Fideliter (#243, May-June 2018) has published a study entitled Memory of the Silent Church, recalling what the Marxist regimes did or are doing to try to eradicate Christianity in Hungary in the 20th century and still today in Communist China.
In the article on the persecution in Hungary, the author of this remarkable study, Alain Toulza, presents a nation that was “emblematic by the profoundness of its Catholicism and by the figure of Cardinal Mindszenty”, who was “as it were the incarnation of fidelity under the Communist wine press.”
Known throughout the world for its uprising in 1956 that was savagely crushed by Soviet tanks, Hungary has the honor of having had as head of its Catholic community one of the most emblematic prelates of the resistance to the steamroller of Communism, Cardinal Mindszenty, whose heroic and painful fight was also that of the entire Church in Hungary.
A Flourishing Church
In 1945, when the Soviet troops succeeded in taking over the country after routing the German army, Hungary had a population of about 10 million, with 7 million Catholics (68.1%); the other confessions in the country were the Protestants (26.8%), Jews (4.4%) and Orthodox (0.6%). This goes to show the strong spiritual authority the Church enjoyed in this profoundly Catholic country, with 3 archdioceses (including Esztergom, traditional see of the Cardinal Primate), 8 dioceses, 2 apostolic administrations, and 2 vicariates. These ecclesiastical circumscriptions included 2,265 parishes, ministered to by 4,012 diocesan priests. There was also a “nullius” Benedictine abbey, 18 male religious orders (2,456 members, with 1,422 priests) and 39 female religious orders (7,525 members).
The Catholic Church had 3,344 schools of every sort and every level (including a law school, a theology university, 20 popular high schools with 35,000 rural students, and 167 boarding schools), which made up about 45% of the country’s school structures. She also ran 191 asylums, 99 hospitals and 120 orphanages. The Catholic press had 2 daily newspapers, 18 weeklies, 25 monthlies, 3 trimestral periodicals, and about twenty magazines, not to mention the school textbooks and religious books she published.
Catholic Action was very well developed, a proof of the dynamism of the Faith: 5,000 groups devoted themselves to apostolate, the popular Catholic associations Kalot and Kalasz (social work associations), for example, with 300,000 members, peasant youth groups with 700 groups (about 100,000 members) that ran the 20 popular schools, the Guardians of the Sacred Heart (170,000 members in 800 parishes), the Association of Young Catholics (11,295 members in industry and commerce), Emericana (10,000 student members), Dolgonzo Lanyok for young Catholic workers, etc.
The First Anticlerical Measures
Communism undertook to destroy almost all of this secular heritage in a dozen years as soon as the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Angelo Rotta, was expelled (April 4, 1945). The agrarian reform that followed was the perfect opportunity to expropriate the Church of most of her real estate goods (they only left a total of 140 acres to the 15 diocesan houses) that enabled her to run her educational and social activities (hospitals, orphanages, asylums) and, of course, her apostolic action. While they were at it, it was child’s play to transfer 80% of the Catholic press into the hands of the Communist authorities and in April 1948, all the Church’s printing houses (about 20 in all) became national property. At the same time, huge debates against religion were organized, particularly in the official press, and the Church found herself deprived of any way to respond.
After the first attacks against Catholic teaching beginning in 1946, the following years were spent in a long and violent campaign against religious associations, the pretext being two murders committed against Russian soldiers by students who happened to be members one of a Marian association, the other of the association Kalot. The Communist press echoed the Russian general, reporting conspiracies and the discovery of weapons (and even an atomic bomb) in certain schools and religious associations.
This was the signal for the first arrests, that targeted almost all of the heads of Catholic associations, which were then dissolved and their goods (both the buildings and their contents) were given to Communist organizations.
In the name of the episcopate, the Cardinal Primate publicly denied every false accusation with pastoral letters full of proofs and vigorously protested to the authorities against every destructive measure. But it was all to no avail, and in the beginning of 1947, the government targeted the association Karitasz, a very active social organization, accusing it of being funded from abroad. As this was not enough, in May 1948, they began the nationalization of private schools after preparing this project with a campaign for which they literally forced teachers and students to sign petitions using different forms of pressure. The same technique was used in businesses and offices; those who refused to sign the petition were expelled from their schools or fired. 3,163 schools and 177 high schools and colleges were taken from the Church; this represented almost all of her schools and 600,000 students.
The energetic condemnations of the cardinal only encouraged the government to move on to the next phase: confronting the Church in the religious domain. The Marian year decreed by the primate in August 1947 and that was able to last until August 1948, revealed the strength and fidelity of the Catholics: a total of 4.6 million faithful participated in the various pilgrimages and ceremonies, despite the obstacles imposed by the public authorities (forbidding the use of microphones, forbidding coaches to transport pilgrims, etc.) and the attacks by groups sent to cause trouble.
The Courage of Cardinal Mindszenty
The final step to entirely crush this resistance was to deal a decisive blow to the union of the priests around Cardinal Mindszenty and to the unity of the episcopate. The government did everything possible to break this cohesion and many priests were arrested one after another on various pretexts, particularly their disobedience to the order not to read the pastoral letters from the pulpit. Government officials were sent to the bishops to dissuade them from supporting the “aggressive policies of the Primate”, considered dangerous for the dialogue with the national authorities. But in a declaration on November 3, 1948, the episcopate renewed its complete trust in Cardinal Mindszenty.
