The birth date of former Primate of Hungary and one of the most important Churchmen of the 20th century, the Venerable Cardinal József Mindszenty fell last week on March 29.
He was a key figure in the resistance of the Hungarian people to Nazism and socialism over more than 50 years and an inspiration to millions of others in the totalitarian states.
His first encounter with the reds was under the vicious but short lived Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919 which identified him as a key enemy. The leader of that murderous regime, Bela Kun, himself became the victim of the Stalinist secret police when arrested in 1937 and shot dead in 1938, having already sent hundreds of his “comrades” to their deaths in the Lubyanka.
In 1939 Mindszenty urged Catholics not to vote for the pro Nazi Arrow Cross which won 14.5% of the vote and 29 of 260 seats. Mindszenty’s intervention was crucial then in delaying for a time the advance of the collaborators who were later placed in power by the Wehrmacht and SS.
The traditional Hungarian right opposed the arrests, murders and deportations of Jews although Admiral Horthy was effectively on the German side in an attempt to avoid joining the war but their patience became exhausted and he was replaced by the local Nazis in 1944.
Mindszenty was arrested by them in November 1944 for publicly protesting against the treatment of Hungary’s large Jewish population. The Arrow Cross hated the Church but could not afford to be seen to kill Mindszenty who remained under house arrest until Nazism was defeated in April 1945.
When the tiny NKVD controlled Communist Party murdered and fooled its way to power after 1945, Mindszenty became their prime hate figure as he opposed the expropriation of small holders and the seizure of Church property. In 1948 he was accused of having supported the Nazis and was arrested on St. Stephens Day.
He was tortured and like most victims of the NKVD, Mindszenty eventually cracked and signed a ludicrous confession in which among other things he claimed to have wanted to restore the Habsburg monarchy and assist the United States in starting World War Three.
Like other show trial victims, Mindszenty’s real humiliation consisted in having to confirm the details in the confession – which the Stalinists published as a book. The trial began in February 1949 and he was sentenced to life imprisonment and was not released until the short lived democratic revolution in October 1956.
Eastern and Central Europe was in the grip of mass terror with the show trials of public figures including members of the Stalinist elites themselves. They were a convenient means to target specific groups, be they Catholics in Hungary, democratic socialists in eastern Germany, small holders in the more rural economies which resisted collectivization, and Jews in Czechoslovakia, where Jewish Communists among the party leadership were the target of the Slansky trials.
Mindszenty’s plight was a huge issue in Ireland and on May Day 1949, 150,000 people took part in a Labour Party and trade union organised march in his support. The Connolly Association in London which was the public face of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) attempt to infiltrate the Irish working class diaspora described the march as “an attack on the democratic political regime in Hungary.” Archbishop Charles McQuaid kept Mindszenty in the public eye, thus earning him the sobriquet “Cold Warrior” from biographer John Cooney. Better historians like Stephen Koch of Columbia University saw no need to malign the opponents of totalitarianism.
Of course there were no shortage of western Stalinists and sneaking regarders and “liberals” happy to regurgitate the NKVD lies.
Among them was our own execrable Seán O’Casey who may have been a decent playwright but who possessed the moral and political compass of a Holocaust-denying skinhead when it came to his lifelong refusal to recognise the horrors of socialism. In the late 1930s he had celebrated gleefully, in the CPGB Daily Worker, the absurd trials, confessions and murders of his former heroes like Bukharin.
In 1949 O’Casey who was consumed by, and whose fascinating autobiographies are consumed with, hatred of many people he had known, was happy to go along with the calumnies against Minszenty and when the Cardinal was released in 1956 saw it as proof of his counter-revolutionary scheming.
The CPGB was effectively finished as an electoral party with ties to the British working class radical tradition when up to a third of its then 45,000 membership resigned in 1956. To give them credit some British Communists like Peter Fryer of the Daily Worker who was in Budapest were crucial sources of the truth. From then on the CPGB dwindled and its role was reduced to trade union infiltration and recruitment for the socialist intelligence agencies.
The United States response to Communist treachery has created its own mythology and victimology based on McCarthyism. Among them were the Rosenbergs, the only two American Communists executed for treachery, and described by the nasty Jean Paul Sartre as “victims of a legal lynching,” who were spies as were many of their party associates.
They had been happy to supply the most vicious regime in history with a nuclear capacity at the height of the post war terror as Stalin planned even worse atrocities including the liquidation of Soviet Jews and most likely military incursions backed by the bomb. The Venona intelligence transcripts released in 1995 prove conclusively the collaboration and guilt of the Rosenbergs and the CPUSA.
Back to Mindszenty. He was briefly freed in 1956 but forced to seek refuge in the United States Embassy in Budapest when the Red Army invaded and overthrew the revolution. He remained there until 1971 when he was permitted to go to Vienna.
He died aged 83 in May 1975, a national hero even for non Catholic Hungarians and millions who lived under socialist totalitarianism. In his remaining years he had visited emigre Hungarian communities driven out by the reds.
There is a curious postscript to the Irish aspect of Mindszenty’s life. In 1971 the Chief of Staff of the republicans who had split from the Communist infiltrated IRA in 1969 Seán MacStiofáin mentioned the Cardinal in an article in An Phoblach, in relation to Mindszenty’s move to Vienna.
I do recall that during an interview with Seán Garland, one of the leading Officials and then General Secretary of the Workers Party, he had mocked the Catholicism of MacStiofáin and others and scoffed when I mentioned Mindszenty.
That was just before Garland was caught as part of a massive currency forging operation run by North Korean Intelligence.