Freedom for Angela Davis! “Angela Davis”, Erich Honecker and a Hungarian Happening in State Security Records

Freedom for Angela Davis! The figure “Angela Davis” between Erich Honecker and a Hungarian happening in the state security records

Please note that this is the written draft of a lecture held at “Revolution in the Margins, 1917-2017: Graduate Student Conference on
Modern and Contemporary Art from Eastern, Central, and South Eastern
Europe” The Graduate Center, City University of New York,
Friday, October 13, 2017

– the references are incomplete

Kata Krasznahorkai | University of Zurich |

“Sz.: We are the niggers of society.
Balaskó: It shows the immorality of society that they have cast us out. And yet they are concerned about us, so that means that what we’re doing actually does make sense.
Sz.: A society that can cast out any one of its members is immoral. But we won’t use that as an excuse to mount the horse of production because our work is not going to be acknowledged anyway – in our country it’s only your degree that counts, not your abilities.
Balaskó: …yeah, and that’s why the niggers out there aren’t doing anything either – which is to say, they’re musicians, politicians, writers, performers. That’s why we’re the niggers of this society. They actually hate us, but they need us because […] that way they can prove to the masses that the average “grey” citizen is better. That’s why they need us: to prove their own authority.”

This dialogue – between Tamás Szentjóby, the most prominent figure in the Hungarian happening scene, and the poet Jenő Balaskó – supposed to took place in a bar in Budapest on January 6th, 1972 according to an agent of the Hungarian State Security who was in the artist’s intimate circle recorded the conversation and included it in a report to his case officer. He wanted to notify the State Security of the threat posed by these artists.

Nowhere is the relationship between the artists’ criticism of the repressive state and the state’s criticism of the rebellious artists reflected better, in all its absurdity and tragedy, than in the State Security reports on the happening scene. And so, in this talk, I will be quoting these reports to show how the state reacted to artists who associated themselves with political figures of the 1970s Black Power movement, such as Angela Davis. On the one hand, the Moscow-led solidarity campaign of Eastern Bloc countries dedicated to Angela Davis was carefully staged state propaganda – and, on the other, the self-identification of the youth and underground artists with Angela Davis was a subversive strategy for criticizing communist power relations. So here I compare Erich Honecker, the leader of the GDR, who staged himself with Angela Davis, and Tamás Szentjóby, one of the most radical artists of the Eastern Bloc, who solidarized with Angela Davis in a happening in Hungary 1971.

The contrast between the two men who used the figure of Angela Davis as a projection space could not have been more stark: one of them appears in a highly publicized governmental performance for the masses while the other, alongside two other marginalized artists, appears in a one-time action in a small club in Budapest. Although the state’s public show of solidarity with Davis unraveled in part because Davis could not be reduced to an anti-fascist heroine of communism, the State Security measures taken as a result of single artistic actions imply that, from the perspective of the State Security, these actions posed a comparatively huge threat to the order of the communist society.

In this talk, I will show how the Black Civil Rights movement was embraced and exploited by the two most disparate groups of society in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War: on the one hand, by radical underground artists of the Hungarian happening scene who, on the margins of illegality, saw themselves as the “niggers of society,” and, on the other, by communist heads of state, such as the General Secretary of the GDR, Erich Honecker, who wanted to present himself in the media as a freedom fighter combating the capitalistic, imperialistic repression of the black minority. The figure of Angela Davis was a central point of reference for both groups, and both Honecker and Szentjóby expressed their solidarity with Angela Davis. Last but not least, by identifying with Davis, both groups attempted to break out of isolation – on the one hand, the isolation of a state and, on the other, the isolation of a subject – with the goal of gaining recognition in the global context.

Let me state clearly: it is absolutely excessive for white artists in a communist state to identify themselves with the black minority of the United States. In the case of Balaskó and Szentjóby, who, as two white men in a largely homogenous country, identify themselves with a black woman and call themselves societally “marginalized,” there is zero comparison to the marginalization of black citizens of the United States who experienced racially motivated discrimination for generations. The dimensions of the respective state’s reactions are also incomparable: the systemic use of racially driven violence directed at Afro-American citizens is completely different from a government monitoring its citizens or, in the case of the happening scene, interrogating them without any physical violence.

