Today we remember how church bells rung out, bravely, around the country in defiance of the Communist party in Hungary who had severely restricted church activities. We look at the bold and stubborn leadership of their Bishop and the diplomatic headache it caused the Vatican at the height of the Cold War.
It was at the end of the Second World War and three years earlier in 1945, at the famous Yalta Conference in Ukraine Europe had been effectively divided into spheres of influence, between the East and the West. At the meeting, the heads of government of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union had discussed the post-war reorganization of Germany and Europe. As well as declaring a Liberated Europe, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin had promised to allow the people of Europe "to create democratic institutions of their own choice". Agreeing to the priority of the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. After the war, Germany and Berlin would be split into four occupied zones. Stalin agreed that France would have a fourth occupation zone in Germany if it was formed from the American and the British zones. The status of Poland was discussed. The recognition of the communist Provisional Government of the Republic of Poland, which had been installed by the Soviet Union "on a broader democratic basis," was agreed to. The Polish eastern border would follow the Curzon Line, effectively ceding a large amount of territory to the Russians and Poland would receive territorial compensation in the west from Germany. Stalin also pledged to permit free elections in Poland. The British and the Americans knew that Stalin’s word could not be trusted, and Roosevelt obtained a commitment by Stalin to participate in the United Nations. However Stalin requested that all of the 16 Soviet Socialist Republics would be granted UN membership. That was taken into consideration, but later Truman only agreed to membership for Ukraine and Byelorussia.
In March, 1946, Winston Churchill delivered a historical address at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri in which he delivered his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. The speech also talked for the first time of the special relationship between America and Britain. Many Russian historians see this speech as the start of the ‘Cold War’
Six months earlier, Archbishop Mindszenty had been appointed Primate of Hungary by the Pope. When he attended a ceremony in Rome the next year, which was presided over by Pius XII, he was elevated to the role of Cardinal with 31 others who received their ‘red caps’. The Pope, reportedly told him, "Among these thirty-two you will be the first to suffer the martyrdom symbolized by this red color." To the ruling Hungarian Working People's Party, Mindszenty was regarded as the archetypal figure of "clerical reaction". He continued to use the traditional title of prince-primate (hercegprímás) even after the use of noble and royal titles was entirely outlawed by the 1946 puppet parliament, the Party accused him of having "aristocratic attitudes" and attacked his demands for compensation following the State seizure of Church-owned farmlands during the Party's campaign to abolish private farm ownership. Since the main source of income for the Church was their agricultural lands, arbitrary and uncompensated confiscations by the communist government left many Church-run institutions destitute. However the Cardinal believed and preached that "The Church asks for no secular protection; it seeks shelter under the protection of God alone" and fought fiercely against the state policy to emancipate the Hungarian educational system from Church control by seizing parochial schools. Today on June 14th, as a sign of the Churches defiance, at the order of the Cardinal, Hungarians rang church bells all over the country. Also today, as a sign that the cold war was heating up on the same day Russian authorities in Germany halted shipment of coal from the British occupation zone to Berlin and closed the Elbe River bridge on the main Berlin highway, allegedly for repairs, effectively sealing off East Germany. The Fall of the Berlin Wall in was one of the iconic moments of the collapse of communism.
Cardinal Mindszenty was soon arrested and accused of treason, conspiracy, and other offences against the new People's Republic of Hungary. Shortly before his arrest, he wrote a note to the effect that he had not been involved in any conspiracy, and any confession he might make would be the result of duress. While he was imprisoned, he was repeatedly hit with rubber truncheons and subjected to other forms of torture until he agreed to confess. A show trial soon began at which the Cardinal admitted to being involved in a Habsburg restorationist organization which planned to form a government after an American invasion, however he denied hoping for the outbreak of war. He said "we prayed for peace". As he followed the trial, a weeping Pope Pius XII told Sister Pascalina Lehnert, "My words have come true and all I can do is pray; I cannot help him any other way." Cardinal Mindszenty was sentenced to life imprisonment for black-marketeering, treason and espionage. The reaction to his conviction was swift and indignant. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin declared that the trial was an affront to Britain’s understanding of liberty and justice. The Vatican issued a statement proclaiming that the Cardinal was “morally and civilly innocent.” In the United States, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn stated that the “Christian world cannot help but be shocked over the verdict.” And protests were held in a number of U.S. cities.
Soon after the Pope Pius XII announced the excommunication of all persons involved in the trial and conviction of Mindszenty and addressed a series of questions to "an enormous crowd which had gathered in St. Peter's Square" to protest the Cardinal's show trial and conviction. He asked, "Do you want a Church that remains silent when She should speak; that diminishes the law of God where she is called to proclaim it loudly, wanting to accommodate it to the will of man? a Church that does not condemn the suppression of conscience and does not stand up for the just liberty of the people; In reply to the Holy Father came a single cry like thunder still ringing in our ears: 'No!'
In 1956, during the short-lived Hungarian Revolution, Mindszenty was released from prison and returned to Budapest. Shortly thereafter, Soviet troops entered Hungary to put down anti-communist protests. The Cardinal was granted political asylum at the United States embassy in Budapest and lived there for the next 15 years, unable to leave the grounds, and did not participate in the conclaves of 1958 and 1963, In 1971 he was recalled by the Vatican by Pope Paul VI who 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 but he lived in Vienna, Austria, as he took offence at Rome's advice that he should resign from the primacy of the Catholic Church in Hungary in exchange for uncensored publication of his memoirs backed by the Holy See. He settled in Vienna, where he died in 1975. The 1955 film The Prisoner is loosely based on Mindszenty's imprisonment, with Alec Guinness playing a fictionalized version of the cardinal. Pope Francis named him as Venerable on 12 February 2019