Imre Nagy – a brief biography

Imre Nagy is remembered with great affection in today’s Hungary. Although a communist leader during its years of one-party rule, Nagy was the voice of liberalism and reform, advocating national communism, free from the shackles of the Soviet Union. Following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Nagy was arrested, tried in secret and executed. His rehabilitation and reburial in 1989 played a significant and symbolic role in ending communist rule in Hungary.

Imre Nagy plaqueImre Nagy was born 7 June 1896 in the town of Kaposvár in southern Hungary. He worked as a locksmith before joining the Austrian-Hungary army during the First World War. In 1915, he was captured and spent much of the war as a prisoner-of-war in Russia. He escaped and having converted to communism, joined the Red Army and fought alongside the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution of 1917.


In 1918, Nagy returned to Hungary as a committed communist and served the short-lived Soviet Republic established by Bela Kun in Hungary. Following its collapse in August 1919, after only five months, Nagy, as with other former members of Kun’s regime, lived underground, liable to arrest. Eventually, in 1928, he fled to Austria and from there, in 1930, to the Soviet Union, where he spent the next fourteen years studying agriculture.

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Cardinal Mindszenty – a brief biography

Hungarian cardinal, Joseph Mindszenty, came to symbolise the church’s opposition to tyranny and totalitarianism.

Born Joseph Pehm on 29 March 1892 in the Hungarian village of Csehi-Mindszent (the name which, in 1941, later Pehm adopted), Mindszenty was ordained a priest in 1915 at the age of 23. He spoke out against Hungary’s short-lived Soviet Republic and was subsequently arrested and imprisoned until its collapse in August 1919.

In March 1944, during the Second World War, he was consecrated as a bishop but later the same year was again imprisoned, this time by the Nazi-affiliated Arrow Cross government, for protesting against Hungary’s treatment and oppression of its Jewish population.

I stand for God

Following the war, he was appointed Primate of Hungary and Archbishop of Esztergom, and in 1946 was made a cardinal by Pope Pius XII. But by now, the Hungarian communist party was looking to take over power, intimidating and silencing all opposition.

Mindszenty opposed the Hungarian communist regime of Matyas Rakosi and was known for his vocal criticism. The cardinal toured the country, urging people to resist the government’s plan to nationalise the church’s land and property and Hungary’s 4,813 Catholic schools. In a letter published written in November 1948 and broadcast on the Voice of America radio station, the cardinal said, ‘I stand for God, for the Church and for Hungary. . . . Compared with the sufferings of my people, my own fate is of no importance. I do not accuse my accusers. …I pray for those who, in the words of Our Lord, ‘know not what they do.’ I forgive them from the bottom of my heart.’

On 26 December 1948, Mindszenty was arrested. Stripped naked or dressed as a clown, Mindszenty was tortured, methods that included sleep deprivation, beatings, intense and incessant noise, and forced fed mind-altering drugs. Finally, after over forty days and nights of continuous torture, the cardinal signed his confession.

A blot upon the nation

Mindszenty appeared at his show trial washed, shaved and dressed up in a new suit. He was accused of over forty farcical wrongdoings, such as planning to steal the Hungarian crown jewels and, according to the prosecution, of inciting the ‘American imperialists to declare war on our country’. ‘I am guilty on principle and in detail of most of the accusations made,’ he said, but denied that he was trying to topple the government. The verdict, of course, was a foregone conclusion, and after the six-day trial, on 8 February 1949, Cardinal Mindszenty was found guilty of treason. Escaping the death sentence (the communists wanted to avoid having a dead martyr on their hands), he was sentenced to life imprisonment.  Four days later, the Pope excommunicated all those involved in the cardinal’s trial.

The verdict outraged the free world. Pius XII called the outcome a ‘serious outrage which inflicts a deep wound . . . on every upholder of the dignity and liberty of man.’ US president, Harry S Truman, said it was ‘one of the black spots on Hungary’s history and a blot upon the nation.’

The Cardinal is free

During the chaotic days of the Hungarian Revolution, 23 October to 4 November 1956, Hungary’s new leader, Imre Nagy, appointed by the Soviet politburo, sanctioned Mindszenty’s release, stating, ‘the measures depriving Cardinal Primate Joseph Mindszenty of his rights are invalid and that the Cardinal is free to exercise without restriction all his civil and ecclesiastical rights.’

Mindszenty lived under voluntary house arrest within Budapest’s US embassy and stayed there for fifteen years. When the communists, again worried lest he should die and attain national martyrdom, offered him safe passage to Austria, he refused. Finally, in 1971, on the urging of both Pope Paul VI and US president, Richard Nixon, Mindszenty left Hungary and moved briefly into the Vatican before settling in Vienna.

Cardinal Mindszenty died in Vienna on 6 May 1975, aged 83. He was buried in the city but, following the fall of communism in Hungary, was reinterred in the Hungarian town of Esztergom.

Rupert Colley

The Torn FlagRupert’s page-turning novel, The Torn Flag, set during the chaotic days of the 1956 the Hungarian Revolution, is now available.

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Matyas Rakosi – brief biography

Matyas Rakosi was, from 1949 to 1953, Joseph Stalin’s man in Hungary. A Stalinist to his core, Rakosi secured and maintained power by methods of terror and oppression, but, soon after the death of his mentor, was removed from office.

Budapest, II. Weltfestspiele, Festumzug, EhrentribüneMatyas Rakosi was born one of eleven children to Jewish parents on 9 March 1892 in a village called Ada, now in Serbia but then part of the Austrian-Hungary empire. He would later renounce his Judaism and all forms of religion. A polyglot, Rakosi could speak eight languages. He served in the Austrian-Hungarian army during the First World War, being taken prisoner on the Eastern Front by the Russians and held for years in a prisoner of war camp during which time he converted to communism. Returning home in 1918 as a member of the Hungarian Communist Party, he was given command of the Red Guard during the 134-day Hungarian Soviet Republic formed by Bela Kun in 1919. Following the collapse of the republic, Rakosi fled to Austria, then onto Moscow.