So why is it worth looking into this double identification with black civil rights activists in the State Security archives? Because the fact that both the artists and the heads of state identified with these American public figures sheds new light on the bipolarity of the ideologies of the Cold War. And all three parties adopt performative strategies in the process: performativity is present in the mass demonstrations in the GDR and other communist countries, at the happenings, and in the monitoring techniques of the State Security.

The wave of demonstrations in solidarity with Angela Davis after her arrest spread throughout the West and also, after a push from Moscow, the countries of Eastern Europe. In the GDR, where the state-ordered solidarity campaign lasted more than two years and deliberately targeted young people, Davis became “a fixture of the political and ideological iconography of Germany’s Socialist Unity Party” and a celebrated heroine in the fight against American imperialism. Political leaders in the Eastern Bloc hailed her release from prison in 1972 as a success of their mass solidarity campaign. After her release, Davis backed this notion when she decided to take a tour of the communist countries to express her thanks for the unprecedented show of solidarity, especially from citizens of the GDR. The planned and calculated governmental actions – such as the campaign to send a million postcards with roses on them to Angela Davis in prison – were part of the mass performances that the GDR and its newly elected party chairman Erich Honecker carried out in an attempt to enter into a “social contract” with the country’s youth. But the youth’s presence and participation in these performative actions got out of hand when Davis arrived at Schönefeld Airport in Berlin. The crowd that welcomed her went exponentially beyond the anticipated two to three thousand people to fifty thousand people. And so, the carefully planned arrival of Angela Davis turned into the hysterical mass welcoming of a pop star, which presented a huge challenge for the Stasi. In front of a large media presence, Honecker and his predecessor Walter Ulbricht emphatically welcomed and received Davis, awarded her the highest state decorations and invited her to the Socialist Youth World Games. Alas, the youth’s passion for Davis had to do with a completely different side of her: it had to do with Davis as a freedom fighter from the West coming to the GDR and breaking the country’s claustrophobic isolation; next to Honecker, with his remarkable lack of charisma, this young, black woman had instilled the youth with the hope of connecting with the rest of world. But there was a problem: although the Soviet Union had ordered the people to praise Davis, it was not the same Davis that Honecker had embraced. The subversive, young people of society had seen something completely different in the same figure and could express their criticism of socialist society by identifying with Davis. And the State Security were well aware of that.

So when the Hungarian happening artists identified with black U.S. citizens, how did the State Security view it? In the case officer’s evaluation of the agent who had quoted the above dialogue, the case officer saw the association with the marginalized black minority in the United States as evidence of “[the artists’] the hostile attitude towards society.” In his evaluation of the agent’s report, the officer talks about the “nigger” comparison and quotes the artists who claim that they “do nothing” because of their marginal position in society. The whole point of the State Security’s measures against these artists was to silence them – and they made an excessively large effort to do so, assigning a dozen agents to the happening scene over the course of decades. This disproportionate reaction to the action indicates how strong the perceived threat of staging a happening must have been in a socialist society.

Tamás Szentjóby promptly took the idea of attempting to silence minorities as the subject matter of two of his happenings, each one referring the trial of a leading black civil rights activist: namely, the 1971 trial against Angela Davis and the 1972 trial against Bobby Seale.

