Are Hungary’s Churches Confronting their Communist Past?

Halo 2 kicsi


Háló 2. “Dokumentumok és tanulmányok a Magyarországi Evangélikus Egyház és az állambiztonság kapcsolatáról, 1945–1990 – Egyházvezetők 1. Káldy Zoltán, Ottlyk Ernő”

Reviewed by Laura Viktoria Jakli and Jason Wittenberg

Háló 2, a collection of original essays and primary source documents spanning the first half of the cold war, is an important study of Hungarian Lutheran church-state relations under socialism. The collection chronicles the dilemmas faced by leaders of the Lutheran church as they struggled to reconcile the church’s spiritual mission with socialist ideology. The editors focus specifically on two church leaders—Bishop Zoltán Káldy (1958-1967) and Bishop Ernő Ottlyk (1967-1982)—whom the state recruited as informants. The essays and documents in Háló 2 reveal how each of these leaders wielded his authority and managed relations with the state. The overall conclusion is that under their leaderships the church became fully subordinate to the regime.

The book performs three important tasks. First, it documents the transformation of the church leadership from inveterate foe of the socialist regime before the failed 1956 revolt against Soviet rule, under Bishop Lajos Ordass, to partner of the regime under Bishops Káldy and Ottlyk. Upon coming to power in 1958, Káldy’s task was to navigate a compromise between the demands of the socialist state and the values of the church. This compromise took the form of the Theology of Diaconia, or service to the regime. Historically the Lutheran church had always partnered with the state. Thus, Káldy urged Lutherans to be loyal citizens, and attempted to frame the humanitarian aims of the socialist system in religious terms. In this way he, together with Ottlyk and other church leaders, hoped to maintain the church’s distinctive mission while also cooperating with the state to pursue common goals. The primary documents well illustrate the difficulties of effecting this change in thinking throughout the church, since an oppositional camp advocated bearing hardship in order to maintain doctrinal faithfulness.

Second, the book reveals the extent of the informant network and the crucial role Káldy and Ottlyk played in the state’s infiltration of the church. Despite the Theology of Diaconia, the state remained suspicious that the church was harboring regime opponents. Both Káldy and Ottlyk were recruited to police the church’s ranks of anyone suspected of harboring anti-socialist sympathies. The primary documents reveal a surveillance network with wide scope, detailing everything from Hungarian pastors’ individual sermons to their meetings with foreign church representatives. By the early 1970’s, the informant network was so complex that a hierarchy of distinct informant types had been developed, ranging from reliable socialists who were entrusted with managing the spy network to foot soldiers assigned specific tasks without further elaboration. Tellingly, both Káldy and Ottlyk were in the foot soldier category, to be assigned tasks but not trusted. Nonetheless, their efforts were so successful at rooting out so-called “reactionaries” that by the 1970’s the state came to rely on the church to censor itself.

Third, the book incorporates material written by both Káldy’s and Ottlyk’s managing officers (“tartótisztek”). In the documents sections written under Káldy’s and Ottlyk’s agent pen-names, “Pécsi” and “Számosi,” respectively, most reports conclude with brief sections titled “Note,” “Evaluation,” or “Order.” These sections were originally handwritten by the general officer that handled that specific agent’s report and collection. In the officers’ comments, we see a variety of considerations. They would often note follow-up objectives or agent tasks based on previously obtained information. For reports concerning diplomatic relations, officers noted international diplomatic patterns and made suggestions on how to develop church-based diplomacy. Other times, they would conclude by listing a group of relevant people (suspected “reactionaries”) to keep informed about. As Katalin Mirák, one of the editors of Háló 2, has explained in a previous essay, these officers played a crucial role in how agents operated and the ways in which their reports would be used or interpreted (Soós 2010, 179). Thus, the directives of these managing officers provide important information for interpreting how much individual agency Ottlyk and Káldy had as informants.

Bishop Zoltán Káldy / A Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium

Bishop Zoltán Káldy / A Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium

The novelty of this volume is not in exposing church leaders as collaborators with the state. Though it is undoubtedly shocking to discover that both Káldy and Ottlyk had been formally recruited as informants, it has long been known that the state coopted, to a greater or lesser degree, the leaderships of all the major Hungarian churches. In 1980 no less than Communist Party leader János Kádár declared that the churches were “without exception loyal to our regime” (Ramet 1987, 187). But what we have hitherto lacked, and this book very usefully provides for the Lutheran church, is the documentary basis on which we can reconstruct how such loyalty was created and, to a lesser degree, the extent to which either Káldy or Ottlyk collaborated in ways that were unnecessary given the circumstances they faced.

What do the documents tell us about Káldy and Ottlyk as informants? First, both of them reported, and reported often, and neither shied away from attacking individuals that were deemed a threat to friendly relations with the state. For example, Káldy targeted former church leader Bishop Lajos Ordass, an unrepentant anti-communist who bravely stood up to the regime. Ottlyk maliciously humiliated a popular Budapest minister, András Keken, describing him as mentally unstable and proposing his early retirement. His critical reports of Káldy’s activities may well exemplify an attempt to advance his position with the church.

Bishop Ernő Ottlyk /  168 Óra Online

Bishop Ernő Ottlyk /
168 Óra Online

Second, Ottlyk appears to be the more ambitious of the two as an informant. We should note here that the available reports by “Számosi” (Ottlyk) only span his first nine years (1958-67) as an agent, written while Káldy was still in power. Thus, we are not able to directly compare Káldy and Ottlyk as church leaders, and must acknowledge that the incentives facing Ottlyk, as subordinate to Káldy, were perhaps different from those facing Káldy, who bore greater responsibility for the church. Even so, Ottlyk produced three times as many reports as Káldy, and many of those reports were excruciatingly detailed, self-serving in content, and certainly less coerced by officers. The managing officers handling Ottlyk often praised his personal initiative, while those in charge of Káldy seemed less satisfied with the information they were receiving. Though Káldy led the church, Ottlyk’s more voluminous and vituperative output arguably did more damage to the church’s autonomy.

Third, as one of the volume’s editors, Katalin Mirák, points out, the function of the informant network within the church was not merely to identify and oust “reactionaries.” The cooptation of church officials served an important function in and of itself. It made church officials and co-workers trust each other less, thereby strategically breaking down the power and internal cohesion of the church. In this sense any differences between Káldy and Ottlyk are beside the point. Even if both of them thought that informing was the only way to preserve the church at a time of great peril, their actions were nonetheless counterproductive to that cause.

In sum, this volume very usefully illuminates the fragility of even deeply-rooted religious institutions in the face of a hostile political regime. The inclusion of so many sensitive primary source documents together with careful analyses marks a new and important step for the Lutheran Church in Hungary—one built on transparency and introspection. It can and should serve as a model for Hungary’s other historic churches.


Mirak, Katalin. 2010. Az idealis tartotiszt. In Viktor Attila Soós, Egyházüldözés és egyházüldözők a Kádár korszakban. Budapest: Luther Kiado.

Ramet, Pedro. 1987. Cross and Commissar: The Politics of Religion in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.


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