The Holy Crown is perhaps the most important national symbol of Hungary, the token of Hungarian statehood, which has accompanied the country’s history, forming a defining part of it to this very day. Despite its immense importance, the Crown of Saint Stephen was stolen, hidden, lost, recovered throughout its existence, even having been taken abroad a total of eleven times. The last time the symbol of Hungarian statehood returned home from the United States was exactly forty-three years ago on January 6, 1978. On the illustrious anniversary of its return, we asked historian Tibor Glant about the thrilling 20th-century adventures of the Holy Crown. Glant has spent decades researching the subject, even having written a book about it.
What is the most interesting historical question surrounding the Holy Crown that people don’t know?
Probably the uncertainties around the origin of the Holy Crown, since we don’t even know exactly when and where it was created. Experts come up with sharply contradictory theories, and the details of the Crown’s creation could easily remain a mystery forever.
Is there a specific reason why there is no crown in history besides the Holy Crown that any nation would have honored as a holy object?
In fact, this is not the only crown that was deemed holy. What is rather surprising is that all this has remained a part of Hungarian culture for such a long time.
Over time, the Holy Crown became an increasingly important national symbol, which is clearly due to the rather ‘romantic’ course of Hungarian history.”
In addition, the Crown is also special in terms of its legal history, as it embodies the Hungarian nation as a whole, and all the territories inhabited by Hungarians in a legal sense. You cannot really see such a thing in other countries. This approach gained significant momentum after Trianon, when the Holy Crown symbolized all the lands inhabited by Hungarians, including those that were given to the successor states. It is for this reason that during his regency, Horthy elevated it to a kind of political ideology, which in my opinion was a logical move in the given situation: Hungarians at the time needed a common national narrative.
The adventurous 20th-century journey of the Holy Crown began with its burial by the crown guards in 1944 right after the takeover of the Hungarian Nazi ’Arrow Cross party’. Were such chaotic conditions prevailing that this was the only way to guarantee that the Crown would not fall into the wrong hands, or was there another reason for their decision?
At the end of 1944, the country was being bombed by the Allied forces, but the crown guardsmen buried the Crown to hide it from the leader of the Arrow Cross Party, Ferenc Szálasi. In late October, they decided to wrap up and bury the relic in a military food container in the coal cellar of their barracks. Soon after he came to power, however, Szálasi announced that he wanted to take his oath to the Holy Crown, so the coronation regalia had to be smuggled back.
Historian Tibor Glant, author of the book ‘The American Adventure and Return of the Holy Crown of Hungary’.
Why was it so important for Szálasi to take an oath on the Holy Crown?
Probably because he was socialised during the time of the Trianon shock, when the Holy Crown was a particularly important national symbol.
Szálasi believed that if he took the oath of office on the Crown he would be the legitimate ruler of Hungary.”
In fact, between the two world wars, there was a consensus on only two things: the need for revision – although opinions on its extent were divided; and the view that the Holy Crown symbolizes the whole of the Hungarian nation.
Why did Szálasi decide to put the Holy Crown back in the Crown Chest after his oath?
Szálasi’s whole identity revolved around the idea that whoever has the Crown is to become the official ruler of the country, and the coronation regalia were traditionally kept in the Crown chest. He ordered the Crown Guard (or members of the unit that he trusted) to carry the regalia with him everywhere as he was traveling to the western border of Hungary.
How did this priceless treasure finally end up in a gas barrel in April 1945?
The Holy Crown left the border of Hungary on March 27, 1945. According to official U.S. reports, on April 26, 1945, the Crown Guard placed the Crown, the orb, and the sceptre in a gas barrel, and then locked the chest which now only contained the sword.
It’s hard to tell why they did it. They may have acted on the orders of Szálasi, who perhaps hoped that the Germans would still be able to win the war, and if so, the regalia could be easily reclaimed — and if not, the Americans could be framed for the disappearance of the Holy Crown.
Why was the Holy Crown in Germany for years?