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Blood in the Water – Cold War Olympics

6 December 1956 saw one of the most violent and politically-charged sporting clashes in history, an event that came to be known as ‘ Blood in the Water ’. The occasion was the Olympic water polo semi-final between Hungary and the USSR. Played against the backdrop of Cold War politics, the game was, from start to finish, fraught with tension.
Water Polo
Hungary was the undoubted superpower of 1950s water polo. They had won gold at three of the four previous Olympic Games, and silver at the London Olympics of 1948; and were firm favourites to triumph again at the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, the first Olympics to be held in the southern hemisphere. The Soviets, jealous of Hungary’s success in the water, had been training in Hungary in the months leading up to the Olympics, trying to learn what made the Hungarians so good at their game. Since 1949, Hungary had been a Soviet satellite and thus the Soviet team arrived, uninvited, and made use of Hungary’s pool facilities and expertise. A ‘friendly’ match in Moscow earlier in the year had erupted in violence; the Russians having won thanks to some dubious partisan referring.
Hungarian Revolution
Then, in October 1956, came the Hungarian Revolution. The people of Hungary stood up to the oppression of a tyrannical and foreign ruler. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, sent in the tanks to quell the uprising and restore order. The tanks, having failed, were withdrawn. Khrushchev replaced Hungary’s hard-line communist rulers with the more populist Imre Nagy. Nagy announced his decision to withdraw Hungary from the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, introduce much-needed reform and, most alarmingly for Khrushchev, spoke of independence.
A week later, the Soviet tanks re-appeared and, this time, with brutal efficiency, crushed the revolution. Some 3,000 Hungarian citizens were killed. Nagy took sanctuary in the Yugoslav embassy but, a year later, having been lured out, was arrested by the new pro-Soviet regime in Budapest, tried and executed.
Meanwhile, while the Hungarian Revolution played out, the national Olympic water-polo team had been holed up with Russian minders in a hillside hotel in Budapest within earshot of the gun battles raging below. On 1 November they started on their three-week journey to Melbourne not knowing the outcome of the uprising. It was only when they arrived in Australia, they learnt that their oppressive rulers were back in charge (and would remain so for another 33 years). It was at this point that many of the players decided that, once the Olympics were over, they would not be returning to their homeland.
They won their first four games of the tournament against Great Britain, the USA, Italy and Germany. And so they reached the semi-final to face the team that represented their oppressors. The scene was set for a tumultuous confrontation – blood in the water.
Blood in the Water
The game took place on 6 December. The Hungarian team had decided from the off to conduct a psychological battle by needling their opponents. Having been forced to learn the Russian language two hours a day throughout their school years, the Hungarian players could easily make themselves understood as they mocked their opponents’ illegitimacy. Within the first minute of the heavily-charged grudge match, the referee had consigned a Russian player to the penalty box.
Fights continued throughout the game, both above and below the water line. Together with their method of zonal marking, a revolutionary tactic for the time, the Hungarians had the Soviets quickly ruffled.
The Australian crowd’s sympathy clearly lay with the Hungarians, chanting ‘Go Hungary’ throughout the game and waving the Hungarian flag with the Soviet emblem ripped from its centre. (The Australian team had been beaten by the USSR earlier in the tournament).
With the match drawing to its close, the score was 4-0 to Hungary. In the last couple of minutes, Hungary’s star player, the 21-year-old Ervin Zador, was assigned by his captain to mark the Soviet forward, Valentin Prokopov. Zador had already scored two of Hungary’s goals. On hearing the referee blow his whistle, Zador made what he called a ‘horrible mistake’, and momentarily took his eye of the Soviet. He looked back to see Prokopov’s arm windmilling before being thumped a mighty blow that caught him in the eye and cheek. There was, indeed, blood in the water.
The Australian crowd went berserk and surged forward. The police, who had been told to expect trouble, hence their presence at the game, stepped in. The referee blew full time a minute early while the police escorted the Soviet team away from the baying crowd. Ervin Zador was led from the pool with blood pouring from his face. A photograph of the bloodied player has become an iconic image of Cold War-era Olympics.
Thus, having won, the Hungarian team advanced to the final against Yugoslavia. Zedor, although desperate the play, was unable to – his eye was too swollen. He nervously watched the game from the stands as his teammates triumphed, winning the final 2-1. He received his gold medal on the podium dressed in a suit. (The Soviets won their play-off match, beating Germany 6 -4, and hence earned the bronze medal).
San Francisco
Following the Olympics, Zador, along with half his teammates, sought asylum. It was, he said years later, a difficult decision – he was at the peak of his career and could look forward to a bright sporting future in Hungary. But the Soviet oppression was too much. Thus, he moved to the US and settled in San Francisco. Water polo in the US was not the sport it was in Hungary and, reluctantly, Zedor gave it up. Instead, he took up a job as a swimming instructor and trained a young Mark Spitz, who, at the Munich Olympics of 1972, won seven gold medals.
2006, the fiftieth anniversary of the Blood in the Water game, saw two cinematic releases based on the event – a documentary, Freedom’s Fury, executively produced by Quentin Tarantino, no less, and narrated by Zedor’s former protégé, Mark Spitz; and a Hungarian feature film, Children of Glory.
Ervin Zador died 28 April 2012.
The Torn FlagRupert Colley
Rupert’s page-turning novel, The Torn Flag, set during the chaotic days of the 1956 the Hungarian Revolution, is now available.