The Captive Cardinal

REVIEW: ‘Memoirs’ by József Cardinal Mindszenty

József Cardinal Mindszenty (Wikimedia Commons)
August 13, 2023

Faith requires not only inner assent to certain truths, but living those truths in community with others. This kind of communal living creates a history that one looks to for guidance—and for the joy of remembrance and communion with the past. In other words, to be human requires a historical awareness and connection.

Yet the totalitarian movements of the 20th century each sought to create a new kind of being—one that could fully escape any connection to the past. But such an escape would require destruction. For József Cardinal Mindszenty—twice imprisoned by the Communists and once by the Nazis in his native Hungary—this was the ground where the battle with the two totalitarianisms needed to be joined. As he put it in his installation address (as archbishop of Esztergom and primate of Hungary) on September 16, 1945: "I wish to be the conscience of my people. … Contrary to the errors that are now springing up, I proclaim to my people and my nation the eternal truths. I want to resurrect the sanctified tradition of our people."

József Cardinal Mindszenty first published his memoirs in German and English in 1974. They were soon translated into many languages. When the book’s English language publisher MacMillan was subsumed under another larger publishing house, Memoirs fell out of print. The scholar Daniel J. Mahoney, who penned an informative and eloquent introduction for this handsome new edition by Ignatius Press, calls Mindszenty one of the "antitotalitarian titans of the twentieth century," and readers will have difficulty disagreeing with that assessment.

Readers with religious, political, and historical interests will find the book a feast. At its center is Mindszenty’s show trial and subsequent eight-year imprisonment under the newly solidified Communist regime. He was savagely beaten, confined to a solitary cell, and at one point lost nearly half his body weight. We are given meditations on prison dreams, convict humor, haircuts, food, and the soul-shattering stresses of monotony and loneliness. Mindszenty of course drew on his deep faith to survive and maintain his dignity. "My religious life certainly suffered from my surroundings, but it was not destroyed," he writes. "There was a great deal I lacked that I had earlier possessed, but many of my religious exercises became all the more intensive." His life of prayer flourished. Mindszenty is careful to acknowledge that while prison can lead to an intense spirituality, it can also "lead men away from God." Tending to one’s soul in such circumstances is certainly not automatic, but with attentiveness and devotion, spiritual growth is possible. He quotes Dostoyevsky’s observation about prison in Siberia: "In prison, too, one can lead a great life."

If the book were only this short prison diary, we would have a spiritual classic. Mindszenty delivers much more. He is an acute analyst of Communist ideology—he brings a philosophic mind to elucidate its core. And he spends much time and attention on Communism as a political movement: how it attains power through force and fraud, how it spreads its message and gains followers, and how it maintains its dominance once in power. The Hungarian history here is not well-known and has its commonalities and differences with other countries that suffered under the Communist yoke. The infiltration and destruction of the multiparty political system by the Communists in the postwar years is a fascinating tale. Parts of this story will be familiar to some with knowledge of Communist tactics but the details in the Hungarian case are arresting nonetheless.

Mindszenty highlights the importance of a law that was passed in March 1946—before the Communist Party had solidified its dominance of the political system. This so-called executioner’s law criminalized actions that were deemed a threat to public order. During the summer of 1946 the "murder" of a Russian soldier was blamed on a Catholic youth organization and then used as a pretext for the dissolution of all youth organizations. The Communist Party pushed through a new electoral law in June 1947 that led to the disenfranchisement of nearly a million voters and the neutralization of competing political parties. The steady, deliberate destruction of religious education is also detailed in the Memoirs, culminating in the June 1948 law nationalizing close to 5,000 schools. Mindszenty gives a vivid, unvarnished account of the Communist path to dominance. It is a playbook worth confronting for anyone interested in thinking about how political freedom can be lost.

Ignorance, credulity, and naïveté all play crucial roles in the rise of Communism according to Mindszenty. Sympathizers who are initially won over by social works of the party find themselves increasingly susceptible to the grand promises of the ideology. "Drawing on the experience of a century," writes Mindszenty, "the spokesmen of Communism have learned the nature of human wishful thinking and turn it to good account." In other instances, when the path necessary to the grand promises might prove unpalatable for many, party members craftily conceal their plans and speak the language of Western liberal democracy, emphasizing rights and freedoms. But Mindszenty does not spare readers from what he concludes is the hard truth about the success of Communist domination: "The Communist ideology can achieve lasting effects only where the religious foundations of a nation have been undermined so that reason, faith in God, and morality do not offer sufficient resistance to such ideas."

Memoirs concludes with a riveting chapter on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and one on Mindszenty’s asylum in the American embassy in Budapest. The volume also includes over 80 pages of contemporaneous letters, sermons, radio addresses, and the like, which the editors have wisely pegged to passages in the body of the Memoirs. Let’s hope this new edition reestablishes it as an anti-totalitarian classic with a place on the shelf alongside Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind.

by József Cardinal Mindszenty
Ignatius Press, 477 pp., $22.95

Flagg Taylor, a professor in the department of political science at Skidmore College, was editor, most recently, of The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda, 1977-1989, and hosts the Enduring Interest Podcast.