On March 29th, 1971, the happening staged by Tamás Szentjóby, Jenő Balaskó and Miklós Erdély in the Eötvös club in Budapest was called “Freedom for Angela Davis.” Of course, a State Security agent – “Sárdi” – was present at the happening. In his report on the happening, he starts by stating that there was a cover charge for the event and it was by invitation only.
Furthermore, he reports, on that evening, the place was packed because, rather than the regular 40 to 50 people, there were 150 to 200. The report states that there were fewer university students in the audience than usual, yet there were a number of people from the intellectual elite of the old Budapest. The agent called this elite “the literary underground of the Hungaria Café.” “Sárdi” lists the names of the prominent actors and writers in attendance, and describes the rest of the crowd as being “a lot of hippies.” He then starts to describe the happening.
He starts by mocking Miklós Erdély’s opening act entitled “On the Evil in Women,” which he sums up as “an original wannabe piece.” He reports that Erdély used one “contrived aphorism” and “paradox” after the next. He then explains how, “before speaking his last lines, Erdély grew agitated and suddenly yelled, ‘The women should leave the room now.’ He waited a moment in the stunned silence and then screamed ‘Freedom for Angela Davis!’ and walked offstage. The report describes one more puzzling scene in which a woman from the audience pushed her way up to the stage and called to Erdély: “‘Miklós, I have [written] something, I’ll bring it with me – Could you read it?’ – He nodded his head, and the woman left excitedly.” In addition, the report captured the marginalized, and even downright humiliating role of women. “There was a happening mood,” the agent remarks in the report. This incident also sheds light on how the minority status of the black civil rights activists connects to the gender minority of women, echoing the call of Deleuze and Guattari to become minority: “to become woman, to become black, to become animal.” To become a woman is the basis of the total critique. This critical space is the space of resistance – and yet, it is white men who are occupying this space.

After Erdély’s performance, due to the report, Szentjóby came onstage and began to read aloud James Baldwin’s open letter to Angela Davis in Hungarian. As Szentjóby was reading the letter, a woman, Margit Rajczy, started trying to whack the letter out of his hands with a broom. But Szentjóby kept on reading, unfazed. Rajczy got more and more aggressive in her attempts to silence him: she used a pair of pantyhose to cover his mouth, she tickled his nose, she wedged a roll of cotton between his legs, she attached his calves to his thighs and poured beer over his head. But Szentjóby continued to read, unfazed. Then Rajczy pushed the hobbling Szentjóby onto the floor. Szentjóby was still reading on the floor as Rajczy dragged a table and put it on top of him. Szentjóby finished reading the letter in that position.
The agent’s report provides an unusual perspective of the audience’s responses:
“The audience sat there for a little while longer and waited for the show to go on. Then everybody got up and left the room. Many people were angry at first: ‘Why is he criticizing America?’ They had been encouraging the woman: ‘Let her silence him.’ They were disappointed. They had expected something else. And then they began to understand: Angela Davis was only a ploy. [It was Szentjóby who would not let himself be silenced]. The woman with the broom does not stand for the American system. She stands for the system in general: for the social order that must be destroyed, that violently represses people who rebel against it, wherever this social order may be, whatever this social order may be.”

After the agent describes the evening and offers his opinion on the nature of the events, he also addresses the genre of the action. In one paragraph, he talks about the possible conclusions that could be drawn from the evening and writes the following: “Since neither art nor literature were present during the evening, yet there was a striking number of people in the audience – and based on who was in this audience, it could be called a special audience – one might argue that the evening had the spirit of a demonstration.” According to the agent’s assessment, it was an open demonstration because Szentjóby had not read his own text out loud and “because he staged an allegorical scene that used Angela Davis’s name and the American niggers’ struggle to defend their human rights in a distasteful manner.”

The agent thus builds up his accusation and tries to furnish evidence to convict them of a crime. Because it was difficult, if not impossible, to classify the nature of the evening in political terms – which the agent nevertheless attempts to do in a convoluted way. In his description, the agent interprets the action as a critique of America: “The letter was without a doubt a negative judgment of American society.” And yet, it is the agent’s concern to clarify to his officer that this is a critique of any society and thus of socialist society.

The signal to the State Security and the audience was: Szentjóby cannot be silenced, not even with governmental or physical force. The audience was also unsettled by the action and the ostensible critique of America at first – because they had certain expectations of how political issues were presented at happenings. In his identification with Davis, Szentjóby criticized and rejected this attitude. He referred to a black female icon of freedom in order to present himself as an artist who could not be silenced and who did not need to cater to the expectations of “his” audience. Meanwhile, Davis herself had absolutely needed to cater to the expectations of various parties.

