local population in cultural events organized by Soviet soldiers, performances by music and dance troupes of the Soviet Army in Czechoslovak milieus, and even assistance by Soviet soldiers in farming. Yepishev recommended in particular using the Soviet fight against fascism for propaganda purposes, therefore to invite soldiers who had participated in the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, and to emphasize the “fighting friendship” (bojové přátelství) between the Soviet and Czechoslovak armed forces.20 In a similar spirit, during the Moscow talks in October 1968, Brezhnev offered the Czechoslovak delegation a detailed description of his vision of comradely friendship.21

A turnaround in relations between Czechoslovaks and the Soviet army may have seemed unthinkable in August 1968, because any such move would have been condemned as treason and collaboration.22 Nevertheless, the fundamental consequence of signing the “Moscow Protocol” was that the united resistance began to crumble and the first step was taken in the reinterpretation of the “occupation” as an act of “friendly assistance.”

It’s Better Not To Write Anything about Them

In the Moscow Protocol, the representatives of the Czechoslovak party and government committed themselves to taking power back from the mass media “so that they fully serve the cause of Socialism” and to taking measures that “would prevent the publishing in the press and broadcasting on radio and television of speeches that could cause conflict and tension between the population and the allied troops on Czechoslovak territory.”23

In order for the Soviets to withdraw their troops from the streets and government offices to garrisons and then eventually from the country altogether, the Czechoslovaks were expected to fulfil these terms and conditions, as well as a number of others. Shortly after the Czechoslovak leadership returned from Moscow, measures were taken to suppress the hitherto spontaneous expressions of resistance to Soviet troops. Among the most important was a government decree of August 30, 1968, which created the Press and Information Office (Úřad pro tisk, rozhlas a televizi). Upon its establishment, the office immediately issued orders that brought freedom of expression in line with the Moscow Protocol.24 According to the instructions that were issued, one was forbidden to use the word “occupier” or “occupation,” criticize the Warsaw pact countries or their Communist parties, attack their troops based on Czechoslovak territory, or write about victims or damages caused by the military intervention.25 These orders were subsequently implemented in all editorial offices throughout the country.

At a press conference, Oldřich Černík (1921–1994), the Czechoslovak premier, met with the editors-in-chief of Czech periodicals to explain the situation and called on them to heed the new restrictions. When asked what journalists were allowed to write with regards to the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries, he replied, “It’s better not to write anything about them.”26

During the process of normalization, in the most basic sense of the word (in other words the withdrawal of the allied forces from public spaces and government offices and the restoration of the usual administration of the country), this legislation assigned the main responsibility to Czechoslovak society. How the situation developed would allegedly be up to the people of Czechoslovakia. The message that the Czechoslovak political leaders took back home from Moscow in August 1968 was essentially that they should act with discipline and avoid any measures or steps that Moscow might perceive as provocative. Only this would make a return to normality possible. It was in this spirit, as an expression of the required self-discipline, that the Czechoslovak political leaders, upon their return, also presented the re-imposition of censorship and restrictions on the freedom of association. Normalization began to be the mantra to which everything was supposed to be subordinated, although the term gradually went from meaning the restoration of the basic operations of the state to meaning the shoring-up of the authoritarian regime and the imposition of limitations on civil rights and freedoms. We can clearly see that politicians thus stopped unanimously saying “No, to occupation,” and a considerable number of them soon began pointing out other threats to order and unity. Henceforth, those who were to be considered dangerous were those who rebelled too openly against the occupation. These voices against rebellion gradually gained strength. And the essential thing is that one of the two fundamental principles of national solidarity that had been so solemnly proclaimed after August 21, 1968 began to thrive at the expense of the other. Resistance to the occupation began to give way to prudence, non-violence, and self-discipline. The national solidarity that had been created by everyday politics thus gradually, but increasingly, became a caricature of the national solidarity that had grown out the August events. Nevertheless, it provided the opportunity for some continuity and, last but not least, for continuous support for the political leaders who in the eyes of the public represented the liberalization that had begun in January 1968.

A Rift

In a resolution of the November 1968 plenum of the CPCz Central Committee, the top party leadership called the rightwing, anti-Socialist forces the foremost enemies of the state and more or less officially abolished the term “collaborator,” or, rather, logically came to the conclusion that where there is no occupation, there is no collaboration: “The Central Committee and its officials will also come out against all attempts to discredit Czechoslovak comrades who honorably promote party policy principles against any bullying they face for their openly internationalist relations with the USSR.”27

With these statements, the Czechoslovak politicians quickly defined themselves as being in opposition to the rebelliously minded part of society, and they took their primary task to be the quelling of expressions of defiance. In November 1968, when university students and some secondary-school students went on strike in support of the November plenum of the CPCz Central Committee, to encourage the Committee to stay the course of democratization and maintain the gains that had been made in civil rights, the party leadership rejected their support. The student activities were condemned as “ill-considered” and the public was called upon “not to allow this dangerous situation to grow.”28

Open resistance to the occupation and to the concessions made by the Czechoslovak politicians began to be politically undesirable and, as such, gradually became the target of police surveillance and repression. During the spontaneous demonstrations that were held in Prague on October 28, 1968 (the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic) and November 7, 1968 (the fifty-first anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution; both occasions were state holidays), the police intervened and took some demonstrators into custody. The events were closely observed and assessed by the secretariat of the Ministry of Interior.29 The First Secretary of the CPCz Central Committee, Alexander Dubček (1921–1992), the icon of the reform process, spoke out clearly on this point: “The greatest pitfalls of the consolidation process are [...] attitudes that directly accuse the political leaders of capitulatory behavior and treason, causing an anti-Soviet psychosis.”30 The political leaders thus made it clear who had to be excluded from the national community.

The Treaty on the “Temporary Presence” of Soviet Troops

Dubček’s mention of capitulatory behavior and treason was undoubtedly related to other political events: as set out in the Moscow Protocol, the Treaty on the Temporary Presence of Troops was signed in October 1968.31 That meant an important change in developments. Under the terms of the treaty, most of the Warsaw Pact troops were withdrawn from Czechoslovakia, but, on the other hand, the “temporary presence” of Soviet troops was made legal; the secret codicil to the treaty mentions 75,000 Soviet soldiers.32 The treaty was concerned with matters such as what the Czechoslovaks were meant to provide for the Soviet soldiers, who would bear the costs for their basing, how foodstuffs, goods, and services would be supplied to the Soviet garrisons, and who would pay for them. Once adopted, the treaty shifted the problem of the basing of Soviet troops considerably towards practical matters. In the 33 locations where the garrisons were stationed throughout the country, many problems had to be dealt with, including housing, rent, administration, supplies, the movement of soldiers and military equipment, the determining of jurisdictions, and the use of energy and water.33 For local governments, working together became an unavoidable technical necessity. And the better such collaboration took place, the easier it was to find a solution acceptable to both sides, or to obtain redress if the Soviets in some way flagrantly breached agreements. At a meeting of the chairmen of the national committees, held at the Presidium of the Government on October 29, 1968, to discuss the adopted treaty, the question was also raised by the Deputy Minister of Defense, General Václav Dvořák: “Regular matter-of-fact relations with the Soviet commanders are proving to be fruitful and are thus helping to prevent conflicts.”34 The minutes of the meeting include the opinions and local experiences that contributed to good relations with Soviet soldiers. A representative of the Municipal National Committee of Mladá Boleslav, for example, “talked about his three-week experience of the presence of Soviet troops there, with whom a detailed regimen was agreed on in the interests of the citizens and the operation of the town. He pointed out that the expansion of good relations between the Czech authorities, collective farms, and factories on the one hand and the Soviet command on the other facilitated the work and improved the status of the national-committee officials dealing with daily problems.”35

Clearly, cooperation and twinning, politically required and practically necessary, could be put to practical use at the garrison bases in the service of the interests of locals as well. The fact that using Soviet soldiers for various part-time jobs gradually became quite common practice is demonstrated by an October 1970 entry in the Vysoké Mýto town chronicle: “Relations with the local Red Army garrison should no longer be unrestricted and accessible to all. Enterprises, including collective farms, have begun to use the services of the garrisons at all workplaces where they are behind schedule. Relations will henceforth be possible only by means of the local committee for garrison relations […].”36

We Want Friendly and Comradely Relations

In the Treaty on the Temporary Presence of Soviet Troops, the Czechoslovak Republic also committed itself “to endeavor to buttress friendship and collaboration” with the Soviet Union. In practice, this turned out to be no mere formality; it was a commitment that the Czechoslovak politicians were determined to keep and to demand of others.

In November 1968, the Presidium of the CPCz Central Committee received a letter for approval the contents of which were to be passed on to district and regional party committees. The letter includes the following passage: “it is fully in our interests to normalize relations with the USSR and to establish and develop social relations with Soviet troops. These relations can also significantly contribute to the gradual overcoming of problems and misunderstandings […] [W]e want these relations to be friendly and comradely.” The letter also emphasized that “Communists in particular should actively endeavor to achieve the normalization of our relations with Soviet troops.”37 Such instructions gave considerable impetus to efforts to ensure that comradely friendship with Soviet soldiers where they were stationed would become one of the important tasks for party units and organizations at all levels. It was therefore a task that could not easily be avoided. Considering that basic party organizations existed in practically all institutions, offices, and enterprises and that these organizations regularly had to provide evidence and accounts of the work they had done and the tasks they had fulfilled, the space for working together was thrown wide open.

Soviet officers and agents oversaw the fulfillment of obligations stemming from the Treaty, and they did not hesitate to protest if they felt that Czechs were hampering the development of friendly relations.38 Clearly, the Czechoslovak side could not turn a deaf ear to such complaints and demands for the simple reason that it had to deal with them at the highest party and government levels. The measures were not long in coming. In 1969, for example, in the north-east Bohemian district of Semily alone the state police sent nineteen people to court for the production and dissemination of printed matter, including leaflets, and for writing anti-Soviet slogans.39

The Local Press

Places where Soviet garrisons were based had to find a way to deal with their presence and the associated pressures. The local press found itself in a strange position. To a large extent, it continued to obey the premier’s instructions that it was “better not to write anything about them.” The official district weekly, Jiskra Orlicka (The Orlice District Spark), mentioned only in passing that Soviet soldiers would be stationed in the Ústí nad Orlicí district.40 The Soviet soldiers were not mentioned again until November 5, 1968, about a month after they had been stationed in the area. The fact that the weekly completely omitted the massive troop movements that accompanied the deployment41 is an indication of how Soviet soldiers would be reported on in future. In an interview held on November 5, the chairman of the District National Committee assured a reader that Soviet troops would not “make claims to flats” or other housing, that they would be provided only with surplus local foodstuffs, that the soldiers’ representatives would hold talks about complying with local rules and regulations, and that the movement of common soldiers would be restricted to joint leave in closed units.42 By not discussing certain problems in the newspaper, the chairman of the National Committee was endeavoring to forestall fear and panic caused by the unchecked movement and behavior of Soviet troops in garrison towns. Not admitting a problem, or veiling it in impersonal administrative terms, was the general approach used in this weekly. From this local periodical we therefore learn little about the various aspects of the coexistence of Soviet garrisons and local populations. We do, however, learn how the official image of unproblematic and mutually beneficial coexistence was gradually formed in part with the use of the local press. When, on rare occasions, local newspapers did report on conflicts or incidents between Soviet soldiers and Czech civilians, it was with the aim of “scolding” undesirable Czech excesses. In the garrison town of Česká Třebová in eastern Bohemia, some panic was caused among Soviet soldiers when a young man, identified only as Mr H., fired a toy pistol near their patrol. The Jiskra Orlicka journalist commented:


Most of the people with whom I have discussed this case condemn the behavior of Mr H., because it does not help to calm already stormy waters. [...] Similar acts, which lead to such conclusions, should disappear from daily life. They are no solution to the complicated problems of contemporary life.43

In a similar spirit, the weekly paper briefly reported in May 1969 that ten young men in Vysoké Mýto had attacked a Soviet major and that “young men” had torn down a red flag from the secondary school. The mention of these cases in the crime and accident column ranks them with other small crimes, and in a similarly dry tone concludes, “All the culprits have been taken into police custody.”44 A June issue of the weekly published an interview with the chairman of the District National Committee about the “consolidation” of the country and the “principles of the consolidation of public order.” The chairman said that it was unthinkable that “we would not intervene decisively against disorderly conduct [...], rowdyism, [...] and vandalism.”45

The attacks against Soviet soldiers came under the category of “rowdyism” (výtržnictví) and “vandalism” (vandalství). The local press thus communicated the idea that those who protest in any way against the basing of the Soviet soldiers are a dangerous element that is disturbing the peace. The press was helping the Czechoslovak and Soviet representatives remove public references to the fact that many people perceived the Soviet military intervention as an act of political aggression. The delicate topic of the coexistence of Soviet garrisons and Czechoslovak civilians, with all the possible problems that it really entailed, was more or less avoided by the local press. Gradually, it was depicted mainly with conflict-free images and reports about friendly, comradely relations and joint ceremonies. For example, the district press devoted much more space to the peace celebrations in the garrison town of Česká Třebová to commemorate the 1944 Slovak National Uprising than it did to the first anniversary of the August intervention:


