Iron Curtain excerpt: Anne Applebaum on how Hungarian security services watched Géza Supka.

In Hungary, your closest confidantes could be the regime’s best informers.

Hungary in the 1950s

Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Géza Supka, Grandmaster of the main freemasons’ lodge in Budapest, was aged 67 in 1950 and had enjoyed a long and admirable career. A trained archaeologist, he had been director of the National Museum, a member of Parliament, and a founder of a leading literary periodical. He had not collaborated with the fascists during the war. He had devoted much of his life to charitable and patriotic causes.

Nevertheless, in the view of the Hungarian security services, Supka represented a dangerous threat. A thick police file, written in 1950, describes him as a “representative of Anglo-Saxon interests in Hungary” and as a traitor plotting to overthrow the regime: “According to our agents’ reports, Supka had received a note in August 1949 from Count Géza Teleki in the United States, advising him to keep regular contact with political personalities on whom they both can count after the regime change. Supka establishes widespread contacts for this purpose …”

During the previous year, the Hungarian secret police had detained and interrogated many of Supka’s friends and acquaintances, especially other freemasons. Many had cooperated, as his police file demonstrates. Indeed, the most harrowing element of the file is a series of frequent, almost daily reports filed by someone very close to Supka. Although not named in the police file, this informer must have been a close friend or personal secretary, for his knowledge of Supka’s movements, conversation, and intimate thoughts is very precise. Supka confided many times in the informer, who then gave full reports to the authorities. The resulting report unintentionally provides a glimpse into the life of a man who knows he is in danger, who knows he is being watched, but who still has a naive faith in the goodwill of people who are close to him, including the informer.

As the atmosphere in Budapest grew more stultifying, Supka at first thought of emigration. “Political changes will not come soon,” he told the informer on Dec. 20, 1949, and he wondered if he should leave the country, as some of his friends were doing, including the vice president of the national bank. He wasn’t certain, however, and, he was afraid to apply for a passport, as that would draw the authorities’ attention. The informer sent this information back to Supka’s case officer, who in turn ordered him to go back “to find out the exact content of the conversation between him and this bank vice-president, and at the same time to observe Supka and report as soon as he sees any preparation for immigration.”

The informer complied. He also continued to report Supka’s views on a wide range of topics. In January, Supka told him he was disappointed with American diplomacy in China, which was too indecisive: he had expected the Americans to be more firmly anti-communist. However, he was cheered by the appointment of Gen. Omar Bradley to replace Eisenhower, as Bradley was a freemason—as, he said, were President Truman and Gen. MacArthur. (Supka’s case officer here made a note: “All these reports support our assumption that Supka kept in close contact with agents of imperialist powers.”)

Supka also told the informer that Hungary has two strong links to the West: the church and the freemasons. The latter, he felt confident, could evade secret police observation. A few days later, however, the file notes that “when our agent left at a quarter to midnight, an unknown young person showed up at Supka’s apartment from the British embassy, bringing a bulletin and newspapers …” The case officer leapt upon this detail as proof of his thesis: “Supka is the most prominent representative of the imperialist powers in Hungary. On the basis of his statement, we conclude that the focus of their activity is the freemason movement … the person coming from the U.K. embassy proves that Supka has direct and regular links with Western powers.”

Beginning in the spring of 1950, the informer began reporting on Supka’s thoughts and movements almost every day. Supka told the informer that he was prepared to be detained at any time, and that he’d already made contact with well-connected friends who he hoped would help him if and when this happened. He told the informer that he knew his name had been dropped from invitation lists, as people were becoming wary of him, and that he knew he was under observation. But now he had decided not to emigrate, due to his old age and ill-health, and he asked the informer for help in evading what he thought was inevitable arrest. He was trying to get an academic posting in the distant countryside, and perhaps the informer could help him find a suitable place.

In July, Supka and the informer discussed the Korean situation, and the fact that several freemasons had been arrested. In September, they discussed the church–-state agreement, and the possibility of an American war in Europe. In June 1951, Supka told the informer that police had visited his house, and confessed he was once again frightened of being deported. Among other things they also discussed the defection of Gyula Schöpflin, the former radio director, to Great Britain; the trial of former foreign minister László Rajk, about which Supka had many doubts; and Supka’s health, which was not good. Still, Supka had many visitors. His cleaning lady gave all of their names to the informer, who passed them on to the case officer.

After that, Supka plunged into depression, fearing his arrest. He obtained some medical documents from a doctor, which he hoped would help him avoid detention or deportation. He tried to make contact with some people he knew in the communist party leadership. He reached out to a couple of freemasons who seemed to have made their peace with the regime—one of them wore a brand-new suit and had a new car—and he discussed rumors that people like himself were being sent to work on collective farms in the Soviet Union. In August 1952, he told the informer that he now left his apartment only rarely. Supka didn’t want to see the world of the present, the informer declared in his report to the secret police; it had become so completely different from what he had imagined:

He added that he often asked himself whether it had been worth it to fight against so many things, now that he knew it would end this way. He is almost 70 years old and is unable to adapt to present-day conditions. This makes everything he believed in irrelevant. He still believes in freedom, and although he doesn’t know well the condition of the United States, he knows that in England civic freedom is still alive. He thinks he won’t see the day when the third world war which he thought would be inevitable would come, but he is convinced that a world built on freedom, not the fake freedom of the fake October revolution, would come someday. His greatest sorrow is that the freemason lodge was banned and he considers this a major attack on civic freedom … All his life he had been anti-religious and anti-clerical, but even so he could not agree with the persecution of church and of priests … his sympathy was for the persecuted.

Though a collective celebration was impossible, friends did come to visit the former Grandmaster in small groups on Supka’s 70th birthday. After that he was often ill, according to the informer’s reports, though he still liked to discuss politics. Géza Supka finally died in May 1956, five months before the Hungarian revolution. Some 400 people came to his funeral. As the informer reported, “There were several wreaths and several people put acacia leaves on them, symbol of the freemasons …”

This article is the third of four excerpts drawn from Anne Applebaum’s book, The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956.