February 8

This Day in History

Cold War

Feb 8, 1949:

Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary sentenced

Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty, the highest Catholic official in Hungary, is convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Communist People's Court. Outraged observers in Western Europe and the United States condemned both the trial and Mindszenty's conviction as "perversions" and "lynchings."

Mindszenty was no stranger to political persecution. During World War II, Hungary's fascist government arrested him for his speeches denouncing the oppression of Jews in the nation. After the war, as a communist regime took power in Hungary, he continued his political work, decrying the political oppression and lack of religious freedom in his nation. In 1948, the Hungarian government arrested the cardinal. Mindszenty, several other Catholic Church officials, a journalist, a professor, and a member of the Hungarian royal family were all found guilty of various crimes during a brief trial before the Communist People's Court in Budapest. Most had been charged with treason, trying to overthrow the Hungarian government, and speculation in foreign currency (illegally sending money out of the country). All but Mindszenty received prison sentences ranging from a few years to life.

Mindszenty was the focus of the trial. During the proceedings, the prosecutors produced several documents implicating Mindszenty in antigovernment activities. The Cardinal admitted that he was "guilty in principle and in detail of most of the accusations made," but he vigorously denied that his activities were designed to overthrow the Hungarian government. Nevertheless, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The reaction to Mindszenty's conviction was swift and indignant. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin declared that the trial was an affront to Britain's understanding of liberty and justice. The Vatican issued a statement proclaiming that the Cardinal was "morally and civilly innocent." In the United States, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (Democrat-Texas) stated that the "Christian world cannot help but be shocked over the verdict." Protests were held in a number of U.S. cities, but the protests did not change the verdict.

The case was significant in demonstrating the depth of the anticommunist movement in Hungary. In 1956, Mindszenty was released when a reformist government took power in Hungary. Shortly thereafter, Soviet troops entered Hungary to put down anticommunist protests. Mindszenty took refuge in the U.S. embassy in Budapest and stayed inside the embassy grounds until 1971. That year he was recalled by the Vatican and settled in Vienna, where he died in 1975.

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