A procession of local citizens, members of the Soviet Army, and units of the People’s Militia, which had participated in operations against anti-Socialist elements in Prague, passed through the town. [...] To shouts of approval and the thunderous applause of the participants in the celebrations, the secretary of the District Committee of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association thanked members of the People’s Militia, the police, and the Czechoslovak Army, who had come out decisively against the rowdies and anti-Socialist forces in Czechoslovakia.46


The rift between the official Czechoslovak representatives and opponents to the military intervention probably came to a peak in August 1969. The demonstrations during the first anniversary of the Warsaw Pact intervention47 were suppressed by the Czechoslovak Army, the People’s Militia, and the police, without the Soviet Army having to move in.48 The official press stood fully behind the crackdown, crudely denigrated the demonstrators, and offered readers a picture of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Army.49


Obviously, not everything was as the press presented it at the time. The Vysoké Mýto Chronicler was not afraid to take the position of an ordinary citizen and to enumerate the difficulties Soviet soldiers were causing in the town. Foremost among those difficulties was the movement of heavy military equipment, the buying-up of goods, small incidents caused by drunken soldiers, occasional acts of petty theft, the illegal requisitioning of land by the Soviet Army, and the using up of drinking water.50

After the resolution and official proclamation of the party and government representatives about the need to foster friendly relations with the Soviet Union and its army, it took some time before the idea was fully accepted among the locals with all of its consequences. People did not easily abandon the idea that the Soviet soldiers who were settling in their towns were occupiers. The Vysoké Mýto chronicler also recorded local attempts to boycott this comradeship and to resist or protest the presence of the Soviet Army. This protest was of a highly diverse nature. No Soviet films were shown in the local cinema; by contrast, admission to a newsreel about the August events in Prague was free of charge. Even the town councilors were writing protests against the establishment of Soviet garrisons in Vysoké Mýto. A separate, especially creative part of the story involves the leaflets, pamphlets, slogans, and jokes made at the expense of Soviet soldiers. Information about various social events, such as parties and balls, were not publicly advertised in the town; sometimes they were by invitation only, so that the Soviet garrison would not find out about them and would not attend. Proposals for twinning were rejected by the institutions that were put forward for this. There were even occasional scuffles between young civilians and Soviet soldiers, particularly in pubs, when Czechs, for example, took soldiers’ caps or cut off their buttons or insignia,51 verbally attacked soldiers, and shouted out protest slogans in front of the barracks.52

Similar behavior, however, led to condemnation not only in the local press but also, indeed mainly, from the local political representatives, who were held responsible for the implementation of commitments stemming from the signing of the Czechoslovak–Soviet agreements. They saw the public protests as disloyalty in a situation complicated by the presence of Soviet soldiers and various, often contradictory pressures. As the chairman of the Trutnov national committee said:


Normalization in our town is being impaired by various incidents that are being provoked by irresponsible individuals from the ranks both of adults and of the youth. [...] The scenes they are making do not attest to the cultural quality of our nation, and truly discredit us. […] Nor, however, can we passively look on forever at the gross disregard shown for commitments that our representatives accepted by signing the Moscow and Prague agreements.53

The local representatives considered any protest against the presence of Soviet troops to be irresponsible because it harmed the interests of the community as a whole, for instance the eventual return to normal life in the town and the resolution of everyday problems; moreover, the protests were in opposition to views and decisions that were made at the highest levels of the state and party. As such, any protest had to be systematically made illegitimate and practically wiped out.

Influenced by these circumstances, open individualized protest against the presence of Soviet troops became increasingly risky, and thus moved to the anonymous level. It mainly took the form of anecdotes and jokes, which mocked the growing cooperation and comradely friendship with Soviet troops and reacted to developments in politics and society in general.54

Breaking the Ice

The mounting pressure was also linked to gradual personnel changes in senior positions. This first took place at the state-wide level and eventually, from mid-1969 onwards, also at the regional level. They included the usual exchanges of regional and district party secretaries, which led to a series of other personnel changes in the leadership of the national committees and important industrial and agricultural enterprises. An integral part of these changes was the reassessment of the recent past, including the recanting of previous statements of support for the Dubček leadership and of disagreement with the occupation. In the “break” with the past before August 1968 and shortly afterwards, the Soviet Army played a key role. The declared attitude towards the Soviet Army became an index of the more general attitude towards political developments. It was by means of comradely friendship that the new and old established local notables demonstrated their political loyalty. For example, the new mayor of Trutnov, in a speech about the activity of the city council in February 1970, distanced himself from the pre-August 1968 political developments by criticizing the previous leadership of the district national committee for having been politically reckless (avanturismus), for having failed to respect the Moscow Protocol, and for having refused to “enter into relations” with Soviet Army representatives. He characterized the tearing down of a Soviet tank from a pedestal in August 1968 as an “anti-Soviet and counterrevolutionary act,” for which the erstwhile representatives of the district national committee were also responsible.55

With similar speeches, functionaries made it clear whose side they were on, and in general they distanced themselves from the displays that were perceived negatively and proscribed, now called, for example, anti-Socialist, anti-Soviet, and rightwing opportunist. They thereby accepted the interpretation of the Prague Spring as an attempt at counterrevolution and the Soviet-led intervention as an operation to deliver the country from chaos.

The willingness to establish and develop comradely friendly relations, which had only recently met with resentment and thus been socially degraded, was gradually transformed at the official level into a positive expression of loyalty in unfavorable circumstances. This loyalty, however, now ceased to be pilloried as deviant conduct by obstinate oddballs, hardline dogmatists, and jilted individuals. Owing to gradually changing circumstances, it began to be increasingly rewarded. Together with this, the people who were previously punished for their “collaborationist attitude” were exonerated. That is also reflected in the minutes of the June 1969 plenum of the Ústí nad Orlicí District Committee of the CPCz. The minutes state that the District Committee of the CPCz “has made amends for mistakes and errors; it has restored the honor of people who were smeared and attacked for having defended international alliances.”56 The Soviet command, the exonerated conservatives and collaborators, including the leadership of the new course, strengthened one another’s positions. Under these circumstances, the Soviet soldiers were increasingly admitted into Czech enterprises and schools and were invited to participate in the founding meetings of branches of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association.

Furthermore, the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association provides a convenient illustration of changes in the perception of the USSR and the Soviet Army in Czechoslovak society more broadly during the relatively short period since August 1968. At first, it may have seemed that the August intervention would be fatal to an organization with a pre-war tradition and a mass grass-roots membership. A number of local chapters did indeed close down, people en masse cancelled their memberships, which, anyway, they had been called upon to do by slogans chanted in the streets and on posters.57 The Association was eventually discredited in the eyes of the public by the contacts between several of its members and the Soviet Army soon after the intervention. In the course of 1969, when popular protest against the occupation was petering out, new chapters of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association were founded, but considering the general atmosphere this was usually done privately, almost clandestinely. Nevertheless, the change in the official course of the uppermost level of politics, which, in its attitude to the USSR and Soviet Army, was gradually projected into the mass media, as well as into local politics, also brought about a fundamental transformation in the perception of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association. The sudden growth in membership over the course of the 1970s58 demonstrates that the Association had freed itself of the reputation of being a collaborationist organization for a handful of conservative dregs. Although its proclaimed mission was the “buttressing” of relations with the Soviet Union and also the establishment of contacts with the Soviet Army,59 it became for many people an acceptable variant of the required public involvement and loyalty towards the political regime. One’s attitude to the Soviet Union became part of the assessment of anyone who aspired to hold a job other than manual laborer.

The fact that one registered at one’s workplace (instead of one’s home) to join a branch of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association had a fundamental impact on the growth in membership, because it became part of how one was assessed politically and occupationally by one’s employer. Comradely friendship was thus incorporated in the generally implemented cadre system, which included the regular political assessment of employees.60 This was of course most strikingly reflected during the political vetting of party and non-party members in 1969–70. One’s attitude to the presence of the Soviet Army in Czechoslovakia or to the Soviet Union in general became a key topic on the basis of which the vetted employees and party members were assessed.61 This also contributed to the official reassessment of the basing of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia.

Official Images of Friendship

Contacts between Soviet soldiers (mainly officers) and the local population occurred mostly at the workplace, schools, national committees and social organizations. A delegation of soldiers, for example, was received by a factory organization of the CPCz and a branch of the Soviet–Czechoslovak Friendship Association; it was shown around these institutions, given refreshments, and then took part in a friendly discussion. Also publicized in the press were other, less formal meetings and contacts, including social gatherings of women, visits by Soviet teachers to local schools, joint programs for Soviet and Czechoslovak children, visits by Pioneers (a Communist organization for children) to garrisons, sports matches, performances by the Soviet garrison band at various social and arts events, and New Year’s Eve celebrations together. Official and unofficial events occasionally overlapped. Sometimes, certain natural, spontaneous tendencies and interests could be intentionally used for similar “twinning” or “comradely friendship” ends.62 And it was the “informal” component of meetings, such as concerts, dances,63 sports matches, and gatherings for children, which were meant to play an important role in the creation of a positive image of the Soviet Army as an ardent friend.

An important way of initiating mutual contacts was to hold public political and ritualized events, which, since May 1945, had been a tradition for more than twenty years. And though the tradition was sometimes interrupted under the influence of the Thaw in the 1960s, it offered something on which to build. One could cyclically return to the regular commemorations of events such as the birth of Lenin, May Day (1 May), the Liberation (9 May), Soviet Armed Forces Day, and the October Revolution. (Indeed, since the date of the Revolution by the New Style calendar was 7 November, rather than 25 October, the whole month of November was devoted to Czechoslovak–Soviet friendship.) Many holidays and other important days were one way or another linked with the Soviet Union. The public events that accompanied them, which included parades, the laying of wreaths, demonstrations, concerts, and exhibitions, became a natural platform for public appearances by Soviet soldiers as well. Such ceremonies also contributed to the rapid change in the official image of the Soviet Army. This was perhaps most strikingly manifested during the celebrations in May 1970 to mark the Red Army’s liberation of Czechoslovakia 25 years earlier. The speeches, public appearances, and articles that appeared to mark the occasion reflect the symbolic linking of the Red Army liberators of 1945 and the Soviet soldiers of 1968. The events of August 1968 thus officially became another milestone in the history of Czechoslovak–Soviet friendship. As the newspaper of the Karosa bus manufacturer in Vysoké Mýto put it,


the friendship between the common people of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union is sprinkled with blood [...]. Do those 144,000 Soviet citizens who had to die in our country during the Second World War mean nothing? [...] In August [1968] they did not leave us in danger either; they came [...].64

Soviet ideologues also recommended linking the Red Army soldiers of 1945 with the Soviet soldiers of 1968. With this copiously employed symbolic fusion there emerged an image of the timeless Soviet soldier-liberator and benefactor, who could not be opposed, because that would mean trampling on the memory of the anti-fascist fighters. The presence of the Soviet Army also brought repeated exaltation of the Soviet struggle against fascism.

The official reception of the Soviet Army as a savior was accompanied by a renewed wave of idealization and the promotion of the Soviet Union, Soviet culture, the land of the Soviets, and the Soviet people. Rudé právo journalists reported on a two-week visit to the USSR in August 1969: “The striking production successes of the Soviet workers and technicians were visible everywhere […] Many of us did not hide our admiration for the all-round progress, especially technical progress, to which we were witnesses.”65

The rhetorical style of this official confirmation of the indestructible bond was openly inspired by the Communist culture of the pre-war period and the Stalinist post-war period,66 which expressed love for and devotion to everything Soviet.67 At a somewhat less lyrical level, the reestablished friendship was expressed by an emphasis on the teaching of Russian, the promotion of courses in Russian, the increased importation of Soviet arts, including film, the establishment of comradely friendship and twinning at the district, town, enterprise, and school levels, organized excursions to the Soviet Union, and many competitions in poetry recitation and knowledge about the Soviet Union, just as Brezhnev and his ideologues had wanted.


Every political intervention carried out by military means also involves questions of resistance, conformity, and collaboration. In this sense, the turnaround in the official image of the Soviet Army from occupier to savior is probably not exceptional in history. We might today be surprised by the speed with which it occurred. This is undoubtedly connected to certain characteristics of the system that made such a quick change possible. It may seem that in the 1960s the authoritarian regime experienced a thaw. The events after August 1968, however, clearly show that the centralist principle of government remained essentially unchanged: censorship was immediately re-imposed, a number of civil rights and freedoms were revoked, personnel changes were quickly made according to the rules of promoting nomenclature cadres and keeping an eye on them, and mass vetting and purges were carried out. Open resistance to the intervention was quickly made illegal, and it was turned into a matter of investigation and prosecution by a strong secret police force. As soon as the political leadership of the country committed itself to the terms of the Moscow Protocol and the subsequent agreement on the temporary presence of Soviet troops, it had at its disposal a number of traditional instruments to pacify majority society and to foist responsibility on it for meeting its commitments. Since part of the agreements involved nurturing, fostering, or at least creating a semblance of friendly Czechoslovak–Soviet relations, active and public maintenance of a negative image of the Soviet Army as an occupying force was practically unsustainable in the long run.

