ALLIED SUPERVISION OF RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION
By the summer of 1946, eighteen months after the provisional Hungarian government had signed the armistice with the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States, the two Western powers on the Allied Control Commission (ACC) had long established a pattern of credulity, passivity and occasional collaboration regarding Soviet strategy in Hungary. This pattern came to a head that summer when the Soviets launched a landmark attack on Christian organisations. And as the precedents for a fifty-year long suppression of Hungarian Christianity were set under Allied jurisdiction, the British and American representatives quibbled about procedure and acquiesced in the substance.
Both Hungarian Communists and their Soviet masters had learned by the post-war period that a quick and overt assault on the Churches would backfire and impede their progress. It had also been the relentless Soviet and local Communist tactic in 1945 and 1946 to label, condemn and put pressure on anything that diverted from their wishes on the basis that it was reactionary and represented the forces of reaction. These vague but powerful concepts, in this context, meant a conflation of fascism and Nazism, on the one hand, and the traditional Hungarian ruling structure, which the catastrophic conclusion to the war had demolished, on the other. The Soviet occupiers had played an early and crucial part in finalising that destruction when they imposed their own sweeping and ill-considered “land reform” programme in the spring of 1945.
No political parties or players in this post-war Hungary could or did claim allegiance to Hungary’s aristocratic and constitutional heritage. The main non-Communist party, Független Kisgazdapárt (Independent Smallholders’ Party) – whose huge popularity in the elections of 1945 demonstrated the Hungarian aversion to Soviet-backed Marxism – could not be accurately described as politically conservative. They had desperately struggled against the former system, also seeking radical land reform for their huge peasant constituency, and, in the inter-war years, had been suppressed and marginalised by the government.
But they were also culturally conservative, and supportive of Hungary’s Christian roots. There was, in fact, a long and vibrant history of culturally conservative and socially reformist thought in Hungary, which was inconvenient for Communists, who wished to dispatch the baby with the bathwater.
In particular, Communists were concerned with the unbroken influence of the historical Churches – Catholic, Reformed and Lutheran – and Christian morality over social and educational life. Indeed, after the war, leaders of pre-war Christian youth organisations “were among the first to mobilise their members”, Cornelius notes. “By the end of February  the Hungarian Scout Movement had been reactivated”, while, as early as December 1944, Jenő Kerkai, the Jesuit founder of KALOT, “received permission from leaders of the Hungarian Front as well as the Communist leadership to restart the youth organisation, and Catholic youth leaders began hiking through the villages to organise peasant youth.” KALOT (Katolikus Agrárifjúsági Legényegyesületek Országos Testülete: National Board of Catholic Agrarian-Youth Boys’ Associations), formed in the inter-war period, had advocated a break from the previous system, while seeking to lift peasants from poverty and strengthen folk and Christian traditions. “No Catholic group did as much as this one”, Kenez assesses, “to bring about some sort of modus vivendi between the Church and the new regime.”1
This made the likes of KALOT more, not less, dangerous to the Communists, who brooked no competition for hearts and minds, and had most leverage in positioning themselves as the only viable and authentic alterative to both fascism and feudalism. Therefore, KALOT became an increasing target of Communist attacks in the summer of 1946. At the beginning of May, Szabad Nép asserted that members of both the Smallholders’ youth organisation and KALOT were part of a fascist terrorist organisation. On 18 May, Szabad Nép claimed that a KALOT group in Abony were hatching an armed royalist coup.2 The attempt to link KALOT, the Scouts (named Cserkészszövetség in Hungary), and similar groups with the incompatible causes of royal restoration and fascism – as well as armed conspiracies to advance them – became relentless.
It was on 17 June 1946 that the Soviets and domestic Communists seized upon a means of turning the propaganda campaign into a crackdown. We will likely never be certain what occurred on that Monday in Pest, near Oktogon on Teréz Boulevard, so shrouded are the events in propaganda and confusion. At the very least it seems clear that two Soviet servicemen, an officer and a soldier, were shot in the vicinity of the Edison Café at 24 Teréz Boulevard in the late afternoon. In his memoir written two years later, Ferenc Nagy, who learned of the incident when he returned from leading a delegation to the US, insisted that an “investigation proved that the assassin was a member of the Social Democratic Youth, and that it was a crime passionnel”.
László Révffy, who worked for the Smallholders’ Party in an office above the Edison Café, later testified to looking out the window after hearing shots fired, to see the two Soviets dead on the ground with another standing by armed with a gun. Immediately going downstairs to question the Edison’s proprietor, Révffy learned of an argument between the soldiers over a Hungarian woman, which supposedly resulted in the shooting. Then, when the Soviet military police arrived, Révffy claims, they shot at those overlooking the scene from the apartments above the Boulevard, wounding the young Hungarian man who would, as we will see, later be blamed for the deaths. Other accounts have identified the woman allegedly central to the dispute as a waitress.3 None of these accounts can be categorically affirmed. But we can be sure that the incident was portrayed by the Communists as an act of fascist terrorism emanating from youth organisations.
