The Apologetics of the Accused: Fascism, Communism and the Catholic Church of Hungary, 1945-1949

Christopher P. Adam, MA Thesis (Carleton University - 2005).

Abstract and Introduction
(A printed and bound copy of the entire thesis has been deposited at the Carleton University Library as well as at the National Library of Canada.)


This essay examines the conflict between the Catholic Church of Hungary and the Hungarian Communist Party, from 1945 to 1949. The immediate postwar period represented a cultural struggle between a conservative Catholic Church and the nascent Communist Party. Both institutions competed for power in the reconstructed Hungary and proposed vastly different and mutually exclusive visions for the future of the country. The conflict began as a debate in the Church and Party press over the World War II past and the Church’s alleged collusion with fascist and authoritarian elements of the interwar regime. These rhetorical attacks were also accompanied by force, as Communist leaders saw the Catholic Church and its affiliated youth and educational institutions as the fledgling Party’s greatest rivals and obstacles to power in the postwar period.


The end of each world war brought with it a radical reorganization of society, with institutions seen as responsible for the conflict held to account and their authority and position in society called into question.  With the end of World War II, Europe faced a significant turning point, although unlike in the First World War, the stunning collapse of a new brand of twentieth century dictatorships, Fascism and National Socialism, rather than the demise of teetering monarchies, proved to be the order of the day. The end of the war in Hungary, however, represented not only the end of German occupation and the short-lived rule of the Hungarian Nazis, but also the total collapse of the interwar regime, an order frozen in an aristocratic, Christian-conservative worldview. In addition to the regime, institutions perceived to have been associated with the old order found themselves discredited and tainted by the legacy of Nazism after the end of the war.  In 1945 the Catholic Church of Hungary, which had served as an ideological pillar of the old regime and had enjoyed significant privileges during this period, remained the most explicit reminder of Christian-Conservative interwar Hungary.

Hungary’s Communists, arising from hiding and returning from exile, proved most critical of the Church’s role in the old regime and its activities during Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross, Nazi-style rule in 1944-45. Victims of the old order and victors of the new, Hungarian Communist politicians returned from the Soviet Union behind the Red Army and prepared to resurrect their once-banned organizations and newspapers. They had reason to castigate an organization whose high clergy stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the landed aristocracy, industrialists and the military and who appeared all too willing to associate with the anti-Bolshevist radical, fascist right.  The Communists held the Roman Catholic Church—in contrast to Protestant and Orthodox communities—in particular disdain, due to the Vatican’s historic opposition to Communism and the national Church’s connection to a foreign, supra-national authority. Consequently, a policy of limiting the national Church’s communication with the Holy See, in part by removing the Church’s highest ecclesiastic leaders, developed into the preferred form of action on the part of Communist governments throughout Eastern Europe.(1) In Hungary, the Communist Party engaged first in a nation-wide press campaign to discredit the Church, following which they used force to dissolve the Church’s network of schools and youth organizations; only after accomplishing this did they remove members of the High Clergy.

Early postwar Hungary proved to be a battleground not only of ideologies, but of  interpretations of the past and how the two together would shape the future of the country. This struggle for Hungarian society and culture, informed by conflicting interpretations of the recent past, characterized the period between 1945 and 1949. This period became a cultural struggle between the Church and the Communist Party, both of which vied for power in postwar Hungary. The Catholic press found itself at the centre of this conflict. At first, accusations in the Communist press forced the Church to re-examine and offer an apologia for its relationship with the autocratic interwar regime. It was only partly able to fend off these attacks, as a small number of priests found guilty of collaborating with the Nazis provided further ammunition for the Communist press. These accusations made the Church vulnerable to further claims that Catholic institutions—including schools and youth associations—conspired to overthrow the state and replace postwar democracy with fascist rule. Once the Communist-controlled political police dissolved Church youth associations and completed its arrests and investigations in Catholic schools, it still faced a religious institution with a loyal base of support and with considerable sway throughout rural Hungary. The Church’s leadership now faced persecution.