This was too much for the Communist government. At the order of the Vice President of the Council, Matyas Ràkosi (his real name was Rosenfeld), he was arrested on December 26, 1948 and taken to 60 Andrassy Road, the sinister headquarters of the AVH – the secret police – for “strongarm” interrogations, “an instrument of the red terror” that he would later describe in his Memoirs as “a monstrous workshop of torture, a true center of horror.” He was handed over to Colonel Peter Gabor himself (whose real name was Benjamin Eisenberger), who had succeeded Janos Kadar as the absolute and sadistic head of the AVH and who was responsible for the great Communsit purges in the country. He was given to an anonymous torturer who took all his personal belongings, then, “under the howls and laughs of those present” his clothes and underclothes, then dressed him up as a puppet.
As is shown in the famous movie The Confession, individual “brainwashing” (not to be confused with the long process of collective “brainwashing” used over very long periods of time, sometimes even years, especially in China, as a technique for “reeducating” the masses) consists in an expert dose of all sorts of physical tortures, various drugs placed in the prisoner’s food (which Cardinal Mindszenty scarcely touched for this very reason) and – supreme cruelty – sleep deprivation. All of this is alternated with multiple endless interrogation sessions during which the prisoner is submerged by humiliating insults coming from several persons at once and messages containing a few true things and many false things referring to his past actions and his relations with his friends and family who, they assure him, have already confessed.
The goal is to destroy the prisoner’s personality and bring him to admit in his altered condition the accusations that would be published during his trial; in Cardinal Mindszenty’s case, these were espionage, high treason, attacking the safety of the State (with a friend, Professor Justin Baranyay as an accomplice), and trafficking (donations to associations).
It took an iron constitution to hold up under this sort of treatment: “I had not slept for seventy-two hours when they led me to my fourth nocturnal interrogation.” (Cardinal Mindszenty, Memoirs, Table Ronde, 1974, p. 222) But all resistance has its limits, and Cardinal Mindszenty’s could not go beyond what human nature is capable of bearing. “Only myself, the commandant and his rubber club were there every night. My physical strength was diminishing visibly. I was worried for my health and my life. (…) One thing seemed certain to me: there was no possible way out of my situation. My shaken nervous system was weakening my resistance, troubling my memory, erasing my consciousness, unhinging my will – all these faculties that rule the human being.” (ibid. p. 228-229) More nocturnal torture sessions, even more horrible and humiliating, won out in the end: “In the end, the police got what they wanted: they made me confirm coarse lies. I revolted at first, despite my exhaustion, but I was no longer in any condition to fight. I trembled at the idea of being beaten, and I signed, using one last ruse that Hungarian prisoners in Turkey used to use: next to my signature, I wrote the initials CF, meaning coactus fecit (‘I was forced to do it’). The colonel asked suspiciously ‘What does that mean?’ I answered that it was an abbreviation for cardinalis foraneus meaning a provincial and not a curial cardinal.” (ibid. p. 232)
With all the confessions they succeeded in forcing from him and some falsified pieces, documents to which false testimonies were added, and accusations extorted from those closest to him (including his faithful secretary Andras Zakar who underwent the same treatment), the government made a Yellow Book (January 1949) that would become the main document for the charges against the most illustrious prisoner of the Silent Church. The Communist had succeeded, with 40 days of a physical, mental and chemical martyrdom, in turning the cardinal into an “invertebrate”. This was the most sinister aspect of his trial, as can be seen in a photograph that spread around the world. According to The Yellow Book, he was “his own accuser”.
The cardinal was handed over to a so-called Tribunal of the People along with five other defendants including his secretary. The sham trial he underwent deserves a book all to itself. The report was made into a second specific document, The Black Book, whose contents are of the same making as The Yellow Book’s. Assigned a public defender who was clearly in cahoots with the prosecutor, entirely ignorant of the accusing evidence provided by the prosecutor, the Cardinal Primate was condemned before even being judged. Sensing what he was going to undergo, he had sent a letter to his clergy on December 20 (six days before his arrest), saying, “As I have never participated in any conspiracy, I will never resign: I will not speak. If after this you hear that I have admitted this or that, that I have resigned from my charge (even if these claims are authenticated with my signature), you must know that any such declaration will only be the consequence of the weakness of human nature… I thus declare null and void any confession whatsoever from today on.” (Ibid. p. 198)
His signature appeared in more than one document, often preceded by a few handwritten lines; the Party had forced a couple of talented graphologists Hanna née Fischof and her husband Laszlo Sulner to work for them. Hanna’s father had invented a machine named after him and capable of extracting letters, fragments and words from a manuscript and rearranging them at will to create a new manuscript. After fleeing to Austria on February 6, 1949, during the trial, the Sulner couple testified four days later, revealing the sinister farce of Cardinal Mindszenty’s written confession, showing a microfilm of the falsified documents they had worked on, including one of the major pieces of the accusation reproduced in The Yellow Book, a document concerning the agrarian reform. The report of the hearings published in The Black Book also proved to be an arrangement of dishonest elements: the so-called “final discourse” of the prelate at the end of the trial, the testimony obtained under torture (the secretary Zakar, Professor Baranyay), the twisting of statements he really made, and manuscripts imitating the cardinal’s handwriting and signature. Shortly after The New York Herald Tribune published an article in 1950 in which the couple explained that their only choice was to cooperate with the Communist authorities or hang, Laszlo Sulner died at the age of 30 of an unknown illness… Pius XII’s letter to the ecclesiastic authorities in Hungary on February 14, 1949, expressed the disgust of objective observers of this trial.
The cardinal was condemned to life in prison, Mr. Baranyay to 15 years, and Fr. Zakar to 6 years.
-- Alain Toulza