Two days later, on 19 June, the front page of Szabad Nép proclaimed the headline: “Outrageous Fascist Assassination on Teréz Boulevard”. After prominently identifying “a Russian officer and a Hungarian working class girl” as the target, and, without explanation, interpreting the incident as an attack by “the enemies of the Hungarian people’s freedom” who “lost their land”, the article breathlessly recounted how ÁVO (Államvédelmi Osztály: State Security Department) and Soviet officers tracked down the assassin in the loft of 15 Teréz Boulevard. The description of the alleged culprit that they found was both specific and vague. He was seventeen, the report informed readers, dressed expensively, and was a member of either KALOT or the Scouts. Although the paper claims the boy was found dead, having set himself (or been set) on fire, the large photo of him that adorned the piece showed a bloodied and swollen face with only the chin and right shoulder appearing to be charred. While the same day’s report in Magyar Nemzet spoke of a “fascist terror attack”, it mainly restricted itself to reproducing the ÁVO’s report, which made no mention of the assassin’s membership in KALOT or the Scouts.4
But in the following day’s Szabad Nép, the moral of the Communist angle became abundantly clear, with the front page given over to a commentary entitled, “Youth and Democracy”. “In the Horthy era”, it began, “the schools were the hotbeds of fascism, and the youth of intellectuals were the commandos of fascism.” Reactionaries were seeking to oppose democracy, it claimed, through KALOT and other “right-wing youth organisations”. Equating criticism of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union with fascism, the piece’s central thrust was that the previous era’s means of raising young people had inculcated in them so-called “counter-revolutionary” principles, leaving the youth unable to foster “democracy”. Painting a grim picture of both young people’s commitment to democracy and a supposedly rampant fascist underground, it logically paved the way for a crackdown on religious youth organisations and religious schools by painting both as breeding grounds of fascist and reactionary violence.5
On Friday 21 June, the two Soviets were commemorated and buried as if they had been Hungarian heroes, and Szabad Nép pushed their commentary forward another stage. Under the banner – “Retribution!” – the Communist paper argued that action was now needed to prevent future murders; and this was not only a task for the political police. “It is time to finally put an end to any open or disguised attack on Soviet-friendly Hungarian politics in our democratic political life”, it urged, claiming the assassination as a vindication of its call for “retaliatory democracy”. Even though the piece stated that the police had identified the assassin, it was another fortnight before the identity was announced. While Magyar Nemzet simply reported on 4 July that the political police had professed the assassin to be a technology student with a “fascist mind-set” named István Pénzes, who had volunteered for the short-lived “Hunyadi” division of the Waffen SS during the siege of Budapest, Szabad Nép added (or conjured) sensational details. According to the Communists, Pénzes had practiced shooting daily at his urban home on Lehel Road, and had demonstrated his admiration for Hitler with numerous portraits of the German dictator.6
All this was setting the stage: on 7 July, General Sviridov summoned Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy and handed him a letter, in Russian, containing seven demands. The most prominent was that the Hungarian government dissolve “pro-Fascist” youth organisations, including the Scouts and KALOT. Furthermore, when Nagy spoke with the Communist Interior Minister, László Rajk, he learned that Rajk had already received this instruction while Nagy was abroad. Either way, Nagy could only try to mitigate the order, by arranging with Rajk to dissolve the organisations with a view to letting them re-organise; a compromise that was either ignored or eventually resulted in some emasculated replacements. As US Ambassador Schoenfeld reported, following a conversation with István Balogh from the Prime Minister’s Office, the cabinet regarded the demands as having been “made in [the] name of [the] ACC”.7
This was troublesome for the American and British representatives on the ACC, who had, as was usually the case, been neither consulted before nor informed after this major Soviet directive to the Hungarian government. The US representative, General George H. Weems, who had recently replaced General Key, was unofficially aware of the letter and its demands on the day Nagy received it. Informing the War Department of the contents, he concluded that “interference by Russians in Hungarian national politics has now reached point where Government crisis may result shortly”.8 Then, on 15 July, British General Edgcumbe wrote to Sviridov, protesting the issuing of these orders without the prior consultation and agreement of the US and UK representatives, and requested the suspension of the orders. At the ACC meeting later that day, Sviridov replied that “the requests contained in his letter to the Hungarian Prime Minister […] emanated from the Soviet High Command and not from the ACC. He stressed that he was merely acting as an intermediary in this matter for the Soviet High Command, and said that he could give no further information on this subject at present.” Edgcumbe correctly replied that, since the substance of the letter addressed activities that were violations of the armistice agreement, this was clearly a matter for the full ACC.9 The issue was not closed.