The question of resistance, conformity, and collaboration is doubtlessly always partly a matter of personal choice. In this article, I explained mainly the wider structural or systemic aspects, which to a large extent created the framework for personal choices. In addition to informal, spontaneous, and private relations (which are more difficult to research), there were organized and official contacts. Above all, comradely friendship with Soviet soldiers or, more generally, a positive attitude towards the Soviet Union as a political commitment was integrated into the existing political and cadre system. This enabled control of the mass media, as well as supervision by the highest bodies of the state and party over the activity of subordinate bodies to ensure that they would not deviate from the centrally determined political line. Friendship became one of the criteria of the political assessment of individuals, groups, and institutions. One of the most common ways to meet such a commitment was to become a member of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association. What membership actually entailed was determined by local conditions, as was the social inclusion of an individual. Clearly, the most frequent direct contacts with the Soviet officers took place at the level of the local and regional political élites and nomenclature cadres. An important aspect of the change in the official image of the Soviet Army was the experience of long-fostered friendship with the Soviet Union, both at the level of politics and politicians and of various institutions, as well as specific individuals. This tradition could be renewed by the usual tried and tested political rituals and by incorporating a new circumstance—the 1968 intervention—into it. This tradition included the systematic promotion and idealization of the Soviet Union and everything connected to it. The Soviet Army was then made an inconspicuous but important part of the image of the Soviet Union as benefactor, an image that had been created in a wide variety of ways.

The political consequences of the 1968 military intervention were undoubtedly far-reaching. Nevertheless, at the official level, one of the consequences of the subsequent political measures was the transformation of the image of the Soviet soldiers from the henchmen of an occupying force to saviors who brought deliverance. In the eyes of the public, their political importance was gradually but increasingly trivialized, and this shift was reflected in everyday life. They were incorporated into public political rituals, celebrations, social gatherings, and cultural events, and they became part of both the official and also the unofficial economy. In the mass media, they were often depicted in contexts and roles that were apparently not connected to politics, such as musicians in concerts, sportsmen in matches, people attending friendly discussions, volunteer workers helping out in factories and on cooperative farms. Similarly, contacts between Czechoslovak organizations and citizens and Soviet garrisons gradually lost their negative political associations of collaboration and betrayal. They became part of ceremonial acts and expressions of loyalty, which the citizens of the communist state were regularly forced to perform. These acts were judged positively by the regime, but were often considered a formality, devoid of meaning (including political meaning). The Soviet Army was thus gradually stripped of the meaning of occupier and important political actor, not only because of the ways in which it was presented in official propaganda, but also because of people’s real-life experiences.

Archival Sources

Ústav pro soudobé dějiny [Institute of Contemporary History, Prague], sbírka Komise vlády ČSFR pro analýzu událostí 1967–1970 [Collection of the Government Commission of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic for Analysis of the Events of 1967–1970].

Státní okresní archiv Trutnov [State District Archive Trutnov], fond Městský národní výbor Trutnov [fond Trutnov National Committee].


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Translated by Derek and Marzia Paton

1 This article was supported by the grant-funded project no. DF11P01OVV030, “Stories from the History of the Czechoslovak State: Research and Experimental Development of Software Simulations for the Teaching of the History of the Bohemian Lands in the Twentieth Century,” funded by the Czech Ministry of Culture and carried out at the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University, Prague, and the Institute of Contemporary History, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, from 2011 to 2014.

2 Historians have estimated the number of Soviet soldiers who remained in Czechoslovakia after the signing of the agreement in October 1968, according to the initial agreements, at about 75,000. Antonín Benčík, Jan Paulík, and Jindřich Pecka, Vojenské otázky československé reformy 1967–1970: Srpen 1968–květen 1971 (Brno: Doplněk, 1999), 79. The exact number was not reported by the Soviet side until the numbers for 1990–91 were made public, according to which there were 73,500 soldiers and 56,832 family members on Czechoslovak territory. Jindřich Pecka, Odsun sovětských vojsk z Československa 1989–1991 (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny, 1996), 288. The number of garrison sites has been estimated at 33, to which one should add four airports, three military hospitals, nineteen depots, and five training grounds, though these numbers could in the course of time also change somewhat. Jindřich Pecka et al., Sovětská armáda v Československu 1968–1991: Chronologický přehled (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny, 1996), 198–206; Benčík, Paulík, and Pecka, Vojenské otázky československé reformy, 51.

3 The Prague Spring and subsequent intervention of Warsaw Pact armies rank among the most significant topics of Czech history and historiography. See Věra Břeňová, Pražské jaro ’68: Bibliografie, Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny, 2013. Of the vast amount of research on this period, I would mention at least some of the English-language works: H. Gordon Skilling, Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976); Kieran Williams, The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics, 1968–1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); and Fred H. Eidlin, The Logic of ‘Normalization’: The Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia of 21 August 1968 and the Czechoslovak Response (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980); Miklós Kun, Prague Spring – Prague Fall: Blank Spots of 1968 (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1996).

4 Jindřich Madry, Sovětská okupace Československa, jeho normalizace v letech 1969–1970 a role ozbrojených sil (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR, 1994); Ondřej Felcman, Invaze a okupace: K úloze SSSR a sovětských vojsk ve vývoji Československa v letech 1968–1991 (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR, 1995). Zdeněk Doskočil, Duben 1969: Anatomie jednoho mocenského zvratu (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR, 2006).

5 Benčík, Paulík, and Pecka, Vojenské otázky československé reformy; Antonín Benčík, Operace Dunaj aneb Internacionální vražda Pražského jara (Prague: Krutina Jiří–Vacek, 2013); Daniel Povolný, Vojenské řešení Pražského jara 1968, vol. II: Československá lidová armáda v srpnu 1968 (Prague: Ministerstvo obrany ČR, 2010); Jiří Fidler, 21.8.1968 – okupace Československa (Prague: Havran, 2003); Jan Pauer, Prag 1968: Der Einmarsch des Warschauer Paktes. Hintergründe – Planung – Durchführung (Bremen: Temmen, 1995).

6 Milan Bárta et al., Victims of the Occupation: Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia: 21 August–31 December 1968 (Prague: Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů, 2008); Hynek Fajmon, Sovětská okupace Československa a její oběti (Brno: Centrum pro studium demokracie a kultury, 2005).

7 This has been occurring in the mass media during the annual commemoration of the August intervention and of the withdrawal of Soviet troops, as well as in academic writing. The most significant work undertaken thus far, which charts the presence of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia from the beginning to the end and thus captures the changes in the attitudes of Czechoslovak politicians and society towards the Soviet Army, is Jindřich Pecka et al., Sovětská armáda v Československu 1968–1991. It provides a brief summary of events, negotiations, and meetings, together with articles related to the presence of Soviet troops and excerpts from a variety of archival records or periodicals.

8 More precisely: the East German army remained on alert in their own country and, except for a few specialists, ultimately did not even cross the frontier into Czechoslovakia. The total number of soldiers could never even be precisely determined. Estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000.

9 By mid-December 1968, the records show 94 dead and 345 seriously wounded Czechoslovak citizens. For more on this, see Bárta et al., Victims of the Occupation.

10 “Pochemu?” (Why?), “Sovetskie okupanty” (Soviet occupiers!), “Sovetskie fashisty” (Soviet fascists!), “Idite domoi” (Go home!), “Lenine, probuď se, Brežněv se zbláznil” (Lenin, wake up! Brezhnev’s gone mad!), “Mnichov 1938, Bratislava 1968” (Munich 1938, Bratislava 1968), “Eto nashe delo” (It’s our affair), “Ať žije Rudá armáda, ale někde jinde” (Long live the Red Army! But somewhere else), “Proletáři všech zemí, odejděte” (Proletarians of all countries, go away!), and thousands of others.

11 James Krapfl, Revolúcia s ľudskou tvárou: Politika, kultúra a spoločenstvo v československu po 17. novembri 1989 (Bratislava: Kalligram, 2009); idem, Revolution with a Human Face: Politics, Culture, and Community in Czechoslovakia 1989–1992 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.)

12 “It turned out, however, that [the occupation] did not crush the good qualities of our nations; rather, it galvanized them. The whole world now admires our nations,” Zemědělské noviny, August 27, 1968, quoted in Sedm pražských dnů: Dokumentace (1968), ed. Milan Otáhal, Vilém Prečan et al (Prague: Academia, 1990), 286; published in English as Robert Littell, ed., The Czech Black Book (London: Pall Mall Press, 1969); the Czech is now published online January 20, 2014, http://www.68.usd.cas.cz/cz/sedm-prazskych-dnu.html.

13 The so-called “letter of invitation” was signed by five high-ranking party and state functionaries, mostly members of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party: Alois Indra, Drahomír Kolder, Vasil Biľak, Oldřich Švestka, and Antonín Kapek. In the letter, they point to the danger of counterrevolution in the country and urge the Soviet side “to provide effective support and aid by all means.” Concerning the fate and importance of this letter, see František Janáček and Marie Michálková, “Příběh zvacího dopisu,” Soudobé dějiny 1 (1993), 87–101; “The ‘Letter of Invitation’ from the Anti-Reformist Faction of the CPCz Leadership,” in The Prague Spring 68: A National Security Archive Documents Reader, ed. Jaromír Navrátil (Budapest: CEU Press, 1998), 324–25.

14 It is probably impossible to quantify in any objective way the proportion of these people in society at the time. The sources mention various instances of people who rejected the general protest against the occupation or soon welcomed it, to a more than usual extent, as friendly assistance, or directly established contact with military representatives. The behavior of these people is often explained away as their having been members of organizations such as the People’s Militia, the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association, and local or workplace Communist Party organizations. In this connection, the Prague meeting of about 400 “old Communists,” on October 9, 1968, and the meeting held by two district chapters of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association, in the Lucerna building, Prague, to mark the anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia, are well known. Soviet delegations were present at both, and the military intervention was assessed there as having been friendly assistance.

15 Ústav pro soudobé dějiny [Institute of Contemporary History, Prague – ÚSD], sbírka Komise vlády ČSFR pro analýzu událostí 1967–1970 [Collection of the Government Commission of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic for Analysis of the events of 1967–1970], Okresní zmocněnec Semily [Authorized district archivist]. The astute reader certainly already suspects that the sanctions did not last long.

16 For a summary, see Ondřej Felcman, Invaze a okupace: K úloze SSSR a Sovětských vojsk ve vývoji Československa v letech 1968–1991 (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny, 1995), or Antonín Benčík, “Intervence,” in Sovětská vojska v Československém vývoji 1968–1991, ed. Jindřich Pecka (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny, 1998), 9–23.

17 In addition to the main actors of the Prague Spring, such as First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Alexander Dubček, Speaker of the National Assembly Josef Smrkovský, Premier Oldřich Černík, and a member of the CPCz Presidium, František Kriegel, and the delegation of Czechoslovak President Ludvík Svoboda, on the Czechoslovak side some of the authors of the letter of invitation also participated in the dramatic negotiations, such as Vasil Biľak, Oldřich Švestka, and Alois Indra. For a personal recollection of participants in the Moscow talks in August, see Zdeněk Mlynář, Mráz přichází z Kremlu (Cologne: Index, 1988), 267–314; published in English as Night Frost in Prague: The End of Humane Socialism (London: C. Hurst, 1980). For the minutes of the talks, see Jitka Vondrová, Mezinárodní souvislosti Československé krize 1967–1970: Dokumenty ÚV KSSS 1966–1969 (Brno: Doplněk, 2011), 213–66. For an English translation of excerpts of these negotiations, see Navrátil ed., The Prague Spring 68, 465–73.

18 For the “Protokol z jednání delegací SSSR a ČSSR 23.–26. srpna v Moskvě,” see Jitka Vondrová and Jaromír Navrátil, Mezinárodní souvislosti československé krize 1967–1970. Červenec–srpen 1968 (Prague–Brno: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR and Doplněk, 1996), 271–74 and, “The Moscow Protocol, August 26, 1968,” in Navrátil (ed.) The Prague Spring 1968, 477.

19 Jindřich Pecka, “Rozhovor Josefa Smrkovského s generálem N. V. Ogarkovem 30.8.1968,” Soudobé dějiny 1 (1997): 158–66.

20 “Náčelník hlavní politické správy SA generál A. Jepišev ústřednímu výboru KSSS. Návrhy na činnost sovětských vojsk při zajišťování ‘normalizace’ v Československu” [Chief of the Main Political Directorate, General Alexei Yepishev, to the Central Committee of the CPSU. Proposals for Activity by Soviet Soldiers to Implement “Normalization” in Czechoslovakia], ÚSD, Sbírka KV ČSFR, Z/S, 4. 9. 1968.

21 Apart from contacts between local politicians and local governmental bodies on the one hand and Soviet soldiers on the other, this was also meant to include exchanges between folklore troupes and the promotion of Soviet culture in general, twinning at the regional, district, and town levels, and the exchange of delegations of workers and scholars. Záznam z jednání delegace KSČ s vedením KSSS v Moskvě 3.-4. října 1968, in Jitka Vondrová, Mezinárodní souvislosti československé krize: září 1968–květen 1970 (Brno: Doplněk, 1997), 116–35.

