Cardinal József Mindszenty was almost the first post-war European figure to become a symbolic victim of totalitarianism. His arrest and trial were almost simultaneous with the Greek crisis, the Truman declaration and the Czech communist coup that between them marked the start of the Cold War. He was selected by the Hungarian communists under Mátyás Rákosi to be an example of the allegedly criminal past and to establish the permanence of their new order. They succeeded instead in erecting a vast international question mark against their rule.

It is right that the House of Terror Museum should devote a conference to the Cardinal’s significance. He is only now being given the significance in Hungarian history that his courage and steadfastness deserve. But it gave me a macabre feeling to realise that the conference proceedings took place in the very building in which the Cardinal had been beaten and brutalised. I am never quite sure of the status of exorcism in current Catholic thinking, but I am fairly sure that the distinguished prelates at the conference would agree that Dr Mária Schmidt’s establishment of the Museum in that building has exorcised some very unpleasant ghosts.

It may seem odd that I took such an interest in Cardinal Mindszenty since I was only six when he was arrested. The explanation is simple. I was brought up in a Catholic home in Liverpool, where we took the Catholic weekly newspaper, The Universe, which covered the communist takeover of Central Europe in general and the communist attack on religion in particular. So I was well aware of Cardinal’s fate and of the injustice done to him. Indeed, because this attack was directed against a Cardinal, the entire Catholic world was gripped by a drama that might otherwise have been of interest only to a small number of politically sophisticated people. And what a drama it was!

A single, slim, ascetic priest against the might of an empire – but he has God on his side. For a moment the Devil wins; the Cardinal confesses. But he has forecast his own weakness in the face of torture, confessed his sin in advance so to speak, and his sentence is quickly followed by a Papal ruling of excommunication against all connected with his trial. One might suppose that an officially atheist regime would be indifferent to excommunication; they might even scoff at its medieval flavour. Not at all. The Papal bull of excommunication becomes something that the Hungarian communists want withdrawn (for whatever odd reason of their own). Even as the Cardinal heads for prison, they agitate against it. And that is only the first act of a three act play. There are still two more thrilling acts to come – in which we shall encounter cowardice, betrayal and the end of noble work.

In a sense that drama is not over; it continues posthumously. There are many people who would be happy to see the Cardinal forgotten, and not all of them are on the Left. He was not always a comfortable companion for his allies and co- religionists. He insisted on truths and prerogatives that many anti-communists and many Catholics would like to have relegated to the attic along with old toys and broken doctrines. He believed he had been given the responsibility for eternal truths, and he was never prepared to dilute those truths, let alone to exchange them for fashionable opinions or to subject them to Machiavellian calculations. He was given strength of character but also the understanding to realise that the strongest can be broken. In the more subtle tests to which he was later exposed, he did not break. Indeed, he scarcely bent when he might reasonably have done so. Let us see why and what were the results.


The life of József Mindszenty as a historical public figure – his earlier biography was covered by others at the conference – falls somewhat neatly into four segments. The first is his time as Bishop of Veszprém in the Second World War when, among other things, he opposed the deportations of Jews from Hungary, gave shelter to Jewish refugees, and was imprisoned by the fascist Arrow Cross government for refusing the entry of their troops into the Episcopal home. When he was appointed Bishop of Esztergom and thus Primate of Hungary, he already enjoyed national stature and had demonstrated firm authority. He promptly used this authority to defend the Church, in particular Church schools, against the post-war communist-dominated governments.

The second period was, of course, from 1948 to 1956 when he was arrested, tortured, tried, convicted of various trumped-up charges, and imprisoned by the Rákosi government. János Kádár was the apparatchik most responsible for the judicial process (if judicial is the right word) that persecuted the Cardinal. This period of eight years was in my view the most significant and influential period of the Cardinal’s life. I shall return to it later to argue why.

The third period was his second imprisonment from 1956 to 1971 when he took refuge in the US Embassy in Budapest following the Soviet invasion and re-imposition of communist rule, this time under Kádár’s ruthless but shrewd leadership. For the embassy the Cardinal was a minor nuisance. He took up a lot of room in what was then quite a small embassy building, and a junior embassy official had the task of rounding up American Catholics visiting Budapest to attend his Sunday mass. But he was an excellent symbol of America’s protection of religious liberty. His imprisonment was the work of Kádár who was hostile to the idea that his captive should be allowed out of the embassy to any destination other than a prison – unless he and the Vatican effectively agreed that his original conviction had been fair and just. This no one was prepared to do at first.

