15 July 2019

Cardinal József Mindszenty: Remembering a Hungarian Patriot and Man of Heroic Christian Virtue

"Let us honour – and remember – Cardinal József Mindszenty for his fidelity to truth, faith and country during the age of ideology. The Church in its wisdom (and it is not yet bereft of wisdom) has deemed this great man worthy of veneration. Many of us – students of Mindszenty and totalitarianism alike – had come to that conclusion a very long time ago. May he soon be declared a saint."

There is not much good news coming out of Rome today. The “Franciscan” Church is wracked by immense moral and theological confusion (some of it deliberately sown by the present Pontiff) and a tendency to “kneel before the world”, as Jacques Maritain strikingly put it in his 1966 The Peasant of the Garonne. But on 13 February 2019, came news that ought to warm the hearts of all faithful and morally serious Christians and people of good will: Blessed John Henry Newman (one of the outstanding Catholic intellects of all time) is to be canonised, and Cardinal József Mindszenty (1892–1975), one of the anti- totalitarian titans of the 20th century, has been named “Venerable”, a crucial first step on the way to beatification. Scores of others will undoubtedly speak of Newman, so today I will concentrate on the almost forgotten greatness and heroism of the Prince Primate of Hungary. Mindszenty, once well-known but now largely forgotten in the West, if not in Hungary, is being honoured by the Church for his “heroic Christian virtue”. As much as anyone, he defended liberty, human dignity and religious freedom against the totalitarian movements and regimes that subjugated East Central Europe during the worst years of the 20th century.

The recent news regarding Cardinal Mindszenty sent me back to his Memoirs, begun while Mindszenty was a “guest” in the American Embassy in Budapest between 1956 and 1971. The book was published in many languages, including Hungarian, German, English, French and Italian, in 1974, the year before Mindszenty’s death. It is the work of a dedicated Christian and a Hungarian patriot, one who passionately loved his Church and country. The great Mindszenty despised the totalitarian ideologies, Right and Left alike, that substituted hate for love, atheism and materialism for deference to God, and political servitude for basic human liberties. The prose of his Memoirs is clear and honest, and it is characterised by an obvious and admirable moral integrity. The work is a true classic for all to whom it beckons.

Mindszenty was a victim of Béla Kun and his short- lived “Red Terror” in 1919 (the future cardinal had originally been incarcerated by the “revolutionary” government of Count Mihály Károlyi, moreradical than liberal, for, among other reasons, his work with the local Christian party). This was his first experience of arrest by a totalitarian regime. In October 1944, he was arrested again, this time by the Arrow Cross government, Hungarian Nazis who despised him and the other Hungarian bishops for condemning the persecution and deportation of Hungarian Jews. Mindszenty had also refused to quarter thuggish Arrow Cross officers in his official episcopal residence. Mindszenty had already condemned the emerging Arrow Cross Nazi party of Hungary in 1939, calling them purveyors of hate who were no better than the Bolsheviks. As bishop of Veszprém, he joined in the “vigorous protest”, as he called it in his Memoirs, of the Hungarian bishops against the confinement of Hungarian Jews in ghettos after the March 1944 German occupation of Hungary, a move that constituted a grievous denial of fundamental human rights and human dignity. Later in 1944 he sought the release of all baptised Jews (the best the bishops could do) and co-wrote a letter with the other bishops of western Hungary pleading with the Arrow Cross regime to prevent the region from becoming a bloody battlefield as the dreaded Soviet Red Army approached.

