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A Saintly Underdog: Count János Esterházy

A Saintly Underdog: Count János Esterházy

A shorter version of this article was originally published by Newsmax

America usually sides with an underdog. When the underdog’s cause is righteous, our support tends to be unqualified. Sometimes we root for the collective underdog. That was the case, for example, with America’s fondness of Poland’s “Solidarity” and its fight for freedom against the Communists. But we absolutely love to adore individual underdogs, in particular when they personalize a cause that is greater than themselves. We frown on those who persecute such a person; and we absolutely sneer at those who disrespect our underdog, whether in life or death.

I have a story about an individual worthy of our support. He consistently defended minorities, including Jews. He opposed both Nazis and Communists; he refused offers to exfiltrate him from his homeland; and he suffered arrest and imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag and a Czechoslovak Communist jail, where he perished. But now he cannot get respect either in the land of his birth, which is now the Slovak Republic, or in the place where he died, which is now the Czech Republic.

A scion of a famous aristocratic family, Count János Esterházy (1901-1957) was born in the Kingdom of Hungary of the Habsburg Empire. A son of a Hungarian father and a Polish mother, Countess Elżbieta née Tarnowska, he was old school. His bywords were “My station and its duties,” “we serve a Cause that is greater than ourselves,” and “we are blessed more than others and, thus, we have a greater obligation to serve the people.”

Esterházy certainly lived all his life by such old-fashioned strictures.  Everyone was a child of God in his eyes, endowed by the Creator with dignity and rights. A devout Catholic, he practiced what he preached. His faith consistently dictated his actions.

Following the First World War, after the Treaty of Trianon, which truncated the Kingdom of Hungary, Esterházy, without moving house, found himself in a newly created Czecho-Slovak state, soon renamed Czechoslovakia. Naturally, he favored the restitution of pre-war Hungary and worked toward that end. He also protected his fellow Magyars and defended their rights. Further, his views on non-Catholics were distinctly pre-Vatican II, of course. Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. In addition, the Count firmly believed in supporting Christian economic endeavors to break the traditional Jewish monopoly on trade and other pursuits. This, in turn, led to his backing of anti-Jewish legislation. All this, unfortunately, was very much mainstream across Europe, including particularly in the Intermarium.

This was the gist of his beliefs. He was promptly elected to the parliament in Prague. He took it upon himself to champion the Hungarian minority, but he also looked out for the rights of the German minority. Both faced certain discrimination and hardships in the newly independent state, where those nationalities used to enjoy a privileged status under the Habsburgs. One can say that freshly emancipated Czechs and Slovaks tended to take it out on the Hungarians and Germans. This by no means was full-fledged persecution, but, rather, bureaucratic drudgery and mild harassment by the standards of the day.

But then history accelerated. Early on, the overbearing Czechs pushed down their erstwhile Slovak partners, who felt embittered and cheated out of the fruits of power. In the 1930s, the Czechoslovak state found itself under pressure from the outside. Hitler’s Third Reich threatened war and demanded a chunk of the Czechoslovak territory, the Sudetenland.

Despite fielding Europe’s most advanced technologically army and boasting of the continent’s arguably most formidable border fortifications, the Czechs caved. Their leaders resolved that freedom was not worth fighting for. They gave up without firing a shot. Hungary reclaimed a sliver of Czechoslovakia, and Poland, foolishly, recovered the Cieszyn (Těšín/Teschen) Silesia, which the Czechs had seized with its Polish majority during Poland’s struggle against Soviet Russia in 1919-1921.

I say Poland’s actions were foolish not because the Poles were not within their right to recoup Cieszyn, but because the timing was lousy. It was in Warsaw’s interest to support Prague’s resistance to Germany. But because the Czechs surrendered cravenly, they also abdicated their duty to protect their own citizens from the German occupier. The Polish government thus felt justified in preventing ethnic Poles of Czechoslovakia from falling under the Nazi boot.  Hence, it incorporated the Cieszyn Silesia without firing a shot and to the great enthusiasm of the Polish majority, which had not enjoyed the Czech overlordship.

