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On the Feast of St. Stephen: Adlai Stevenson III and the Return of the Crown

John Powers 26 December 2009 One Comment

One of they many joys of having small children is staying up all hours reading, while a two year old decides if it is appropriate to return to sleep at 2AM or just doze off while his father finishes a chapter. Earlier this month, my interruptible choice of topics was a travelogue of trips to see “treasured objects or talismans of great antiquity”, including a chapter on visiting the Holy Crown of St. Stephen of Hungary.

Says the author “Probably no other single national symbol is so passionately regarded as the Holy Crown of St. Stephen” (quite likely but hard to measure says me).”Uniquely among European monarchies, the crown acquired a legal personality. No king was considered legitimate until he had been crowned with it” (fair enough, though it has been a while since Hungary was a Kingdom). But even in the middle of the night one line bolted my attention: In 1978, The Crown was returned to the (Communist) People’s Republic of Hungary “by a high powered delegation led by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (and) Senator Adlai Stevenson.” (Well, I would choose Sen. Stevenson for such a job too. Where is A3’s telephone number at 2:30AM?). Indeed, the author just listed the return as matter of fact, which prompted me to wonder, how did Sen. Stevenson come to possess the crown to begin with and what was he doing hauling crown jewels around during the Carter years?

On Christmas of the year 1000, the crown was sent as a gift from Pope Sylvester II to St. Stephen the First King of Hungary commemorating the acceptance of Catholicism in the “Lands of the Crown of Saint Stephen”. The Crown was the physical symbol of the Hungarian Kingdom, present at the coronation of every King of Hungary up to (deposed) Blessed Charles I of Austria. After suffering 30 years of disuse, loss, and disappearance, The Crown of St. Stephen had been recovered by US Troops at the end of World War II, hidden inside of an oil drum, revealed to the Allies by a commandant of the Hungarian Royal Crown guard. It had been stored at Ft. Knox for 32 years preceding the 1978 return, always in process to be returned to Hungary at “some suitable time”.

So I called Sen. Stevenson and asked him if we could discuss the Crown of St. Stephen over lunch, to which he cheerfully agreed. Greeted warmly by a holiday choir (“You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble”, A Stevenson III) before our meeting (and after revealing that he had not been driving around with the crown jewels in the trunk of his car) Sen. Stevenson recalled the historic return “There were few volunteers for delivery and there was tremendous opposition to the return among the Hungarian immigrants living in the United States.” Indeed there were large scale demonstrations in Cleveland, and a Supreme Court (Dole vs. Carter) case taken up by Bob Dole (R-KS) to prevent the return of the Crown to Communist Hungary.

The Senator was in a tough spot, with those most interested in the subject (Hungarian immigrants) coming out against the return, while there was no constituency group whatsoever within the United States supporting the return. The Senator triangulated, “I had travelled all over Eastern Europe and had come to recognize there was a major difference between Hungarian nationalists and Hungarian communists. The communists held all the figurative positions of power, but in almost every case there were nationalists who wanted more interaction and trade with the West in key roles”.

Per the New York Times, Sen. Stevenson was accompanied by Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, Rep. Fortney Stark of California, Nobel Laureate (for discovering Vitamin C) Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi., and Archdiocese of Chicago Msgr George Higgins among others. Carrying the crown and the regalia, Sen. Stevenson and Rep Hamilton flew over in a Presidential Jet to prepare for the ceremonial return.

“I led the delegation which physically delivered them late or early one cold morning to the airport for Budapest. I remember looking out of the plane and to my astonishment saw regiments drawn up along the tarmac and a long line of senior officials in front awaiting delivery. Bands playing, flags waving. Being senior, I led the delegation down the gang plank, shook the outstretched hands, remember saying little -no ceremony – and looking back over my shoulder to see the regalia being unloaded and physically transferred.”

“The next day Secretary Cyrus Vance flew in with a delegation for the formal ceremony at the brilliant National Parliament building. The regalia was delivered with the explicit understanding that henceforth it would be maintained in public – and so far as I know still reposes, conspicuously in that extraordinary building. Of course, we wanted it displayed in public as a reminder of Hungary’s nationhood. Far from bestowing legitimacy on the regime, the regalia reminded Hungarians of their nation hood.”

I asked Sen. Stevenson about the complexities of showing compromise with poorly behaving regimes. “We returned the Crown to the people of Hungary, not to the Hungarian regime. Part of the agreement was that this would be on permanent display for Hungarians. The hard line communists had no interests in promoting the Crown or the Monarchy”

A (later) call from Rep. Lee Hamilton concurred “The House Sub-committee hearing was contentious. Many groups opposed any show of legitimatizing the Communist Regime. But on my 1st night in Hungary I had the vivid recollection as the Container holding the Crown was lowered to the ground, it was significant and emotional moment for the 1000’s gathered. What started as a festive mood, became utter silence, then reverence. I could see tears flowing down the cheeks of the crowd gathered”. A formal ceremony, held at the Basilica of St. Stephen celebrated the return.

On the way out (lunch was very good, so were the cookies for desert, thanks for asking) I questioned Sen. Stevenson about the impetus and the politics behind the return. “Well, it was the Hungarian’s crown and we had never intended to keep it. The years I had spent travelling with my father (Adlai II) in Europe and my military service may have given me some extra room to operate. We face a similar situation today where the Cuban people want to trade with us, but that might imply legitimacy for the Castro regime. It takes a lot of political will to start this sort of thing”.  An understatement indeed.

By the mid 1980’s significant political and market reforms had started in Hungary. In 1989 the Hungarian parliament voted to allow multiparty parliamentary elections and a direct presidential election, transforming the Peoples Republic of Hungary into the Republic of Hungary, The Crown of St. Stephen King of Hungary and Regalia remain on display in the Central Hall of Parliament in Budapest, Hungary. In 2004, Charles IV, the last Hapsburg Emperor and the last man to be crowned with the Crown of St. Stephen as King of Hungary was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

John Powers is the President of the Chicago Daily Observer.  Adlai Stevenson III, US  Senator representing Illinois from 1970-81, is currently an banker involved in East Asia investment.  Lee Hamilton, US Representative for the Indiana 9th district from 1965 to 1999, is currently head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

image The Crown of St. Stephen, Sword and Globus cruciger of Hungary, in the Hungarian Parliament Building

note: Today, Dec 26, The Feast of St. Stephen, is celebrated in honor of St. Stephen, the first Christian Martyr.  Saint Stephen’s name is derived from the Greek “Stephanos”, meaning “crown”, and the namesake of St. Stephen, King of Hungary.  The Feast of St. Stephen of Hungary is celebrated on August 20.

One Comment »

  • Phil Krone said:

    John Powers has written a column which is balanced, fair, accurate and meaningful. It deserves to be read several times in order to understand the importance of it. I may have further things to say, but it touched on many issues that are both symbolic and substantive which have relevance for our relations with other countries. Thanks John, for writing something of such importance.

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