Even before the detestable Mátyás Rákosi and the Hungarian Communists came into uncontested power in Hungary in 1948, subjugating the centrist Smallholders’ Party once and for all, Mindszenty had fully earned his anti-totalitarian credentials. As the new Archbishop of Esztergom, the Prince Primate of Hungary (to use a traditional title he insisted on preserving), he had no illusions about either Bolshevism, as he freely called it, or Nazism. As he put it so well in his Memoirs: “Both Nazism and Bolshevism insisted that they had to penetrate our country in order to replace a faulty past by a happy new world. The Communists, in keeping with their doctrine, announced that the past had to be uncompromisingly liquidated.” Against such insane Promethean impatience and such full-fledged totalitarian mendacity, Mindszenty told the Hungarian people that he would fearlessly defend “eternal truths […] the sanctified traditions of our people”. Mindszenty, who thought of himself as a historian of sorts, had closely studied the persecution of the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches in the Soviet Union, as Document 68 in his Memoirs (“Communism and the Russian Orthodox Church”) attests. As the Cardinal wrote in that 1948 document, “all the Church’s efforts at peaceful coexistence and humiliating cooperation [with the Bolshevik state] were in vain. A kind of inner compulsion, something akin to fear of the spirit and the soul, drives it to struggle against religion.”

The party-state could tolerate nothing but complete and utter subordination of the Christian Churches to the totalitarian dominance of the Communist Party. Unlike some of his episcopal colleagues, Mindszenty did not believe that the Communists had mellowed or could ever make their peace with Christian and democratic principles. Of simple peasant stock, he was accused of being a reactionary, an anti- Semite, and a defender of privilege by Leftist apologists. The “anti-fascist” American journalist George Seldes incredibly denied Mindszenty was tortured and drugged by the ÁVO, the Hungarian secret police, after his arrest on 26 December 1948. In her syndicated column “My Day”, the rather more decent Eleanor Roosevelt was at least “agnostic” on the question of whether Mindszenty was a “fascist” and “anti-Semite” and thought it was imprudent of the Communists to arrest him. These “progressives” could see very little to criticise on the Left and habitually mistook Christian conservatives for quasi-fascists. Seldes, for his part, saw in Rákosi and Stalin admirable leaders who stood for the “emancipation” of peasants and workers everywhere. Of course, we now know from the Soviet archives that Seldes, an inveterate critic of the Catholic Church, and widely esteemed as a courageous “progressive” muckraking journalist on the Left, was a long-time “secret” member of the Communist Party as well as a Soviet agent. But, alas, some on the Left still take his lies seriously. Their technique of choice is to say that Mindszenty remains “controversial”, a euphemism if there ever was one.

Mindszenty was arrested on 26 December 1948. At 60 Andrássy Road, the dreaded secret police headquarters, he was subjected to systematic torture, deprived of sleep and massively drugged, beaten by rubber truncheons on his genitals and the rest of his body, and subjected to endless ideological propaganda. He was accused of plotting the restoration of the monarchy, heading a conspiracy to restore “fascism” and “reaction”, engaging in monetary manipulations, and all sorts of other fanciful crimes that established the Cardinal-Archbishop of Esztergom as the enemy of the people par excellence. As a result of all this, his personality was “shattered”, as he put it in his Memoirs, and he “confessed” to crimes that were phantasmagorical, to say the least. His attorney Kiczkó was complicit in the crimes of the ÁVO and the Communist Party and the farce that was Mindszenty’s show trial. It should be remembered that the Minister of Interior who presided over this cruel and sinister sham was János Kádár, who, after brutally crushing the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, would try to reinvent himself as a reformist Communist. But this “reformer” always insisted that the Catholic Church serve the ideological ends of Communism and the Hungarian party-state. Very qualified economic reforms do not make for human freedom. They are not sufficient to make room for authentic human dignity. Kádár looks worse, not better, in retrospect.

After Mindszenty’s show trial, which the entire civilised world watched in horror, Pope Pius XII spoke for all men of good will when he denounced the Hungarian dictatorship for subjecting the cardinal “to the worst humiliation” and sentencing him to prison “like a common criminal”. Pius XII spoke in defence of freedom, truth, and “the holy rights of religion”, rights that Mindszenty had fiercely defended when he protested the confiscation of the religious schools in Hungary and the Communist regime’s systematic assault on civil and religious liberty (for Pope Pius XII’s pronouncement on the fate of Mindszenty, see Document 78 in the Memoirs). In the ÁVO prison, Mindszenty lost nearly half his weight. But he agreed with Dostoevsky, that one could remain a “good”, even a “great” man in prison, even though one was inevitably confronted with terrible spiritual temptations. Mindszenty was buoyed by visits from his mother, Borbála Kovács Pehm, a woman of simple Christian faith and deep fidelity, who would also visit him during his time of relative isolation in the American Embassy in Budapest until her death in 1960.

