Péter Bokor was a producer and director of documentaries who played a crucial role in reshaping popular knowledge on Hungarian history under the Kádár regime and after the regime change in 1989. He grew up in Kaposvár in an intellectual-merchant family. His father worked as a pharmacist. World War II had a lasting impact on how he perceived Hungarian history and its impact on his life. He was the only survivor of his family, which had Jewish origins. His mother was deported and never returned, and his brother died as a member of the forced labour service when the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in fighting along bank of the Don River. Bokor hid using fake identity papers during the German occupation of Hungary, when a puppet government under the Arrow Cross Party was set up. At the end of 1944, Bokor was captured and taken to a camp on the western border of Hungary. Here, he and the other captives were held in open buildings without any comforts. They were likely either to freeze to death or be deported to a concentration camp. With the help of an elderly captive, he escaped. On the run, he was almost caught in a raid, but prompted by a sudden idea, he pretended to be a German Hungarian and joined the SS. He was given armoured car-training by a Waffen-SS corps, and was deployed to the area next to Berlin, but he escaped from the battlefield. He suffered a serious injury to his foot, however, and he was taken captive by the British. In captivity, he explained his real identity. The end of the war found him in a British field hospital in Schwerin in northern Germany.
He joined the illegal communist party during the war and, naturally, he sympathized with them after his homecoming in 1946. Thanks to his party connections and excellent knowledge of German (which he had acquired in the SS), he was employed as an export correspondence clerk at the communist film agency, Mafirt. In 1947, he was transferred to the department of dramaturgy, a position which he enjoyed much more and where he decided to commit himself to the film industry for his entire life. Until 1958, he worked at various film companies, including one of the largest, Pannónia Film Studio. Over the course of this decade, however, his relationship with the Party was troubled. In the 2000s, in a TV-interview he recalled that his loyalty was shaken as he saw the Party building a dictatorship. The distrust was mutual: his alienation was accelerated by his exclusion from the Party. According to the official explanation, he was guilty of having put on the uniform of the enemy. Bokor was readmitted to the Party later, but as he remembered, he could neither forgive nor forget this unfair procedure, and his disappointment proved to be a lasting experience.
The life and career of Péter Bokor and the history of the Hungarian television were closely interwoven. The Hungarian State Television was launched in 1957. Its operation was strictly supervised by the party, but cultural politics changed in the 1960s, and political pressure eased. Bokor’s career in television began in 1961, and his first independent feature-length documentary film came out that year. The documentary Halálkanyar (Death Bend) is about the decimation of the Second Hungarian Army at the Don River by the Soviets in 1943. This was an issue which could hardly be dealt with objectively in the Hungarian media on the rare occasions when it was even addressed. The documentary was seen by an outstandingly high number of viewers: one million in one single year. In the film, Bokor used archival footage shot on the Eastern front. He was the first person in the history of Hungarian film to do this.
In 1966, the Hungarian television had 900,000 subscribers. By 1972, this number had increased to two million. It became evident to party leaders that popular documentaries could be an efficient means of propaganda. As a result, historical documentaries were given state support and also almost 10 percent of the entire program time. The Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party supervised the work, and as was true in the case of journals and the printed media, the chief editor had to take political responsibility for the content. In 1961, Bokor made his debut in the genre which eventually became associated with him: he wrote and directed his first documentary series. Panoptikum (Wax Museum) consisted of eight parts. It was about important political figures of the interwar period in Hungary. Bokor used archival materials as sources and interviews he himself had done. This was the first series in which politicians of the Horthy era and Horthy’s close associates were given voice. Unfortunately, the original interviews done by Bokor did not survive.
His most famous series, Századunk (Our Century), launched was started in 1965 with the support of György Ránki, the deputy director of the Institute of History at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The series covered the history of twentieth-century Hungary, and it was a prime time program on Hungarian TV. By 1988, fifty episodes had been completed, and almost half of them were about one single year: from the German invasion of Hungary on 19 March 1944 to the Soviet “liberation,” as it was called in the Kádár era. Bokor faced challenges during the production of the series, and production was stopped between 1971 and 1976. This was a period when politicians seeking a Stalinist restoration found a foothold, and conflicts between the creators and the management of the Hungarian Television escalated. According to Gergely Oláh-Bakody, who relies on the interviews he did with the producers of the series, chairman of the Hungarian State Television István Tömpe did not approve of the scripts of the episodes and financially undermined the production of the series.