Because fleeing from the Soviets, Szálasi and his men did not dare to risk that such valuable national symbols would fall into Russian hands.
Of course, this was not a groundless fear on their part, especially considering the case of the Sárospatak library, where Soviet soldiers ‘borrowed’ numerous books, some of which they have failed to bring back to Hungary ever since.”
Szálasi and the Crown Guard unit were finally arrested on May 7 on German soil near Mattsee by U.S. military forces. The Crown Guardsmen were taken to an interrogation center near Augsburg, where they finally revealed where the missing coronation regalia were buried. The crown chest and mantle were transported to Heidelberg via Seckenheim on 31 July 1945. A few days later, then were placed in the vault of the German National Bank in Frankfurt.
The journey of the Holy Crown between 1944-2000. Map created by Béla Nagy.
When the Holy Crown fell into American hands, did they immediately realize what an important treasure it was?
Just a few months after the buried Holy Crown was unearthed, the coronation regalia were transferred from the vault of the German National Bank to an MFAA art collection center. So the U.S. Army protected them until May 12, 1949, first in Wiesbaden, then in Munich.
The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA), or better known as the Monuments Men, was the subject of a film a few years ago, directed by and starring George Clooney. The team included James Rorimer (played by Matt Damon in the movie), a former curator of medieval art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Rorimer immediately recognized the invaluable treasures they were dealing with, so the Holy Crown fell into watchful hands from the very beginning.”
Actually, right after the declaration of war (because of the attack on Pearl Harbor), American museum experts started lobbying for the protection of the material cultural heritage of Europe, because they believed if it was destroyed in the war, the whole of European culture would be destroyed. The entire Monuments Men project was created on their initiative.
How was it guarded? Is there any special reason it was transported to Fort Knox?
Starting from 1949, the American High Commissioner for Germany was in charge of American interests and his deputy was responsible for the coronation regalia. A year before the Holy Crown was shipped to the United States in 1953, this position was filled by Sam Reber, who oversaw the way coronation insignia were guarded.
Unfortunately, he found that the coronation mantle and coronation chest were in poor condition.
In war-torn Germany, even in the presence of professionals, they could not provide appropriate storage conditions.”
That is why Reber contacted Washington, proposing that the mantle be sent for restoration to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
The team of experts there did not take the task. Seeing the condition of the mantle, however, Reber still insisted on seeking the help of an expert. Assistance then came from Gordon M. Kline, who at the time was an expert at the National Bureau of Standards.
During World War II, Kline was entrusted with no less than the protection of symbolic documents of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. He had them packed up and stored at Fort Knox during the war. Hence the idea that the Holy Crown should also be sent to Fort Knox. He was the one who made a wooden case for the coronation mantle in which it could be transported to the US while laid out.
He later also created an airtight aluminum holder for the mantle, which became its final storage place. In January 1978, the robe was returned to Hungary in this.
Experts agree that without this case, the coronation mantle would not be in an exhibitable state today.”
Publication of The American Embassy, 1978
According to some accounts, the American crew of the ship carrying the Holy Crown was told they were shipping the remnants of UFOs. Is this true?
There was indeed such a myth, though its credibility is questionable. The coronation regalia were placed on the ship in a closed container with the inscriptions “radioactive” and “flying objects”. The story surely originates from this. However, it is also quite certain that the crew did not know what they were transporting.
Hungary in the Rákosi era made an attempt to extort the coronation regalia from Washington in 1950. What happened and why did it fail?
At that time, show trials were popular in Hungary. Perhaps the most significant case of the era was the so-called “Standard trial.”
One of the defendants of the case was American businessman Robert A. Vogeler, from whom the Communists managed to extort a confession.
Rákosi tried to blackmail the Americans by promising to release Vogeler for the Holy Crown.”
Naturally, for Washington, the return of the coronation regalia was out of the question, as it would have set a dangerous precedent. The official American position was worded by Andor Sziklay, who was working as a legal expert at the US State Department at that time: The Holy Crown is the property of the Hungarian nation, it was taken over by the Americans only for safekeeping. However, he stressed that the current state of relations does not allow for the return of the regalia. This remained the official American position for a long time.
