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József Mindszenty: The Cardinal who Lived in Embassy Budapest

József Mindszenty was a Roman Catholic cardinal ordained shortly after World War II who staunchly resisted the fascist and later Communist governments that ruled Hungary. His fierce opposition to the new regime led to his arrest on December 26, 1948; he was accused of treason and conspiracy. He was forced to confess to a host of crimes, including the theft of Hungary’s crown jewels, planning a Third World War, and that, once this war was won by the Americans, he himself would assume political power in Hungary. On February 8, 1949, he was sentenced to life imprisonment (photo at right). Mindszenty later said he had been hit with rubber truncheons and subjected to other forms of torture until he agreed to confess. On October 30, 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Mindszenty was released from prison and he returned to Budapest the next day and made a radio broadcast praising the anti-Communist Revolution. However, when the USSR invaded Hungary on November 4, Cardinal Mindszenty sought asylum at the United States embassy.

Mindszenty lived there for the next 15 years, unable to leave the grounds. Eventually, Pope Paul VI offered a compromise: declaring Mindszenty a “victim of history” (instead of communism) and annulling the excommunication imposed on his political opponents. The Hungarian government allowed Mindszenty to leave the country in September 1971. He lived in exile in Vienna and died in 1975 at age 83.

In these excerpts, several Foreign Service officers speak about their experiences with Cardinal Mindszenty at the US embassy in Budapest. James McCargar served in Budapest from 1946 until 1947, before Mindszenty was first arrested, and describes the difficulties the embassy had in negotiating with him. Oddly enough, a sharp letter from the embassy to Mindszenty outlining U.S. opposition to his views would later be used against him by the Communists. Ambassador Horage C. Torbert gives a short report about the cardinal as he was in Budapest in the 1960s. In the 1970s Donald B. Kursch worked as Consular and Economic Officer in Budapest. Lawrence Cohen was an attaché for Environment, Science and Technology from 1991 until 1994 and reports in a retrospective view about the occurrence. All were interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy.

“Our letter putting him in his place was a sign we were trying to overthrow the Hungarian government”

James McCargar

McCARGAR:  In Hungary about 60-65 percent of the population is Catholic. The Primate of the Catholic Church in Hungary, the Archbishop of Esztergom, usually also a Cardinal, has a very important role to play. Cardinal Mindszenty, whom I didn’t like at all, and I’ll tell you why in a bit, had one point of view. He had behaved very courageously under the Germans, which is why he had been made a Cardinal. But he was very confrontational with the Russians….

As the Allied procedures for the Peace Conference were worked out, it was left to the American delegation to provide what support they could for the Hungarian position against a very punitive Soviet position, supported, of course, by the Czechoslovaks, with their territorial and ethnic aims, and the Romanians, who were getting Transylvania at Soviet insistence, with their territorial aims and ethnic fears that accompanied them. The problem confronting the American delegation, headed by Bedell Smith in the Hungarian case, was that they really had very, very little support. So they sent a message to Budapest, which came to me, noting the existence of three problems facing them. “What we need is some sense of opinion from Hungarian leadership as to which — we can’t do all three of these things — which is the most important issue for us to fight on?”

Cardinal Mindszenty was coming into the Legation [early U.S. embassy] just those days. So I received him and talked with him. He pressed us for support of all the Hungarian desiderata. In the course of the conversation I mentioned the practical problems that we had in Paris, which made it impossible for us to achieve all that not only he, but the Hungarian delegation as well, was seeking. He had with him a young priest as his interpreter. A rather pale young man.

The Cardinal’s general atmosphere was not what you would call cordial. He had a very severe countenance, but he had very beautiful hands, which he was obviously aware of. I posed the question to him saying, “There’s the question of the Bratislava bridgehead – the five villages on the south side of the Danube. There’s the question of the expulsion of the Hungarians from Slovakia.” I’ve forgotten what the third question was, Transylvania or whatever. I said, “If we can only concentrate on one thing, which would be helping you most? Which issue would be most valuable to you?”

Well, the hands flashed through the air and they went this and that way. The acolyte then translated. I can only assume it was accurate. “His Eminence says,” repeated the young man in English, “that only a cheap politician could answer that question.”

The amusing thing about this is that sometime earlier, while Arthur Schoenfeld was still Minister, he received a letter one day from Cardinal Mindszenty which was completely off-base. It was, in effect, a kind of incitement of the United States to engage in activities which were simply not diplomatically proper or politically feasible. Schoenfeld called me into his office, through that side door, and said, “The Cardinal is getting out of hand here. He’s going to get himself into a great deal of trouble. What we want to do is in effect to give him a slap and put him in his place. So would you please draft something to that effect,” which I did. Schoenfeld approved and signed it and we sent it off. It was very courteously worded, of course, but in effect it said, “You’re out of bounds.”

The odd thing about it is that when Mindszenty was tried two years later in court in Budapest, this letter was produced by the prosecution, the Communist prosecution, as proof of his various dealings with the Americans imperialist. In other words, our letter trying to put him in his place was a sign that we were trying to overthrow the Hungarian government. The Communists even published it in a White Book proving the nefarious plots between the Cardinal and the despicable Americans. Absolutely ridiculous.

But with all due respect for the Cardinal’s subsequent heroism and sufferings, it should be noted that when he finally was released from the American Embassy in Budapest, years later, Rome did not receive him with great enthusiasm.