Although the Communist press did not attack the Catholic faith itself, the party’s effort to bury the notion of political Catholicism and ensure that the Church would never again wield such powers as it did during the interwar regime meant that the Church’s understanding of itself and its place in society would have to undergo a radical reorganization. The conservative ecclesia as well as the more ‘progressive’ elements of the Church realized that an end to the Church’s influence in the circles of government and in society would leave it as little more than a network of faith-based communities and prayer groups, removed from the stream of public discourse and devoid of any real influence in society. Catholicism in Hungary had been about more than merely the tenets of the Catholic faith and an adherence to a set of religious beliefs—it encompassed a specific understanding of society, the Church’s role in that society and close Church and State cooperation, especially in the field of education.

Historical works on postwar Hungary and the gradual establishment of Communist hegemony tend to focus almost exclusively on party politics. This is the major weakness of the few English-language works on this period by western historians. Two such historians are Hugh Seton-Watson and C.A. Macartney. In both cases, the Communist conflict with the Church is either relegated to the sidelines of the historical narrative and replaced with an exclusive focus on party politics, or else only afforded importance in light of Cardinal Mindszenty’s arrest. Macartney’s work is an example of the latter. While Macartney is correct in arguing that “after the fall of the parties, the chief surviving ideological opposition to Communism had been in the churches,” he is mistaken in asserting that the conflict between the Church and the Communist Party only began in 1948. (2) The period between 1945 and 1948 saw the greatest tensions between the Church and the Communist authorities, especially during the 1946 investigations against confessional schools and the dissolution of the Catholic youth movement. Seton-Watson affords even less importance to the Church. He argues that “by terror, threats, bribery or intrigue, the Communists divided or destroyed first the peasant parties and then the social democratic parties.”(3) The postwar conflict, according to Seton-Watson, occurred almost exclusively at the level of high politics and the Communist parties of Eastern Europe enjoyed the upper hand in a struggle whose outcome had been largely predetermined by the presence of the Red Army.

An examination of the Communist conflict with the Hungarian Catholic Church demonstrates that Hungary’s Communists felt vulnerable and weak for much of the early postwar period and it is precisely this “threat perception” that motivated their campaign against the Church. An exclusive focus on party politics in the case of Hungary downplays the role of the Church as the only institution of continuity with the past and a source of consistent opposition to the Communists, during the interwar regime and throughout the early postwar years. The conflict between the Church and the Communist Party resonated throughout society, permeating the press, parishes, community organizations, schools and colleges.

When the Church’s conflict with the Communist Party is addressed, such as in Macartney’s work, most attention is paid to József Cardinal Mindszenty’s arrest and subsequent trial in 1948-49. Yet the most important Church-State conflicts occurred in the years prior, during the debate over the World War II past, the investigations against Catholic youth movements and educational institutions and the nationalization of confessional schools. This essay examines a facet of Hungary’s postwar development often relegated to the sidelines of history texts. Without the dissolution of the Catholic youth movement—which boasted a membership of over half a million—and without the radical restructuring of a public education system heavily under Church influence, the Hungarian Communist Party would have been unable to establish its political hegemony. Therefore, an examination of Church-State relations is necessary in understanding Hungary’s postwar development.

Similarly to Seton-Watson, Bennett Kovrig also examines postwar Hungary through the lense of party politics. Kovrig argues that Hungary’s transformation from multi-party rule to Communist hegemony followed a more cautious and gradual pattern, as per the directives of both the Soviet and Hungarian Communist leadership.(4) Kovrig’s analysis is a traditional piece of political history focusing primarily on the relationship between the non-Marxist parties and the nascent Hungarian Communist Party. Kovrig treats Church-State relations only in passing and focuses on the gradual solidification of Communist hegemony within the sphere of party politics. When he does address the regime’s conflict with the Church, only the period following Cardinal Mindszenty’s 1948 arrest is covered.(5) By focusing exclusively on the high politics of the period, Kovrig fails to examine some of the most important developments that led up to Communist hegemony—namely, the dissolution of Catholic youth organizations, the debate over the nationalization of confessional schools and the media campaign aimed at discrediting the Church leadership over its World War II past.