Soon, however, Hitler simply gobbled up the remnant of the Czechoslovak state; he turned the Czech lands, Bohemia and Moravia, into an obedient protectorate; and he allowed the disgruntled Slovaks to set up their own “republic,” in fact a puppet state of the Third Reich. Its leader was Monsignor Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest.

Once again, without moving, Count Esterházy found himself a citizen of a new state. He transferred from the no longer existing democratic legislature in Prague, to the rubber-stamp “parliament” in Bratislava. He was elected, like before, by his own constituency, and there is no reason to suspect any tricks on his side, even though Slovakia-wide elections were rigged by the new government. He did not have to cheat; his Hungarians faithfully flocked to the polls to elect him. As in the Prague legislature, he was not going to ok anything that conflicted with his conscience. His mission remained the same: help the weak, assist the minorities.

Numerous times he spoke out in defense of the Hungarian minority, which experienced more severe harassment in the puppet Slovakia than it had in interwar Czechoslovakia. But he also appealed to the Hungarian head of state Admiral Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya to desist from the persecution of Slovaks on his side of the border.

He also used his perch in and out of the parliament to speak out on burning issues of the day. For example, in the Spring of 1943 in a fiery speech, Esterházy roundly condemned Stalin and the Soviet Union as the perpetrators of the hideous Katyn Forest Massacre. This was a part of the genocidal operation to exterminate Polish elites which, in this instance, culminated in the murder of about 28,000 Poles, mostly Allied POW officers.

Yet, arguably, the Count’s greatest moment came on May 15, 1942, when he stood up in the parliament to denounce the government’s plans to get rid of Slovakia’s Jews.  Esterházy was the only deputy to have cast a dissenting vote against the measure. Everyone knew that “deportation” really meant death in Auschwitz. Only the Count loudly objected. Reportedly, he turned to the collaborationist Monsignor Tiso and told him: “our sign is the Cross and not the swastika.” He repeated it often during the war.

All the while, the Hungarian parliamentarian was involved in various illegal activities. He ran an underground railroad for Polish clandestine couriers and fugitives, including future Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Free Army in Exile, General Kazimierz Sosnkowski. He even transported persons like him in his car, taking full advantage of parliamentary immunity. The Count delivered them to Hungary, where they were usually free to pass to the West. He further interceded on behalf of Polish clandestine operators captured in Slovakia and, sometimes, he was able to secure their release. He also procured false papers and passports for other victims of the Third Reich, including Jews. For his opposition to the German rule, he was arrested by the collaborationist Hungarian Arrow Cross government in October 1944. He managed to get out. Then, the Gestapo put him on its wanted list.

In 1944, as in 1938, and after, his friends insisted on facilitating Esterházy’s escape to the West. His response was always that he would not leave his wife and children or his people behind. When the Red Army pushed the Wehrmacht out of his homeland, the Count proceeded to intervene with the rampant Soviets against rape, terror, and deportations to the Gulag. That was unacceptable to the Communists.

In 1945, Stalin’s secret police promptly arrested him and shipped him off to Siberia as a “class enemy.” In the camps, Esterházy became renowned for his piety and help to prisoners. They referred to him as “padre,” and could not believe he was not, in fact, a priest.

Meanwhile, the Soviet-backed National Council in Slovakia tried him in absentia and found him guilty of treason for, allegedly, “collaborating with the Nazis.”  This was a standard and automatic punishment for anyone participating in the rubber-stamp parliament. However, Edvard Beneš, the President of the reinstituted liberal democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia, promptly commuted the sentence.

In 1948, the Communists staged a coup, installing a totalitarian dictatorship in Czechoslovakia. For them, of course, the Count remained “an enemy of the people.” A year later, the Soviets transferred Esterházy from the Gulag to a jail in Prague. He was tortured, tormented, and maltreated. His health deteriorated, and the Count died in the prison hospital in Prague in 1957. He was buried in secret in a mass grave.