At Edgcumbe’s request, a special ACC meeting was called for 24 July to address the affair. But it was clear from the beginning that the Western representatives wished only to discuss the procedural issue. Before Sviridov had even defended the directives, Weems “said that his government had instructed him to take up this matter and stressed that it was not a case of actually questioning the existence of Fascist activities but of protesting against the unilateral action taken”. A reservation of judgement would have been in order, since Sviridov then launched upon a series of fantastical allegations, for which no evidence was offered.
Sviridov maintained that “more than 50 Red Army officers or soldiers had been killed or died of wounds on account of terrorist activities, and the main organisations concerned” included both KALOT and the Scouts – “these organisations had been trying to recruit and educate individuals in the Hitler-Fascist manner and were actually believed to be working in conjunction with German Nazi organisations”. According to Sviridov, since September 1945 KALOT and others “had been raising armed terrorist groups in various towns”. Identifying István Pénzes as both the assassin of 17 July and a Scout, Sviridov continued by claiming that inside the Scouts, “a special terrorist group” called the Storm Brigade of Bajcsy-Zsilinszky had been attacking Red Army vehicles. It was a particularly low blow to name this fictitious terrorist group after the anti-Nazi hero of the Smallholders, Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, who had been part of the resistance, resisted when arrested by the Nazis, and was executed in December 1944.
These were charges in keeping with the lurid propaganda of Szabad Nép, not serious investigation, but none of them were questioned at the ACC meeting, none of them were challenged. Weems and Edgcumbe had desired the chance to discuss the substance according to the terms of the Armistice and ACC statutes, but, here, with an ACC meeting devoted to it, they had nothing to say about the spurious justifications being used to support the banning of Christian organisations. At the end of Sviridov’s presentation, the Western representatives returned to their central concern – the original letter from Sviridov to Nagy, Edgcumbe repeated, “should have been discussed at an ACC meeting before despatch”.10 As with much else in the previous eighteen months, this assault on Christian organisations would proceed without protest from the Western Allies – without succour granted to the Hungarians seeking to hang on against the storm of Soviet-backed Communist pressure.
“Victory in a great war is something that must be won and kept won”, President Truman cautioned the American people in a radio address following the Potsdam Conference. “It can be lost after you have won it – if you are careless or negligent or indifferent.” But what would it take to carefully secure the goals and aims of the Second World War? For the United States and the United Kingdom, it partly seemed to require, in the early months, close and uncritical cooperation with the Soviet Union, based on the delusion that the three great powers shared compatible aims for post-war Europe. In reality, they had been united in little more than a need to defeat Nazi Germany – and even this, in the Soviet case, had only come about after a two-year wartime alliance with Hitler. But Western leaders had, during the war, repeatedly and counter-factually convinced themselves and others of a broad and idealistic bond between themselves and Stalin, and then, after the war, allowed this assumption to guide them in the structures they established and the policies they pursued.
Across Europe, numerous hypocrisies and lingering injustices were founded upon this basis. In Hungary, fifty years of Soviet occupation and the suppression of Hungarian life and culture were established under what was legally Allied jurisdiction for which the Allies were jointly responsible. “These nations are not to be spheres of influence of any one power”, Truman said of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria in the above quoted August 1945 speech. “They are now governed by Allied control commissions composed of representatives of the three governments […]. Until these states are re-established as members of the international family, they are the joint concern of all of us.” But in the first eighteen months after the armistice, Western concern was less common within the ACC then credulity and passivity, as well as an active commitment to rebuffing pro-Western Hungarians within government, fatally weakening them.
While the Communists received every benefit from their Soviet sponsors, Western representatives too often acted as if pedantically standing aloof could produce a fair outcome. Day after day, they maintained a level-playing field that existed only in their minds. There were exceptions to this approach, most notably from the US political representative, and then ambassador, Arthur Schoenfeld. But during the occupation, the military representatives on the ACC were far more consequential than diplomats. Generals Key and Weems, in this initial period, did not reflect Schoenfeld’s nuanced and perceptive views.