In the years when no new episodes of Századunk were allowed to be produced, Bokor led the Híradó és Dokumentumfilm Stúdió (News and Documentary Film Studio) for a year from 1972, and from 1972 to 1986 he was employed as a film director at Mafilm (Hungarian Film Studio). In 1974, when Richárd Nagy took over the presidium of the Hungarian Television, negotiations were started to relaunch Századunk. Bokor was able to continue his work, but he could not entirely avoid censorship. Even as late as 1988, he was required by the head of the Television, György Vajda, to revise certain episodes. For instance, Miklós Horthy, the former regent of Hungary, was portrayed in too favourable a light in Vajda’s judgement. Bokor’s main supporter, the historian Ránki, was abroad at the time and could not intervene on Bokor’s side.
In addition to the political conditions and the quality of the technical equipment, two further conditions profoundly affected Bokor’s activity as a documentary filmmaker. First, Bokor’s documentaries profited from the changes in historical studies which were underway from the 1960s on. György Ránki, Gyula Juhász, and other historians developed new approaches and employed new methodologies reflective of scholarship in the West. They navigated the historiography on the recent past, from rigidly ideological interpretations to historical accounts which were based on critical reviews of a wide variety of sources, without preselecting these sources on an ideological basis. Bokor aspired to employ this kind of approach in the documentaries he produced, and he wanted to mediate the most recent findings of the discipline to the wider public. Bokor based his work on careful research, and he featured “talking heads” when telling the story of a historical event. Bokor compiled eyewitness accounts and archive film recordings with an excellent sense, which he had acquired when he had been working as a dramaturg. In addition to the statements made by eyewitnesses, the episodes included something that was innovative in Hungary at the time: certain historical scenes were staged, and actors and actresses played the characters. All these elements were bonded by narrative reflecting the most recent findings of Hungarian historiography at the time.
Another process which profoundly affected Bokor was the acrid dispute concerning historical feature films, which began in the mid-1960s. History feature films emerged as a popular genre in the film industry at the time, with significant productions like Hideg Napok (“Cold Days”) by András Kovács, Tízezer Nap (“Ten Thousand Days”) by Ferenc Kósa, and Miklós Jancsó’s historical parables. These films triggered discussions on how to narrate events of the recent past in film, and an interest in personal storytelling emerged. According to historian Réka Sárközy, the new documentaries emerging in the 1960s could be understood as products of this intellectual milieu, and they facilitated personal engagement with a traumatic and suppressed recent past (like the events of 1944 and the deportations, the events of the Rákosi era, and 1956).
It was Bokor who introduced the method of oral history in television shows. He recorded the life stories of well-known historical figures, but he also allowed other witnesses, who were not the main actors but had had a direct experience of the events, to speak. He was working primarily in Hungary, but also in émigré circles abroad, and he did interviews with some former Nazi officers in German. By getting access to witness accounts, Bokor could often provide more nuanced histories in his documentaries than the official history writing of the time.
Bokor was well aware that doing interviews with people who were considered enemies of the regime was not a safe practice, so he looked for supporters in the party apparatus. According to his reminiscence, his work was supported by the Administration Department of the party headquarters, a section which supervised the armed forces. Bokor was allowed to do these historical interviews, but he was not allowed to screen them. In addition, the political leadership prohibited him from interviewing four specific people: former prominent Communist politicians Ernő Gerő and Pál Demény, army officer and protagonist of the 1956 revolution Béla Király, and the widow of László Rajk, who had been the main victim of the famous 1951 political trial. Bokor did not abide by these rules. Although he did not attempt to talk with Gerő, he personally knew Júlia Rajk (Lászlo Rajk’s widow), and he did (and recorded) an interview with her in secret. During his trip to the United States, Bokor also set up a talk with Béla Király, who lived in exile. Even as late as 1989 the chairman of the Hungarian television did not permit this film to be screened.
