Book Review: Kati Marton’s Enemies of the People

Hungarian secret police files: Kati Marton’s family history of surveilance and survival

Cold War Patriots

Had they lived in 1950s Manhattan instead of Budapest, Endre and Ilona Marton would have been the ideal duo for a romantic comedy: glamorous correspondents for rival news agencies and doting parents of two adorable little girls. Perfect roles for Tracy and Hepburn.

Instead, the Martons starred in their own real-life spy drama behind the Iron Curtain. While most of their compatriots endured food shortages and daily humiliations, keeping their heads down to avoid trouble with the communist authorities, the Martons hobnobbed with American diplomats and journalists, and tooled around Budapest in a white convertible at a time when there were only 2,000 privately owned cars in all of Hungary.

Chic and sophisticated intellectuals, they brazenly flaunted their lifestyle, “as free as two exotic birds in a well-appointed cage.” What they didn’t know, was that the cage was fast growing smaller, and their days of freedom were numbered.

Enemies of the People tells the story of the Martons, one that their daughter, the American journalist Kati Marton, only recently discovered when she received thousands of pages of files that the AVO, communist Hungary’s brutal State Security Agency, had kept on her parents. When she came to collect the files – among the largest in the AVO archives – the chief archivist warned her not to judge her parents, “judge the system.”

In Communist Hungary of the 1950s, surveillance was pervasive; people who voiced a criticism or discontent risked losing their jobs, their homes or even their lives. By 1956, the AVO operated a network of some 31,000 agents to spy on a population of fewer than 10 million Hungarians.

In her parents’ files, Marton found detailed reports and surveillance photos of their every movement, from shopping trips to romantic assignations. She discovered that nearly everyone in their circle were informants, from the children’s French nanny to the family dentist. But she also found pictures of herself as a little girl, and even some of her own childhood drawings.

“Children cannot fully know their parents,” Marton writes. Yet thanks to the AVO, she gained an intimate glimpse into the lives of hers and how they managed to survive some of the 20th century’s darkest days. She also gained a unique window onto her own childhood, including long-forgotten moments of family happiness.

And she uncovered family secrets. Her parents had always been evasive about the past. Kati Marton only learned of her family’s Jewish roots by chance, while researching a book on Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts to save Hungarian Jews. But there was more. She discovered that her father was active in Hungary’s tiny anti-Nazi resistance, something he’d never told his daughters. She also learned of tensions in her parents’ marriage, of which she had been blissfully unaware.

Why did the Martons garner so much AVO attention? As correspondents for foreign news agencies (her father worked for Associated Press, her mother for United Press International), they had access to embassies and frequent contact with foreigners from the capitalist West. The AVO was eager to arrest them, but was held at bay because the regime thought their special access might be useful.

Amazingly, the Martons avoided arrest until long after Stalin’s death in March 1953. But late one night in February 1955, the AVO came for Endre.

His crime? “The charges against my father were serious,” Marton writes, “he had been a ‘permanent advisor’ to the Americans.” Ilona Marton mustered all her resources to try to gain her husband’s release, urging the Americans to press the Hungarian government. To no avail. A few months later, the AVO returned for her.

Following months of browbeating interrogations, in September 1955 the Martons were put on trial. Endre was sentenced to 13 years, Ilona to six. Their daughters were farmed out to strangers.

In February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered his “Secret Speech” denouncing Stalin, sending seismic tremors throughout the East Bloc. Within weeks, Ilona was released and regained her job at UP and also took up her husband’s post at AP. American pressure soon helped secure the release of Endre.

The atmosphere in Hungary was changing. That fall, revolution was in the air. The festive mood didn’t last long. Endre Marton was one of only two newsmen in Parliament Square on October 24 when a Soviet tank opened fire on a peaceful demonstration, and he got the story out to the world. After Ilona covered a general strike in November, they were warned that they would be arrested.

The Martons knew the time had come to leave. Endre tried a bold – some might say foolhardy – gambit: he asked the AVO for passports to work as correspondents in Vienna, where they could be “useful.” He promised he would always be “a good Hungarian.” Remarkably, his ploy worked. Within a year, the Martons were in the U.S., living the American dream in Bethesda, Maryland.

Still they were distrusted – by both sides, the FBI for the same reasons as the AVO They had lived the high life and socialized with Westerners under a repressive regime, and they were released early from long jail terms and allowed to leave the country – all very suspicious. Hungary’s Foreign Intelligence Section also kept the Martons under surveillance; their file was only officially closed in 1967, ten years after they left Hungary.

The Martons’ story is compelling, and the potential is there for Enemies of the People to be a truly gripping read. But surprisingly, Kati Marton’s writing falls short. An award-winning journalist, she puts her reporting skills to good use, documenting the chain of events, conducting interviews, quoting from her parents’ interrogations and statements by informers. She knows how to deploy a telling detail to underscore a point – like her father noticing the name of the founder of the AVO on the cell door next to his – but too often she says too much, and too blandly. The book would have benefited from a more thorough edit to prune the frequent repetition of details and restating the obvious.

But there are other shortcomings. This is a memoir, so one expects emotional engagement, but here again Marton falters. When she writes about deeply personal and often painful moments, the writing goes flat and the emotional exploration is superficial. At times she tries to channel her own younger self, adopting a child-like voice, but it’s insufficient. From such a safe distance, something crucial is missing.

Still Enemies of the People is well worth reading. Although the Martons were far from ordinary Hungarians, their story illustrates the corrosive power of the police state, and how even the most courageous people can be forced to the brink of despair. The human spirit is strong, but even the strongest can be worn down eventually. Endre Marton came close to giving up: he urged his wife to divorce him and escape with their children to the freedom of the West. He even attempted suicide.

Why did the Martons take such risks, endangering themselves and their children? Their daughter says this is “the essential mystery” of her childhood, but she never provides a satisfactory explanation. Perhaps the horrors of war and the loss of family in the Holocaust taught her parents just how precious life is, and made them determined to put the past behind them and seize life firmly with both hands. Marton notes that her parents were among very few in their set who decided to have children after the war – another sign of their refusal to capitulate to the fear and the soul-deadening conformism of life under Communism.

Their loyalty was to the larger values of humanism represented by the freedoms of the West and the tenets of their profession: free speech and objective reporting to expose the truth. Maybe they thought these higher values—and their foreign friends—could protect them. And in the end, they were right.

The Martons loved their country. Despite everything, they considered themselves Hungarian patriots. Kati Marton was rightfully proud to read this statement in her father’s file: “Endre Marton in the course of his interrogation did not compromise a single Hungarian citizen.”

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