ROME, ITALY – The first time Mindszenty probed American officials about the possibility of restoring the Holy Crown of St. Stephen to its rightful place occurred on or sometime after February 19th, 1946, the date he was escorted to Rome by Maj. General Key and ACC executive officer, Lawrence Hagy, for his official consecration ceremony as Cardinal and Prince Primate.
Of anyone, Mindszenty might have been the most interested in its return since the quasi-feudal laws governing Hungary until the Soviet occupation designated the Prince Primate as de facto head of state in the absence of a king, and despite the fact that the Hungarian monarchy had been legally abolished in the election that created the provisional government in November, the Cardinal had no intention of honoring that vote and resented any political leader who did not travel to the Archdiocese of Esztergom to consult with him on matters of national policy.
In 1947, he asked the Pope to intercede on Hungary’s behalf for the return of the precious crown, but no amount of influence-peddling could get the U.S. to release the prized possession, and indeed, would not do so for the next thirty years. After all, an object imbued with centuries of heavenly and earthly power was nothing to be trifled with, as coming events would soon reveal.
Negotiations with private Western interests in Hungary and the Soviet-backed provisional government had been deteriorating. Ongoing talks with Standard Electric, a subsidiary of the International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT) corporation, stalled after the U.S. Military blocked an agreement between the parties, in which ITT retained 100 percent of the shares in its subsidiary in exchange for its manufacturing licenses, which the Defense Department refused to hand over.
In November 1948, Paul Ruedemann of Standard Oil’s subsidiary MAORT was arrested over accusations of sabotage, in what was the start if a series of “show trials” put on by the leader of the Hungarian Worker’s Party’s (MDP), Mátyás Rákosi, who calculated that hanging the West’s dirty laundry out to dry could hasten the process of nationalization.
A day after Ruedemann’s detention, MPD’s Propaganda and Agitation Committee, identified Cardinal Mindszenty as an ideal target for political persecution and arrested his personal secretary of five years, Dr. András Zakar, who later that same evening would guide officers to a room in the basement of the archdiocese and point to a spot on the ground, where secret correspondence between Mindszenty and the Vatican was buried inside a metal box. Zakar’s quick cooperation with the secret police was attributed to his “frail constitution and health“.
Within weeks, Mindszenty himself would be jailed, accused of treason and of plotting the overthrow of the fledgling republic to establish a “Federal Central European Kingdom“, consisting of Hungary, Austria and Bavaria to be ruled under the investiture of the Holy Crown of St. Stephen by Otto von Hapsburg.
“I don’t think he committed any crime except preaching democracy,” Lawrence Hagy, who was now serving the first of many terms as Mayor of Amarillo, Texas, told the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC) in February of 1949. His arrest would only “make a saint of a man who was already the hero and leader of the Hungarian people,” Hagy continued, adding that he didn’t believe the Cardinal had “confessed to anything he did not believe to be right”, regardless of the allegations that he had been drugged and tortured.
Mindszenty’s trial, which took place from February 3 to the 8, was an international event covered by all the major media outlets of the day, including Time magazine, which featured the Prince Primate on the cover of its February 24 issue of 1949, with a curious bible verse fragment quoted underneath the portrait that read, “to die is to gain”.
Rumors that the Hungarian secret police had used drugs and torture to extract a fake confession from Mindszenty had been initiated by the priest, himself, in a pastoral letter written on the eve of his apprehension. “Any ‘confession'”, Timecited, “that might appear some day [sic] over his signature would only be the result of ‘human frailty'”, while direct allusions to psychotropic drugs and torture are said to appear in other letters written by the religious firebrand. Nevertheless, these claims are undermined by “reliable Western observers” present at the trial, who found the clergyman to be “in possession of his faculties”, according to Time.
Mindszenty’s uncanny ability to foretell his own future was echoed by none other than Cardinal Francis Spellman, the notorious CIA operative and leader of the military arm of the Holy See, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), in a sermon delivered at a day of “prayer and protest” organized by the Irish Catholic cleric at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan days after the trial’s conclusion.
