To those of us who were young in the 40s and 50s, Hungary and its capital, Budapest, was often headline news. I had always wanted to visit Budapest and recently got the chance to do so.
Budapest had a history of magnificence in the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. But then came the devastation of World War I. This regime engaged in torture, murder and the persecution of the Jews, after Hitler's troops invaded in 1944.
Hungary was then caught in the Nazi/Soviet crossfire that ensued. By 1945, the country was under Soviet occupation. The Soviets took over what had been the headquarters of the Arrow Cross party on Budapest's most upmarket boulevard. It is now a museum known as the House of Terror, exhibiting the horrors of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes.
The communists continued the reign of terror started by their Nazi predecessors. They reduced people to subjects: they killed without hesitation, often on the strength of confessions extorted during brutal interrogations. The new occupants of the House of Terror were said to be "masters of life and death".
Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, the 40th anniversary of whose death occurs tomorrow, May 6, had been appointed cardinal by Pope Pius XII in 1946. He had endured a spell in prison under the Nazis, but in December 1948 he was arrested on trumped-up charges of treason and related offence by the communist regime and later tortured and drugged.
The Mindszenty case was of intense interest to Christians worldwide and, especially, to the Irish. The Government had sought permission to have a representative visit him in prison. The Hungarian foreign office did not even reply to the request. The trial of the cardinal was of universal interest.
On October 23, 1946, the Dáil unanimously passed a resolution condemning the treatment of the cardinal. Taoiseach John A Costello said: "The circumstances of the condemnation of His Eminence Cardinal Mindszenty are entirely exceptional. We have seen in him a great prelate, a prince of the Catholic Church, arraigned like a common criminal, subjected to the greatest indignity and sentenced to imprisonment for life as a result of proceedings which it would be an abuse of language to describe as a trial."
The resolution read: "Dáil Éireann, shocked by the unjust and violent measures taken by the Government of Hungary against the person of His Eminence Cardinal Mindszenty and the leaders of other Christian churches in Hungary...hereby places on record its solemn condemnation of the iniquitous actions of the government of Hungary in violation of the Christian conscience, as well as its conviction that the sufferings of His Eminence and the other victims of this persecution will but serve to ensure the ultimate victory of Christian civilisation over the forces of evil."
The Pope excommunicated everyone involved in the "trial". However, nothing worked to lessen the resolve of the regime.
But then the rebellion of October 1956 broke out when millions rose up against the communist government. The rebels seized control of a number of buildings, including one of Budapest's most famous hotels, the Grand Hotel Royal. The newly-installed prime minister, Imre Nagy, thought he had secured a cease fire. The Soviet leader Khrushchev decided that the revolution should be crushed.
Air strikes, artillery bombardments, and some 6,000 tanks were deployed by the Soviets. Twelve tanks surrounded the Grand Hotel, smashing it to smithereens and killing the occupants.
Years later, President Kennedy said, after the Cuban Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961: "We do not intend to be lectured on 'intervention' by those whose character was stamped for all time on the bloody streets of Budapest."
Imre Nagy was held prisoner for two years and, after a secret trial, executed. Janos Kadar was installed as premier and retaliation and executions followed. Hungary had lost 50,000 rebels; the Soviets 7,000 troops and nearly a quarter of a million fled the country and sought refuge abroad, many in Austria and some in Ireland.
At the time of the 1956 revolution, the Cardinal was released from prison and sought refuge in the US embassy, where he remained for 15 years.
As the years passed, the aging cardinal became an embarrassment for the Hungarians, the Vatican and the Americans. The Hungarians offered him a safe passage to Austria, which he declined; the Vatican was trying to ease tensions with the communists and Mindszenty proved an obstacle.
Finally, at the request of Pope Paul VI, Cardinal Mindszenty left for the Vatican and went on to Vienna, where he died in 1975. After the fall of the Soviet Union, his body was brought back to his homeland and reburied in Esztergom - where he had been prelate.
I visited St Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, which has a fine sculpture of the cardinal. Hungarian Catholics throughout the world, and especially in the United States, remain loyal to his memory and would hope one day to have him canonised.
As for the Grand Hotel Royal, it had gone through many ups and downs since it was shelled in 1956, and closed in 1990, ironically after the Soviets had left. Then along came a Maltese hotelier, Alfred Pisani, who was determined to restore it to its former glory. Now called the Carinthia Grand Hotel Royal, it re-opened, with all its grandeur restored, in April 2003.
I think the restoration of this landmark is in accord with the resilience of the Hungarian people. Hungary is, of course, in the European Union. Like the rest of us, it has its problems but it is determined to meet them.
It has had to endure the horrors of war and the tyranny of dictatorships as much as, or more than, any other country but I came away with the idea that the Hungarians are a spirited people who will triumph.