Intimidation and solidarity after 1956

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  • 2017. December 20.

The retaliation on the Church after 1956 was hard on priests in the countryside and secular officials  said Réka Földváryné Kiss. We were talking about the events that happened 60 years ago with the chairperson of the Committee of National Remembrance.

  • Europe suffered two totalitarian dictatorships in the 20th century. In both of them the political establishment used an ideology of exclusion to declare who was considered to be the enemy. It was also announced that all means were allowed to deal with this enemy. After WWII many hoped that a truly democratic country could be built after the German occupation and the terror of the Arrow Cross Party. That, however, was quickly replaced by what we call communist dictatorship, with the occupation of the Soviets and total power in the hands of communists - Réka Földváryné Kiss emphasized.

- The Church was an enemy, as well.

  • The Communist party elite considered every traditionally developed, autonomous group of society as enemy. For the Party which declared atheism as its official ideology, the greatest challenge was to break religious traditions and churches that were treated as ideological enemy. This policy continued after 1956 with ever-changing range of means but fundamentally with the same aims. After the first wave of brutal retaliation following the revolution, János Horváth, the head of the State Office for Church Affairs said in 1958 that “churches are the greatest legal enemy of our regime of people’s democracy.” That was the time when János Kádár infamously said: “we fight clericalism tooth and nail, and with machine guns and prison, because we are not having clerical rule, that is power of the priests, but we have worker-peasant rule.” In other words it was not only Rákosi, who declared war against the Church, but  when he was amongst his comrades  Kádár made it clear that all means were to be applied against the so-called “clerical reaction”. And what did the establishment consider as “clearical reaction”? That was always defined by their current interests. This approach of the regime remained until 1989. The method, strategy and the means changed with respect to the best interests of the regime. Kádár and his establishment used much more refined techniques than ones in the Rákosi-era. However, the elimination of the Church, religious world-views and moral values remained to be one of the political aims of the state party. They were especially eager to render the religious education of the young impossible. The party leadership payed special attention to “forbid any other activity (sport, screening, choir, extracurricular religious studies)” outside the church building. In relation to the Reformed Church of Hungary, there were objections to their respect for traditions, which was simply stigmatized as nationalism.

- What means did they resort to?

  • Church policy had a wide range of means. One of them was ‘divide and conquer’, which worked on a number of levels. On the one hand, different religious congregations were played against each other; on the other hand, they were trying to turn members and leaders within congregations on each other. Moreover, in many cases, the punishment of disobedient or simply too active priests was made to be a task of those church leaders who were placed in their positions by the regime. That happened to the most iconic spiritual leaders of Hungarian Protestantism during the revolution, László Ravasz and László Pap as well. The retaliation mechanism did not use means of criminal law on them. They were pushed out of the leadership of the Church; however, as for the Reformed Church, the used various means of terror on secular members and priests in the countryside.
Extracts from the recollections of László Pap

“No-one remembered to spare a thought to how my family would make ends meet, how I would survive far from my family, in a place that two young pastors refused to accept in the summer of 1956. I did, because I wanted to prove that my loyalty to Christ and spiritual service does not only last as long as I hold the highest positions in the Church.” 

“A good year ago one of the leading pastors (who is still in a high position today) justified his attempt to rehabilitate me: when the state officially put a closure to 1956 and announced amnesty for the convicts, it is incomprehensible why László Pap is still in Murga. And if it is incomprehensible for them, it is even more difficult to understand abroad. Well, I don't understand that either, or maybe I do  very much indeed. Since Jesus did not predict comfort but persecution for his believers, and my famous predecessors on peregrination in Holland  János Apáczai Csere and Miklós Misztótfalusi Kis, just to mention a few  are also examples that serving the Reformed Church of Hungary is not a walk in the park.”

(From: László Pap: Ten years and after 19451963. [Tíz év és ami utána következett 1945–1963.] Ed.: Gyula Bárczay. EPMSZ, Bern, 1992. 276., 282.

- That was not unusual before the revolution.

  • A good example is the YMCA-trial, which involved the secular leaders such as István Pógyor and László Teleki in 1951. It was a typical show trial, and on the list of conspirators there were bishops László Ravasz and Albert Bereczky, but the legal procedure was not  as they said at the time – “implemented”. After 1956 the same was apparent. In March 1957 when the question of church politics came up at a meeting of the party’s top leadership, arrests were mentioned. That is why the list was made with the names of “counter-revolutionist priests” to be arrested.

- Were the Church leaders on that list?

  • In the original list the names of László Pap and László Ravasz appeared as well, but the Reformed Church was given the role of the church that was cooperating superbly, so it was not in the interest of the establishment to start trials against the best-known representatives. That does not mean that there was no massive retaliation on the Reformed Church, they did the same as before, i.e. prosecuted pastors in isolated political trials. The intimidation went nationwide, the message reached everybody, and in the meanwhile, they publically announced a freedom of religion and reconciliation with the Church. According to one of the party decrees the “clerical reaction” resorted to both clerical and non-clerical means in its “undermining operations”. Therefore the ideological background was provided for prosecuting members of the Church in non-clerical trials.

