In these anxious and hyper-partisan times, there’s little that doesn’t feel politicized: The murder of a young University of Iowa student, climate change, even Game of Thrones. Of course, we’re not the first generation to find ourselves in a fraught historical moment, nor were we the first to make pie from the mincemeat of the news cycle. Nearly 90 years ago, as the world appeared to teeter on another precipice, a bizarre and singular crime spree seemed to crystallize the fears of a continent on the brink.
1931 was an uneasy year all across the globe, but nowhere more so than in Hungary. Still bruised and belittled by the Treaty of Trianon — the formal surrender document that had ended the First World War, in the process stripping Hungary of nearly three quarters of its territory and two thirds of its inhabitants — the country was in no shape to withstand the privations of the Great Depression. After the Wall Street Crash had wiped out the value of grain and textiles — the very things Hungary’s eggshell of an economy depended upon — things fell apart very quickly.
By the middle of 1931, the National Bank had run through its entire reserves of foreign currency and precious metals. Appealing to the League of Nations for relief, Hungary’s pleas for help were met with demands for ever-greater austerity. When the Prime Minister abruptly resigned in August, it was no longer clear whether the ship of state was rudderless or actively sinking beneath the waves. Desperate to maintain some semblance of control, the authoritarian regime of Regent Miklós Horthy found a whip, so to speak, in the form of a spectacular, and spectacularly strange series of crimes.
Szilveszter Matuska was a pointedly ordinary-looking man, the director of a construction-supply firm in Vienna and from all appearances a model middle-class citizen. In the best-known photograph of him, we see a doughy, slightly lost-looking businessman staring out from under a pale mackintosh and a slightly rumpled fedora. Later, in prison, his appearance would change to full-on beardo, but that was yet to come. In this portrait he faces the photographer with a frank, and frankly unreadable expression.
It’s tempting to invoke hindsight to assign malice to the directness of his gaze, but it could just as easily be puzzlement. Whatever you make of Matuska and his crimes, one doesn’t get the sense he was a man in control of his actions.
Matuska had been born in 1892 in the ethnically Hungarian village of Csantáver, now in northern Serbia. Little is known of his early life, though there is one perplexing detail: Later, in court, he would claim that as a teenager, an encounter with a carnival hypnotist had put him under the thrall of an oppressive spirit named “Leo.” More portentiously, the incident initiated an obsession with train wrecks.
Matuska liked to build things, and he trained as a mechanical engineer. The start of the First World War interrupted this trajectory, introducing darker ones in its place: Matuska served as a junior officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army, where it was reported that his specialty was explosives.
After the war, Szilveszter Matuska settled in Vienna, where he built an outwardly respectable life. In addition to his duties at the building-supply firm, he owned shares in several small businesses, served on the local parish council, and by most accounts, fulfilled his duties as a loyal husband and father. Later, though, those who knew him would recall they’d thought it odd when, for Christmas one year, he’d given his young daughter a toy train set.
For reasons that will never be fully understood, something changed with the turn of the decade. Returning to Csantáver with his family to celebrate the end of 1930, Matuska instead spent the night of Christmas Eve wandering the nearby railway lines and struggling to come to grips with an incipient revelation: More than the prosperity and ease his middle-class status afforded him, more than the comfort of his stable marriage and family life, more than anything else in the world, in fact, what he desired was to be present at the site of a great catastrophe.
Thoughts of adventure or struggle haunt the dreams of many middle-aged men; James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” written less than a decade after Matuska’s moment of infamy, gave rise to a whole genre detailing the idle fantasies of ordinary men. But if Thurber’s protagonist was content to confine his impulses to the realm of daydreams, Matuska felt no such compunctions. Only a week after his midnight awakening, on the night of New Year’s Eve, 1930, he was out walking the rails again, this time outside a remote Austrian village. After loosening the bolts securing a section of track to the rail bed, Matuska left a cryptic note nearby reading: “Assault! Revolution! Victory!” Whether it was a hint as to his actual political leanings or a red herring remains unclear, but soon enough Matuska’s scribblings would take on an altogether weightier significance.