22 The author of the article “Bez kolaborantů jsou vyřízeni” [Without Collaborators, They Wouldn’t Stand a Chance], boasts in the Communist Party daily Rudé právo, on August 27, 1968, that even by the sixth day after the arrival of the troops the occupiers had not managed to create “collaborationist bodies and institutions,” with which they had hoped to create the impression that the intervention had been legal. That is not to say that no one was willing to collaborate; there were such people, but they stood aside because of the “astonishing spontaneous unity, the huge activity of the absolute majority of the nation, the unconcealed contempt and hatred.” “One can have no doubt therefore that collaboration with the occupiers is the worst treason […].”

23 “Protokol z jednání delegací SSSR a ČSSR 23.–26. srpna v Moskvě.”

24 Jiří Hoppe, Pražské jaro v médiích: Výběr z dobové publicistiky (Brno: Doplněk, 2004), 16–17.

25 Ibid.

26 ÚSD, sb. KV ČSFR, A3, “Zpráva z tiskové konference šéfredaktorů s předsedou vlády O. Černíkem dne 28.8.1968.”

27 “Hlavní úkoly strany v nejbližším období: Rezoluce plenárního zasedání ÚV KSČ” [The Main Tasks of the Party in the Near Future: A Resolution of the Plenary Session of the Central Committee of the CPCz], Rok šedesátý osmý v usneseních a dokumentech ÚV KSČ (Prague: Svoboda, 1969), 383.

28 “Provolání představitelů strany a státu” [Proclamation of the party and state representatives], ibid., 393–94.

29 The turnaround in the public perception of people protesting openly against Soviet troops is graphically illustrated by a document from the Ministry of the Interior. Originally, it summarized serious cases of Soviet soldiers who had restricted the personal freedom of some Czechoslovaks, mainly by reacting with excessive force to an imagined or real protest, such as the shouting of abuse, the posting or distribution of leaflets, and the writing of slogans. The fact that what was originally a list of victims of Soviet military aggression could also serve as a list of potential rabble-rousers is illustrated by the names and acts of protest later being carefully and thoroughly underlined. See the report about the detention of Czechoslovak citizens by foreign soldiers, dated August 21, 1968, accessed October 14, 2013, http://www.ustrcr.cz/data/pdf/projekty/srpen1968/srpen-zpravy-014.pdf.

30 “Z projevu soudruha Alexandra Dubčeka Hlavní úkoly strany v nejbližším období,” Rudé právo, November 15, 1968, 1, 3.

31 The full name of the treaty is the “Smlouva mezi vládou Československé socialistické republiky a vládou Svazu sovětských socialistických republik o podmínkách dočasného pobytu sovětských vojsk na území Československé socialistické republiky.” It was signed in Prague on October 16, 1968. For an English translation, see “Bilateral Treaty on the ‘Temporary Presence of Soviet Forces on Czechoslovak Territory’, October 16, 1968,” in Navratil, The Prague Spring 1968, 533–36.

32 Benčík, Paulík, and Pecka, Vojenské otázky československé reformy, 79.

33 These practical matters led to the signing of other, more detailed treaties, ratified in early 1969, concerning specific aspects of the basing of troops.

34 ÚSD, KV ČSFR CI/9, “Záznam o poradě konané 29. října 1968 na předsednictvu vlády.”

35 Ibid.

36 “Pamětní kniha Vysokého Mýta 1961–1973,” entry from October 1970, accessed October 14, 2013, http://vychodoceskearchivy.cz/ebadatelna/zobrazeni-publikace-usti/?adresar=CZ_225204010_0381_x00002&nadpis=CZ_225204010_0381_x00002&strana=1.

37 Návrh dopisu předsednictva ÚV KSČ krajským výborům strany o vzájemných stycích se sovětskými vojsky, ÚSD, sb. KV ČSFR, DII/121.

38 “Protest vládního zmocněnce SSSR pro záležitosti sovětských vojsk dočasně umístěných na území ČSSR,” ÚSD, sb. KV ČSFR, DII/122.

39 ÚSD, sb. KV ČSFR, OZ Semily.

40 “Události těchto dnů,” Jiskra Orlicka, September 24, 1968.

41 This included the withdrawal of Polish troops who had been based in the district since August, the clearing out of barracks and military areas by Czechoslovak garrisons, and the redeployment of Soviet troops and all their military vehicles.

42 “S předsedou okresního národního výboru: O pobytu sovětských vojsk v okrese,” Jiskra Orlicka, November 5, 1968.

43 “Proč se střílelo?,” Ibid.

44 “Černá kronika,” Jiskra Orlicka, May 13, 1969.

45 „Pro konsolidaci života země,” Jiskra Orlicka, June 3, 1969.

46 “Slavnost míru a přátelství,” Jiskra Orlicka, August 26, 1969.

47 It was for a long time the last mass demonstration against the occupation and the regime that had approved the occupation.

48 The preparations for August, however, were carefully supervised by the Soviet side, as is attested to by the numerous visits by Soviet politicians and Soviet army officers at the state and the local level during the summer of 1969. Nothing was to be left to chance. At the local level, special teams were assembled consisting of functionaries of the national committees and commanding officers of the security forces, who were responsible for maintaining order in their town. SOkA Trutnov, f. MěNV Trutnov, i.č. 20, kart. 3, Zápisy z plenárního zasedání, 20. dubna 1969 [Minutes from the Plenary Session, April 20, 1969].

49 In an article entitled “Reakční síly otevřeně proti republice” [Reactionary forces openly against the republic], the national daily newspaper Rudé právo described the Prague demonstrations as the “rioting of hooligans and déclassé elements.” This effort to discredit the participants in the demonstrations intensifies later in the article: “Most of the participants in the acts of provocation were young people, the kind about whom one immediately sees that they are not fond of work or soap, not to mention order.” Rudé právo, August 22, 1969.

50 Pamětní kniha Vysokého Mýta. 1961–1973.

51 Ibid.

52 Státní okresní archiv [State District Archive] Trutnov, fond MěNV Trutnov [fond Trutnov National Committee], inventární číslo 57 [Inventory number], karton 18 [box 18], Zápisy ze schůzí rady, 10.12.1968 [Minutes of a council meeting], December 10, 1968.

53 SOkA Trutnov, f. MěNV Trutnov, k. 3, i.č. 19, Zápisy z plenárního zasedání, 3. prosince 1968 [Minutes of the Plenary Session, December 3, 1968].

54 For example, the Vysoké Mýto chronicler recorded an anecdote in May 1969, which appeared after Gustáv Husák had taken Alexander Dubček’s place as First Secretary of the CPCz Central Committee in April: “We built socialism with a human face; now we are building socialism with the hide of a hippo [i.e. insensitivity].” Pamětní kniha Vysokého Mýta 1961–1973, entry from May 1969.

55 SOkA Trutnov, f. MěNV Trutnov, k. 3, i.č. 21, Zápisy z plenárního zasedání, 11.2.1970 [Minutes of the Plenary Session, February 11, 1970].

56 ÚSD, sb. KV ČSFR, OZ Ústí nad Orlicí. The former managing director of Dioptra, who was dismissed in 1968 because of his “collaborationist” statements, was fully exonerated in the early 1970s. By contrast, those who had dismissed him were punished. ÚSD, sb. KV ČSFR, OZ Semily.

57 For example, “The Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association asks its members to pay any outstanding membership dues, because this friendship is now ending.” Jindřich Pecka, Spontánní projevy Pražského jara 1968–1969 (Brno: Doplněk, 1993), 98.

58 In early 1972, the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association had, according to its own information, 1,021,407 members in a total of 17,617 chapters. See VII. Sjezd Svazu Československo-sovětského přátelství: Dokumenty z jednání sjezdu Praha, 16.-17. června 1972 (Prague: Lidové nakladatelství, 1972). Although this source does not state the numbers of members in 1968–69, it does mention the “intense pressure” to which the Association was subjected on all sides. The course it entered on to achieve the widest membership base turned out to be effective. At the next congress, in 1977, its central secretary stated that the Association had 2,241,617 members in 28,574 chapters. 8. Sjezd Svazu Československo-sovětského přátelství: Dokumenty z jednání sjezdu Praha, 12.-13. Prosince 1977 (Prague: Lidové nakladatelství, 1978), 22.

59 “It would certainly be useful if the Soviet Army representatives gave speeches more often at our meetings, gatherings, and seminars. […] Such meetings will have to be attended by increasingly larger numbers of members of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association and of other citizens of our towns and villages.” “Zpráva ústředního tajemníka SČSP,” in VII sjezd Svazu, 24.

60 Marie Černá, “Cadre Policy, Cadre Work and Screening in Communist Czechoslovakia: Simple Ideas, Complicated Practice,” Studia Territorialia 11 (2011): 9–28.

61 For the meaning of the mass vettings in the so-called consolidation process, see Marie Černá, “Comprendre le processus de consolidation: Les campagnes de vérification de 1970 en Tchécoslovaquie,” Cahiers du CEFRES 32 (2012): 199–233.

62 A graphic example is a sixteen-year-old girl from a secondary school in the town of Česká Třebová, who appeared as a singer with a local Soviet army band. See “Děvče v uniformě,” Jiskra Orlicka, March 16, 1971.

63 Music ensembles of various styles, playing for the “listening and dancing pleasure” of their audiences, were an important asset of the Soviet Army, and often were part of social events.

64 “Přátelství je věčné,” Karosář, May 8, 1970.

65 Rudé právo, August 12, 1969.

66 Again, for example, the 1948 words of the first Communist President of Czechoslovakia, Klement Gottwald, were recalled about how Czechoslovak bonds with the Soviet Union were “inviolable” and how the state was “moving side by side with the Soviet Union in everything and will never do otherwise.” According to Gottwald, “the common Czechoslovak people will not put up with anti-Soviet witch-hunts and intrigues.” Zpráva ústředního tajemníka SČSP, VII sjezd Svazu, 13–14. With renewed force, therefore, terms such as “historical necessity,” “inseparability,” and “longevity” appeared in the political vocabulary in connection with the Soviet Union.

67 At the celebrations to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army, which were held in the district capital, Ústí nad Orlicí, in the presence of Soviet war veterans in May 1970, a poem by the Communist writer S. K. Neumann (1875–1947) was recited, which had first been published in the collection Srdce a mračna in 1935. It included the line: “Vám poděkování a lásku vám” [To you, thanks, and love to you]. The same title is used for the article about the events, Jiskra Orlicka, May 12, 1970.

Volume 4 Issue 1 CONTENTS

pdfTibor Takács

Them and Us: Narratives of Agents from the Kádár Era1

Today a good deal of scholarly work has been published the authors of which use, as their primary sources, the documents that were created by the state security services of the communist dictatorships of East Central Europe. These documents reveal a great deal concerning the primary characteristics of the mechanisms of state security and, more specifically, the network of agents. Most of the inquiries that have been published so far have been of a moralizing nature, in that they seem to have been motivated at least in part by the desire to pass judgment on those who cooperated in an organized way with the state security services of the dictatorial states or, in some cases, to find justifications for the conduct of the people involved by offering explanations according to which they were compelled to collaborate. I have set a very different goal in this article. I examine how the people in the network interpreted their cooperation with the state. I draw on recollections that were written not after the fall of the Kádár regime, but rather in its early stages. These texts offer different perspectives on the identity of the agent and shed some light on how the collaborator him or herself understood his or her acts of collaboration with the dictatorship.


Keywords: collaboration, recollections, state security, agent network, Kádár era, communist regime, Hungary


A few years ago, in his reflections on the moralizing narrative mode of the assertions that have been made in Hungary regarding the network of the state security services of the fallen regime, Balázs Berkovits raised the essential question: “Can one speak of agents in any other tone than that of moral outrage, victimhood, and forgiveness? Can one escape the moral defining terms that infer one another, the vicious cycle of sin—confession—forgiveness? How can we avoid the ethical and psychological/sociological conjectures and aims that already determine, before we have begun our examination, where we will end up?”2

The moralizing that seems to prevail in discussions of the topic seems to be tied to the tendency in public opinion to identify the people who were in the network as “denouncers,” i.e. people whose endeavors are almost always deleterious, whatever the culture or society in question, and even more so in the case of a dictatorship. The foundation of this discourse is the assumption according to which the simple citizen (as the agent seems to be) owes his loyalties first and foremost to his own community, in other words to the society that has been subjugated by the dictatorial power. Thus, if someone cooperates with power, for instance by providing information concerning his fellow sufferers, he or she merits the label traitor.3 This “transgression” seems more damnable in retrospect than it did at the time because at the time of the dictatorial regime it was “invisible,” as it was committed in secret and only came to light after the fall of the regime. As Hungarian historian Gábor Gyáni has observed, however, with this disappearance of the world of the dictatorship, “denouncing lost any ethical justification and its ‘usefulness’ also frayed.” Consequently, “this form of cooperation with the oppressive power of yore is simply stamped as immorality or futility.”4

The moralizing approach is also dominant in the scholarly research on the network of agents who worked together with the state security services. Practically, this means that the historian cannot completely avoid or ignore entirely the influence of the interpretive models that prevail in public opinion and thus is inevitably compelled to orient him or herself to this narrative mode. The practice of historical scholarship involves a series of ethical and moral choices, from the selection of a subject of focus to the manner in which findings are put in writing, and even if a historian is cautious to avoid making explicit judgments, his or her use of language nevertheless bears certain (inherent) values.5 This problem lies more in the fact that (as the citation from Berkovits’ work suggests) the moralizing approach results in methodological and thematic narrowing in the research on the network of agents used by the state security, essentially as if the only genuine goal of an inquiry into this history were to “name” the “guilty” with the intention, whether admitted or not, of denouncing and pillorying them.

