Hungary’s Communist Government Arrests Cardinal Mindszenty Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Resistance by the Roman Catholic Church to Communist repression in Hungary led to the arrest of the primate of Hungary, József Mindszenty, by the Communist Party government. Briefly freed during the 1956 Hungarian uprising, he then took refuge in the U.S. embassy in Budapest, where he remained for fifteen years before going into exile in Austria. His isolation and the fierce repression of the Communist regime severely limited the strength and independence of the Catholic Church in Hungary.

Summary of Event

Following the World War II defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, Hungary fell under the control of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, which promptly installed a Communist government there. Behind the scenes, real control over major governmental decisions remained in the hands of Soviet Soviet Union;and Eastern Europe[Eastern Europe] Eastern Europe, domination by Soviet Union of Iron Curtain “advisers,” who kept in constant contact with Moscow. The new government in Hungary was secured through intimidation, electoral fraud, and the infiltration and gradual elimination of legitimate opposition parties. Christianity;repression by communist governments Roman Catholic Church;and Hungary[Hungary] Communist Party, Hungarian [kw]Hungary’s Communist Government Arrests Cardinal Mindszenty (Dec. 26, 1948)[Hungarys Communist Government Arrests Cardinal Mindszenty] [kw]Communist Government Arrests Cardinal Mindszenty, Hungary’s (Dec. 26, 1948) [kw]Cardinal Mindszenty, Hungary’s Communist Government Arrests (Dec. 26, 1948) [kw]Mindszenty, Hungary’s Communist Government Arrests Cardinal (Dec. 26, 1948) Christianity;repression by communist governments Roman Catholic Church;and Hungary[Hungary] Communist Party, Hungarian [g]Europe;Dec. 26, 1948: Hungary’s Communist Government Arrests Cardinal Mindszenty[02720] [g]Hungary;Dec. 26, 1948: Hungary’s Communist Government Arrests Cardinal Mindszenty[02720] [c]Cold War;Dec. 26, 1948: Hungary’s Communist Government Arrests Cardinal Mindszenty[02720] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Dec. 26, 1948: Hungary’s Communist Government Arrests Cardinal Mindszenty[02720] [c]Human rights;Dec. 26, 1948: Hungary’s Communist Government Arrests Cardinal Mindszenty[02720] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 26, 1948: Hungary’s Communist Government Arrests Cardinal Mindszenty[02720] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 26, 1948: Hungary’s Communist Government Arrests Cardinal Mindszenty[02720] Mindszenty, József Nagy, Imre Rákosi, Mátyás Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;Iron Curtain

After 1947, under the leadership of Mátyás Rákosi, the pace of official repression increased dramatically: Between 1948 and 1953, more than 1.3 million Hungarians were brought to trial for a variety of political “crimes.” Torture, execution, and long prison terms were the common fates of most real or imaginary enemies of the new Soviet regime.

In 1948, the Hungarian Communists turned the apparatus of repression against religious bodies and the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Scores of priests and other clergy were arrested, Church property was seized without compensation, and nearly all religious orders and voluntary institutions were closed. In the following year, 1950, the government then began to re-create religious bodies under government supervision and control. Critical to this project was the destruction of an independent Catholic hierarchy in Hungary, which, in the late 1940’s, was led by the formidable primate József Mindszenty.

Mindszenty was a well-known figure in the Hungarian Catholic Church by World War I. During the brief communist revolution in 1919, he was imprisoned for opposition to communism. By the early 1940’s, he was an active member of the conservative-traditionalist Smallholders’ Party Smallholders’ Party, Hungarian , which formed the bulwark of opposition to the fascist Arrow Cross Party Arrow Cross Party, Hungarian . In 1944, he was made bishop of Veszprém. That year, the Arrow Cross Party, backed by Nazi Germany, overthrew the more moderate (though still German-allied) government of Miklós Horthy Horthy, Miklós . Mindszenty opposed the fascists and their efforts to impose further anti-Semitic measures on the country and because of this was arrested and imprisoned for the remainder of the war. Following his release in 1945, he was named cardinal archbishop of Esztergom and primate of Hungary by Pope Pius XII.