After preparing his ambush, Matuska hid behind some nearby bushes and waited. As the hours rolled on he was consumed by silent paroxysms of anticipation. As he would later testify, “This waiting was the most horrible moment of my entire life. I have never suffered as much or hoped as much.”
His hopes were in vain, at least for the moment. When a train finally approached, it sped over the tampered portion of track with no ill effects, and the would-be mass murderer left in tears. A month later, he tried again. This time laying a spare section of rail across the tracks, Matuska waited enraptured as a train sped towards what seemed an unavoidable catastrophe. But the engineer spotted the obstruction and managed to slow the train enough to avoid disaster. Recognizing that a successful derailment demanded a more sophisticated approach, Matuska regrouped. He possessed sufficient collateral to purchase a disused quarry, which in turn gave him cover to obtain a permit to handle explosives. After a few months of study and practice, he judged himself ready.
At around 10pm on the night of August 8th, 1931, near the German town of Jüterbog, the Basel-Berlin express train was trundling over a viaduct when a tremendous blast tore apart a roughly 10-foot section of track. The locomotive and eight passenger cars rolled down an embankment into a shallow ravine, ripping bogies weighing several tons apiece off the railcars like plucked daisies. Incredibly, owing to the relatively short drop, no one was killed, although dozens of passengers and crew were injured.
When investigators arrived they discovered, next to some snipped wire ends and fuses, another of Matuska’s little clues: A defaced copy of the newspaper Der Angriff — “The Attack” — the mouthpiece of the Nazi Party’s Berlin regional office. Matuska’s political leanings (or lack thereof) aside, this detail quickly took on outsized importance. The derailment had occurred late on a Saturday night, so it failed to make the Sunday papers. Coincidentally, the next day in Berlin, two police officers — including a captain — were shot dead outside the Kino Babylon, a movie theater sometimes used as a meeting place by the German Communist Party, one of the Nazi Party’s sworn enemies.
The stories broke simultaneously on Monday, joined by a third: A Communist-supported motion to curb the Prussian regional government had lost a popular vote. As the newspaper at the derailment bore handwritten revolutionary slogans — including “Assassination!” — it was beginning to look very much like the Communist setback at the polls, the attack on the train, and the high-profile murder of two police officers were somehow all connected. Offering the then-sensational reward of 100,000 reichsmarks for information leading to the bomber’s arrest, the authorities began a fevered search for the perpetrator.
There were no leads in the case until another nocturnal explosion — or rather, two nocturnal explosions — occurred about a month later, a little after midnight on the night of September 13th. As the Vienna Express sped across the graceful viaduct at Biatorbágy, on the western outskirts of Budapest, another blast shattered the night. This time, the passengers were less fortunate. The railway crosses the valley of Füzes Creek at an elevation of roughly 82 feet. The locomotive and most of the coaches plunged off the crossing, several of them bursting into flames after shattering on the valley floor below. Ultimately, some 28 passengers would die; 120 others would be injured, many of them gravely.
Szilveszter Matuska might have gotten away with this derailment, but it was here that he stumbled. It’s difficult to say exactly what it was that tipped the police off. Perhaps it was that, after the explosion and derailment, Matuska leapt from his hiding place and ran towards the wreckage, laughing and weeping tears of joy. Maybe it was that he then joined the huddle of dazed survivors, offering the authorities a remarkably coherent account of the incident while repeatedly drawing attention to an improbable and evidently self-inflicted bruise on his forehead. The fact that the carriage he claimed to have been riding in was completely demolished — and that no one else had survived its plunge — did not appear to deter him. Then again, it could have been been the zeal with which he then pursued a lost-luggage claim against the railroad. Whatever the reason, suspicions were aroused.
That’s not all that become aroused. That second nocturnal explosion? Apparently, a later forensic examination of the trousers Matuska had worn on the night of the disaster revealed evidence that he had found sexual release at the moment of the crash, an explanation later seconded by Matuska’s own, unapologetic testimony.