The ultimate pacification of the Catholic hierarchy and the dismemberment of influential institutions affiliated with the Church by Communist politicians proved a gradual process highlighted by often impassioned dialogue that took place between the Communists and the Church leadership on the country’s interwar past. I will argue that this dialogue manifested itself in four forms. Firstly, the Communists portrayed the entire interwar regime as the natural precursor to, and foundation of, Hungarian fascism. In this sense, the Communist press saw Admiral Miklós Horthy as the “father” of both fascism and Nazism. The Church quickly realized the implications of this summary condemnation of an entire regime, under which they had enjoyed such privileges, and thus differentiated between the Horthy regime and National Socialism, asserting that at least part of the interwar past was salvageable and could be used as a basis upon which to build postwar Hungary.

While the first aspect of the debate was primarily historical in nature—focusing on the overall legacy of the previous regime—the second aimed at pointing to specific instances of wartime collaboration among the clergy. Accusations of collusion with the more radical right wing of the Horthy regime and in some cases, even with Szálasi’s Nazi government discredited and compromised the Catholic leadership. This alleged collaboration took different forms. Most importantly, a handful of widely publicized and highly scandalous cases detailed how members of the clergy and Catholic youth had allegedly collaborated with the Nazis during the War. By early 1946, when all those convicted of war crimes had been sentenced and executed, left wing newspapers and Communist politicians turned to uncovering alleged fascist plots and conspiracies in postwar Hungary. In each case, the Communist press made a direct link between the given conspiracy and the Church.

The Catholic response to these accusations of collaboration also assumed several forms. The Church asserted that the handful of World War II collaborators were exceptions to the rule and were thus not representative of the Church as a whole. The Catholic Church also argued that it too had fallen victim to the anti-Christian and “pagan” excesses of National Socialism. The cases of conspiracy and alleged fascist activity after the War, however, proved more troubling.  Nonetheless, rarely did the Church speak to the anti-Catholic nature of Nazism in Hungary under the Arrow Cross. Rather, it turned the attention to the way in which Hitler’s Germany discriminated against the Church and German Catholics, and how the German model of national socialism was “pagan” in nature and thus diametrically opposed to Christendom. The religious leadership, perhaps out of fear, proved most circumspect in criticising the decisions and investigations of the political police (PRO) and the Communist-administered interior ministry.

The third facet of the debate was based on two competing visions of the future, founded firmly on the Church’s and the Communist Party’s respective understanding of the past.  Toward the second half of 1946, the Communists had more or less exhausted  the issue of alleged collaborators and fascists within the Church, with most of these individuals having already been sentenced. The investigations regarding underground fascist cells and conspiracies resulted in the disbanding of Catholic youth organizations. As a consequence of this new situation, the debate between the Church and the Communists also began to change, both in its substance as well as in the rhetoric employed by the Communists. “Fascists” were now largely replaced by “forces of clerical reaction,” which happened to be bent on restoring the ancien regime and undermining the foundations of democracy.

The fourth stage in the debate between the Church and the Communists represented the most significant shift in the structure of the discourse. The Communist Party made clear that rooting out “reactionary” elements within the Church meant not only disbanding various Catholic associations, but targeting the highest offices of Church leadership. In this final stage, which began in 1948 and ended with Mindszenty’s arrest on December 26, 1948, the Communist Party no longer sought to continue any type of dialogue with the Church through the mass media, but rather focused on convincing the population that they had a mandate and could justify their decision to remove the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church. The Communist Party’s attempts at legitimization signaled that despite their control of most government ministries and the police force, they were still concerned of potentially earning the wrath of a sizeable rural Catholic population.