Mindszenty was freed from prison during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and became one of its principal heroes. Premier Imre Nagy declared all the charges against him to be null and void. The liberated Cardinal spoke magnanimously to the whole Hungarian people in a radio address on 3 November 1956 (see Document 82 in the Memoirs). He declared his commitment to a constitutional state, to humane and peaceful dedication to the Hungarian nation, to “private property rightly and justly limited by social interests”, to religious freedom and the restoration of the Church’s press and schools but not its old feudal lands. These are hardly the words of a “reactionary”. His Leftist opponents, and the Kádár government that came to power after the noble revolution of 1956 was suppressed, distorted his moderate and uplifting words beyond all recognition. Some do so to this day. One sees this at “progressive” websites such as the Hungarian Spectrum (see, in particular, the postings for 14 August 2010 and 24 April 2016), in which the Cardinal is predictably associated with forces of “reaction” and “anti-Semitism”. The evidence they provide is skimpy and often relies on anti-Semitic utterances from the diocesan newspaper from the early 1920s. This is largely the evidence for Mindszenty being an “inveterate anti-Semite”, somehow complicit in the crimes of fascism. Many of the contributors to and commentators on these sites know little about Mindszenty but despise him for being a “national conservative” who is admired by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Fidesz supporters as a whole. These critics are hardly model democrats.

Taking refuge in the American Embassy as Soviet troops rolled into Budapest, Mindszenty wrote many letters during the next 15 years to American Presidents and Secretaries of State. He denounced the Kádár regime for its repression of political and religious liberty, its encouragement of genocidal levels of abortion, and its enslavement to the Soviet empire (these letters have been collected in the impressive 2013 volume Do Not Forget This Small Honest Nation). The title comes from Mindszenty’s first letter (actually a telegram) to President Eisenhower (8 November 1956) as Soviet troops were gunning down the Hungarian freedom fighters. Mindszenty movingly wrote to President Eisenhower: “I beg of you, do not forget, do not forget, do not forget this small honest nation who [sic] is enduring torture and death in the service of humanity.” The letters reveal a conscientious and faithful Catholic and a proud and committed Hungarian patriot who would never compromise with Communist ideology. Mindszenty was convinced that détente, and misplaced efforts at “peaceful coexistence”, would only strengthen the hands of the Communist tyrants. He remained a legitimist, committed to constitutional monarchy in principle (for example, he admired the perfectly decent Otto von Habsburg). He defended Hungary, to be sure, but also the liberties of all the people of East Central Europe. He spoke in the name of both Christian truth and what he called “natural rights, moral rights”. Mindszenty also lamented that so many Hungarians lived under conditions of repression in Slovakia and Transylvania. He still remembered the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 which tore Hungary apart, leaving it one third its previous size.

As Margit Balogh, the Hungarian biographer of Mindszenty, has written, “despite his mistakes and faults”, Mindszenty was a true “national hero” who “defended the values of democracy against Communist expansion”. He was a conservative, a patriot, an unabashed legitimist (all faults in the eyes of inveterate “progressives”) but also a defender of democracy and human rights. Like Solzhenitsyn, another Christian Conservative, Mindszenty was an authentic anti-totalitarian titan. But the Left will never stop playing their fascist, reactionary and anti-Semitic cards, no matter how much these distort the truth and malign a heroic Christian, patriot and exemplary citizen of Western civilisation.