- Like Lajos Gulyás, pastor of Levél.

  • He saved a border guard officer from the public anger that got out of hand after the volley firing in Mosonmagyaróvár. He was the kind of person people would listen to in critical situations, who was greatly respected. Such an autonomous, credible, well-respected person holds great risk to a dictatorship. If someone can pacify agitated crowds, then he is the one people would listen to. After 1956 in all regions of the country procedures started against national committees, which were real bodies of self-government in place of the communist council-system. These were often assisted by pastors of the Reformed Church, who were natural leaders of traditional peasantry  they were the ones to be intimidated. According to a report of Internal Affairs, by October 1957, more than 5% of pastors in the countryside were being prosecuted. These were not public, symbolic trials, but ones that involved local communities.

- Physical abuse on pastors was part of the retaliation.

  • Some were severely beaten. For example, József Marosi pastor from Tatabánya was taken for two weeks and he was beaten so badly that he lost his hearing and his eyesight in one eye. István Sípos, pastor from Kisújszállás were beaten three times. As far as his family know, he was beaten by nine representatives of the Armed Force. Lawyer János Kardos, who was illegally removed from the position of superintendent, told about him to Gyula Nyírő, professor of medicine, and that is how he got into a hospital, and he was put back on his feet again. Retaliation and intimidation were aimed at that type of social network of solidarity that existed at the time. Retaliation after 1956 severely involved pastors in the countryside and secular representatives severely. The reason why can be seen in a report from the chief of police from the beginning of 1957. According to the report, there was no resistance in cities any more, however, in villages there were “counter-revolutionist activities”. So the chief of police released a command to restore order in the villages. Moreover, the enforced collectivization had to be prepared as well.

- And at the end of 1957 Christmas came.

  • In December 1957 at the meeting of the Politburo of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party the criminal policy was being discussed by the party leadership. Béla Biszku said that prisons were overcrowded; there were a lot of mild sentences and a low number of exterminations. By the time nineteen thousand people had been being prosecuted, and 110 had been executed. Also interments, dismissals from workplaces, beatings in throughout villages must not be forgotten. The country was preparing for Christmas under such conditions, amongst lives cut in half or terminated, and while a mass retaliation was on. We must mention the names of those who ruined those lives. For example, István Gyepes, who sentenced Lajos Gulyás to death at first instance, graduated from university nine days after the sentence. He continued to be the president of the District Court of Győr until 1987. Lay judges and judges of the People’s Courts took part in the procedure, they represented of the official political will. One of them in Gulyás’s trial, Lajos Gyurkó was the only high-ranking officer, who willingly took military actions against civilians in the revolution. He ordered a volley in Tiszakécske, and he was also partly responsible for the volleys in Salgótarján and Eger. There were two judges of the People’s Court at second instance: one of them later became and ambassador in Bern, and the other one worked as the assistant chief-of-staff in the seventies. So these people made amazing careers, and remained to be part of the system until 1989.

- János Péter, bishop of Debrecen said in December 1957 that the Renewal Movement in the Hungarian Reformed Church in 1956 was “a rebellion against the Word”. That could be used against the church by the establishment.

  • Yes. The fact that the most authoritative figure of the Reformed Church from the establishment’s point of view called the activity of the Renewal Movement a “rebellion against the Word” legitimized the state’s retaliation on behalf of the Church.

- In 1957 László Pap  a leading figure in the Renewal Movement  was pushed out. Why was the dean of theology made to stand down?

  • Because they couldn't break him. László Pap was a deputy bishop along with Albert Bereczky in the beginning of the 50s. He was known to the establishment as he often negotiated with the Office of Church Affairs in critical situations; however, he never surrendered to the establishment. After 1956 the Kádár-government faced opposition from society, so they tried to have people on their side who were widely respected. From the Reformed Church, they tried to turn László Pap. He was offered to be a bishop, but he refused. That was when his tribulations started, because he refused to make a deal with the establishment. They tried to recruit him, but they failed. He was invited to the University of Utrecht, but he was not authorized to go to Holland. According to state security archives, statements were being collected against him, but there was no political will for a big trial concerning the Church. In the end they left it to the church leaders what to do with him. As Ravasz had put it earlier: they were trying to alienate the Church by the Church. The ex-dean, professor with international reputation, father of five was finally removed to Murga in Tolna as deputy parish priest in a scattered congregation. László Pap’s story is a story of deprivation, it demonstrates what we really lost. He belonged to a generation of intellectuals that had studied before 1945, lived through two dictatorships, represented the most honourable ideas and whose career was broken after 1956. If that talented and devoted generation had been given the chance, they could have done plenty for the country.


Reka Kiss