Spellman, who had hosted Mindszenty when the Hungarian cleric travelled to the United States to hold secret talks with the Hapsburg pretender, Otto, and had been part of the same Cardinal class consecrated by Pope Pius XII, made an astonishing prediction during the protest mass. In addition to explicitly calling for World War III to stop the “Communist floodings of our own land”, Spellman took the Hungarian Cardinal’s death for granted and urged his congregation to focus their prayers on “the spiritual Cardinal Mindszenty in his martyrdom of mind and body”, since “the physical Cardinal Mindszenty can no longer be saved.”
This is extraordinary, particularly in light of a chilling exchange between Pope Pius XII and Mindszenty during his consecration ceremony in 1946, when the pontiff warned the new Cardinal that he “may be the first to see these blood red colors turn to red blood” just as he placed the distinctive red hat worn by the chief officials of the Roman Curia on his head; a message burdened with even greater significance given that the higher position also made him titular head of the Basilica of St. Stephen in Rome, which is dedicated to the first Christian martyr.
While there is little doubt that Communist Party leader Rákosi, targeted Mindszenty specifically to serve his own political ends by exposing his “treacherous imperialist connections, anti-land reform, anti-harvest, pro-war politics”, the aura of martyrdom deliberately created around Mindszenty by Spellman, Pius XII and the Pope’s secretary of state – Giovanni Montini –, all raise unique historical dilemmas about the true nature of these events.
In January before the trial got underway, the St. Louis Register reported Montini’s letter to all of the Vatican’s foreign envoys, “stressing the gravity of the Budapest outrage”, and carrying a quotation from top American broadcast journalist, Edward R. Murrow, who proclaimed Mindszenty to be “a symbol of world resistance to Communism”. Meanwhile, inside Hungary, “many, who had believed in [Mindszenty’s] innocence before,”, according to Time magazine, had “now changed their minds when they heard Mindszenty’s own voice” over their radio sets.
Mountain Man Fairytales
Cold War propaganda was off to a scandalous start on both sides of the Iron Curtain with the trial and sentencing of Cardinal József Mindszenty. Hagy embarked on a European tour that summer, taking local Amarillo radio broadcaster, Wes Izzard along with him. Izzard, a friend of Birch Society founder Robert Welch, was known as “a sophisticated racist”, rabidly anti-Catholic man, who would run the Amarillo Globe-News for decades and refuse to carry any stories about the Pope (or Black people) on the front page.
The ostensible purpose of the trip was to collect stories from the “Allied underground workers” who helped Izzard’s son, Bob, escape the Germans after he had been shot down behind enemy lines on D-Day. One of the stops on the six-month long sojourn was Rome, Italy, where Hagy and Izzard were photographed walking out of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Though there are no available records about Hagy’s activities during this visit to the Holy See, it is quite possible that he was there to discuss the question of Mindszenty with the Holy Father, himself. Sentenced to life in prison after the high profile, media-ready trial, tensions were running high in postwar Europe as the Cold War narrative descended upon the world.
On the way, Hagy stopped at Hohenzollern Castle in Germany to attend the wedding of Clyde Harris, a young interior designer from Amarillo, Texas, to the granddaughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Originally from Oklahoma like Hagy, Harris moved to the Texas panhandle as a rep for the Warren Ramsey Interior Decoration company in 1941 and enlisted two years later, rising quickly to the rank of Captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, where he would serve until something like fate would lead him towards his tragically short lived relationship with an actual princess.
Assigned to the German chapter of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Branch (MFAA) in 1945; the so-called “Monuments Men”, who were tasked with recovering looted works of art and other archival materials lost or stolen during the war, Clyde was put on the case of the Darmstadt Madonna – a million-dollar painting by Hans Holbein, which had been hidden by its royal owners from invading Soviet forces inside Coburg Castle in Poland.
Much of the work carried out by the Monuments Men was done in coordination with intelligence agencies, specifically the OSS, which at the end of the war had been redirected by the JCS to prioritize the recovery of war loot. Whether Harris was himself an intelligence agent is impossible to determine from available records, but other notable guests at his unlikely marriage ceremony in the mythical hills of the Black Forest suggest he may have been an asset, at the very least.
Partaking in the nuptial festivities was Lt. Calhoun C. Ancrum, a decorated OSS officer who was himself married to a Romanoff princess, and at the time, was working undercover as the Public Relations Officer for the Office of Military Government of Bavaria (OMGB) in Munich, where thousands of “Germans, having various degrees of counter-espionage interest” were being processed by X-2, resulting in the recruitment of numerous Nazi intelligence officers happy to live another day.
