A Living Rebuke
As World War II was nearing its end, and the conundrum of an Eastern Europe “liberated” from Hitler by the Soviet Union was becoming a hot-button issue, Winston Churchill warned Soviet dictator Josef Stalin about the power of the Catholic Church in these countries. Without missing a beat, Stalin countered, “How many divisions does the pope of Rome have?”
As a former seminary student, Stalin should have known better than to regard religious opposition to Communism in strictly military terms. He should have remembered from his “bourgeois morality” days the symbolic power of a persecuted religious figure; of how the very suffering of such a figure could provide a living rebuke to totalitarianism.
József Mindszenty (March 29, 1892–May 6, 1975) was such a figure. This “Prince Primate” and leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary needed no military divisions to expose what Josef Goebbels once called the “big lie.” His imprisonment and torture by the Hungarian Communist regime (in addition to beating him with rubber truncheons his captors slipped mind-altering drugs into his food) invalidated the slogan voiced by the American Communist Party during the 1930s: “You can still take communion and support the Soviet Union.”
Mindszenty opposed totalitarianism early. The son of peasant farmers, he attended the Szombathely Diocesan Seminary. He was ordained a priest in 1915 by Bishop János Mikes. Mindszenty’s lifelong anti-Communism, which eventually resulted in his imprisonment, began soon afterward. For criticizing what he considered “the socialist policies” of the Minhály Károlyi government, he was arrested in 1919. Momentarily freed, he was again arrested when the Communist Bela Kun government marched into power.
But Mindszenty was also an opponent of Fascism. Unlike other priests who were compromised and then nourished by Fascism, he spoke out against the Hitler-like Arrow Cross Party in 1939. A year later he equated Hungarian Fascism with Hungarian Communism in an article entitled “The Green Communism” (green was the color of the Fascist regime ruling Hungary). This was in a period where Hitler and Stalin were military partners and the Soviet Party line demanded party members to sabotage any war preparation in anti-Nazi countries. “Fascism,” according to Soviet diplomat Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, was merely “a matter of taste.”
Mindszenty continued his attacks on the Arrow Cross Party, now in command of Hungary during World War II. He protested against the regime quartering soldiers in his religious palace and their treatment of Jews.
Then, after World War II ended, Mindszenty was appointed leader of the Hungarian Catholic Church. Hungary was by then a Soviet satellite, duplicating the police state tactics of the Kremlin. The Communist war against religion was in full swing by the ruling Hungarian Working People’s Party. They cut into the cardinal’s main source of income—lands owned by the church. They justified these seizures as a means to restore such “aristocratic lands” back to the workers. The result, however, was that the regime leaders kept the lands to enrich themselves.
Outraged, Mindszenty attacked the regime’s attempts to stifle the religious instruction of children by abolishing and then seizing the land of Catholic schools. In place of God, the regime sought to indoctrinate children away from God and into a slavish worship of Stalin. His form of protest involved him driving to villages and urging the populace to resist the regime’s attempts to seize their religious schools and property.
In a letter during this period—banned but somehow a copy made it to the West—he wrote: “Communism is a despicable ideology.”
The regime, headed by the Stalinist Matyas Rakosi, predictably blasted the cardinal as being a reactionary supporter of Fascism (during the Nazi occupation of Hungary he had defended Jews). In 1948 they used this portrayal as justification for arresting Mindszenty: he was charged with “treason,” followed by imprisonment. For defending himself against the charge of treason he was tortured into “a confession” of his “treachery.” (Mere moments before his arrest by the secret police he wrote a note intended for the church faithful, instructing them to disregard any “confession.”)
From the docket Mindszenty collaborated in the regime’s lies about him. He was accused of more than 40 “crimes,” one of which involved him urging Americans to invade Hungary so he could get his “land” back. The prosecutor’s summation stated that Cardinal Mindszenty had confessed to inciting “the American imperialists to declare war on our country.”
Obviously tortured, he provided the “confession” the regime had to beat out of him: “I am guilty on principle and in detail of most of the accusations made,” the cardinal said shakily. He disowned the disavowal he had written earlier. When asked why he had written it, he answered feebly, “I didn’t see certain things as I see them now.” He also stated that he attempted to aid “American imperialists to declare war on our country.”