Indeed, this stand-off was initially quite acceptable to the Church and to the US government. From both their standpoints, it served to remind the world of the true nature of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes. It gave America the kudos of providing sanctuary to a Cardinal. And it gave the Church a living martyr. Martyrdom is not a pleasant experience for the martyr, of course; Mindszenty was still in a prison – a comfortable prison, to be sure, but one in which he was still deprived of liberty. Kádár and the Hungarian communists, on the other hand, were trapped by their own ruthlessness. They could not release him without loss of face; and if they kept him in the embassy, they inadvertently glorified him up as the world’s foremost prisoner of conscience. All that they could hope was that, given the passage of time, the Cardinal would become a burden to the Americans and an obstacle to the Vatican – and so be quietly eased off the world stage.

In the fourth period of his life, 1971 to 1975, that is more or less what happened. In a series of manoeuvres the Cardinal was pushed semi-voluntarily into exile. The price for his release was his description by the Vatican as “a victim of history” which is either a weasel phrase or a capitulation to Marxist theories of history. He was allowed to write his memoirs but deprived of his ecclesiastical title. The government of the Church of Hungary was turned over to other and more flexible hands. These steps did not turn out exactly as intended. Mindszenty turned this exile to good account by touring Hungarian communities throughout the world, telling them of the current state of Hungary and the continued, if milder, persecution of the Church and the faithful. He therefore continued to be an obstacle to Kádár’s government, then attempting to establish its respectability with Western governments and investors – and to a lesser extent an obstacle to the Vatican attempting to mend relations with Kádár. After a short period he died in exile, this time unbroken, but also unhappy because the Church had taken a wrong turning in its dealings with the Hungarian government, with the Soviet Union, and with the armed doctrine of Marxism.


In his history of the idea of the West, From Plato to Nato, David Gress, the Danish historian, sees Western intellectual and progressive opinion in the period from the early 1930s up to the recent present as swinging between two poles – Anti-Fascism on the Left and Anti-Totalitarianism on the Right – in reaction to world events. Most of the 1930s was marked by a strong current of Anti-Fascism with the Popular Front being its main expression. The Nazi-Soviet pact brought in two years of Anti- Totalitarianism in response to the open alliance of the twin totalitarian powers. Operation Barbarossa ended that with a bang, but it also produced 6–7 years of Anti-Fascism in the official form of the wartime alliance. The onset of the Cold War brought that too to an end. We then had an extended period of Anti-Totalitarianism from 1947 until the 1960s when a modern variant of Anti-Fascism appeared under the name of Anti-Imperialism. In the United States, that period began with opposition to the Vietnam war. It began somewhat earlier in Europe with a series of events: de Gaulle’s distancing from the United States, the rise of Italian and German terrorism, the spread of revolutionary movements across Western Europe, the gradual drift of social democratic parties to the Left and towards a more fraternal relationship with the communist and neo-communist Left, and eventually with Europe’s own opposition to America’s war in Vietnam. This produced the phenomenon of moral equivalence on the European Left: if the Soviet Union was illegitimate because it was totalitarian, the United States was illegitimate because it was imperialist. From a post-1989 perspective such a comparison is transparently fraudulent and even dishonest; at the time it was the height of West European sophistication.

Mindszenty’s prestige rose and fell in line with these movements of political, usually progressive, opinion. In that sense he was a victim of history. When Anti- Totalitarianism was in vogue, he was generally seen in the West as a hero; when anti-Fascism or anti-Imperialism became the fashionable ideology, he was at best an irrelevance, at worst an embarrassment. Though these swings of opinion took place in the world of the progressive intelligentsia, they influenced both governments and the Church. Their influence on governments could be seen in the higher priority that all Western governments placed on détente or rapprochement with the USSR during periods of Anti-Fascism such as the 1970s.

This influence on Western governments turned out to be temporary, if not superficial, as Reagan and Thatcher later demonstrated when they rejected it and embarked on a stronger anti-Soviet policy. In the case of the Catholic Church, however, the influence was deeper and it took two forms.

Intellectually, the 1960s saw the growth of several movements seeking to reconcile Catholic teaching with Marxism. The most extreme of them was liberation theology which sought to interpret Christianity as a kind of metaphor for Marxism with the proletariat as the Church, Das Kapital as the gospels, and revolution as salvation. But there were also more moderate Christian–Marxist dialogues scattered through Western Europe. And these ideas became fashionable at all levels. The Church became far more critical of capitalism than of socialism, far more protective towards the Third World than towards the West. Social encyclicals during this period, such as Populorum Progressio, had a definite left-wing flavour to them even if it was sometimes qualified in the footnotes. Like the drift leftwards of social democratic parties, the atmosphere of Catholic thought became less harsh towards communism and the communist world, less friendly to the United States and to the concept of the West. That ideological drift removed or at least softened one obstacle to a new Vatican diplomacy towards the communist world.