The foundation of moralizing in the case of scholarly inquiries is the use of the top-down model based on a sharp distinction between “power” and “society.”6 Accordingly, historians tend (retrospectively) to present the period between 1945 and 1990 as a struggle between the “good” and the “bad,” the “oppressed” and the “oppressors.” The picture, however, is hardly this black-and-white. For instance, even research on “informants” (both people who only occasionally provided reports and those who regularly worked as part of the established system) shows that this distinction does not hold up under scrutiny. There were innumerable links and relationships between the system and Hungarian society. Indeed, this is logical. In order to ensure that their subjects remain submissive, disciplined, and “normal,” first and foremost modern states must be able to keep the citizenry under observation and keep records of its acts. In addition to the various techniques and institutions that are used to enforce discipline, power cannot do without the cooperation its citizens, whether we are speaking of casual informers of those who violate its rules, deviants or non-conformists, or members of the more or less structured informers’ network of the (political) police.7 It is quite clear that in authoritarian systems, which wish to exercise more than usual supervision over society, there is an even greater desire for this kind of participation on the part of the citizenry in the maintenance of power. This is true in part simply because, since any potentially critical organ of the press has essentially been silenced and the freedom of speech denied, the people in power have more difficulty obtaining reliable information about those “underneath” them.8 From the perspective of the regime, this means that the much-feared Stasi, for instance, would not have been nearly as effective without the active participation of tens of thousands of citizens.9 From the perspective of society, this means essentially that people were coopted and made part of the mechanisms of their own surveillance.10 As Corey Ross noted with regards to the GDR, “the state did not so much rule over society as through it.”11

If we wish to further a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon at hand (rather than pass judgment on the people involved), we would definitely do better to regard the network of agents as a tool of the everyday exercise of power and a medium of communication. There are innumerable ways of studying the acts of agents, from examination of contemporary documents produced about and by the agents to interviews with agents themselves. Naturally, active informants did not reflect in their reports on their endeavors. In general, functionaries of the state security offices assessed and interpreted the work of the people who were members of the network. The interviews gave the former agents a chance to speak about how they remembered their activities, though of course one must keep in mind that whatever statements they made were products of memory acts, retrospective constructions that were to a large extent determined by the circumstances under which they were recollected, the attitude of the person retelling his or her memories at the time, and so on. Furthermore, in this case the gap12 between the narrating subject and the narrated subject in the memoires or autobiographies is inevitably much more emphatic, since the former agent (who is, in other words, no longer an agent) is the person conjuring the figure of the agent from the past.

In this essay I examine recollections that active members of the agent network wrote at the request or order of the state security (auxiliary materials that the operational officers used in training). Among the documents of the secret police of the period of state socialism in Hungary there are four such texts: two reports found in a dossier entitled “A network man’s recollections of his own secret work,” one dated May 27, 1958, the other dated May 28, 1958;13 a text entitled “Dear Friend! The recollections of an agent,” which bears the initials T. M. and was written sometime around 1960;14 and a recollection entitled “How I saw it. Anonymous notes from an abandoned apartment,” written in 1969–70 by an agent who went by the code-name “Koroknai.”15

Us and Them

The texts in question here constitute only one possible world16 of the network of the state security, though this is perhaps their principal merit: they shed light on the functioning of this world from a perspective that one does not find in other documents. They contain the remarks of agents who had been working in the service of the state for a long time and who reflect explicitly on their work as agents. Thus, the narrators provide narratives only they could provide, narratives that are, given the circumstances of the narrators, genuine and are not found, or are found only in an implicit and highly embedded form, in the reports they and other agents submitted. These narratives can offer some understanding of the stresses and demands involved in the execution by the agents of the tasks they were assigned, tasks that were considered simple by the case officers (“tartótiszt”, the state security officers who were responsible for the reports of an informant) who assigned them, whether we are speaking of obtaining a manuscript, coming to a meeting, or authoring a report. In addition to providing insights into the everyday workings of the network and the ways in which agents themselves experienced life as part of this network (i.e. the construction of the aforementioned “possible world”), the recollections also help further our understanding of collaboration with the secret police and in general the dictatorial system. In this article I examine the documents in question primarily from the latter perspective. 17

For T. M., the author of “Dear Friend,” his recruitment must have been a decisive experience, since the description of it comprises almost half of the text of his recollections. This description sheds light on how the “candidate” experienced his apprehension by the authorities, the interrogation (which was like a prelude to his recruitment), and, finally, his recruitment. For some time, he did not actually know what was happening to him, and when he finally did begin to understand what they were asking of him, he was not particularly opposed. Indeed, on the contrary he was eager to bring the whole process to an end. (The fact that he was in a hurry to meet with the ambulance in order to be able to take his sick children to the hospital played a role in this.) Later, however, he recounts the “troubled and unpleasant months” following his recruitment, when for a long time he felt like an “ethical corpse.”

There are signs in the other recollections that initially having accepted the role of denouncer left the agents with a feeling of moral trepidation and they were troubled by doubts concerning the ethics of their work as “snoops.” As one reads in the report of May 28, 1958, “when a beginner starts to work, he is full of inhibitions, fears, and ethical scruples. He thinks that what he is doing in his work is the most scandalous act one could commit. He does not trust his contact, and he ponders how to free himself from the ‘burden’ that ‘weighs him down.’” The most effective means of doing this was “de-conspiring,” i.e. the person who had been enlisted would inform the people around him that he had been enlisted. “There is a decisive moment at the beginning of the position: the first inner impulse of someone who becomes a secret employee is the thought that he can only free himself from ‘ethical slavery’ if everyone discovers his secret—he drives away anyone who is burdened with sin in order to avoid causing him harm. This is a kind of obsession with the protection of one’s integrity, and it is coupled with a compulsion to speak, which the beginner hopes will liberate him from his inhibitions.” The case officer who maintained ties with the author of the report, however, made him understand “that every word spoken, every bit of chatter would destroy me ethically, for no matter where I went to complain, they would cast me out with the greatest disgust.”

As a means of assuaging their ethical anxieties and mollifying their inner fears, the agents could create new identities for themselves, separate from their former selves, a kind of informer “I,” who in their minds would not entirely displace their former, ethical selves. This was made a bit easier by the use of a code-name, which would allow an informer to perform his or her tasks as a member of the network of the security services almost as if in secret from him or herself. From this perspective, the fact that, as of the 1950s, agents were not designated with numbers or letters, but rather with actual code-names was of tremendous significance. We cannot know whether this was one of the purposes of this change, but it unquestionably made it easier for the people involved to accept roles as informers and regard their informing selves as separate identities. We also cannot know whether it was thanks to this psychological strategy or not, but whatever the explanation, in time the agents managed to get over their initial concerns and at least by the time they were recording their recollections the conflict between the person referred to by the code-name and the citizen designated by his or her actual name did not seem to cause any problem. The doubts and ethical concerns they initially had had were distant memories, which they could recall, but which, by the time they were writing them down, clearly no longer bothered them too terribly. Instead, they felt that their “normal” lives came into conflict with the roles they played when they went by their actual names, which they did in the interests of being able to perform tasks as part of the state security services. In other words, the principal problem for the agents was not the activities in which they had engaged as denouncers, but rather the fact that—in order to perform these activities—they had had to appear to be enemies of the system.

The author of the report dated May 28, 1958 complained that he had to show two faces to the world: “One was the face presented to the bosses at the offices, whose complete trust I had to have in order to be able to do my work properly. They regard me as an individual with a progressive spirit. But there is another layer at the establishment whose ‘favor’ I cannot lose, because they will spread the rumor that one must be suspicious of me, because I am a communist who has gone wild. This fraternization, however, must be superficial. I must make them think that because of my position I fear and avoid committing any and all unguarded statements or acts. Then I can count on their well-intentioned sympathies.” This duplicity caused problems in the informers’ private lives as well: “My wife was very perturbed when an enemy element came to the apartment and, right in front of her, alas, what a flavorful reactionary speech I held, how fiery my ‘counter-revolutionary’ mood was! And then, again among colleagues, on another occasion I resembled a good, honest, conscientious worker.” T. M. complained at length to his “dear friend” of how, because of his work as an agent, he again had to become part of a social life that had already dispersed: “I had to learn about the interests of many people and understand the spirit of their thoughts, which at times were obsessive, so that we would be able to converse coherently and in a manner that was interesting to me.” Similarly, “Koroknai” only met, whether regularly or sporadically, with former associates from the Independent Smallholders’ Party and people with whom they shared a similar mentality when it was in the interests of the work he did in the defense of the state. After 1956, the only change that took place was that he was able to represent the politics of the Communist Party openly and was not compelled to dissemble (“I found myself in a political stance in which there was no chance of misunderstanding between my official work and my tasks in the defense of the state,” as he wrote).

Complaints about tedious socializing or having to play the part of an enemy of the system can be also understood as tools with which the people in question freed themselves of moral reservations. The authors of these narratives seem to have striven to distance the target individuals from them: clearly it was much easier for them to perform their tasks if they observed not normal, honest people (as they fancied themselves), but rather the enemy. This stance was necessary if they were not going to regard the work they were performing for the state as snooping or denunciation, in short as betrayal. After all, one can only betray people with whom one shares an allegiance, people with whom one forms an “us,” but as far as the agents were concerned, the people they had observed or informed against were not part of this “us,” but rather were members of a “them.” This attitude was common among agents, as indeed the case of László Borsányi also shows. One of Borsányi’s principal tasks as an agent who later became a successful ethnographer and anthropologist was to keep the participants in the “Indian camps” under observation (it is ironic that later, as a scholar, Borsányi dealt with the culture of North American Indians). Although he himself was a regular participant in the camps, in his reports he does not refer to himself as one of the camp members, but rather recreates himself as a university student of ethnography, thereby creating a kind of textual world (at least) in which he was not betraying his “own.” In his case, the agent and the camp member should not be conflated, while “the position of the agent and the role of the scholar can be reconciled—at least according to the logic of power [at the time]—and indeed the role of Indian, free of contradictions, emerges as the only possible variation to the parallel life of the scholar and the agent.”18

One could reformulate this more explicitly by saying that the authors of the recollections did not regard themselves as snoops or denouncers, but rather as spies. What is the difference? According to Karol Sauerland, the denouncer is someone who passes on information about someone to an institution of power and in doing so may well bring grief to the person on whom he or she informs. The denouncer may act out of personal motives or in response to an assignment. Among the latter one finds those who worked as part of the network employed by the state security (for whom a number of colloquial terms were invented, such as snoop or brick). The reports they submitted, of course, were only cases of “denunciation” if they caused injury or harm to others. In contrast, the spy arrives as an outsider among people who represent the enemy in order to gather information that is important to the people with whom he shares an allegiance. In order to infiltrate this group, he must wear a figural mask. He must pretend to be one of “them,” and this requires considerable preparation and involves significant risk. While the terms denouncer and snoop bear negative connotations, in general the spy is presented and regarded a figure worthy of admiration, even a genuine hero. According to Sauerland, the person who was member of the network of the state security can hardly be considered a spy, for even if he did wear a guise, he did not arrive from the outside, but, on the contrary, moved from the inside towards the outside, and however much he may identify with those who give him his tasks, he will never become a stranger who was accepted from the outside.19 Of course, from the perspective of the agents who were looking back on their careers, this last contention is irrelevant, since the question of how outsiders regarded the work of the people who had been part of the network was not the issue. The question, rather, was how the agents looked back on the work they had performed. It is not hard to understand that they preferred to regard themselves as spies who had been exposed to manifold dangers among the enemy instead of snoops who had skulked around in the wake of their friends and acquaintances in search of secrets.

There are innumerable signs in the recollections indicating which “side” the narrators put themselves on and the perspective from which they interpreted their lives as informers. For instance, in the report of May 27, 1958 one finds the following remark: “I regard the current tasks as good. Accomplishable, the details can also be thoroughly elucidated, because the active enemy stands opposite us.” The author of the report dated May 28 made a list of people who spoke in a striking manner of “denouncers” and “snoops,” noting, “I found that in almost 100 percent of the cases anyone who spoke like this was one of our agents!” T. M. wrote the following to the addressee of his letter: “I trust you to decide how much you make use of it, how much you use in the interests of attaining our common goals.” Elsewhere, he wrote, “I am not a genius, but perhaps I can determine whether someone whom I have known for more than ten years and an essay that I heard and read are useful to us or not.” While in the previous citations, the emphasis is mine, in this case the agent himself felt that it was important to underline the word “nekünk” (to us), thereby drawing emphasis to his perception that he was one of the people who worked in the defense of the state. “Koroknai” referred to the example set by two journalists in order to demonstrate that the motivations for the people who worked as part of the network were at times very different. For one of them, secret collaboration was just a tool, the price he had to pay, as it were, in order to be able to travel abroad and work as a reporter in the West. The other, in contrast, genuinely devoted himself to the defense of the state (and the system in general). The first “works for us,” “Koroknai” wrote, while the second “is our man.”

