Illusion and Patriotic Duty: the Paranoia Archive

Blinken OSA

“The situation is between peacetime democracy and war,” said the Prime Minister of Hungary, as the government introduced state of emergency in the country. In Italy, even medical experts make wartime comparisons; Donald Trump, in pursuit of “total victory,” started a fight against “an invisible enemy;” and Angela Merkel stated that Germany had not faced such a challenge since the Second World War.

The public mood the coronavirus outbreak created almost recalls the films of the Paranoia Archive, preserved at Blinken OSA.

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Paranoia Archive project finale screening at the Blinken OSA in 2009, with József Szolnoki and the Kaos Camping.

The Paranoia Archive is an open-access digital film collection available on the Blinken OSA website. The 16-mm black-and-white celluloid films were digitized and processed at the Archives in collaboration with József Szolnoki; with the group Kaos Camping, Szolnoki also realized a one-night “live film action” show using the original materials. He received the reels from the director of the Mediawave Festival, Jenő Hartyándi, who had saved them in Győr from a civil defense storage facility liquidated following the regime change in Hungary. The films were shot between 1964 and 1982 by the Mafilm Military and the Sport Film Studios, commissioned by the Polgári Védelem Országos Parancsnokság (Civil Defense Alliance), a department of the Ministry of Defence. As parts of a public awareness campaign on protection against weapons of mass destruction, these educational materials answer questions like how to decontaminate livestock exposed to radiation, fabricate protective masks using rabbit-skin hats, or secure shelter ventilation using corn-husk isotope filters.

“We learn how to make a gas mask.”
( "Egyéni szükségvédő eszközök" [Improvised personal protection gear] / Polgári Védelem Országos Parancsnoksága, Mafilm Katonai Stúdió, [1976]. HU OSA LibSpColl-Paranoia-005; OSA Library. Special Collection. Paranoia Archive; Open Society Archives at Central European University, Budapest.)

At the project finale of the Paranoia Archive in 2009, historians Krisztián Ungváry and Miklós Horváth, surrounded by projection screens and movie projectors, presented the roots of civil defense and its circumstances in Socialist Hungary. Civil defense was not an innovation exclusively of the Eastern Bloc. With people in shock after the First World War, England and France launched defensive investments, so that the next war “could be fought in a relatively more comfortable manner, as far as civilians were concerned,” Ungáry explained. “Technically speaking, weapons capable of destroying the entire world did not arrive with the Second World War and the atomic bomb, but with chemical weapons. Yet, these were available already during the First World War,” he continued, giving two further examples. First, the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, during which the Italian army basically tested chemical weapons on indigenous people, and secondly, the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, which, owing also to Picasso’s painting, was recorded by history as a significant stage toward total aerial warfare. The Second World War was, however, “a much more total war,” Ungváry continued, pointing out that “opposing powers waged wars, for different reasons, against civilians as well.” This also includes the case—or, as noted by W. G. Sebald, the still unprocessed memory—of German cities ranked according to inflammability and bombed by the British and the US air forces. “After 1945, in the age of the atomic bomb, multiplying risks underscored the significance of civil defense. . . . The question is, whether defense against this is possible at all?”

Close shots of Picasso’s Guernica in the intro of the film on improvised hospitals.
( "Szükségkórházak szervezése és működése I." [The organization and operation of improvised hospitals I.] / Egészségügyi Minisztérium, Polgári Védelem Országos Parancsnokság, Mafilm Katonai Stúdió, 1973. HU OSA LibSpColl-Paranoia-047; OSA Library. Special Collection. Paranoia Archive; Open Society Archives at Central European University, Budapest.)

Nevertheless, there definitely were plans for defense, as summarized by Miklós Horváth in his presentation. First, the state launched a bomb shelter building operation; however, the construction of shelters proved to be too expensive, and the program was shut down already in 1953, no decision on new shelters followed until the 1970s. If there is no funds for constructions, explained Horváth, then the solution should be costless: thus came the attempt to guarantee, on the drawing board, the conditions of mass evacuations. “Even in 1987, authorities were ready to order the relocation of 2.5 million people!” Civil defense education followed this agenda, which is also apparent in the evolution of the material in the Paranoia Archive; the early films instructed viewers how to build bomb shelters at home, what to do in case of a nuclear attack, or how to counteract the side-effects of radioactivity. From the 1970s on, however, the films emphasized public drills and especially evacuations, some of which mobilized tens of thousands of civilians. These educational materials were shot by professional film crews, to be screened on a regular basis in schools, workplaces, cultural centers, or movie theaters. At the same time, Horváth revealed, the number of shelters in Budapest were enough for 7% of the capital's residents; gas mask supplies covered 60% of the adult population, 10% of teenagers, and 6% of infants.

Duck and Cover. Directed by Anthony Rizzo, 1952.

States throughout the world produced similar educational materials. One well-known example is the animated film Duck and Cover, which may seem absurd today, yet, the film’s main character, Bert the Turtle taught millions of children in the US to find shelter under their desks in the event of an atomic attack. Furthermore, the institutional background of the production of Duck and Cover is also comparable to that of the films in the Paranoia Archive: besides countless audiovisual, audio, and textual educational materials, and even curricula, it was commissioned by the Federal Civil Defense Administration, a government agency organized by President Harry Truman. A New York Times article in 1951 coined the term bombshelteritis to describe the rapid constructions in California. Tens of thousands of US citizens, adults and children alike, got tattooed with their blood types, while the state distributed 2.5 million identification bracelets among students. The difference may be, however, that paranoia soon eased off in the US; between 1959 and 1965, according to a Gallup research, the number of people listing nuclear war as the most dire danger, dropped from 64% to 16%.

"Fulfilling Civil Defense Tasks is a Patriotic Duty!"
(Posters from the private collection of József Szolnoki, on view at the 2009 project finale of Paranoia Archive.)

Decades after the Cold War, the current pandemic exposes the stake of educating and informing the public. The inherent contradiction of civil defense is that it is meant to mediate an illusion of security in order to prevent panic, the responsibility of which, at the same time, it shares with the civilian population, thus sustaining a feeling of emergency. This is also reflected in the archival description of the Paranoia Archive, a collection categorized as "educational," as well as "propaganda" material.

Therefore, what one should pay attention to is whether, on an imaginary scale from credible information to propaganda, which direction the communication of defense measures go; the Paranoia Archive may serve as a model example in that.


Only the Soviet Union had atomic bombs among the Warsaw Pact countries. Nuclear charges, however, were stored even in Hungary, without the knowledge of the Hungarian People's Army. In connection to this, János Kis shared the following anecdote at the book launch of the biographical interview with László Rajk. The full discussion is available (in Hungarian) at the Blinken OSA YouTube Channel.
“In 1982, there was an international peace protest in Budapest, as a matter of fact, it was the Váci Street, where peace fighters protested for peace. The anti-peacefighter Miki Haraszti, sitting now here with us, produced, together with Laci Rajk, leaflets urging international peace fighters to raise their voices here in Budapest, on the Váci Street, not only against US nuclear weapons, but also against, for example, the Soviet nuclear weapons kept in Hungary. So they hit the streets, and handed out these leaflets. . . . I asked them, what was the source of this claim, that there were Soviet nuclear weapons in Hungary? They gave me no answer. That was not the important part in this. . . . It took a while for the Soviet leadership to get the picture, but when they finally did, they got scared, and removed their nuclear weapons from Hungary in 1990. They even announced this, the removal; and by that, indirectly, they have admitted, that the nuclear weapons really had been here.”