But this new Vatican Ostpolitik also seemed desirable on other and very different grounds – namely, the grounds of realpolitik. The Vatican wanted to improve the position of the Church in communist countries in all sorts of practical ways. It wanted to open seminaries, to reduce official discrimination against Catholics, to have the communist authorities recognise Catholic bishops, and in general to work within the laws and practices of communist states that it had shunned in the 1950s. It embarked on its own version of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik because, like other currents of opinion in the West, notably social democratic opinion, it believed that the communist governments had strong roots and even legitimacy in popular support. The Church began to accept therefore that Soviet domination and communist rule were permanent facts of life. It would have to live with them.

Those arguing for this policy did not lack plausible justifications. One, as we have seen, was a wish to improve the conditions in which the Church lived under communism in order to preach the gospel more effectively. A second was the desire for peace which in a world of nuclear weapons was readily understandable. Even if communist governments were repressive, risking nuclear war to overthrow them seemed to be a much worse evil. Finally, the growing intellectual prestige of Marxism inside and outside the Church – described above – made this new Vatican diplomacy intellectually simpatico.

“We will never know”, wrote Georges Bernanos, “how many acts of cowardice have been committed out of the fear of being thought insufficiently progressive”. It is at least possible that the Vatican’s Ostpolitik was one such act of cowardice.

Whatever the force of that critique, Ostpolitik was not a policy to the taste of Cardinal Mindszenty. He did not believe that the communist governments in Central Europe had strong roots in popular support. Nor did he think that they were a permanent fact of life that could force the Church to make political concessions to them in order to carry out its pastoral duties. If he had been released into Hungary, he would have sabotaged this new policy even if he had tried loyally to carry it out. From the US Embassy – and later from exile – he was an obstacle to the policy simply by virtue of his status as Primate of Hungary. And that explains the slightly shabby manoeuvres that exiled him to Vienna until his death in 1975.

In retrospect Mindszenty was posthumously vindicated within a decade of his death by John Paul II who, both before and during his papacy, carried out a strategy of cultural resistance towards communism that undermined and eventually overthrew it. The Church of Poland had always been more resistant to Soviet communism than other Central European Churches because of its immense social power inside Poland. Neither Karol Wojtyla nor the great Primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszyński, believed that Poland’s communist government was a permanent and unavoidable reality. Neither of them believed in the permanence of the Yalta division of Europe. And when Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, he embarked upon a radically subversive diplomacy at variance with the cautious acceptance of the European status quo that had marked the policy of his recent predecessors.

This contrast between the visionary Polish Pope and his more cautious diplomatic advisors is shown in miniature in his 1983 visit to Poland when the country was suffering the worst of the regime’s repression. Here is a brief excerpt from my own account in The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister:

John Paul’s pilgrimage to Poland in June 1983, which was allowed by the regime to demonstrate that normalisation was working, had exactly the opposite effect. On arrival his grim demeanour and condemnation of the “humiliation” and “suffering” of martial law told Poles that he shared their agonies. “He is sad. You see, he understands”, a woman told a reporter. In the days that followed, however, he began to change the national atmosphere. His sermons argued that to tell the truth was the first step to liberation. This was a moral rather than a political point. But it undermined the regime’s official myths that communist power was permanent and there could be no return to pre-martial law days. He insisted over official objections on meeting Lech Wałęsa. He told Jaruzelski that any “renewal” (the regime’s word) of Polish society had to begin with his acceptance of the Gdańsk accords. He repeatedly used what Weigel calls the “unsayable” word, solidarity, in sermons. He engaged in public dialogues with large crowds in which he urged them with fruitful ambiguity to “persevere in Hope”.

Not all churchmen liked this dissidence in clerical garb. Cardinal Casaroli, the practitioner of realpolitik, asked at one point: “Does he want bloodshed? Does he want war? Does he want to overthrow the government? Every day I have to explain to the authorities that there is nothing to this?” But there was something to it. By the time the pilgrimage was over, the Pope had cracked the regime’s façade of unshakable power. He had aligned the Church with Solidarity, dispersing the regime’s hope of a separate peace with religion. He had restored the people’s hope and trust in each other that his election had originally stimulated. In short he had created the social conditions for underground Solidarity to survive and challenge the regime.

