Mindszenty, József (1892–1975)

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Hungarian prelate and opponent of communist rule in Hungary.

József Mindszenty, the future cardinal, was born into a peasant family as József Pehm in the little village of Csehimindszent in western Hungary. In 1941 he changed his name to Mindszenty to stress his identification with the Hungarian nation. He did not receive an education that would have prepared him to become a senior church official. After secondary education he attended a seminary but refused the offer of a scholarship to Catholic University in Vienna to study theology. Aside from Latin, he spoke no foreign languages. He was by no means an intellectual; he was strict, ascetic, and courageous but also narrow-minded, conservative, and extremely inflexible.

From the beginning of his career he took an active interest in politics. The bitterness of his opposition to the modern world was extreme even among senior churchmen, not only in Hungary but also in Europe. He was a man who never changed his ideas and remained a legitimist to the end of his days. As a young priest after the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy in 1918, he wrote articles opposing land reform and the abolishment of the Monarchy. For his articles and organizational work against the republic he was briefly jailed in February 1919.

In the interwar period he continued his political activities in support of legitimist and conservative causes. In March 1944 he was named bishop of Veszprém. During Nazi rule in 1944 Mindszenty had organized some of the senior churchmen of western Hungary and delivered a letter in their name to the Nazi authorities advising them not to make western Hungary a battlefield. For this "disloyalty" he was promptly arrested and kept in prison until the Red Army freed him in April 1945. In August 1945, Pope Pius XII decided to name him the head of the Hungarian Church and in February 1946 gave him the cardinal's red hat. It was a surprising choice. The bishop of Veszprém was the most junior among the bishops and was not well known even within the church. The pope chose him because, unlike the heads of the Slovak and Croatian churches, he could not be accused of collaboration with the Nazis. Furthermore, in the course of the first few months following the end of the war Mindszenty had shown no interest in cooperating with the new authorities. It was characteristic of the foreign policy of Pope Pius XII that in 1945 he chose a man to be the head of the Hungarian Church who was known to be an opponent of accommodation with the victorious Soviet Union.

Between his appointment as head of the Hungarian Catholic Church and his arrest in December 1948 Mindszenty was the most determined opponent of the establishment of communist power in Hungary. Unlike many noncommunist politicians, he was never tempted to compromise. Under his leadership the Catholic Church was the most successful force in mobilizing the people against the coming communist dictatorship. Mindszenty voiced his opinion on all political matters, opposing land reform and the declaration of the republic, but he was most successful in organizing Catholics against making the study of religion voluntary in schools and the nationalization of religious schools. Once the communist regime was firmly established and the Cold War had already begun, in December 1948 the communists arrested the cardinal on ridiculously trumped-up charges. For spying and for illegal money transactions, among other "crimes," he was sentenced to life in prison.

He was freed by the Revolution of 1956, and in the course of Hungary's very few days of freedom he once again played a significant political role. In a speech on 3 November he demanded the return of Catholic institutions and the punishment of communist leaders, and he proudly announced that his political views had remained unchanged in the course of his imprisonment. After the suppression of the revolution by Soviet troops the cardinal received sanctuary in the American embassy, where he spent fifteen years.

In 1971, at a time when Washington, the Vatican, and the Hungarian reformist communist regime desired to reduce hostility, Mindszenty was allowed to leave the country for Rome. It was characteristic of the inflexibility of the cardinal that he refused the request of Pope Paul VI to resign and thereby enable him to name a new head of the Hungarian Church. The pope therefore had to remove him from his office in 1973. Instead of staying in the Vatican, Mindszenty moved to Vienna, where he spent his last days.

See alsoAnticommunism; Catholicism; Eastern Bloc; Hungary.


Primary Sources

Mindszenty, József. Emlékirataim. Toronto, 1974.

——. Memoirs. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. Documents translated by Jan van Jeurek. New York, 1974.

Secondary Sources

Gergely, Jenö. A Katolikus Egyház Magyarországon, 1944–1971. Budapest, 1985.

Mészáros, Msgr. Tibor. Akit övei be nem Fogadtak. Mindszenty biboros Titkárának Visszaemlékezései. Pecs, Hungary, 1997.

Peter Kenez