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Seeking Freedom and Justice for Hungary
by valerie miké
hamilton books, 350 pages, $38.99

One of Budapest’s top tourist destinations is the Terror Haza, a harrowing museum in the former headquarters first of the Arrow Cross fascists who collaborated with the Nazis and, later, of Hungary’s Stalinist secret police. Valerie Miké’s new study of the little-known Catholic worker movement in twentieth-century Hungary shows a shining alternative to Terror Haza.

Miké begins by introducing the International Kolping Society, formed by the German priest Blessed Adolph Kolping (1813–1865). Many of Kolping’s ideas about performing one’s work to praise God as well as his struggle for improved material and spiritual conditions of the worker based on Gospel values were astonishingly ahead of their time. Kolping is an important, if neglected, precursor to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, considered to mark the birth of Catholic social teaching, and Opus Dei, which teaches its members to sanctify their work.

Next, the book chronicles the Kolping movement’s flourishing in Hungary. Kolping himself travelled to Hungary to establish the local branch of his society. The Hungarian Kolping movement, just as the Hungarian nation, faced many threats in the coming decades: Béla Kun’s short-lived Bolshevik coup in 1919, the 1920 Treaty of Trianon (which stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory), the Nazi invasion of Hungary in 1944, and Soviet-imposed communism.

Until its leaders fled in the early days of communism, the Hungarian Kolping movement blossomed. It opened a large center in Budapest with a seminary-based structure, where workers were taught to “realize the social kingdom of Christ” beginning in their homes. They were encouraged to become loving fathers and to instill Christian values in their children. Kolping workers were taught to praise God by meticulously performing their work with love. They were given lectures and technical training and were encouraged to participate in the sacraments frequently.

Meanwhile, as the territorial lust of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union grew and Hungary’s government became authoritarian, Hungary’s cultural identity was under threat. In response, the Budapest center educated Kolping workers in Hungarian culture; its leaders had a mission of bringing Catholic social teaching to life by strengthening national consciousness.

The last part of Miké’s book details her family’s flight to the West from communism. By the time Hungary became a Soviet satellite, her father, John Madl-Miké, had assumed a leadership role in the national Kolping movement. He defected to Munich to escape persecution; consequently, the Hungarian movement all but dissolved. The author concludes her volume by describing her father’s efforts as an émigré, first in West Germany and later in the United States, to establish Hungarian schools and newspapers, help Hungarian refugees escape to the West, and brief the CIA about Hungary’s Stalinist government.

While Seeking Freedom and Justice for Hungary is unlikely to attract many readers not already interested in Hungarian issues, it is a useful microcosmic study exposing the liberating potential of Catholic social teaching. At the book’s start, Miké notes that Adolph Kolping held a congress to found his society in the same city and on the same day in 1849 that Marx established the Social Democratic Union. Both had the same aim: to alleviate the working class’s suffering in an age of Dickensian factories. Yet one preached class warfare, while the other fought to liberate the worker by emphasizing his worth as a being created in imago Dei. Much of Miké’s book is a parallel history of the Hungarian Kolping movement and European Marxist unions. looking at their radically different methods to achieve a seemingly similar aim.

Miké’s monograph also challenges some traditional assumptions about Hungary’s modern history. Although more Catholics than Protestants live in Hungary, the country’s freedom fighters from Lajos Kossuth in the nineteenth century to the anti-communist dissidents of the 1980s were primarily Calvinists (the primacy of Cardinal József Mindszenty from 1945–1973 was an exception). Miké has uncovered the forgotten story of how a large Catholic organization fought to preserve Hungary’s national culture at times of crisis.

Seeking Freedom and Justice for Hungary’s confusing structure will likely irritate readers. Whereas most historical monographs have an annex featuring supplementary documents at the end, Miké has placed an annex at the end of each chapter. Because several annexes are longer than chapters, navigating the book can be frustrating. To add to the confusion, the author intersperses sections of narrative with extremely lengthy quotations from Hungarian newspaper articles and Kolping congress speeches that should be in the annex.

Nonetheless, Miké’s book is an illuminating contribution to modern Catholic history, demonstrating Catholic social teaching ability to empower the worker and the nation to fight for their dignity when sinister ideologies reign supreme.

Filip Mazurczak is a translator and journalist whose work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Crisis Magazine, European Conservative, and Tygodnik Powszechny.

Photo by Chmee2/Valtameri via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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