Despite rhetoric on both sides claiming that they wished to resolve the debate and avoid a larger cultural struggle, the two sides advocated such different visions for the future of Hungary, based on widely varying interpretations of the interwar past, that a compromise seemed unlikely. They also generally maintained that the two visions were mutually exclusive and utterly irreconcilable. The systematic disbanding of religious organizations, the secularization of church schools and a general separation between Church and State served as a death knell to a religious leadership accustomed to a certain degree of political preponderance and significant influence on national culture. Yet the unwillingness on the part of bishops to relinquish the Church’s role in public life, and its powerful position in society, was seen as a threat to a still fledgling Communist Party bent on making gains in rural Hungary and, indeed, among Catholic voters.

By 1948-49, the debate between the Church and the Party had gravitated noticeably toward a discourse on the future of Hungary, but always in relation to the past. The pinnacle of the Communist attack against the Church proved to be the arrest of the outspoken, anti-Communist and deeply conservative Cardinal Mindszenty on December 25, 1948.  The way had been prepared during the preceeding two months, at  which time the Communist press was ripe with accusations of reactionary treachery regarding the cardinal as well as reports from various civic organizations, including certain allegedly Catholic groups, calling on the government to bring Mindszenty to justice. When the political police finally charged the cardinal, the accusations reflected a shift from the innuendos of 1945-46, when the Communist press simply hinted at Mindszenty’s alleged collusion with the radical right. During the 1949 Mindszenty trial, the charges levied against the cardinal revolved around his apparent conspiracy to undermine the new, democratic order as well as the illegal use of foreign currency. Rather than relying solely on elusive references to a treacherous past, the authorities based Mindszenty’s trial on much more concrete allegations.

In the first half of 1945 the Communists did not directly censure the Church. Even later, Soviet-educated Communist politicians demonstrated circumspection in excoriating Catholicism, as a conservative, anachronistic institution, rather than condemning the Catholic faith itself. Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to conclude from this evidence that the Communist intention was simply to ‘modernize,’ or secularize Hungarian government and society, as Communist attacks against Church institutions did not end following radical land reform through which the Church lost most its large estates, after the dissolution of Catholic youth organizations and even after the nationalization of confessional schools. Merely creating a secular state and weakening the Church’s position would still allow the clergy to agitate against the regime on the periphery. The Communist Party’s intention was to completely discredit the Church and to make it dependent on the regime to such an extent that it no longer has the resources, the ability, nor the will to oppose the regime in any way.

Jen? Gergely, perhaps the most prolific historian of the Catholic Church in twentieth century Hungary, seems to argue that the concept of a cultural struggle was little more than the fabrication of a conservative ecclesia. According to Gergely, the period after 1945 “cannot be interpreted as a kulturkampf—albeit, the Constantine-style Church, which insisted on keeping its positions of power, understood it as this.”(6)  Gergely argues that rather than being a cultural struggle, this period merely represented the modernization and secularization of Hungary. Nevertheless, what becomes apparent from the anti-Catholic rhetoric is that the Communists themselves did, in fact, see themselves as partaking in a struggle against Catholicism in Hungary, which they criticized as being reactionary, not concurring with the concept of the separation of the political life from the religious, the separation of the Church and State, or the national culture from Catholicism. The way in which the Church understood itself and Hungarian culture and society as a whole, had been deeply shaped by the policies of the interwar regime. Therefore by 1945, the issue of the Church’s place in society was not solely an administrative matter, but one deeply intertwined with the Catholic faith. Consequently, the Communist program of demolishing the vestiges of Church’s influence in the public domain and curtailing the Catholic hierarchy can be seen as a type of kulturkampf in its own right. Although Communist leaders were cautious not to alienate rural Catholic voters by directly attacking the tenets of the Catholic faith, the promotion and expression of this faith and its role in the affairs of the state were curtailed at every turn, signaling a truly radical departure from the practice of the interwar period.