Life with the Cardinal

Ambassador Horage C. Torbert

TORBERT: Budapest was a very small post. We didn’t have any ambassador there. It was a legation at that time. But they had Cardinal Mindszenty living in the embassy, and this was a very difficult thing. We still had almost no relations with the Hungarian Government. We were constantly harassed by security people. For example, there were always three cars full of goons poised outside the legation offices, which is where Mindszenty was, to be sure that he never escaped. Actually, the last thing Mindszenty wanted to do was escape. He believed that he belonged in Hungary, and he had been a member of the Council of Regents, and he was the only surviving member, the only one left in Hungary. He felt that he was the symbol of the ancient regime in Hungary.

Lawrence Cohen

COHEN:  My predecessor was an expert on Hungary. Tom Schlenker was completing his third tour in Budapest. As I noted, he spoke Hungarian quite well. He served in the embassy in the mid-1960s and had been one of the “keepers of the cardinal.”…

Mindszenty left the country, much against his will. The Woody Allen play “Don’t Drink the Water” which concerns an American family that seeks refuge in a U.S. embassy in Eastern Europe, is loosely based on the Mindszenty story.

During Mindszenty’s stay, an American officer always had to be present in the embassy, 24/7. There was great fear that if Mindszenty were left alone, even in the embassy, Hungarian and Russian agents would kidnap him. There were bona fide reasons for concern. Some veterans of that era claimed you could hear footsteps at night, made, they assumed, by the Hungarian intelligence service. How they had access to the building I never figured out. This was all before my time. Mindszenty’s spirit still haunted the embassy. Tom had been one of the young officers who stayed overnight at the embassy to protect Cardinal Mindszenty. The Vatican paid a stipend of $50 a day to those who spent the night protecting the cardinal. The cardinal resided in the Ambassador’s office. Tom said the entire floor reeked of garlic.

The End Game — Cardinal Mindszenty Finally Departs

Donald B. Kursch

KURSCH: The Cardinal had a peculiar view of his presence in the embassy that was not shared by the rest of the staff. Among other things, the Cardinal felt that he was the legitimate ruler of Hungary. He felt that because he didn’t recognize the Communists as being legitimate, believed that Hungary was still a kingdom, and that since there was no regent, when there was no king you had a regent, and when there was no regent, the prince primate of the church was in charge until a regent was appointed. So, he really did have it in his head that, under Hungarian tradition, he had a role there. Now, no one else recognized this role. The Vatican did not; the Communists certainly did not. He was a complication for all of us —for the United States, for the Hungarian government, and for the Vatican. The ambassador, when he came there — he preceded me by two years — I think realized that unless we could get the Cardinal out of there, he’d be a continuing major obstacle to our bilateral relationship. Indeed, the Cardinal had threatened to leave the embassy in ’67 when we first sent an ambassador to Hungary. Before, we’d just have chargés and before that the embassy in Budapest had only been a legation, where you’d have the minister in charge. But, when Martin Hillenbrand came in ’67, Mindszenty threatened to walk out. But he did not.

So, he stayed up in his little room, which was the Ambassador’s office — the Ambassador had the DCM’s [Deputy Chief of Mission] office — and had his little suite there. Every night the male officers at the embassy took turns walking him. We would knock on the door and ask if His Eminence wished to have his walk that evening. By the time I got there, he was getting pretty far on in years, so we had these two aluminum chairs in this little courtyard — we had a courtyard that we shared with the Hungarian National Bank — and we would sit down there and he would talk. He would hold forth on various subjects. Usually, his favorite subject was how the Allies had sold out Hungary in WWI, and how Woodrow Wilson was personally responsible for all these misfortunes as a result of Wilson’s role in the post war Treaty of the Trianon, which had reduced Hungary’s size by two-thirds. He was not a very open-mind individual, and he was not an intellectual. He was a tough fighter. He was a person of very strong character, and certainly when the Communists took him on, he was quite prepared to be a martyr….

Ambassador Puhan had tried for many years to convince Mindszenty to leave the Embassy. The Cardinal would pretend to go along but then would have a last minute of mind. The Cardinal’s mother, who lived to almost 100, and his sister were also in Hungary and they would come to see him. However, when they passed away he no longer had close family in the country. Cardinal Koenig from Vienna was the person who would come down and see him.

It appears, from what I gathered, that the Pope, it was then Pope Paul VI, was persuaded to write a letter to Mindszenty asking him to come to a special religious celebration that they were having in the Vatican at that time, I believe in honor of the Virgin Mary. The Pope’s letter was written in a way that was strong enough that Mindszenty was able to interpret it as an order for him to appear. In any event, arrangements were then made for him to leave. The Papal Nuncio from Vienna came down to take him out, and the Hungarians also sent a special escort to accompany him to the border. To discourage a last minute change of mind, the week prior to the scheduled departure, the Ambassador took Mindszenty’s memoirs, and drove them out to Vienna, and deposited them in the Pazmaneum [seminary], which is a building belonging to the Catholic Church, right next to the American Embassy in Vienna on Boltzmangasse.

And Mindszenty did leave this time. A Hungarian irredentist to the end. Mindszenty angered the Austrians upon arrival in Vienna by announcing that “When I crossed from the Burgenland into your country today, I became aware of your gracious hospitality,” or something like that. The Austrians saw this as an effort to claim the Burgenland, which had been ceded to Austria in 1920, for Hungary.

Mindszenty then went to the Vatican but was not particularly happy there, and went back to Austria where he spent many of his remaining days in the Pazmaneum, right there next to the American embassy in Vienna. He was buried at a place called Mariazell, which is a shrine and place of pilgrimage outside of Vienna.

However in 1990, he was then reburied in 1990, in the basilica at Esztergom in Hungary, together with other past primates of Hungary’s Catholic Church. I ended up being a U.S representative on this occasion since Vernon Walters, our Ambassador to Germany and my boss at the time, was invited to go but couldn’t. Walters then sent me as his representative. So I actually went to the reburial and was able to pay a final farewell.