Thus, the people who worked as part of the network saw themselves as devoted followers of the socialist system who had become close to the communist party independently of their recruitment. This is perhaps the most striking in the case of “Koroknai.” For him, recruitment was only a stage on his path to the Communist Party, a path he had set out on of his own free will. Though he had been one of the local leaders of the Smallholders’ Party, he had approached the secretary of the Hungarian Workers’ Party in Debrecen at his own initiative, informed him that he wanted to work together with the party, and sought his assistance. It was not important to him how or where he would serve. If, for instance, he were asked to work as an informer, in the service of the secret police, then so be it. He did not even go into detail concerning the process of recruitment. His description suggests that it was little more than a simple conversation with the political police, who had asked him whether he wanted to work for them, and he had replied yes. Whether this description is accurate or not we cannot know. We can only be certain that after having worked as member of the network for some ten or twenty years, “Koroknai” and his associates saw themselves, the work they had performed, and the people on whom they had informed according to the outlines sketched above. When we conjure our past, we do so in a manner that ensures that it will be consistent with our knowledge, sentiments, attitudes, etc. at the moment of recollection, and this helps sooth and even extinguish the sense of discomfort (what is referred to as cognitive dissonance) that we may feel because of the conflict or tension between thoughts or ideas we may once have had and thoughts or ideas we have now. In simple terms, we have a tendency, when looking back on the past, to think of ourselves as having always had ideas and views similar to the ideas and views we have at the retrospective moment. This is not necessarily a deliberate form of dishonesty so much as it is a mental effort that helps us interpret our lives as a coherent whole.20

In the texts under discussion, in any case, one finds many indications that existence as an informer helped the narrators deepen and strengthen their commitment to the system. The author of the report dated May 27, 1958 writes expressly of his development in the ten years that he spent working for the state security, in the course of which, “coming from the borderlands of a worldview with a different direction,” he came so close to “the socialist ideology” that he was willing to put the needs of the party before the interests of family. (In 1954, for instance, because of his work as agent he left his family for three months. As he noted, he would not have been willing to do this in 1949.) One does not find the same kind of continuity in T. M.’s narrative, but according to the methodological introduction added as an afterthought, the narrative provided a good “mirror of the thoughts and feelings that arise in someone in the wake of our work. It is also proof of how, in the maintenance of the network, proper guidance can bring the agent—mistakes he has committed notwithstanding—closer politically, and in the end the agent becomes one of the enduring supporters of our people’s democratic system.”

This comment calls our attention to an essential fact, namely that the network was not merely a tool with which information was gathered, it was also a tool with which people were indoctrinated, since the conversion, as it were, in the course of his work as an informer (or even as a consequence of this work) of someone who was regarded as an enemy of the system into someone who supported the system was a significant achievement. According to the internal affairs commands regarding the network, the case officer was supposed to indoctrinate the agent.21 The officer was charged not simply with the tasks of training and guiding the agent, but also with his or her political indoctrination. According to one study written for state security officers in the case of an agent who hailed from enemy circles and against whom compromising or incriminating evidence had been used in order to leave him or her little choice but to enlist, “the ultimate goal was to change their worldview and make them understand and accept Marxist-Leninist ideology.” This of course was the most ambitious goal, but the officer at the very least had to manage to make the informer grasp that “the people’s democracy is the only system and the dictatorship of the proletariat the only just form of social life that ensures the welfare of the majority. One must nurture love of the socialist homeland in him, which is the most elevated and most righteous form of patriotism.”22

Me and Us

As is apparent, for the people who were recalling their lives as agents, the fact that they had had to inform on people was not a source of displeasure. Rather, it was the fact that their bosses had not regarded them as people who were on their side and therefore had not trusted them. The author of the report dated May 27, 1958 was very upset when at a meeting his case officer’s superior said the following about the information he had provided: “This is something. Get information like this, then we’ll be alright. But if you don’t get information like this, then you can lie down at our feet and swear that you are our man, but we won’t believe you.” “Koroknai” also complained a great deal about how for a long time the case officers treated him as an enemy, “like someone who had been accused, though the accusation remained unspoken.” This explains in part why he was also displeased by the warning he was given by the member of the secret police who recruited him: “do not let anyone learn of your conspiring, for it would bring great shame on you if people were to know of our relationship.” The agent envisioned the development of a “principled” relationship, since he regarded himself as someone who stood on the side of the defense of the state, while the officer saw him as an enemy who had been compelled to serve as an informer. Yet, as he put it, “by the time the counter-revolution broke out I looked on the authorities like Endre Ady looked on God: my concern is your concern…”23 He regarded his private life and the work he did in the service of the state security as a unified whole: “The nature of my work so closely resembled the nature of my secret tasks, they intersected at so many points that I was able to understand the whole thing as a single unified progression. I likened myself to streams part of which flows underground, as some subterranean streams do.”

The signs suggest that this was a general problem, and in time the internal affairs leadership noticed this too. According to a 1968 summary on the agent network of the state security services, “in general it can be stated that we do not know well enough the people who are among the first whom we expect to uncover and bring an end to enemy activities. In practice, this means, for instance, that often we entertain doubts in our assessments of the reliability and trustworthiness of the agents who maintain direct relationships with the enemy.”24 We do not know how much the situation changed after this.

The use of terminology by the narrators also clearly indicates that they saw themselves as soldiers who served in defense of the system, since they referred to themselves not as “members of the network” or “agents,” but rather as secret (in some cases external) employee. As of 1972, the term “secret employee” („titkos munkatárs”) served as a designation for one of the categories of people who were active as part of the network, though all of the texts in question here were written well before this, thus clearly the authors were not using the term in this sense. Towards the end of the 1960s, the suggestion was made to use the term secret colleague instead of network member, since the relationship of the agents to the state security services “was decisively founded on patriotic conviction.”25 It is perhaps not coincidental that in 1968 (i.e. at roughly the same time) the state security of the German Democratic Republic also changed the official term that was used for informers from “Geheimer Informator” (secret informer) and “Geheimer Mitarbeiter” (secret colleague) to “Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter,” or unofficial colleague. This change was motivated by the realization that people did not like to identify themselves as denouncers, but they were able to interpret cooperation in the defense of the state and the social order as responsible and respectable work. Also, the term “colleague” implied that the officers and the informers worked together as (almost) equal partners.26 Clearly, the members of the state security services in Hungary also would have like to have thought this.

The narrators of the retrospectives regularly referred to the state security employees designated in the official phraseology as case officers as their (higher) associates, or contacts. Presumably, the operatives did not use the expression case officer in front of the agents, since the term in Hungarian (“tartótiszt” ) would have been associated with keeping animals, and the agents would have found this less than flattering. (One can imagine how unflattering they would have found it had they learned that the officers often used the term “gopher” to refer to them.)27

Essentially, the agents regarded the state security officers as colleagues (T. M. referred to them as colleagues many times in his letter). The only difference between them, according to the agents, was that the officers openly served the state, while the agents did so undercover. This, however, did not mean that the relationship between them was always harmonious. Almost all of the agents complained that the case officers did not obey the basic rules of conspiratorial work. Clearly the agents were more sensitive to this because they were the ones at risk. The principal source of potential danger was the arrangement of meetings, especially if a meeting was held in a public place and not a private apartment. In the case of the latter, if the superior did not arrive in time this could be a source of trouble. “Many times I waited for hours, and it was particularly difficult not to draw attention to myself and watch and wait for the possible arrival of my contact,” writes the author of the report dated May 28, 1958. He added, “I had to take the stairs around our apartments many times before the contact arrived. In particular, before October 23, 1956 almost every apartment was on the fourth or fifth floor.” Reading the agents’ dossiers, one realizes how little one appreciates the trials and tribulations endured by the informers…

In the case of T. M., it is particularly clear that he regarded himself as significantly more important and more intelligent than the people who had engineered his recruitment and his later contacts. (Even the person to whom he addressed his letter was not an exception.) This occasionally gave rise to comic contradictions in his recollections. For instance, before 1953 he had still been angered by the fact that he had to deal with insignificant trivialities, but after 1953 he was angry because the case officers had warned him not to insist on grappling with so many things at once. Before 1953, he was grieved by the fact that he had to write reports on the public mood, whereas in 1956 it bothered him that his superiors did not heed his reports on the general mood. But T. M. was not the only agent who from many perspectives was more Catholic than the pope (or more communist than Lenin, as it were). All of the retrospective narratives contain episodes in which the agents allegedly knew better than their superiors what they should do and how they should do it. In the report dated May 28, 1958, for instance, one finds the following contention: “sometimes, in unusual cases I had to work according to a preplanned method. If something didn’t go according to the plan, my contact was always angry at me. When I told him that if he was going to get so angry when things didn’t go according to plan it would be more expedient to familiarize the enemy with the plan and hold a rehearsal, well, he delivered such a strident philippic that for some time I could hardly stand on my own two feet. And I lost my critical ‘bravery.’”

The agents drew a distinction between themselves and their contacts on the basis of how they had held their ground during the 1956 Revolution, as well. As T. M. wrote when reflecting on how he had seen the man who had recruited him on a bus during the tumultuous days of the uprising, “outside all kinds of kids armed with pistols were taking the law into their own hands, but I still had to be at my post, indeed then more so than ever, but there were no tanks protecting me, nor did I have the sense of security created by knowing you have the possibility of retreat.” In other words, he was superior to the members of the secret police, who fled and left him on his own with no instructions or guidance. As he noted, “after 23 October no one with whom I could have spoken rationally or answered my telephone calls […] in 1952 it was easy to give orders, but in the fall of 1956 at least they should have given some information regarding the circumstances. They didn’t.” The members of the secret police took flight, while he had to stay, the difficult circumstances notwithstanding, to save what could be salvaged. It is quite clear who he was thinking of when he asked the question, “and 1956. Who stood their ground better?”

“Koroknai’s” narrative also reveals that even in the most trying times he continued to submit reports, though for him this represented the community of fate and common stance he shared with the officers. According to his account, though he did not know exactly where they were, he maintained continuous contact with his connections, speaking with them three times a day on the phone. “I also knew that the leaders had fled. I knew that they too were afraid, though we never spoke of this.” In other words, even surrounded by danger, the agents knew their duties and saw to their tasks, which made their leaders look even worse for having fled. The differences between the two narratives notwithstanding, “Koroknai” and T. M.’s accounts of 1956 were based on a similar model: in both narratives, “we” (in the case of “Koroknai,” the secret agents and their contacts, in the case of T. M., only the agents) referred to the people who had stood their ground, and the significance of this act was augmented by the fact that “they” (the leaders of the state security services, or in the case of T. M.’s recollections the officers of the secret police in general) had not braved the dangers, but rather had fled.

The authors of the recollections preferred to perceive the relationship between agent and case officer as something more than a simple official relationship.28 The author of the May 27, 1958 report envisioned the ideal contact as someone who would be like a stern but understanding father, who would insist on the proper execution of the tasks and methodically indoctrinate the agent, but who at the same time who takes an interest in the agent’s family life, for instance. (This father figure soon gave the agent—who was struggling with serious financial problems—a significant amount of money, he was able to get a ticket to the Hungarian-English soccer match, or he took the agent to visit his mother in a car owned by the office.) One finds traces of this in the report of May 28. The case officers were not always just or consistent (in comparison with one another), but they loved their “children,” i.e. the agents who could have learned from them: “One was never on time, the other always nervous, a third was angry because I had gone to the meeting in spite of the fact that I was sick, while another did not accept my illness as an excuse. There was one who urged me to get the person under observation to drink so that I could learn more from him, and another who thought it was disrespectful of me if I was tipsy after having completed a task. I was also disparaged for going to the bathroom on the occasion of a meeting. Nonetheless, I learned a great deal from each contact, and I sense that they were fond of me. I also think back on all of them with a warm heart ” (my emphasis).

“Koroknai” sensed the solicitude behind the scolding: “looking back on the criticisms [made by the contacts], I think that I badly needed them, especially because neither the people around me nor my superiors have regularly shown value for my work or my conduct.” In other words, it was important to him to have someone pay attention to what he was doing, and the assessments helped him become a better person. However, he preferred to see the case officer not as a father-figure, but as a friend. On one occasion he wrote the following: “a long time ago, sixteen years ago, a political officer came looking for me in my apartment. I was not at home. When I returned home, my wife used the following phrasing to ensure that our little boy would not understand: a friend of yours was here. At the time, this was a code-word. Over the course of the years it acquired meaning and no longer had to be used in quotations marks.”