Adventure books about the Holy Crown’s American journey
During the Kádár regime, Washington’s stance noticeably softened. That is why the possible return of the Crown provoked a serious political debate among the Hungarians in emigration. What was the argument of the opposing parties?
Both the United States and János Kádár saw the returning of the Holy Crown as a matter of legitimacy. Politically active emigrants therefore totally rejected the possibility of giving it back. Essentially, they considered the gesture to be the “coronation” of János Kádár. Interestingly enough, almost everyone from academic circles, especially those who dealt with history and culture, said that regalia should be returned.
Many argued that this should be done because from that point on it would become a priority topic in Hungary, and public discussion would be directed at Hungarian nation and history, which the Communists would no longer be able to sweep under the rug.”
Did the Crown appear in public discussion during the Kádár regime or was it still taboo?
In communist Hungary, it could really only appear in public discussion after the USA returned the regalia. However, the recovery of the Crown had been a priority of the Kádár regime since the 1960s. After bilateral relations were “normalized” in the early 1970s, next to the trade agreement (MFN), this remained the only unresolved issue that hung in the air all along.
Many say it was a matter of conscience for President Carter to return the Holy Crown. Is it true that he did not decide based on possible political gains?
From the beginning, Jimmy Carter said on every possible forum that he feels the Holy Crown is the property of the Hungarian nation and its place is in Hungary.”
I didn’t come across any information that would refute that he honestly thought so. One thing is certain: by the time he took office, he had already made the decision. The Cyrus Vance led State Department supported the plan and the first possible date was set for 20 August 1977. However, the Brzezinski-led National Security Council opposed the idea. I later asked him about it. He argued that they did not want the United States to make a unilateral gesture to a communist country.
Washington was only willing to hand over the regalia under serious conditions. What were these?
The Americans agreed to give the Holy Crown back to the Hungarian people on behalf of the American people, under the conditions that the coronation regalia be exhibited in a public place, and that Kádár not be present at the handover ceremony.
The communist regime’s stance toward this was that they were interested in all solutions. This really shows how much they wanted the Holy Crown.
They also ate the humble pie on being coerced to allow into Hungary people they had banned before: Csanád Tóth (Vance’s translator), István Deák of Columbia, József Takács of Voice of America, and Thomas Bodin of Radio Free Europe.”
The return of the regalia faced significant criticism in the United States. The notable American dailies, for example, reported on November 4 that the Holy Crown would return home. This information was apparently leaked by U.S. congressmen who received the information in advance but opposed the decision, and not by accident on November 3rd. On November 4, Szálasi took the oath on the Holy Crown in 1944, and Kádár returned to Budapest with Soviet tanks on this day in 1956.
The American delegation at the official handover in 1978. Photo from the bequest of Csanád Tóth.
Finally, on January 6, 1978, the official return took place. Do you remember that day?
Naturally. That was a huge thing back then. Everyone who could watch the ceremony did so; we sat in front of the TV and watched the event live in black and white.
It was only years later that we found out that the ceremony was broadcast with a two-hour delay, as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who led the delegation returning the Crown, planned to make a reference to General Harry Hill Bandholtz, who in 1919 protected the treasures of the Hungarian National Museum from looting Romanian soldiers.”
However, in 1978 this was not compatible with the official rhetoric of the “historical Romanian-Hungarian friendship.” He eventually decided to drop the sentence on the insistence of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Is there truth in the recently surfaced rumor that Joe Biden may have played a role in the returning of the Holy Crown?
Indirectly and negligibly yes. Before the Crown was returned, the two ministries of foreign affairs jointly launched a PR campaign to make Hungary look more acceptable. As part of this, several congressional committees came to Hungary to report on how well the country is doing. Joe Biden was a member of one such committee. Needless to say, these were protocol visits that did not significantly influence the decision, which had been made by then.
Featured photo by Tibor Illyés/MTI