Tag Archives: József Mindszenty

József Mindszenty: An inveterate anti-Semite or a national hero?

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.

Plan of the Mindszenty Memorial Center in Zalaegerszeg

The planned Mindszenty Memorial Center in Zalaegerszeg

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.

April 24, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s new infatuation with modernity

The Orbán government fell in love with the word “modern.” As we just learned today, the leadership of Fidesz has been dissatisfied with the media portfolio of Lajos Simicska for some time. They considered it old-fashioned and hence ineffective. Therefore, quite independently of the quarrel between Orbán and Simicska, the party’s leadership was thinking of pro-government media that can have a greater impact, especially on the younger generation. They have been working on a new media portfolio under the supervision of Árpád Habony, who will also be part owner of the new enterprise. The name of the company will be Modern Média Group (MMG). It looks to me as if Fidesz is no longer capable of coming up with anything new because, as HVG discovered, there used to be a company called Modern Média. It was one of those bankrupt companies around Fidesz that was sold to Josip Tot, the penniless Croatian guest worker, in 1998.

MMG’s plans are ambitious. They will have an internet site called via.hu that will publish opinion pieces and political analyses. The new owners are also planning to launch a free paper to replace Helyi Téma, which ceased to exist a few weeks ago due to the financial troubles of its owner, Tamás Vitézy. In addition, their plans include a financial paper. There is also talk about a possible radio station. All of this requires a lot of money. Where do Árpád Habony and his business partner, Tibor Győri, who used to be undersecretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, get the money for such a media empire? We pretty well know where Lajos Simicska got his money, but what about Habony, who as far as we know doesn’t have a job? Before 2010 Győri was CEO of Mahír, one of Simicska’s companies, but I can’t believe that he is a billionaire.

I’m rather skeptical of the prospects for this new Fidesz-Orbán media empire simply because government-created propaganda is almost never financially successful. As for modernity, it is the last word one would associate with the Orbán government, which has been doing nothing else in the last five years but trying to turn back the clock.

But that’s not all. The Orbán government has a new project called the Modern Városok Program (Modern Cities Program), which Viktor Orbán launched in Sopron on March 25. Unfortunately for Orbán, his speech on that occasion was totally overshadowed by his revelation in the question and answer period that he was the person who ordered his ministers to withdraw all government money deposited at the Quaestor Group.

His visit to Sopron signaled the beginning of a road show that includes visits to all 23 cities labeled as “megyei jogú városok,” which simply means that these cities also take care of the business of the county in which they are situated although not all of them are county seats. According to plans, about 1,000-1,200 billion forints, coming largely from Brussels, will be spent on “modernizing” the infrastructure. Originally, the government planned to finish all the expressways that would connect these cities to “motorways” or superhighways only by 2020, but given the sorry state of Fidesz and the Orbán government, the decision was made to speed up the process and finish the work by 2018, i.e., before the next election. In addition to an expressway between Sopron and Győr (M1), money would go for renovations of “church and government buildings” in Sopron and for the development of a tourist center at Lake Fertő. The expressway itself would cost more than 100 billion forints.

This “modernization” for Orbán means that “anyone crossing the border between Austria and Hungary wouldn’t notice any difference in quality.” But, of course, we know that not everything depends on new paint on buildings and an expressway leading into the city. What is missing on the Hungarian side cannot be remedied by road building and renovation. What is lacking is a forward-looking government and population.

On April 10 Orbán visited Eger, where the goodies coming from Brussels were more modest than in Sopron–only 30 billion forints. In addition to another expressway, Eger would receive a “national swimming and waterpolo centrum” to the tune of six billion forints. This center will be grandiose: several pools, “not just one or two.” After all, “let’s dream of great things, and do it right,” he said. I guess after the stadiums we can expect many, many swimming centers, which actually makes more sense than the stadium building mania for the nonexistent Hungarian football players. At least Hungarian swimmers and water polo players are world famous. Another six billion will be spent on the famous castle where in 1552 the Hungarian forces successfully defended the town from the Turkish invaders. Mind you, in 1596 Eger fell anyway and became part of the Ottoman Empire. An industrial center will be built, waiting for investors who will be able to reach Eger more easily after the expressway is built to M3.

The next stop was Zalaegerszeg. Another expressway by 2018 and another swimming pool with a recreation center. The city will also build a pilgrimage center devoted to József Mindszenty, the last Prince Primate of Hungary. Mindszenty became a parish priest in the Church of Mária Magdolna in Zalaegerszeg in 1919 and spent almost twenty years there. Although his beatification has been pending since 1996, it looks as if the city fathers of Zalaegerszeg are optimistic about the final outcome. I have no idea how popular such a pilgrimage center will be, but it looks as if the mayor and the city council consider it a good business opportunity.

Of course, the roadshow is not over. There are twenty more cities to visit.

I find the Orbán government’s sudden interest in modernity curious. If anything, Viktor Orbán is a man of the past. Even before he became prime minister in 2010, he fought tooth and nail against modern shopping habits. It’s enough to think of his crusade against the government’s plans to allow over-the-counter medications to be sold outside of pharmacies. And the government’s newly introduced Sunday store closings are supposed to favor small business owners and punish the large supermarket chains.

modernityYes, in the last fifty years or so small business owners have been pushed out of the market. It is sad. Where are the small bookstores? Few of them survive. The small pharmacy I used to visit even in the 1980s is gone. Pharmacies have been replaced by chains. Some large retail outlets, like Walmart, have their own pharmacies. There are fewer and fewer flower shops because every supermarket sells flowers. Certain professions have completely disappeared. For example, typesetting. But there is nothing new about that. After all, when Gutenberg introduced movable type, within a few years scribes lost their jobs. To try to stop these developments by government edict is more than foolhardy. Such an attempt can bring only disaster–backwardness and poverty. Moreover, it is hopeless. Anyone who attempts to stop the clock, unless it is Kim Jong-un in isolated North Korea, is doomed to failure.