The West, however, saw his “confession” as coerced.
Pope Pius XII excommunicated any Catholics who supported the verdict. Declaring Mindszenty “innocent,” he urged a crowd in St. Peter’s Square to enlist in a fight against the communist ideology of the regime that tortured the cardinal: “[Do you want a] Church that does not condemn the suppression of conscience and does not stand up for the just liberty of the people; a Church that locks Herself up within the four walls of Her temple in unseemly sycophancy, forgetting the divine mission received from Christ.”
The West was also outraged by the cardinal’s obvious torture and imprisonment. Sam Rayburn, the Democratic speaker of the house, spoke for many Americans when he declared that the “Christian world cannot help but be shocked over the verdict.”
Even atheistic leftists defended the priest. Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary for the Labor government, denounced the regime’s repudiation of justice and civil liberty. The Hungarian diplomats stationed in the United States were outraged by the verdict and resigned in protest.
Hardly a religious paper, the New York Times nevertheless characterized him as “an intractable uncompromising foe of both Fascism and Communism.”
Sidney Hook, a former Marxist turned secular anti-Communist, saw the verdict as an outrage and praised the cardinal as an authentic foe of totalitarianism in any form. George Orwell, no religious figure, praised the cardinal for showing how one can restore the idea of good and evil without religious justifications.
But there were some “useful idiots” who supported the verdict. Journalist George Seldes defended the Hungarian party line. He blasted Mindszenty as a supporter of Nazism and a vicious anti-Semite.
Mindszenty remained in prison until the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Released, he vocally supported the anti-Communist rebels who briefly took power. He also broadcast his support of anti-Communist movements worldwide.
In a radio broadcast to the world, he blasted Communism in political terms: He supported, he said, a “democratic, constitutional government under international control” and “private property rights rightly and justly limited by social interests.”
He praised the rebellion: “The [Communist] system was swept away by the entire Hungarian people.… This was a fight for freedom unparalleled in the world, with the young generation at the fore of our people.”
But he had to seek refuge when the Soviet army crushed the insurgents eight hours later. He fled to the American Embassy in Budapest, where he stayed until 1971, despite many urging him to leave Hungary (embassy officials, fearing their staff was penetrated by Soviet agents, never left him alone). Afterward he moved to Vienna, where he died in 1975. The Hungarian regime refused to have him buried in Hungary. Only when the Soviet regime collapsed was he reburied there.
At first glance Mindszenty would seem merely part of a long line of religious opponents of world Communism. But his example had political overtones, which explained the support given him by atheists and leftists. His arrests by Fascist and Communist regimes showed how it was possible to oppose both. His activism on behalf of the Jewish people in Nazi-controlled Hungary during World War II contradicted his forced confession of his anti-Semitism.
Conservative columnist John O’Sullivan expressed it best about how politically important Mindszenty’s trial was to the cause of anti-totalitarianism: “Yet when a final judgment of the cardinal’s historical significance is made, it will surely conclude that his time as a prisoner of the Communists was the greatest period of his life. It was certainly the most influential since it informed the world of the nature of Stalinist Communism in the most dramatic forms. His trial contained many elements that subsequently became familiar as the cold war continued. There was, for instance, its revelation of the character of the Stalinist show trial and thus of Stalinism—something the Western allies had forgotten about or repressed in the wartime years when ‘Uncle Joe’ was our principal ally. There was the phenomenon of ‘brainwashing,’ about which we talked about a great deal at the time: getting someone to believe in his own guilt by a combination of brutality, deprivation of sleep, and constant argument from skilled interrogators. It seemed almost a form of witchcraft, and it was certainly a technique admirably suited to witch-hunting. There was the absurdity of the charges—they included the allegation that he [Mindszenty] was plotting to steal the crown jewels and hand them over to Otto von Habsburg in an effort to restore the monarchy and give himself political power as the leading cleric in a Catholic state. Such absurdities were a common feature of Stalinist show trials.”
In this age of “fake news,” “enhanced interrogation,” and social media assassinations, it is more important than ever to nurture the rights of conscience and truth and take note of those like Mindszenty who push back.
Article Author: Ron Capshaw
Ron Capshaw is a journalist and freelance writer in Midlothian, Virginia.