Today I will take a step back from everyday politics and write about a controversial historical figure, József Mindszenty (1892-1975), Prince Primate and Archbishop of Esztergom between 1945 and 1973. Just to refresh people’s memory, Mindszenty was arrested on charges of treason and conspiracy on December 26 1948, and on February 3, 1949 he was sentenced to life imprisonment. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 he was released from prison, and on November 3, a day before the Soviet decision to put an end to the uprising, he gave a radio address that was not universally well received. Instead of leaving the country, a possibility that was open to him at that time, he opted for political asylum in the United States Embassy, where he lived for 15 long years. Apparently, the Vatican wasn’t thrilled at his abandoning his flock. His unresolved case was a burden on both the Vatican and the Kádár regime. Eventually Pope Paul declared Mindszenty a “victim of history” (instead of communism) and annulled the excommunication Pius XII had imposed on those responsible for Mindszenty’s arrest and imprisonment. As a result of the pope’s action, the Hungarian government allowed Mindszenty to leave the country in September 1971. He went to Austria. The pope urged him to resign his posts in the Hungarian Catholic Church in exchange for the uncensored publication of his memoirs. Mindszenty refused. In December 1973 he was stripped of his titles by the pope, who declared the Archdiocese of Esztergom officially vacated.
Fast forward. You may recall that starting in early 2015 Viktor Orbán began visiting numerous provincial cities, offering them large sums of money, mostly coming from Brussels. Among the projects were, naturally, several football stadiums as well as improvements in infrastructure in and around the cities. He called it the “Modern Cities Program.”
In May 2015 he visited Zalaegerszeg, where one of the promised gifts from the government was a memorial center and museum in honor of Cardinal Mindszenty, who spent 25 years in Zalaegerszeg as a parish priest. The mayor of the city hopes that the “pilgrimage tourism” generated by such a center will be a real financial bonanza for Zalaegerszeg. The government is pouring a lot of money into the project. Almost six billion forints will be spent on renovating the church where Mindszenty served, a parking garage will be built, and a hotel for the pilgrims will be fashioned out of a castle nearby. All that in addition to the center itself. There is the strong hope that by the time the pilgrimage center opens in 2018 Mindszenty will be granted the title “Blessed” as the second step in his canonization process. He is already “Venerable.” However, Mindszenty’s canonization process hasn’t been moving forward in the last 25 years, perhaps because, as Endre Aczél, the well-known journalist pointed out, Mindszenty wasn’t exactly an obedient son of the Church.
The inveterate anti-Semite
Mindszenty is a very controversial figure, and it is unlikely that historians will ever agree on his role in the Catholic Church and in Hungarian politics. Today I’ll summarize two recent historical assessments of the man.
Let me start with an interview with Zoltán Paksy that appeared in Magyar Narancs in connection with news of the planned Mindszenty Center in Zalaegerszeg. In his opinion, “the person of József Mindszenty is not worthy of such veneration, and certainly he is not an example to be followed.” The story which Mindszenty himself spread that he was arrested early in his career by the communist henchmen of the Hungarian Republic is not true. He was actually arrested during the Károlyi period because he was caught organizing a movement that was supposed to topple the new democratic regime. His real aim was the restoration of the monarchy and the maintenance of the dominance of the Catholic Church. “He was a backward, anti-modernist, intolerant man, and an inveterate anti-Semite.” Mindszenty, then still called József Pehm, established a local paper (Zalamegyei Újság) that was full of anti-Semitic writings about the “Galician hordes.” His editorials frequently condemned the destructive Jewish liberal press.
Mindszenty also dabbled in politics. He was the county chairman of the Keresztény Párt, which in 1922 joined István Bethlen’s government party. After that date Mindszenty’s paper became more careful because Bethlen didn’t tolerate anti-Semitic propaganda within government circles. Once Bethlen left politics, however, Zalamegyei Újság again returned to its earlier habit of giving space to anti-Semitic voices. In 1938 Mindszenty was one of the honorary presidents of the Association of Christian Industrialists and Merchants, which was an openly anti-Semitic organization. At the time of his inauguration he said that “the nation must recapture industry and trade,” obviously from the Jews.
Paksy said that he couldn’t find any documentation corroborating the claim that Mindszenty hid Jews in the spring and summer of 1944, although stories to that effect remain in circulation. It is true that he was an opponent of Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross party but, according to Paksy, it was because he considered them to be his political rivals who managed to capture the support of the countryside.
As for his general intolerance, here are a couple of examples. He refused to take part in any ceremony organized by the city where the Protestant ministers of the town were also present as equals. And in 1922 he hit a man because he didn’t take his hat off when meeting him on the street.
The National Hero
An opposing view of József Mindszenty comes from Margit Balogh, who has spent 25 years studying his career. Her latest effort is a two-volume, 1,570-page biography of Mindszenty based on extensive research in 50 Hungarian and foreign archives. The earlier, shorter biography that she wrote has already been translated into German, and its English translation is being prepared. According to Balogh, “despite his mistakes and faults, József Mindszenty was a national hero.”
Balogh admits that in the Zalamegyei Újság “we can find vehement, unacceptable expressions,” but “Mindszenty’s criticism of Jews was not the racial kind but originated from Christian anti-Judaism.” Moreover, she claims that with time he mellowed. For example, during the summer of 1944, as Bishop of Veszprém, “while he denied that the Church is pro-Jewish (zsidóbarát), he also made it clear that what is happening to the Jews is not defense of the nation (nemzetvédelem) but murder, a sin according to the Ten Commandments.” He expressed regret over the insensitive reporting of the deportation of the Jews by the diocese’s paper: “We should have done more and more forcefully.”
Balogh also admits that in the spring of 1944 Mindszenty saw nothing wrong with “an exchange of Jewish-Christian ownership,” but “the cruelty of the deportations made a great impression on him.” For example, by September he specifically forbade his priests to acquire Jewish properties. The historian also admits that, as far as she knows, Mindszenty didn’t make any effort to save Jews. He did, however, want to spare human lives and wrote a letter to Szálasi asking him to evacuate Transdanubia in order to save lives at this hopeless stage of the war.
Zoltán Paksy’s research was limited to Mindszenty’s years in Zalaegerszeg and didn’t extend to his actions after 1945. Balogh, however, admits that the other Hungarian prelates were not thrilled with Mindszenty’s unbending attitude toward the new regime. They suggested more flexibility in order to get the best possible deal for the church under difficult conditions. Yet, says Balogh, he was the only one who “defended the values of democracy against communist expansion.”
Mindszenty certainly was a symbol of resistance to the growing expansion of Mátyás Rákosi’s rule. A few months before his arrest he celebrated mass in Máriagyűd, where 150,000 people gathered to hear him, and delivered a fiery speech against the invaders from the East. So, in that sense Balogh is right. On the other hand, she has been unable to refute Zoltán Paksy’s assessment of the younger József Mindszenty.