Cardinal Mindszenty was not there to see this – nor the gradual surrender of communism in the Hungary of 1988–89. But these events vindicated his years in the US embassy and the power he had then exercised from his apparent impotence as a prisoner.

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 “brain washing” 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 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 which communist foreign ministers would admit to having been recruited to the British secret service by such figures as the playwright Noel Coward, author of the song Mad Dogs and Englishmen.

So the Cardinal’s trial was, among other things, an introduction to the nightmare world of totalitarian politics where nothing was substantial, real, trustworthy, or reliable – except apparently the brutal power that sustained the whole mad and lying enterprise.

It inspired in particular what is today a rare understanding and sympathy for the Church in the artistic community. Hollywood made a very competent, largely accurate, and somewhat sentimental film starring Charles Bickford, then an established Hollywood star, as the Cardinal. The film had flaws but it spread the basic truth of his trial to a vast audience.

Bridget Boland’s play, The Prisoner, later filmed with Sir Alec Guinness in the leading role, was a more serious artistic and intellectual enterprise. It was built around the moral and intellectual duel between the Mindszenty figure (not named as such) and a principled communist interrogator who admires him but is determined to break him for the cause of preserving people’s faith in the regime. Thus, it had the usual feature of such films identified by George Jonas (in his review of a later film Sunshine) as follows: “In such films the fascist thugs are simply thugs, but the communist thugs are figures of intriguing moral complexity.” Still, the device is a legitimate one dramatically, and it enables the playwright to deal with one central and powerful theory about totalitarianism: namely, that it rests even more upon assent to the Lie than it does upon Terror. As Václav Havel later argued, a communist regime was often relatively content to leave someone alone provided that he would publicly assent to the regime’s truth du jour. It might be a grocer putting in his front window a sign that read “Workers of the World Unite” or a Cardinal confessing to a plot to steal the crown jewels. What matters is submission to the Lie since that deprives the dissident of his main strength and weapon: fidelity to the truth. As long as the dissident keeps that faith, the totalitarian regime is unsafe. His submission to the Lie thus strengthens the totalitarian structure – in principle, maybe forever.

On this theory, when Mindszenty was beaten into giving the Rákosi regime’s version of events, he should logically have strengthened the regime. Instead it weakened the regime. Not merely was his confession greeted with general scepticism (where opinion could be freely expressed), it was also greeted with disgust. He had warned in advance that he would be broken; it had clearly taken some time for the torturers to break him; in the end he, not the communists, wrote the narrative. Among scores of trials where the prisoner confessed to lies, Mindszenty’s alone is the one that long remained in the mind of the international public. It therefore showed the limits of totalitarianism: submission to the Lie depends on Terror and cannot be procured or sustained without it.

That outcome had (and has) two consequences. The first is that totalitarian governments rely ultimately on brutes. Once the ideology begins to crumble, as it invariably does, totalitarianism gradually loses its intellectual and principled supporters. Its survival then rests upon brutes – including brutes in high positions such as those who tried to engineer the Soviet counter-coup in 1991. Second, it established that Orwell’s worst nightmare – the permanent triumph of the Lie – is ultimately a false fear. Mindszenty’s forced submission to the Lie actually weakened totalitarianism. And his continued visible presence in Hungary, even imprisoned in a foreign embassy, was a permanent threat to the regime’s standing
That was also Bridget Boland’s conclusion in his play: the communist interrogator in The Prisoner, though he has broken the Cardinal, admits that he is in the end the defeated one. The Mindszenty figure goes back into the world to face people he fears will believe he has betrayed them. We know, of course, that the outside world understands his decision and fate and sees him in a heroic light. It is the communist interrogator who is shown in the final scene as being behind bars. He is in a political situation not unlike that of Kádár after 1956 – unable to release Mindszenty without loss of face, unable to keep him imprisoned without bearing international shame for doing so.

One mystery remains. Mindszenty was able to bear all his travails, including shame at his own weakness, because he was ultimately sustained by the biblical passage: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

If the Cardinal had lacked religious faith, however, he might have been sustained by a somewhat lesser authority, that of the historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, a liberal Protestant historian hostile to Catholicism, who, in a famous passage from his review of Ranke’s History of the Popes delivered this prediction about the Catholic Church:

She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.

So the mystery is not why Cardinal Mindszenty and John Paul II foresaw the outcome of the struggle between communism and the Church. Macaulay had done so one hundred and fifty years before them. The mystery is why so many leading figures in the Church did not foresee the same outcome. And why some of them today are still puzzled about what happened.

(The article is the revised version of a lecture given in the House of Terror Museum, Budapest, 21 September 2012.)

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