Within a month, police had amassed enough evidence to arrest Matuska. Soon, a sensational trial ensued. In court, Matuska proved himself to be an endlessly entertaining figure, offering motivations ranging from demonic possession to a fascination with Trotskyite political violence to an altogether simpler desire: For sexual fulfillment, as evidenced by his soiled trousers. Putting on a show every bit as compelling as his derailments had been, Matuska “wept, shouted, knelt before the court and muttered to himself of spirits which, he said, inspired his deeds,” in the words of The New York Times. Reportedly, the phantasm who had inspired his initial fascination with train wrecks, “Leo the Ghost,” became a minor celebrity himself over the course of the trial.
In less fraught times, the sheer bizarreness of it all might have served as a distraction from weightier stories, a true-crime palate cleanser for those otherwise inured to the news. But in the anxious days of the early ‘30s — an era increasingly defined by violent protests, riots and assassinations — the derailments and ensuing trial captivated a world on edge. If from the moment Matuska opened his mouth it was evident that he was little more than a chaos agent and a crank, for those prepared to take the train bomber and his self-described thirst for political vengeance at face value, the derailments proved less titillation than evidence of an existential threat. Now, on top of the pointless deaths of over two dozen passengers, more would soon be added to the tally.
In Hungary, Regent Horthy’s resolutely anti-Communist government leapt to exploit the moment. Finding itself otherwise unable to quell the uncertainty gripping the nation, Horthy declared martial law and began rounding up Communists and suspected sympathizers. The party’s underground leaders, Imre Sallai and Sándor Fürst, were arrested and jailed for most of a year. Then, after a trial lasting all of two hours, they were taken outside. Shouting “Long live the dictatorship of the proletariat!” even as they stood on the gallows, they were quickly and unceremoniously hanged.
Perhaps it was an era of such grand gestures, but dismissing them as quaint theatrics undersells the gravity of this awful moment.
As Europe teetered between the poles of Communism and Fascism — each of them promising the frightened masses a solution, but neither of them a bloodless one — Matuska’s acts of industrial-scale terrorism seemed like proof of a world coming apart at the seams.
Young men hoarding lead pipes and blackjacks were already taking to the streets; in very short order, things would be vastly worse. To Hungary’s east, large swaths of the Soviet Union would become a titanic starvation camp. To its west, a new set of laws prohibiting Jewish participation in society would codify Germany’s slide into hatred and catastrophe. Soon Hungary would introduce its own series of anti-Jewish laws, modelled in large part upon those of its neighbor.
As for Szilveszter Matuska, he served a six-year sentence in Austria before being remanded to further custody in Hungary, on the condition the authorities not actually carry out the death sentence he had been given there. His story, incredibly, gets no less strange. At the end of the Second World War, Matuska escaped from the prison at Vác and disappeared; as late as the 1950s there were rumors that he had been spotted planting explosives for Communist forces in Korea.
Even today, Matuska inspires anarchists and troublemakers across the political spectrum, proof that the magnitude of one’s gifts does not necessarily correlate to the level of one’s fame. In addition to a still-thriving market in conspiracy theories about the bombings, there’s a portrait of Matuska as the Mona Lisa by Dr. Béla Máriás, a well-known Budapest satirical artist, and the bomber lent his name to a (sadly) now-defunct Hungarian right-wing punk band aligned “against liberalism and modernity.” There’s even a 1982 film depicting the second train bombing, a tepid West German and Hungarian joint venture entitled Train Killer, starring Kennedyesque Canadian actor Michael Sarrazin. I would humbly offer that, in declining to depict Matuska’s climactic act, the movie misses its shot at glory, so to speak.
In the end, of course, Hungary’s turn to the far right would have occurred regardless of Szilveszter Matuska or his crimes. But the murder and maiming of several dozen innocent passengers by a sexually unfulfilled crackpot served as a flashpoint, a uniquely modern moment in which an attack on mass transportation, an accelerated news cycle, and ambient fear colluded to produce a shockingly ugly outcome.