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An Embarrassment to the Russians

Cardinal Jószef Mindszenty

Cardinal Jószef Mindszenty

I have just finished reading Victor Sebestyen’s excellent Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. As a Hungarian-American I was acutely conscious of the events of that Fall. I never forgave President Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, or Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld of the United Nations for what I felt was their craven refusal to confront a very sticky issue. Did I say confront? They essentially ignored it—even while Radio Free Europe was broadcasting military advice and promises of American and U.S. military aid. Aid that never came. All that came was a mass invasion of Russian troops and armor that crushed the rebellion definitively.

As a kid in Cleveland in 1956, and as a student at St. Henry’s Catholic School, I had always thought that one of the heroes of the Revolution was Jószef Cardinal Mindszenty, Prince Primate, Archbishop of Esztergom, and leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary from the last year of World War II to his death in the 1970s. Poor Mindszenty had been imprisoned by the Hungarian Communist leadership until the beginning of the Revolution, in which he actually played no real part. Just days after he was released from prison, he sought asylum of the American legation in Budapest, where he stayed for the next fifteen years.

As a Catholic school kid, we were urged to sell the Diocese of Cleveland’s Catholic Universe Bulletin from door to door in our neighborhoods. According to the Universe Bulletin, Mindszenty was the hero of the Hungarian Revolution, whereas actually he played pretty much a walk-on, walk-off role. But I was just a kid and I believed all that pap.

In the end, Mindszenty proved an embarrassment to the Russians because it kept the memory of the uprising alive in peoples’ minds, even if he himself was a non-player. In the end, Pope Paul VI ordered Mindszenty to leave Hungary, and the Kádár government allowed him to go. His continued existence in the American legation made it difficult for the Catholic Church to come to any accommodation with the Kádár régime.

Mindszenty was just a minor embarrassment to the Russians. It was the Hungarian Revolution itself that proved to be a much greater embarrassment. After 1956, the Communist parties of Western Europe felt that Russia had behaved brutally. Never again were the Communist parties of France, Italy, Britain, and other countries bring any serious political influence to bear. From 1956, it was a mere 31 years before Soviet Communism itself crumbled.