In a rare instance of seemingly mundane records shining a light on pivotal moments in history, as Ancrum’s OSS boss was complaining to OMGB headquarters about not being able to hire any “former member of the Nazi Party or Army officer” he wanted, word came in November that he was to “abandon German intelligence organizations and the chimerical Nazi underground” altogether to focus on the new official enemy, Soviet intelligence services.
Just like that, the pretense of chasing Nazis would be dropped and replaced with Commies almost from one day to the next. By December, Prince Ludwig’s nephew would accompany Clyde Harris to help return a 400-year old oil on wood panel to the Prince’s estate, and shortly thereafter plant the seeds of romance with the daughter of a man who had made a pact with Adolf Hitler for his reinstatement to the German throne.
Crown Prince Wilhelm was predictably betrayed by the Fuhrer, who imprisoned him in the very castle his daughter was wedded to the American Midwesterner. Asked by reporters how he felt about giving her away to a commoner, the Crown Prince demurred. Meanwhile, the new Mrs. Clyde Harris promised to become “a real American”, and in what is perhaps one of the greatest ironies, the great granddaughter of Queen Victoria asserted that she was “going to love Texas.”
450 miles away in Vienna, the Austrian press was having a field day with stories about an espionage and human smuggling operation working out of the Austro-American Club in the “city of dreams”. Raided just two months earlier by the police, the club’s vice president, Robert Vogeler, was accused of running the subversive operation. Vogeler also happened to be the Vienna-based Vice President of ITT, which was in the midst of stalled negotiations between its Hungarian subsidiary, Standard Electric, and the government of Mátyás Rákosi.
Tipped off by the scandal in Austria, Rákosi’s secret police bugged Vogeler’s phone lines, yielding highly compromising details about his private life, and critically, the defection plans of Standard Electric’s Hungarian executive director, Imre Geiger. Both men, as well as Standard Electric’s accountant, were arrested just before Geiger was about to cross the border into Austria and were imprisoned on charges of espionage.
Official diplomatic negotiations commenced in the fall between Rákosi’s foreign relations ministers and U.S. Ambassador Nathaniel Davis, who was no stranger to underhanded tactics. Among Davis’ then yet-to-be-completed body of work are his diplomatic duties in Guatemala during the creation of the Central American nation’s fascist terror squad, Mano Blanca, with the help of the U.S. Military, after which he transferred to Chile with his team upon the election of Salvador Allende.
After the U.S. Military put the kibosh on Standard Electric “nationalization” agreement, Rákosi now felt he had the Americans where he wanted them. The jailed ITT executive was more compromised than Paul Ruedemann, whose release Davis was able to secure with a contrived dramatic phone call to Washington within earshot of the Hungarian leader’s surveillance team. Vogeler’s freedom would require some finessing.
Knowing how fragile the Hungarian government’s hold on the country was at that point, Davis began leaking details of the negotiations to the Associated Press, promptly infuriating Rákosi. Aided by the British legation in Vienna, which provided Davis with plausible deniability, another leak would result in an AP article claiming that Rákosi’s Communist government had requested the return of the Holy Crown of St. Stephen in exchange for the ITT executive’s release.
Needless to say, this was a major embarrassment for Rákosi’s secular government, which obviously had no interest in an elitist symbol of monarchist privilege and power as he attempted to turn Hungary into a modern-day, atheistic proletarian nation. However, the country was still majority Catholic, and the cultural attachment to the historical artifact, coupled with protests from the exiled Hungarian community, forced Rákosi to make a brief attempt to have the item returned under the concept of war loot.
Davis communicated the State Department’s first official position on the Holy Crown, refuting its classification as war loot and reaffirmed the foundational deception that it had been turned over “in trust” by the captured members of the Arrow Cross Party. Anxious to avoid a greater political disaster, Rákosi agreed to the almost inconsequential original terms of the deal and quietly released Vogeler on April 28, 1951. By that time, the United States had entered the Korean conflict and the French were five years into a quagmire in Indochina.
The “Cold War” was still hot, but since the tanks had left the European theater, the populations of the Western world – particularly the United States – could be lulled into a peacetime mentality, while the Nazi brain trust streamed steadily into American weapons laboratories, universities, defense contractors, and intelligence agencies under Project Paperclip and the less well-known, Project National Interest.