On the basis of his narrative, in order for this to happen it was necessary for the state security officers to become uncertain as a consequence of 1953, the dissolution of the independent secret police, and the political changes that took place following Stalin’s death. The agent could only sense that the contacts were no longer working according to prefabricated schemes, but rather were brooding, which altered the nature of the meetings as well. No longer did they resemble interrogations in which the agent had to provide an official account, rather they were more as if “two people were conversing in a room.” This changed the agent’s relationship to the case officer: “I felt as if I were working not only in the service of a political view, but was also personally helping the people who maintained a relationship with me in their work. And I used all my abilities to help them. I remember, once I had a contact who was old and too slow in the head to understand what was going on around us at the time. I have never been as attentive in preparing my reports as I was with him. I wanted him to be able to hold his ground as well as he possibly could in front of his superiors. I think of him with respect and fondness to this day.” T. M. had similar sentiments. At the beginning of his letter he makes the following impassioned complaint: “During those ten years—oh, how many times did I speak about this to deaf ears—I missed friendship more than anything else. I worked together with antipathetic colleagues, indifferent colleagues, and congenial colleagues, but I was always missing a friend.” This is why he was so joyful and satisfied to be able to refer to his contact at the time, the addressee of his letter, as his friend.

This all draws attention to one very important factor. It is quite clear that the authors of the retrospective narratives did not regard themselves merely as parts of a network, but rather considered themselves colleagues—external, working in secret—of the state security services. However, apart from the declarations they made when they were recruited (the legal weight of which was debatable), the only thing that tied them to the machinery of the state security (which for them was obscure and vague in its outlines) was the case officer. The relationship between them and their case officers decisively shaped the attitude of the informer towards his work and his commitment to the system. One notices a similar phenomenon in the case of the unofficial collaborators with the Stasi. As far as they were concerned, the contact officer essentially embodied the institution, indeed to such a degree that they referred to their contact officers as “my Stasi.”29 This suggests that collaboration should not be understood as some abstract relationship between an individual and “the” power. This relationship had a personal side as well: from the perspectives of the collaborators, cooperating with the system or an institution of the system meant working together with someone, i.e. with another person.

One of the episodes recounted in “Koroknai’s” recollections shows that from the perspective of collaboration with the Soviet occupation forces and the communists the importance of personal relationships extended beyond the network of agents. As the editor of the journal Debreczen, a periodical of the Smallholders’ Party, he came into official contact with an employee of the Soviet embassy (which had its headquarters in Debrecen, which served as the temporary capital of the country) who worked as a censor. (Presumably this was Bela Ianovich Grygoriev, i.e. Béla Geiger, who had moved to the Soviet Union with his parents as an emigrant. This seems likely given that, according to the description, the conversation between them was held in Hungarian, without an interpreter.) In time, their relationship became personal and even amicable. In the course of their talks, “Koroknai” came to know a man who was cultured, wise, and always unperturbed, and he claimed that it was because of this acquaintance that as a politician and newspaper writer of the Smallholders’ Party he never made an anti-Soviet speech and never wrote an anti-Soviet article. He portrays the Soviet censor as a man of unimpeachable integrity, who he also later was able to regard as a stable point, drawing strength from his example, which strengthened his commitment to the system.

Me and Them

The recollections of the agents share many affinities, perhaps the most significant of which are the authors’ perceptions of their relationships to the state security and their attitudes towards the work they performed as agents. These similar perceptions stem fundamentally from the fact that the agents in question found themselves essentially in the same situation at the moment when they were writing their recollections. Each of them had performed tasks as part of a secret network for years, presumably to the satisfaction of their superiors, as is indicated by the fact that they were asked to write about the experiences they had gained in the course of their work. This similarity in the circumstances in which they found themselves when looking back on their careers led them to adopt similar perspectives in their recollections and offer similar portrayals of the state security network. It is not clear, however, whether or not the stances that emerge in these writings can be considered average, typical, or prevalent. Of course, this can perhaps never be determined with any degree of precision. In my view, however, the value of these recollections lies not in their statistical relevance. They are interesting and valuable as texts, thus the “scope” of the conclusions one can draw on the basis of them could perhaps best be determined by comparing them with the recollections written at the same time (in the Kádár era) by agents who found themselves in different positions. No such “control group” exists, however, as it is difficult to imagine that the authorities would have had someone write down his experiences who only reluctantly had agreed to serve as an informer, had quickly shunned the work because of moral scruples or for some other reason, or for whatever cause had proven useless as an agent. In the end, one cannot entirely exclude the possibility that the experiences of a reluctant or ineffective agent would have been useful to the state security services, but it seems unlikely that someone who was not eager to cultivate the best relationship with the political police would have accepted this task. Whatever the case, however useful they would be as additional methodological sources, to my knowledge no other recollections of former agents similar to those discussed above survived.

The situation, however, is not entirely hopeless. The narratives can be compared with a text that was written under the injunction of the political police, if perhaps under entirely different circumstances. The document in question is a confession written on March 22, 1957 by J. P., a man who was put on trial after 1956.30 Proceedings were brought against the man primarily because of acts he had committed in the course of the events of the uprising, but he was also accused of having revealed his ties to the state security to others. The circumstances under which the document was written demonstrate that at the moment of composition J. P. was in an entirely different relationship with the organs of state security than the other four agents. He was not a respected agent who was considered useful, but rather a suspect accused of treason. (Given the nature of the text, it was not anonymous, but I will not include the name of the author here, since it would not contribute in any meaningful way to its significance in this context.)

The story begins with a description of his recruitment. In this description, the soon-to-be agent plays no role whatsoever as initiator. On the basis of the account, he agreed to cooperate only under pressure from the officers of the secret police: “I was very afraid […] that my family ties could cause me grief. So in order to prove that I thought differently, I agreed to follow their instructions.” (The principal goal of recruiting J. P. was to establish contact with his cousin, who had been sentenced to eight years in prison for having participated in underground organizational efforts in 1952, but who had escaped from a coal mine, where he had been serving time, in June 1955 and fled to the West. The agent was supposed to lure his cousin back to Hungary.)

In spite of the fact that the documents were written under very different circumstances, the confession bears many similarities to the recollections of the less reluctant agents. After having been recruited, J. P. was also troubled by moral misgivings for having accepted the role of an denouncer. His contacts attempted to dispel these anxieties by insisting that he was not serving as an denouncer, but rather was only providing characterizations. It is not clear, on the basis of the text, whether this explanation provided him with any solace or not. It is revealing, however, that he almost compulsively emphasized that by submitting “characterizations,” he did not wish to malign anyone. He strove to say good things about the people he was asked to inform on. But he also emphasized that he did not intend to mislead the secret police either. His remarks suggest uncertainty, which stems from the fact that he sought to meet a variety of divergent expectations at once, but he did not know how to present himself in the best colors to the people to whom his confession was addressed. This tension is palpable in his relationship to the primary target, his cousin who had escaped to the West. On the one hand, he was not willing to attempt to persuade his cousin to return to Hungary and thereby betray him, while on the other he held his cousin responsible for the position in which he found himself.

J. P. also emphasized that he established and maintained relationships with the people he kept under observation only because he had been ordered to do so by the secret police. He was noticeably pleased if his superiors praised him or expressed satisfaction with his work, and he was also bothered when the case officers did not follow the most basic rules of conspiratorial work. Clearly as an agent, he did not know specifically what these rules were, but a bit of commonsense was enough for him to realize that if he received telephone calls from the police station and the meetings were being held at his place of work, those around him might well realize that he was in the service of the state security. As he said in connection with the letter that he was supposed to send to his cousin (which was dictated to him by one of the officers), such steps were not productive, since the addressee would be suspicious. And indeed he was probably correct, his cousin probably was suspicious, for he never replied to the letter and never wrote to J. P. again.

In J. P.’s account, 1956 understandably could not be portrayed as a period of committed moral integrity in the face of armed opposition (as it had been described by T. M.), if for no other reason than simply because he had been arrested specifically for the acts he had committed during the revolution, but also because it was at this time that what the agent had feared the most had come to pass: more and more people had informed him that they knew about his ties to the state security. From a certain perspective, however, his situation nonetheless bore affinities with the situation of the other four agents. First, even after the revolution had broken out, he continued to “work,” though in his case this meant little more than routine execution of his responsibilities for a time (on October 24 he discussed a letter that he was supposed to send with his case officer). Second, and this is considerably more significant, he had a chance to experience abandonment: the county secret police fled the country and left him behind. Thus, he had to face the emerging threats and the possibility of being exposed on his own. His solution to the situation was to expose himself as someone who had worked for the secret police and try to win the goodwill of the revolutionaries.

J. P. did not use the expressions agent or case officer either, though he also did not refer to himself as a colleague of the officers, nor did he call the officers contacts. The position in which he found himself at the time of retrospection did not make it possible for him to regard the officers of the state security services as colleagues. In my view, this was not because in the eyes of his “colleagues” (or more precisely their colleagues) he was a man suspected of having committed counter-revolutionary acts. According to all signs, he did not even see a link between the state security that had been dissolved in 1956 and the people who were interrogating him, for even after his arrest, he was convinced that he had been detained because he had worked for the discredited secret police. The explanation, in my view, lies rather in the fact that J. P. conjured his memories under circumstances and at a time that did not make it possible for him to make his agent self an integral part of his identity. He could not proudly admit to having worked in the service of the state security, nor could he interpret the deeds he had committed as acts of spying on the enemy. Unlike the other four agents, the circumstances did not enable him to regard himself as anything other than a denouncer. While for the other four narrators the tension between their dual roles did not lead to a split in their psychological lives (at least not a lasting split), for J. P., who found himself in far less auspicious circumstances, his work as an agent clearly caused serious inner crisis and suffering.


The retrospective narratives under discussion here offer illuminating illustrations of the fact that the state security network was the shared product of “power” and “society”: in its organization, the secret police took the initiative, but in order for it to come into being they needed the cooperation of members of the citizenry who had been selected as candidates for recruitment. Research on ideological dictatorships has shown that among the motivations of these informers one finds notions of patriotism or ideological commitment, but most of the people involved were influenced by personal interest.31 The informers and their superiors thus used one another, and also depended on one another. From the perspective of power, this meant that the informers contributed to the maintenance and functioning of the system and also that the need for the information they provided made the system dependent to some extent on them. This realization may have played a role, for instance, in the fact that—unlike the Gestapo—the Stasi strove to rely on the organized network of informers.32 The institutionalization of informing, however, did not mean that personal, material or other considerations were not among the motivations of the unofficial coworkers of the East German secret police.33

The texts under discussion here paint a picture according to which the authors accepted the role of informer out of loyalty to the system and commitment to ideology. (Clearly, the authors did not consider it tactful to mention personal motives in narratives intended for their superiors.) This is the most apparent in “Koroknai’s” recollections. He had already offered his services to the Communist Party when he was recruited. However, this gesture could suggest another kind of motive. Perhaps as he bore witness to the creation of the one-party system, the Smallholder politician realized that if he wanted to remain politically active he would have to find new opportunities and new spaces for action. The dictatorship offered him the role of informer, and he accepted it. His case suggests that, for the people who were part of it, the network of informers could serve as a tool for political participation in regimes in which there were few other such opportunities.34 (In the Soviet Union under Stalin, for instance, letters in which people were denounced served as a tool with which control was exercised, nominally at least by common members of the citizenry, over people in power, a practice the roots of which went back to the time of the czars.)35

In my view, we may be better able to break from the moralizing narrative mode if we regard the acts of agents or “denouncers” as “a kind of citizen activity in their own right, one of the few powerful forms of agency available to them.”36 Thus the network used by the state security services can be regarded as one of the tools of dialogue between power and society, of course a tool that power offered certain members of society, who either rejected this “opportunity” or made use of it, out of fear, compulsion, possible advantages in the future, etc. Whatever the case, we can examine the work performed by the informers as a social practice, as one of the forms of collaboration with the dictatorship (using the term collaborator to refer not only to people who cooperated with the forces of Soviet occupation, but more generally with the dictatorial system). Indeed, we can study it as an unusual form of collaboration, in part because an agent could be regarded as a collaborator in a legal sense, since his or her recruitment was an act of (admittedly precarious) legal weight, and in part because, given the essential nature of this form of collaboration, it had to remain a secret and thus obliged the agent to lead a double-life, at least for a time. Of course, this approach does not entirely exclude the possibility of passing ethical judgment, but it creates an appropriate foundation for a nuanced study of the state security network of the Bolshevik dictatorships.37

Nonetheless—and this is essential—the agents never referred to or thought of themselves as collaborators. They did not contextualize the services they had provided in the complex relationship between power and society. Indeed, they draw no such clear distinction between the two in their narratives. They characterize their work and in general the work of the secret police as having been entirely in harmony with the society around them, or at least the society of honest workers, and something that was done in the interests of this society. In addition, they regarded the circles of the employees of the state security, whether people who worked openly for the state (the officers) or people who worked in secret (the agents), and the work they performed as a unified whole. One could say that they effaced entirely the border between “power” and “society,” and in doing so also effaced the border between officer and agent.

With the exception of the numerically small group of people who actively opposed the regime, everyone was compelled to cooperate with the communist system to some extent or to flee the country. Everyday life was shaped by various ways of relating to the regime. Perhaps, instead of speaking of collaboration, which implies a sharp dichotomy, it would be more productive to speak of various (and possibly diverging) degrees and forms of cooperation with the system.

Archival Sources

Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára [Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security], Budapest.

