There is in these Memoirs no revelation of József Mindszenty as a person, nothing to be compared with the presentation of the person we find in John XXIII’s journals. By page thirteen he is fifty-two years old and Bishop of Veszprém. This is modesty, though not perhaps humility. He takes it for an obvious truth that our interest in him is an interest in him as an ecclesiastic, as the victim of one of the most cruel and absurd of the communist show trials, as the recluse of the United States Embassy in Budapest, as the man compelled to leave Hungary by the united pressure of President Nixon and Pope Paul, as the man set aside and humiliated by an ecclesiastical bureaucracy determined upon a settlement between Church and State in the Hungary of Kádár.
Mindszenty was an energetic, honest, devoted seminarian, priest, and bishop. He was prudent and traditionally minded, but he was imprisoned three times: first, under the brief communist regime in 1919, then by the Nazis and their Arrow Cross allies in the last days of the Second World War, finally (when he was a Cardinal and Archbishop of Esztergom and Hungarian Primate) in 1948 by Rákosi’s government. During his third imprisonment he was beaten continually, deprived of sleep, dressed up as a clown, possibly drugged; in the end, he was ready to plead guilty to a variety of absurd charges in the truth of which only the most gullible Soviet sympathizers in the West could have believed. Certainly his accusers didn’t; they were simply intent upon constructing what in post-Watergate days we have become accustomed to call a scenario.
With the revolution that brought Nagy to power in 1956, Mindszenty was one of the first captives to be released. He hoped for Western intervention to save the revolution but the West was preoccupied with the Suez adventure (a matter he never mentions) and this may have had some influence in strengthening those in the Soviet Politburo who were hot for intervention. His decision, entirely understandable, not to give the regime an opportunity to imprison him again or to murder him (as it did Maléter and Nagy), but to enter the United States Embassy as a refugee began the last and perhaps most bitter period of his life; for he found that in the end, both before and after he left Hungary in 1971, the ecclesiastical apparatus he had served so faithfully and with such sacrifice had no use for him and believed him to be an obstacle to better relations between the Church and the regime. “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile”—we are tempted to make this his epitaph.
The picture that comes out of the Memoirs is that of a man who saw life in Hungarian rather than in universal terms. One gets the impression that what happens outside the countries of the Danube basin is a kind of shadow play; the center of the …