While Gergely downplays the extent of the conflict between the Church and the Communist Party during the early postwar period, Sabrina Ramet—in an examination Church-State relations in Communist countries—argues that “system destruction” characterized the initial phase of  establishing one-party hegemony in all Communist societies. According to Ramet, the “revolutionary party, not yet secure, must defend its position against internal and external foes, and it seeks to uproot traditional culture and traditional elites as a preliminary to constructing a new society.”(7)

In the case of East European states, “system destruction” unfolded between 1944 and 1953. Ramet argues that the removal of religious elites characterized this initial period in all Communist countries, from Buddhists in China to the Catholic Church in Cuba. In Poland, actions against the Catholic Church followed a somewhat different and more gradual pattern than elsewhere in Eastern Europe. For example, a significant contingent of priests organized the pro-regime PAX movement as early as 1945, whereas in Hungary such a movement only became an important force in the Church in 1949, after the disbanding of Church organizations, the nationalization of confessional schools and after Mindszenty’s arrest. As in Hungary, the Polish Catholic press lost its independence by 1948, but as opposed to the rest of the region, the Polish Catholic Church maintained many of its confessional schools. In contrast to Gergely’s view that a ‘normal’ process of modernization characterized Church-State relations after 1945, Ramet argues that throughout the region “Church and state confronted each other as independent actors with divergent preferences. Given the uncertainty that surrounds the establishment of a new political order, conflict was almost foreordained.”(8) While Ramet’s regional assessment is also accurate in the case of Hungarian Church-State relations, Ramet offers little analysis on the “system destruction” phase in Hungary and focuses more on post-1949 collaboration between the Hungarian Catholic Church and the Communist regime.

The concept of a struggle between ideologies is at the centre of both the interwar period and the early postwar years. The struggle can be understood as the conflict arising from the relationship of three ideologies: the Christian-conservatism of the aristocracy, the fascism of some middle-class intellectuals, the petty-bourgeoisie and the lower classes, and Communist sentiments among the proletariat. The Hungarian High Clergy identified with the conservatism of the upper classes. As part of their postwar apologia, ecclesiastical authorities strained to show that anti-Catholicism characterized both Nazism and Bolshevism and that the two positioned themselves in diametric opposition to the conservatism of the Church. The clergy employed this logic in an effort to distance itself from the Communist allegation that the Church had subscribed to fascist sympathies.

A number of historians have examined the relationship of these worldviews in interwar Europe and their respective quests for hegemony. Ernst Nolte’s Three Faces of Fascism argues that churches and other members of the Conservative establishment consistently criticized the National Socialist ‘variant’ of Fascism, but proved more encouraging of the Mussolini-style Fascist rule. “A Christian confrontation of uncompromising severity existed only toward National Socialism and this showed itself less in theoretical works than in testimonies from the death cell and the concentration camps. National Socialism was merely cited as an example of the dangers threatening from secularization.”(9) Like Bolsheviks, Nazis sought to define the state as separate, independent and of an authority higher than the Church. As such, they would not tolerate the high clergy, aligned with the landed aristocracy, dictating the national culture.

While secularism was an unacceptable facet of Nazism for the Catholic Church, Italian-style fascism proved to be a different experience. According to Nolte, “the fact that in most European countries Churches encouraged fascism to a sometimes very considerable degree is something which their adversaries have repeatedly emphasized and which it is hard to deny. Yet it would probably be fairer to speak of an early ambivalence.” (10) Nevertheless, as S.J. Woolf points out, fascism—like National Socialism and Bolshevism—was also a revolutionary movement from the very beginning and as such boasted both republicanism and anti-clericalism.(11) Fascism’s antagonism towards the Church, however, was nowhere near as pronounced as in Hitler’s Germany. Although the revolutionary nature of Mussolini’s movement may have disturbed Hungarian Catholic leaders who, after the 1919 experience with radical change, were quite content with maintaining the conservative status quo, fascism’s fervent anti-Communism proved to be inviting.