Mindszenty strongly opposed communist efforts to control Catholic education and sought to maintain the independence of the Hungary Catholic Church in the face of increasing repression. On December 26, 1948, he was arrested by the Communist security police and charged with treason, conspiracy against the government, and illegal use of foreign currency. During his imprisonment, Mindszenty was beaten, drugged, and subject to sleep deprivation and other abuse and torture. When the prelate would not cooperate, the police created a forged confession of the cardinal’s “crimes” as well as other incriminating but fake documents.

The trial that began on February 3, 1949, was a classic Stalinist show trial, featuring manufactured evidence, forgeries, and sensational charges, including charges that Mindszenty sought to incite the United States to attack Hungary. He was not allowed to present a defense and was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The cardinal would remain in prison for the next seven years.

In 1953, following the death of Stalin and the revelation of some of his crimes against fellow Communists, the power of his henchmen in Soviet-ruled countries of central and eastern Europe began to decline. In 1956, revolts Civil unrest;Eastern Europe broke out in East Germany and Poland but were quickly crushed, and more moderate Communist leaders began to emerge throughout the region. In Budapest that October, a rally supporting a pro-reform Polish Communist Party quickly became a mass demonstration. The demonstrators were attacked by police, resulting in rioting and widespread unrest. The reform Communist, Imre Nagy, was named leader of the Hungarian Communist Party and quickly released many political prisoners. The most important of those released was Mindszenty. The newly freed cardinal threw his full support behind the mass movement for independence from the Soviet Union. Within a few weeks, however, Soviet forces invaded Hungary and crushed the freedom movement, with great loss of life.

As the Soviets attacked Budapest, Mindszenty sought asylum in the U.S. embassy there, where he would spend the next fifteen years. This created a complicated diplomatic situation for the United States, which refused the demands of the pro-Soviet Hungarian government to release the cardinal to them. Beginning in the 1960’s, it also created a difficult situation for the Vatican, which, under Pope Paul VI Paul VI , sought to appease rather than confront Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. In 1964, without Mindszenty’s approval, the Vatican struck an agreement with the Hungarian government, in which bishops would be approved by the government and clergy would swear an oath of loyalty to the regime. By then, the regime had achieved significant infiltration of Church structures and turned many clergy, including bishops, into informers.

In 1971, Mindszenty was allowed exile into Vienna, Austria. Nevertheless, he refused to give up his position as primate of Hungary, and his staunch opposition to communism and traditionalism complicated Paul VI’s appeasement efforts. In 1973, he was stripped of his titles by the pope, though the office of primate remained unfilled until after his death.


Cardinal Mindszenty, who died in the spring of 1975, remained an unbreakable foe of Communist rule in Hungary, but the overwhelming power of the Soviet armed forces, the success of the Hungarian Communist security apparatus in undermining the Church, and the willingness of the Vatican to compromise with communism during the early 1970’s destroyed much of the Church’s functional independence in Hungary and its ability to provide an effective moral voice. Mindszenty, however, became an important symbol of the desire of Hungarian Catholics for both political and religious freedom. Mindszenty became a hero to many opponents of communism and he inspired the formation of an American Catholic lay foundation whose goal remains the defense of Church independence and teachings. Christianity;repression by communist governments Roman Catholic Church;and Hungary[Hungary] Communist Party, Hungarian

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lendvai, Paul. The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat. Translated by Ann Major. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. A narrative history of the Hungarian people over the course of one thousand years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mindszenty, József Cardinal. Memoirs. New York: Macmillan, 1974. The English-language translation of Mindszenty’s memoirs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Molnár, Miklós. A Concise History of Hungary. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A narrative account of the often-turbulent history of Hungary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shuster, George N. In Silence I Speak: The Story of Cardinal Mindszenty Today and of Hungary’s “New Order.” New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956. A contemporary account of Mindszenty’s repression.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Toma, Peter A. Socialist Authority: The Hungarian Experience. New York: Praeger, 1988. Discussion of the legal and political apparatus of Communist control in Hungary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    The Trial of József Mindszenty. Budapest: Hungarian State Publishing House, 1949. Official report by the Communist government on the trial; for Western readers.

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