Forced to leave Hungary in 1971 as a result of joint pressure from President Nixon and Pope Paul VI, whose pontificate was weak and vacillating on Communism, Mindszenty continued to speak against Communist repression as he ministered to Hungarian exile communities in the United States, Western Europe, Australia, South America and South Africa. In 1973, Paul VI vacated the position of Archbishop of Esztergom, leaving Mindszenty in what the last pages of Memoirs somewhat despondently called “complete and total exile”. Earlier, in an act of cowardice masquerading as diplomacy, Paul VI had lifted the excommunication of all those involved in the arrest, trial and persecution of Cardinal Mindszenty. And, with an Orwellian touch, the pope declared Mindszenty “a victim of history” rather than of anti-Christian totalitarianism and violence. In contrast, Pope St John Paul II saw Mindszenty for the hero he was.

Mindszenty is now the hero of the entire Hungarian people. The only exception is that small but vociferous rump of intellectuals, like those around Hungarian Spectrum, who despise the spiritual legacy of the great St Stephen, the monarch who brought the Hungarians to the Christian faith a thousand years ago and made them a great, if small, people. The world will now long remember Venerable Cardinal Mindszenty’s heroic virtue. By contrast, who even now remembers Cardinal Casaroli, the manipulative Vatican Secretary of State who pursued a naive and misplaced policy of accommodation, if not appeasement, with the Communist East? And who will remember Cardinal László Lékai, Mindszenty’s successor as Archbishop of Esztergom, who was more or less a collaborator with an ideological regime that suppressed the Church and basic human liberties? Neither will ever be confused with exemplars of “heroic Christian virtue”. Of course, the spirit of Casaroli lives on today in the decision of Pope Francis and Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin to abandon the “underground Church” in China and to give the Chinese Communist Party final say over the governance of the Chinese Church. Such alleged “realism” is neither principled, judicious, nor in accord with the spirit of Christian liberty. The Vatican’s diplomats seemingly learn nothing from the shameful mistakes of the past.

Let us honour – and remember – Cardinal József Mindszenty for his fidelity to truth, faith and country during the age of ideology. The Church in its wisdom (and it is not yet bereft of wisdom) has deemed this great man worthy of veneration. Many of us – students of Mindszenty and totalitarianism alike – had come to that conclusion a very long time ago. May he soon be declared a saint.

 

(This article is a much expanded and revised version of a piece that originally appeared at The Catholic Thing on 2 March 2019.)


 

Sources and Suggested Readings:


 

József Mindszenty’s The Mother, originally written in 1916 and published in English in 1949, has a marked “Marianist” flavour to it. It is a moving tribute to the Christian mother and to the warmth of motherly affection more broadly. It is still available in English.

Mindszenty’s Memoirs are an indispensable source for understanding the man, the hero and the saint, as well as the sources and character of his fearless Christian and national resistance to totalitarianism of the Right and the Left. It was published by MacMillan in New York in 1974 and needs to be reissued in the Anglophone world.

Do Not Forget This Small Honest Nation – Adam Somorjai and Tibor Zinner’s documentary overview of Mindszenty’s letters to four US Presidents and Secretaries of State from 1956 to 1971 – is invaluable for understanding the thought and character of Mindszenty as it revealed itself during his 15 years as a “guest” in the American Embassy in Budapest from 1956 to 1971. It was published by Xlibris in 2013 in English and is still in print.

George Seldes continued his campaign of lies against Mindszenty in his memoir Witness to a Century (Ballantine Books, 1987). It is he who deserves to be permanently discredited. For a full account of Seldes’s role as a long-time secret member of the Communist Party and Soviet agent, see John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (New Haven: Yale University Pres, 2010), pp. 169–172. See also Justin Raimondo, “Seeing Reds”, The American Conservative, 1 August 2009 (accessed online).

Those with access to the Hungarian language should read the authoritative two-volume biography of Mindszenty by Margit Balogh, Mindszenty József (1892–1975) I–II., MTA Bölcsésztudományi Kutatóközpont, 2015. The quotation from Balogh appeared in Hungarian Spectrum, 24 April 2016.






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