During the interwar period, the Church in Hungary found itself in a conundrum. Catholicism was faced with two ideologies, both of which were revolutionary in character, and as such posed a threat to the High Clergy’s position in society. Ultimately, the Church allied itself with the aristocratic, conservative forces, which also happened to be anticommunist and were willing to associate with fascist elements in meeting their common goal, namely the eradication of Bolshevism. According to George Barany, “the traditionalist conservative and the liberal interpretation of fascism tend to regard both fascism, and National Socialism, as revolutionary trends dangerously close to Bolshevism.”(12) Yet the government still sought contact with radical right-wing elements, in order to help it in its struggle with Bolshevism. After 1945, Communists pointed to this unholy alliance for which the only surviving institution and element of the interwar regime, the Catholic Church, had to answer.

Both the Communists and the leaders of the Catholic Church found daily and weekly newspapers to be the most effective way of promoting their visions of postwar Hungary. Much of the conflict between the Church and the Communist Party unfolded in the press. For the Communists, the official party morning paper, Szabad Nép, served as their main tool of communication with the population and the forum where criticism of the Catholic Church and allegations against Church institutions would first appear. For the Church, the weekly Új Ember, founded on August 16, 1946 and published by the Hungarian branch of Actio Catholica, had been seen as the Church’s semi-official voice and the forum wherein Catholic leaders and the paper’s editors would respond to Communist allegations against the Church.

The Communists appreciated the importance of the written press in the dissemination of ideas and in their offensive against the Church. During early 1945, the Red Army would allocate all newsprint to newspapers published in areas under its control. Later, the Communist Party of Hungary assumed these responsibilities and would divide newsprint, control the limited stocks of papers available for printing and dispense, or revoke publication licenses to new publications.(13)

Catholic leaders and writers used the press, as well as parish newsletters, circulars and pastoral letters to communicate with their faithful and counter Communist allegations. The media remained the preferred forum for a Catholic defense. The Church realized that its interwar heritage would prove a vulnerability in postwar Hungary. Consequently, Catholic elites, including conservative politicians, bishops, parish priests, journalists and authors, engaged in a public debate on the pages of Hungary’s main Catholic weekly, Új Ember, as well as in other smaller publications. This debate developed into a full-fledged confrontation with the Communist Party on the compromised interwar past, on the role of that past in postwar Hungary and whether any of the values, traditions and institutions of the former conservative regime should be permitted to form a part of the country’s postwar, democratic future.


1. H.M. Waddams, “Communism and the Churches,” International Affairs, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Vol. 24, no. 3 (July 1949): 303.

2.  Carlile Aylmer Macartney, Hungary, A Short History, (Chicago: Aldine. Pub. Co., 1962) 238-239.

3. Hugh, Seton-Watson, “Differences in the Communist Parties,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 317. The Satellites in Eastern Europe.  (May 1958), 3.

4. Bennett Kovrig, Communism in Hungary, From Kun to Kádár, (California: Stanford University, 1979) 151.

5.  Ibid., 250-252.

6. “Ez a korszak nem interpretálható kultúrharcként—jóllehet az addigi hatalmi állásához ragaszkodó konstantinusi egyház úgy értelmezte...”
Jenő Gergely, A politikai katolicizmus Magyarországon, 1890-1950, (Political Catholicism in Hungary, 1890-1950), (Budapest: Kossuth Kiadó, 1977) 10.

7. Sabrina P. Ramet, Nihol Obstat: Religion, Politics and Social Change in East-Central Europe and Russia, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998) 13.

8.  Ibid., 19.

9. Ernst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966) 18.

10.  Ibid., 18.

11. S.J. Woolf (ed.), Fascism in Europe (London: Methuen, 1981), 46.

12. George Barany, “The Dragon’s Teeth: The Roots of Hungarian Fascism,” in Peter F. Sugar (ed.) Native Fascism in the Successor States, 1918-1945, (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio, 1971), 75-76.

13.  Stephen D. Kertesz, “The Methods of Communist Conquest: Hungary 1944-1947,” World Politics, Vol. 3, No. 1 (October 1950): 35-36.