And who was this agent who knew so much about the happening scene and the American Civil Rights movement? The presence of any old agent would not have been enough to understand this action. It had to be an agent who knew the scene – one who could report on the context and the ‘secret knowledge’ involved. A number of other agents were also assigned to the provocative field of happenings and the case officers would compare the agents’ reports with one another. The Hungarian writer István Eörsi, who had also been spied on by “Sárdi,” called him “a good observer,” and said his idea were “clever” and precisely formulated. And so it’s no wonder that the State Security sent him on a trip into the West to analyze leftist tendencies and meet black civil rights activists – which he also wrote about in a report that resembled a travel journal.

The fact that a Hungarian agent assigned to monitor the literary underground ended up meeting the leaders of the European Black Power movement in a friendly setting in Paris and handing over documents via the Cuban embassy fits into a much larger plan of the Soviet KGB. In its so-called disinformation department, the KGB used its theoretical, financial and staffing capacities to foment existing social and societal conflicts in the United States. The goal of the KGB was to destabilize U.S. domestic security with help from Cuba and the deployment of agents in the occupied Eastern European states. In 1960, the KGB established individual “disinformation departments” in the GDR, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, which were in direct contact with the KGB. In 1970, the status of the KGB’s propaganda department was upgraded to allow it to perform operations that would help achieve Soviet propaganda objectives, such as manipulating newspaper reports, spreading disinformation and controlling media strategies. The campaign for Angela Davis was one part of those operations.

But what was the limit of the Soviet Union’s ideological “affinity” with the Black Civil Rights movement? In the case of the Eastern Bloc’s relationship to the Black Panther movement, there can no longer be talk of an all-embracing show of solidarity. Compared with the case of Angela Davis, the USSR and its satellite states showed virtually no solidarity with Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale when he was put on trial. The political leaders of the Eastern Bloc were particularly suspicious of public actions that mobilized large crowds, such as the Blank Panthers’ sit-ins and demonstrations. Paradoxically, the leaders viewed the Black Panther Party (BPP) as the antithesis of Angela Davis, even though she was a member of the party and openly sympathized with its goals.

In 1972, roughly a year after the Angela Davis happening, Szentjóby staged an action in front of the Budapest Intercontinental Hotel entitled “Sit Out. Be Forbidden. Sitting on a Chair with Strapped Up Mouth for Twenty Minutes.” The action was a one-man reenactment of the student sit-ins in the United States and simultaneously a tribute to the trial of Bobby Seale and the Chicago Eight, one of the most controversial and widely publicized trials in the post-war United States. In a leather jacket, with his mouth sealed shut and his body bound to a chair with a leather belt, he sat for twenty minutes in front of the hotel until the police ended the action. A photographer documented the happening, which the police’s actions were also a part of. By binding and gagging himself, Szentjóby was alluding to the heavily circulated court sketches from the trial of the Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale, in which he is sitting, bound and gagged, before the white judge. The theory of “being black” is associated with various manifestations of presence, as Fred Moten describes in his “theory of surreal presence.” Here, the theorizing of being black turns into the “theorizing of deconstructing the subject” – and deconstructing the subject was the express objective of the State Security’s undertaking to “subvert,” “liquidate” and “eliminate” happenings and public performance actions.

The revolution of Angela Davis’s presence – a presence in which both a group of marginalized, rebellious Eastern European artists and a GDR dictator acting on Soviet instructions were able to recognize themselves – was that it turned ideas generated in the margins into a global event: an event in which a dictatorship such as the GDR wants to portray itself to the world as a freedom fighter – a portrayal that eventually comes apart at the seams. And it was a revolution that manifested itself in a new art form, the happening, which operated between both “margins” – between the Soviet Union and the “other America” – and in this process sought global company. Because ultimately the ideas of the two marginalized groups produced huge changes: in the Eastern Bloc, it became harder and harder to prevent the freedom of expression, which was seen as a sign of the crumbling façade of the communist countries; and in the United States, the Civil Rights movement changed society and the way it perceived marginalized groups. The State Security’s balancing act, which, on the one hand, involved the celebration of Angela Davis in line with Soviet ideologies and, on the other, monitoring the youth who showed solidarity with a different Davis whom they saw as an icon of freedom – was a balancing act that the state would not be able to keep up.