And it was not merely a case of Western passivity creating an opening for a focused and purposeful Soviet approach in Hungary. During the war, the Western Allies had supported plans for widespread ethnic cleansing in post-war Europe – a policy that the Soviets enthusiastically advocated along with, most notably for Hungary, the nominally victorious Czechoslovak state. Once these opportunities came to fruition, the US and the UK, despite abstract proclamations to the contrary, actively and crucially facilitated the brutal expulsion of millions of Germans across Central and Eastern Europe, according to principles of de facto collective ethnic punishment. Although the numbers in Hungary paled beside those of Czechoslovakia and Poland, this Western support for German expulsion, sealed at Potsdam, assisted Soviet and Hungarian Communist efforts, while defeating the non-Communist Hungarians who resisted this self-evident injustice. Although the Western Allies would eventually turn against the cruel wave of expulsions – too late for most Polish and Czechoslovak Germans and in time for about half of Hungary’s – they were essential collaborators in its vicious and deceptive beginning. And their acceptance of the Soviet lie that Swabian expulsion was a Hungarian initiative, which still finds serious advocates today, was a microcosm of Soviet success in diverting criticism for Soviet policies onto the dependent Hungarian government.
The Soviets had been confident that the elections, which they insisted upon and rushed to implement in November 1945, would deliver the Hungarian government smoothly into compliant hands. But the Hungarian Communists, despite all the advantages given them by the occupier, were soundly thrashed across the country. After this – as the Communists who retained a grip on half the cabinet pressured and pressed Ferenc Nagy and his allies – the Allied Control Commission became, if anything, even more essential as a legitimising instrument of Soviet and Communist control. The banning of books and legitimate criticism, the punishment of citizens without evidence, the enslavement of civilians, the victimisation of religious associations, and much more took place under its auspices. And, in the end, the post-treaty return to full independence that Nagy had been holding out for only became a trigger for the complete subordination of Hungary to the Soviets and their domestic agents. By the time this occurred in 1947 and 1948, the Western Allies had grown estranged from their erstwhile friends in Moscow. But the condemnations of the early Cold War came too late for Hungary.
1 Deborah S. Cornelius, Hungary in World War Two: Caught in the Cauldron (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 394–395; Peter Kenez, Hungary from the Nazis to the Soviets: The Establishment of the Communist Regime in Hungary, 1944–1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 279; Gergely Szilvay, “A Century of Christian Youth Movements in Hungary”, Hungarian Review, Volume VIII. No. 4 (July 2017).
2 “Háborúra spekuláltak a fasiszta terrorszervezetek budapesti és vidéki vezetői” [Budapest and provincial leaders of Fascist terror organisations were counting on a war], Szabad Nép (5 May 1946); “Az abonyi hittanár és társai király puccsot szerveztek” [A religious instructor of Abony and his accomplices were planning a royalist putsch], Szabad Nép (18 May 1946).
3 Ferenc Nagy, The Struggle behind the Iron Curtain (New York: MacMillan, 1948), 239; “A Teréz körúti gyilkosság politikai hozadéka” [The political returns of the Teréz Boulevard killing], HVG (16 February 2007): https://hvg.hu/velemeny/20070215_terez; László Révffy, “Teréz körút, 1946. június 17.” [Teréz Boulevard 17 June 1946], Historia, 1998/9–10., 64–65.
4 “Felháborító fasiszta orvgyilkosság a Teréz-körúton” [Revolting Fascist assassination on Teréz Boulevard], Szabad Nép (19 June 1946); “A politikai rendőrség jelentése a Téréz körúti fasiszta terrormerénylétről” [Statement of the political police on the Teréz Boulevard terrorist killing], Magyar Nemzet (19 June 1946).
5 Gyula Kállai, “Ifjúság és Demokrácia” [Youth and Democracy], Szabad Nép (20 June 1946).
6 “Hunyadi-páncélos a Teréz-körúti gyilkos” [The Teréz Boulevard murderer belonged to the Hunyadi armoured division], Szabad Nép (4 July 1946); “Hivatalos jelentés a Teréz-körúti merényletről” [Official statement on the Teréz Boulevard killing], Magyar Nemzet (4 July 1946).
7 “The Minister in Hungary (Schoenfeld) to the Secretary of State” (10 July 1946) FRUS: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1946v06/d224; Ibid., (11 July 1946) FRUS: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1946v06/d225; Ibid., (11 July [Second] 1946) FRUS: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1946v06/d226; Nagy, 240–242.
8 “The Chief of the United States Representation on the Allied Control Commission for Hungary (Weems) to the War Department” (7 July 1946) FRUS: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1946v06/d223
9 Letter from Edgcumbe to Sviridov (15 July 1946), FOA: FO 371/58966; British Military Mission Notes of ACC Meeting on 15 July 1946, FOA: FO 371/58966. These and other documents refer to Sviridov’s letter to Nagy being dated 28 June. Since Nagy was still out of the country at this stage, it is likely that the letter which Sviridov handed to Nagy on 7 July had been written on and dated 28 June.
10 British Military Mission Notes of ACC Meeting on 24 July 1946, FOA: FO 371/58966.