No one was supposed to remember. Yet, his family did, and so did a few friends. His story lived on in whispered conversations among the Hungarian minority in Czechoslovakia, but also in Poland. Then came the break of 1989, and the case of János Esterházy resurfaced. A clamor went up for justice.

The Russians rehabilitated him for the crimes he did not commit in 1993. The Poles decorated him with the coveted Polonia Restituta Cross in 2009. There is a minor cult of him in Hungary and among Slovak Hungarians. The Vatican, meanwhile, pronounced him Servant of God; the Count’s beatification process is underway. Rome will probably make him a saint before there is any justice in Prague. And that is something, considering a usually glacial pace of the Holy See. Santo Subito János Esterházy!

Unfortunately, neither the Czechs nor the Slovaks have moved to lift the odium of treason and alleged “Nazi collaboration” from the underdog. Let us make one thing clear. The Czechs and Slovaks have a valid point. The Count was not loyal to either the Czechoslovak or Slovak state. He was loyal to the Kingdom of Hungary, where he was born, and that had existed in his Slovak homeland for a thousand years before then. He and others like him were left behind after its radical truncation at Trianon. They lost their country. Honor and patriotism demanded that they not countenance the new Czechoslovak state reality.

In an analogous situation, in 1937, my father was born in Poland’s Wilno, which the Lithuanians call Vilnius. After his parents were arrested by the Soviets, his grandfather fled with him to central Poland, thus essentially saving him from a Communist orphanage, which would have meant denationalization and Communization, if not death. Both his parents were charged with treason to the Soviet Union. Why? They both were with the pro-Western underground Polish Home Army (AK) in Wilno. They opposed both the Nazis and the Communists. Unwillingly, they found themselves under their and their collaborators’ jurisdiction.

In fact, their home city changed hands five times between 1939-1945. First, in September 1939, their Wilno was taken by the Soviets. In October, Stalin handed it over to Lithuanians; in June 1940, the USSR annexed Lithuania, including Wilno; a year later, the Third Reich attacked the Soviet Union and occupied Wilno; in July 1944, the Red Army returned to gobble up Poland’s Wilno for good. For having fought in the resistance against the Germans, and for continuing their underground activities under the Soviets, both my grandparents were charged with treason to the Soviet Union. Stalin simply considered them Soviet citizens. They never asked for and never approved of such an affliction.

Toutes proportions gardées, neither did Count János Esterházy. The question, therefore, is not whether Esterházy was disloyal to Czechoslovakia. How could he have been? He was heir to the millennial Kingdom of Hungary, which was suddenly partitioned, and the Count found himself under what he considered to be a foreign occupation. How can one betray a state that occupies one’s own country? Clearly, it is impossible. Happily, Russia does not persist in considering my grandparents “traitors” and “enemies of the people.” It is time to apply the same yardstick to our saintly hero.

Bratislava and Prague should understand that. They should also reflect that by refusing justice to Esterházy, they are, first, allowing the verdict of a Soviet-backed kangaroo court to stand; and second, they are countenancing the torture, imprisonment, and, ultimately, death of the Count by the Communists. This must stop. There are other ways to express one’s displeasure at his Magyar irredentism. Reducing him to a “Nazi collaborator” is mendacious and, thus, besmirches the current democratic credentials of Czechia and Slovakia.

There has been virtually no official assistance from those states. It took an informal intervention of a fellow aristocrat, Prince Karl von Schwartzenberg, who served for a while as Czechia’s foreign minister, even to get the bureaucrats to reveal Esterházy’s prison burial place. Before then, the family could not have mourned him properly. But both successor governments refuse to rehabilitate him and to clear his name.

Perhaps the best idea to end this nonsense is to enlist Israel’s help. Like the Americans, the Jewish people also can identify with an underdog. In Slovakia, Esterházy was the only one who defended them when it really mattered. That must count for something. Simon Wiesenthal himself recognized that and sang the Magyar aristocrat’s high praises. And so does Hungary’s Jewish community.

If international pressure is applied, at least knowing the Czechs, they should cave. This time it would be out of decency, however.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 25 September 2020

IWP course on Intermarium: Politics and History of Central & Eastern Europe

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