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by Donald Kursch

The past middle-aged man who had come into to my office was raggedly dressed and had clearly seen better days. Nevertheless, in 1971 it was the policy at the US embassy in Budapest to allow visitors wishing to speak to an American to have direct access to a consular officer. The Hungarian staff members who performed the critical support for our consular operations were told to make sure that this practice was carried out. The reason for this in Budapest and elsewhere behind the “Iron Curtain” was presumably to ensure that a potential high-ranking defector, such as a well-placed Hungarian communist official or a senior Soviet military officer, would not be intercepted by our Hungarian support staff, whom we assumed were regularly debriefed by their country’s intelligence services. Thus, those visitors who insisted upon speaking to an American official had their internal passports or other identifying information placed on the consular officer’s desk with no further questions asked.

I had arrived in Budapest only a few weeks before and was in the process of settling into my exciting new job as head of the embassy’s consular section where my main responsibilities would be considering the visa applications of those fortunate Hungarians who were allowed to travel to the West, provide notarial services, and, most importantly, assist American citizens, including those who had been detained or arrested by the Hungarian police. My spacious office with a 14′ high ceiling and a balcony that overlooked the large Soviet war memorial on Szabadság (Freedom) Square must have made me appear a good deal more important than I was as a junior diplomat just beginning a second overseas assignment.

US Embassy, Budapest, 1971, Cream color six story building
US Embassy, Budapest, 1971

My interlocutor had little in the way of personal documentation, which suggested that he might be the inmate of a local mental institution who had been temporarily released as part of an effort to reduce overcrowding in such facilities during the hot summer months, said to be a common practice at that time. As he spoke no English, I began our conversation in Hungarian, enjoying this chance to put to use the knowledge drilled into my head during the 10-month language course I had been given prior to my arrival in Budapest. My visitor confirmed that he had no claim to US citizenship but nevertheless hoped that “America” could somehow help him out. He said that his name was Ziegler and that he wanted to contact Ron Ziegler, then President Nixon’s press secretary, whom he hoped might offer him assistance. I did my best to convince the man that this was unlikely and told him that since he was not an American there was little I could do to help. Our meeting ended on this note.

Around two weeks later, “Mr. Ziegler” returned to the consular section’s waiting room. I asked the newly arrived American assistant to handle him, noting that since Ziegler was not a US citizen, I did not see that there was anything the embassy could do to help him and suggesting that he not allow the man into his office. As I left the embassy to return home for lunch, I saw him speaking with Ziegler at the door of his office.

As I was having lunch, the embassy’s marine guard on duty called with an instruction to return immediately. In wondering what might have happened, I immediately thought of a health crisis involving the 79-year-old Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty who, having lived in refuge at the embassy for the past 15 years, was, after long and delicate negotiations, set to leave Hungary for the West within a matter of days. This fear heightened when I got to the embassy and saw the large box-like Hungarian ambulance of that era at the front door. I quickly parked my car and hastened up the two flights of stairs which led to the consular section. There I saw a most unusual sight–several Hungarian plainclothes police together with some embassy colleagues in our section’s waiting room. One of the policemen directed me to the small washroom adjacent to the waiting room and opened its door, where a corpse lay on the floor. I confirmed that the dead man was “Mr. Ziegler” and related how he had come to us. I then learned that, following Ziegler’s conversation with my colleague, he had proceeded to the washroom, locked the door, waited for the consulate to close for lunch, and shot himself in the head with a pistol that had apparently been in his possession all along. The char force which cleaned the waiting room at lunch time concluded that something was amiss when they could not open the washroom door and saw blood trickling out from under the locked door.

Although the Hungarian police took possession of the body, it soon became clear that they, too, had no idea who “Mr. Ziegler” was. Appeals to help identify him appeared in the major newspapers, on television and even in the country’s dental magazine, which asked dentists to review their dental charts. As the deceased was clearly not an American, we in the embassy took no further action, although my colleague and I were somewhat unsettled to realize that we had been dealing up close with a disturbed man in possession of a loaded gun and were certainly relieved that he had not decided to take either of us with him to the hereafter. It also made it clear to us that there were major holes in the Hungarian communist authorities’ ability to monitor the activities of their residents, including their possession of firearms. This became even more evident several months later when I was called to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive the happy news that an American citizen serving a prison sentence in Hungary was to be released early in response to our appeal for clemency. As I shared an offered glass of brandy with my Hungarian counterpart to celebrate this relatively rare positive moment in our bilateral relations, he unexpectedly referred to “the unfortunate incident” in our embassy that had taken place several months ago asking, “Can you tell us who he was?” I replied that he was certainly not “one of ours”, and, since the man apparently spoke only Hungarian, we had assumed that he had to be “one of yours.” As far as I know, the origins of the mysterious Mr. Ziegler remained…mysterious, and a missed opportunity for Agatha Christie.End.

Donald Kursch was a career Foreign Service officer from 1966-2003. He served as DCM in Budapest, Bonn and at the US mission to the European Union, as well as in Moscow and Zurich. After retiring, he worked for the Institute for Defense Analyses and as a senior advisor to the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism. He served in the US Marine Corps Reserve from 1964-1967. He lives in Washington DC and is the principal coordinator for the Foreign Affairs Retirees of Maryland and DC.

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