ÁBTL 1.5. 2-3/6/1955. A belügyminiszter 6. sz. parancsa az államvédelmi szervek ügynöki munkájának alapelvei című instrukció kiadásáról, 1955. február 9. [Order number 6 of the Minister of Internal Affairs on the issuing of the instructions entitled Basic Principles of the Agent Work of the Organs of State Security. February 9, 1955].

ÁBTL 1.5. 2-10/94/1956. A belügyminiszter 94. sz. parancsa az államvédelmi szervek ügynöki munkájának alapelvei című okmány kiadásáról, 1956. október 8. [Order number 94 of the Minister of Internal Affairs on the issuing of the certificate entitled Basic Principles of the Agent Work of the Organs of State Security. October 8, 1956].

ÁBTL 1.11.10. A Belügyminisztérium III. Főcsoportfőnöksége ügynöki hálózata, a hálózati munka fejlődése és feladatai, 1968. december 11. (II. sorozat, 60. doboz.) [The agent network of the III. Chief Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the development of the network and its tasks, December 11, 1968 (Series II, box 60)].

ÁBTL 1.11.10. Jelentés. A BM állambiztonsági szervek hálózata, a hálózati munka feladatai, 1968. július 12. (II. sorozat, 60. doboz.) [The network of the organs of state security of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the tasks of the network, July 12, 1968. (Series II, box 60)].

ÁBTL 3.1.9. V-145842. 33–37. P. J. önvallomása, 1957. március 22. [Confession of J. P., March 22, 1957].

ÁBTL 4.1. A-2103. Így láttam. Névtelen jegyzetek egy elhagyott lakásból. 1970. [How I saw it. Anonymous notes from an abandoned apartment. 1970].

ÁBTL 4.1. A-3087. Muzslai József and Szélpál Ottó: Az ügynökség vezetésének és nevelésének alapelvei és módszerei. Budapest: BM Tanulmányi és Módszertani Osztály, 1957. [Fundamental principles and methods of the leadership and indoctrination of the agency. Budapest: Research and Methodological Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 1957].

ÁBTL 4.1. A-3253. Hálózati személy visszaemlékezése saját titkos munkájára. Jelentés, 1958. május 27., Jelentés, 1958. május 28. [A network man’s recollections of his own secret work, May 27, 1958. Report, May 28, 1958].

ÁBTL 4.1. A-3783. Kedves Barátom! Egy ügynök visszaemlékezései. Segédanyag a Politikai Nyomozó Tanszék részére. [Budapest:] BM Tanulmányi és Módszertani Osztály, é. n. [Dear Friend! The recollections of an agent. Auxiliary material for the Department of Political Inquiry. [Budapest:] Research and Methodological Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, n.d.].

ÁBTL 4.2. 10-21/33/1958. A belügyminiszter 33. sz. parancsa az államvédelmi szervek ügynöki munkájának alapelvei című okmány kiadásáról, 1958. december 5. [Order number 33 of the Minister of Internal Affairs on the issuing of the certificate entitled Basic Principles of the Agent Work of the Organs of State Security, December 5, 1958].

ÁBTL 4.2. 10-21/5/1972. A belügyminiszter 005. sz. parancsa az állambiztonsági szervek hálózati munkájának alapelveit tartalmazó szabályzat kiadásáról, 1972. április 5. [Order number 005 of the Minister of Internal Affairs on the issuing of the regulations containing the basic principles of the Agent Work of the Organs of State Security, April 5, 1972].


Ady Endre összes versei [The Complete Poems of Endre Ady]. Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1967.

Berkovits, Balázs. “Erkölcstelen besúgók, tehetséges áldozatok, áldozatos erkölcsbírók” [Immoral Denouncers, Talented Victims, Self-sacrificing Moralists]. anBlokk 3 (2009): 6–14.

Betts, Paul. Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Bruner, Jerome. Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge–London: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Childs, David, and Richard Popplewell. The Stasi: The East German Intelligence and Security Service. Basingstoke–London: Macmillan, 1996.

Confino, Alon. “The Travels of Bettina Humpel: One Stasi File and Narratives of State and Self in East Germany.” In Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics, edited by Katherine Pence and Paul Betts, 133–54. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Dobos, István. Autobiographical Reading. Spectrum Hungarologicum. Vol. 3. Jyväskylä–Pécs: University of Jyväskylä, 2010.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “Signals from Below: Soviet Letters of Denunciation of the 1930s.” The Journal of Modern History 68 (1996): 831–66.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila, and Gellately, Robert. “Introduction to the Practices of Denunciation in Modern European History.” The Journal of Modern History, 68 (1996): 747–67.

Gellately, Robert. “Denunciation in Twentieth-Century Germany: Aspects of Self-Policing in the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic.” The Journal of Modern History, 68 (1996): 931–67.

Gellately, Robert. “Denunciation as a Subject of Historical Research.” Historical Social Research, 26, no. 2 (2001): 16–29.

Gieseke, Jens. “Staatssicherheit und Gesellschaft – Plädoyer für einen Brückenschlag.” [State Security and Society – Arguments in Support of the Necessity of a Simultaneous Study] In Staatssicherheit und Gesellschaft Studien zum Herrschaftsalltag in der DDR [State Security and Social Studies to Everyday Oppression in the GDR], edited by Jens Gieseke, 7–22. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011.

Gieseke, Jens. The History of the Stasi: East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945–1990. Translated by David Burnett. New York–Oxford: Berghahn, 2014.

Gyáni, Gábor. “Kollaboráció és a hatalom titka” [Collaboration and the Secret of Power]. In Az ügynök arcai. Mindennapi kollaboráció és ügynökkérdés [The Faces of the Agent. Everyday Collaboration and the Agent Question], edited by Sándor Horváth, 41–52. Budapest: Libri, 2014.

Horváth, Sándor. “‘Apa nem volt komcsi’ – a mindennapi kollaboráció és az ügynökkérdés határai” [“Dad was not a Communist.” Borders of Everyday Collaboration and the Agent Question]. In Az ügynök arcai. Mindennapi kollaboráció és ügynökkérdés [The Faces of the Agent. Everyday Collaboration and the Agent Question], edited by Sándor Horváth, 7–37. Budapest: Libri, 2014.

Horváth, Kata. “A Borsányi név. A politikai és a tudományos megfigyelés határai” [The Name Borsányi. Borders of Political and Scholarly Surveillance]. anBlokk 3 (2009): 30–38.

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Sauerland, Karol. Harminc ezüst. Besúgások és árulások [Thirty Pieces of Silver. Denunciations and Betrayals]. Translated by Péter Várnai. Budapest: Helikon, 2001.

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Takács, Tibor. Besúgók a besúgásról. Ügynök-visszaemlékezések a Kádár-korszakból [Denouncers on Denouncing. Recollections of Agents from the Kádár Era]. Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2013.

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1 This article was written with the support of program number K-104408 of the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (OTKA).

2 Balázs Berkovits, “Erkölcstelen besúgók, tehetséges áldozatok, áldozatos erkölcsbírók”, anBlokk 3. (2009): 13.

3 Cf. Sheila Fitzpatrick and Robert Gellately, “Introduction to the Practices of Denunciation in Modern European History,” The Journal of Modern History, 68 (1996): 765–66.

4 Gábor Gyáni, “Kollaboráció és a hatalom titka,” in Az ügynök arcai. Mindennapi kollaboráció és ügynökkérdés, ed. Sándor Horváth (Budapest: Libri, 2014), 43–44.

5 Richard T. Vann, “Historians and Moral Evaluations,” History and Theory, Theme Issue 43 (2004): 3–30.

6 This is by no means true exclusively for conditions in Hungary. Jens Gieseke, „Staatssicherheit und Gesellschaft – Plädoyer für einen Brückenschlag,” in Staatssicherheit und Gesellschaft Studien zum Herrschaftsalltag in der DDR, ed. idem (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 7–22.

7 Fitzpatrick and Gellately, “Introduction”, 759–63.

8 Robert Gellately, “Denunciation in Twentieth-Century Germany: Aspects of Self-Policing in the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic,” The Journal of Modern History, 68 (1996): 931–33, 966–67.

9 Paul Betts, Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 23, 49.

10 Robert Gellately, “Denunciation as a Subject of Historical Research,” Historical Social Research 26, no. 2 (2001): 20.

11 Corey Ross, The East German Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of the GDR (London: Arnold, 2012), 63.

12 István Dobos, Autobiographical Reading. Spectrum Hungarologicum, vol. 3 (Jyväskylä–Pécs: University of Jyväskylä, 2010), 9.

13 Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára (hereafter: ÁBTL) 4.1. A-3253.

14 ÁBTL 4.1. A-3783.

15 ÁBTL 4.1. A-2103.

16 Jerome Bruner, Actual minds, possible worlds (Cambridge–London: Harvard University Press, 1986).

17 I have analyzed these texts in greater detail elsewhere: Tibor Takács, Besúgók a besúgásról. Ügynök-visszaemlékezések a Kádár-korszakból (Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2013).

18 Kata Horváth, “A Borsányi név. A politikai és a tudományos megfigyelés határai,” anBlokk 3 (2009): 37.

19 Karol Sauerland, Harminc ezüst: Besúgások és árulások, trans. Péter Várnai (Budapest: Helikon, 2001), 249–58.

20 Daniel L. Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Boston–New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 138–49.

21 ÁBTL 1.11.5. 2-3/6/1955. A belügyminiszter 6. sz. parancsa az államvédelmi szervek ügynöki munkájának alapelvei című instrukció kiadásáról, February 9, 1955; ÁBTL 1.5. 2-10/94/1956. A belügyminiszter 94. sz. parancsa az államvédelmi szervek ügynöki munkájának alapelvei című okmány kiadásáról, October 8, 1956; ÁBTL 4.2. 10-21/33/1958. A belügyminiszter 33. sz. parancsa az államvédelmi szervek ügynöki munkájának alapelvei című okmány kiadásáról, December 5, 1958; ÁBTL 4.2. 10-21/5/1972. A belügyminiszter 005. sz. parancsa az állambiztonsági szervek hálózati munkájának alapelveit tartalmazó szabályzat kiadásáról, April 5, 1972.

22 ÁBTL 4.1. A-3087. József Muzslai and Ottó Szélpál, Az ügynökség vezetésének és nevelésének alapelvei és módszerei (Budapest: BM Tanulmányi és Módszertani Osztály, 1957), 37.

23 The citation is from the last stanza of a poem by twentieth-century Hungarian poet Endre Ady entitled A kimérák Istenéhez, or “To the God of Chimeras”: “My concern is your conern / For if you do not keep your faithful / no one will believe in you in time: / God, Secret, draw your sword!” Ady Endre összes versei (Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1967), 375.

24 ÁBTL 1.11.10. A Belügyminisztérium III. Főcsoportfőnöksége ügynöki hálózata, a hálózati munka fejlődése és feladatai, December 11, 1968 (II. sorozat, 60. doboz).

25 ÁBTL 1.11.10. Jelentés. A BM állambiztonsági szervek hálózata, a hálózati munka feladatai, July 12, 1968 (II. sorozat, 60. doboz).

26 David Childs and Richard Popplewell, The Stasi: The East German Intelligence and Security Service, (Basingstoke–London: Macmillan, 1996), 83. Jens Gieseke, The History of the Stasi: East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945–1990 (New York–Oxford: Berghahn, 2014), 79–80.

27 ÁBTL 1.11.10. Jelentés. A BM állambiztonsági szervek hálózata, a hálózati munka feladatai, July 12, 1968 (II. sorozat, 60. doboz).

28 This was true of the informers for the Stasi as well: Betts, Within Walls, 46–47.

29 Barbara Miller, Narratives of Guilt and Compliance in Unified Germany: Stasi Informers and their Impact on Society (London–New York: Routledge, 1999), 64.

30 ÁBTL 3.1.9. V-145842. 33–37. P. J. önvallomása, March 22, 1957.

31 Fitzpatrick and Gellately, “Introduction”, 751; Gellately, “Denunciation as a Subject,” 23–24.

32 Idem, “Denunciation in Twentieth-Century Germany,” 956–59; Betts, Within Walls, 44–45.

33 Alon Confino demonstrates this in an excellent case study: “The Travels of Bettina Humpel: One Stasi File and Narratives of State and Self in East Germany,” in Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics, ed. Katherine Pence and Paul Betts (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008), 133–54. Also see Betts, Within Walls, 46–47.

34 Fitzpatrick and Gellately, “Introduction”, 752; Gellately, “Denunciation as a Subject,” 25.

35 Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Signals from Below: Soviet Letters of Denunciation of the 1930s,” The Journal of Modern History 68 (1996): 845–49; Vladimir A. Kozlov, “Denunciation and Its Functions in Soviet Governance: A Study of Denunciations and Their Bureaucratic Handling from Soviet Police Archives, 1944–1953,” The Journal of Modern History 68 (1996): 867–98.

36 Betts, Within Walls, 49.

37 See Sándor Horváth, “»Apa nem volt komcsi« – a mindennapi kollaboráció és az ügynökkérdés határai”, in Az ügynök arcai. Mindennapi kollaboráció és ügynökkérdés, ed. Sándor Horváth (Budapest: Libri, 2014), 7–37.