Many important historical figures were interviewed for the first time by Bokor. These people included Alfred Trenker, commandant of the Gestapo in Budapest, Wilhelm Höttl, the head of the SS in Hungary, Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments in the Third Reich, and Franz Novak, member of the Eichmann-Kommando. The quest to find prominent figures of Nazi Germany was time consuming, and it demanded persistent research. Bokor also managed to meet with Edmund Veesenmayer, plenipotentiary of the Third Reich in Hungary and one of the main perpetrators of the Holocaust in Hungary. According to Bokor, during a preliminary meeting, Veesenmayer agreed to a recorded interview, but he died before the unique film could actually be made.In 1985, Bokor and Gábor Hanák founded the video collection of the National Széchényi Library. The Collection of Historical Interviews includes more than 400 interviews which were recorded by Bokor. Naturally, these interviews are much longer than the excerpts that Bokor used in his films. Hence, Péter Bokor added an important collection to the historical sources on the twentieth.
Péter Bokros (1957–2017) was an amateur graphic artist and founding member of the Inconnu group. In the 1970s, he created in a lot of works in alternative, experimental genres, and he participated in many oppositional performances in the framework of the activity of the democratic opposition and the independent initiatives of Inconnu.
His artistic interests and attitude were basically determined by his father’s mindset and opinion of the communist cultural policy. Renitent behaviour was part of his family heritage, as he himself noted. His father had been a student at the University of Applied Art in the 1950s. He told a lot of stories to his son about the repression of avantgarde and surrealist artists.
Bokros grew up in Szolnok. He took the entrance exam to the university five times, but was never admitted. He observed that many talent painters were rejected, while the doors to the institution were wide open for the children of party members. Instead of attending university, he learned artistic techniques from his parents, for example, drawing, ceramics, chalcography, etc. He also learned about computer graphics during a journey to Paris.
His workplace often changed. He sought jobs at places where he could develop his skills, for example positions at decoration companies. As an amateur artist, he could not organize an independent exhibition of his works, and he felt that this rule was unfair. He exhibited his works in different and sometimes unusual places, such as libraries, factories, canteens, and hospitals.
He was a founding member of Inconnu in 1978. According to him, the work of the group in Szolnok had no political implications. They had not wanted to act in opposition to the regime, but rather had merely wanted to enjoy their youth. They had plans and to express ideas which had been inspired by Western art trends. In Bokros’ opinion, they were considered dangerous because of their actions and performances and because they tried to connect directly with the people. He said in his interview that the communist cultural policy could not tolerate their existence.
At the time, it was difficult to learn about avantgarde trends and cultural life in the West. Bokros travelled to Paris, and what he saw there had a profound influence on his artistic vision. Furthermore, his birthplace had an influence on him. In his opinion, “Szolnok was the most communist city in Kádár-system.” The local art groups, which were guided by the ideas of Hungary of the 1950s, attacked Inconnu. In the end, they were banned from every cultural institute and from performing anywhere in the country because of a performance by Bokros in Budapest, which was, as he recalled, one of his strongest body art performances. During the show, they cut themselves with blades.
Bokros was not arrested, but he was put under observation and his residence was searched. After the exhibition entitled “A harcoló város/The Fighting City, 1986,” the members of the group were in even greater danger. They were summoned by the police and threatened with exile from the capital if they were to organize the exhibition.
Bokros was conscripted into the army in 1980, and he spent 14 months in a penalty unit. In 1981, he moved to Budapest and began to study at a decoration and window-dressing school. The other members of the group followed him. Initially, they felt safer in the big city, but after they joined the democratic opposition, the police kept them under even closer observation. They became more and more active and independent. They tried to find their own political stance. During this period, Bokros supported himself as an illegal worker.
Bokros’ criticism of the regime was basically formed by his assessment of the Revolution of 1956, and this was true of the Inconnu group as well. As Bokros said, the events which had taken place on the streets during the revolution and the revolutionary symbols were more interesting to them than the great political programs because of their age.
Bokros gave a long interview to political scientist Ervin Csizmadia in 1992. He shared his views concerning the conflicts and fault lines between the different oppositional groups. He said the young artists who worked together with György Krassó were supporters of actionism, and they had a stronger anti-communist stance, but the intellectuals involved with the samizdat publication Beszélő were more disciplined and organized. He thought that the change of regimes was in fact planned and the majority of oppositional figures did not actually welcome the drastic acts.After the group broke up, Bokros dealt mainly with mail artworks and, later, computer graphics. He organized independent exhibitions until the late 1990s. In his last years, he faced financial difficulties.
- Budapest, Hungary
Egon Bondy, real name Zbyněk Fišer, was a Czecho-Slovak poet, novelist, playwright, philosopher and “guru” of the Czechoslovak underground. He had been active within Czechoslovak surrealism from the end of the 1940s. He founded the samizdat edition “Půlnoc” (Midnight) with Ivo Vodseďálek at the beginning of the 1950s. Based on a collection of poems “Jewish Names” (Židovská jména) (1949), he chose the pen name Egon Bondy in response to the antisemitic atmosphere of the time. During the 1960s, after graduating in philosophy and psychology from the Faculty of Arts of Charles University (1961), he worked as a night watchman at the National Museum and later at the bibliography department of the State Library of the Czechoslovak Republic. He was inclined towards Trotskyism and Marxism at the time and he also focused on Eastern philosophy, such as Buddhism and Taoism. He was entitled to a full invalidity pension from 1967. During the 1970s and 1980s, he was a theorist and protagonist of the Czech underground, he wrote for samizdat and exile magazines, while his works were set to music by the underground band The Plastic People of the Universe. He signed Charter 77 in 1977 and was awarded the exile Egon Hostovský Prize for his novel “The Invalid Siblings” (Invalidní sourozenci) in 1981. On the other hand, Bondy had been collaborating with the StB (State security) since 1952. This collaboration lasted, with some intervals, until the change of regime in 1989. Until 1989, his works were mainly published as samizdat volumes or in exile. Bondy was involved in ultra-left-wing groups after 1989. He applied for Slovak citizenship after the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993 and lived in Bratislava. Egon Bondy appears as a literary character in several novels, including works by Bohumil Hrabal. There have also been several documentary films made about him. He wrote more than forty collections of poems, twenty novels and numerous philosophical and journalistic texts. Despite the fact that Bondy collaborated with the StB before 1989, he is one of the most significant figures from Czechoslovak independent and underground culture during the communist era.
- Bratislava, Slovakia
- Praha, Prague, Czech Republic
21 May 1928, Hajdúszoboszló, Hungary – 21 March, Budapest (Hungary)
Ethnographer and folk dance teacher Jolán Borbély and her twin sister were born in Hajdúszoboszló to a peasant family. Her stepparents and grandparents were also peasants. In 1938, she began studying in Debrecen at the Calvinist Dóczi Grammer School, from which she graduated in 1946. At the High School, she became fond of the world of folk songs and folklife. Between 1947 and 1956, she studied Hungarian, Museology, and Ethnography at the Eötvös Lorand University. At the university, she learned about István Molnár’s collection on folk dance. She started to dance with the Csokonai Dance Group, where she met Ernő Pesovár and György Martin, whom she married in 1961.
- Budapest, Hungary
Michael Bourdeaux, an Anglican priest, was the founder of the forerunner of the Keston Center, the Center for the Study of Religion and Communism. In 1959-1960, Bourdeaux was one of the first British exchange students to the Soviet Union and it was then when he learned of the repression of the Russian Orthodox Church during Nikita Krushchev’s term. He purchased a copy of the first issue of Science and Religion (Nauka i Religiia) initiating the decades-long accumulation of primary sources on religion and state in the Soviet Union and other communist societies. With his commitment to being a “voice of the voiceless” and to scholarly research, Bourdeaux worked with two scholars, Leonard Schaprio and Peter Reddaway, to establish the Keston Institute in 1969.
In 1984, one year after Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Bourdeaux won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion “for helping keep religion alive in East Europe.” In addition to providing leadership to the Keston Institute, Bourdeaux travelled to the Soviet Union, published prolifically, and taught lectures and seminars. Even after the relocation of the Keston archive and library to Baylor University, Bourdeaux remains on the Keston Advisory Board. In 2013, Bourdeaux delivered a keynote address at the first Keston Symposium titled “Religion and Political Culture in Communist Countries: Past, Present, and Future.” Although Bourdeaux was not directly involved in anti-communist or opposition movements in the Soviet Union, his career and life work aided the underground movements of religious dissent through various support, dissemination of information to the West, and various other means.
- Moskva, Moscow, Russia
- Oxford, United Kingdom