The aftermath of World War I brought many things to Hungary and most of them were not good. Economic depression, governmental dissolution, communism, fascism, revolution and counter-revolution were among the more notable ills that the war brought home to Hungarians. The legacy of the war was felt most acutely in the postwar Treaty of Trianon where the Kingdom of Hungary lost two-thirds of its population and territory. Tens of thousands of ethnic Hungarian refugees fleeing the partitioned lands arrived in Budapest, many of whom spent months or even years living in railroad boxcars. There were other more hidden maladies that the war brought which would take many years to manifest themselves. Soldiers who had managed to survive the maelstrom of conflict, now tried to somehow readjust to civilian society while suffering from what is today known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many Hungarian combat veterans had been witness to unspeakable events. Others had experienced the effects of industrialized weaponry and saw the mass violence it caused for the first time in their lives. Fortunately, most were able to compartmentalize their battlefield experiences. There were a few eerie outliers from those who learned some very bad lessons during the war. Lessons they applied many years later to create mayhem. No one can say exactly how much the war affected such men, but it must have served to further destabilize their fragile psyches. For one man, the experience would have profound implications that are as good an explanation as any for the mass murder he committed in Hungary on one horrific night on the outskirts of Budapest during the autumn of 1931.
A Mad Spirit – Hypnotically Haunting
The other day I asked my Hungarian wife if she had ever heard of Szilvestre Matuschka. She replied in a matter of fact manner, “Of course.” When I mentioned that he was a famously bizarre serial killer, she looked at me a bit puzzled. A man who blows up a viaduct in order to cause a train wreck is not the usual definition of a serial killer. When my wife reminded me that the Police Museum in Budapest had exhibit materials about Matuschka I was a bit surprised. I remembered many things from our visit to the museum a couple of years ago, but Matuschka was not one of them. Today Matuschka would be labelled a mass murderer, a terrorist or a mentally deranged deviant and serial killer. He was also many other things, a successful businessman, mechanical engineer, an Austro-Hungarian officer, a loving husband and devoted father. He lived a normal, upwardly mobile life until one day he succumbed to the silent demons that had insidiously stalked him for years. It was then that Matuschka became something unimaginable to everyone but himself.
Szilvestre Matuschka was born in Csantaver (present day Cantavir), a town now located in northern Serbia, but at the time of his birth part of the Hungarian Kingdom. Matschuka’s father died while he was a child, but his mother soon remarried. His upbringing seems to have been relatively normal. Matuschka’s stepfather insisted that he take up the same trade as his birth father, manufacturing slippers, but the teenager wanted to join the priesthood. He would eventually focus on becoming a teacher. It was also during his teenage years that Matuschka had an experience that he later said haunted him throughout his life. Supposedly, at the age of fourteen he underwent hypnosis at a carnival. During the session, a demonic spirit by the name of “Leo” was inserted into his mind. The spirit could make him do unimaginable things. Matsuchka also claimed that this was when he started becoming obsessed with train wrecks. Of course, no one learned any of this until after he committed mass murder thirty years later.
A Change In Plans– From Battlefront to Homefront
Nine months before the First World War broke out, Matuschka joined the Hungarian military, enlisting in a regiment formed in the nearby city of Szabadka (Subotica, Serbia). This gave him a head start on a military career. The training and education would come in useful after war broke out. Matuschka, like tens of thousands of other Hungarian soldiers, was wounded in combat in the early months of fighting. This proved strangely advantageous as he soon found himself teaching at an officer’s school. He was also trained to lead a machine gun squadron in battle on the Eastern Front. Though Matuschka avoided getting wounded again, the question arises of how combat might have affected his mental stability.
World War I was the first time that Matuschka saw firsthand the effects of industrialized weaponry. He would have witnessed up close and personal its use on the battlefield. Whether this fascinated Matuschka, we have no way of knowing, but the effects must have been considerable. He would have gained valuable knowledge of how munitions and explosive devices were utilized. By war’s end, Matuschka was a decorated veteran, gaining two medals for his exploits at the front. As with so many, the First World War was a formative experience in Matuschka’s life. Unlike his fellow soldiers, he go on to commit acts of mass murder during peacetime.
One of the more interesting aspects of Matuschka’s life is how he seemingly slipped back into civil society without any discernable problems. While many soldiers suffered from debilitating mental and physical issues, Matuschka set about building himself a career. First, he returned to his old job of teaching, then transitioned into agriculture and commercial services by selling goods imported from the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1922, business interests brought Matuschka and his wife to Budapest with their newborn daughter Gabriella. During this time, Matuschka was involved in a range of enterprises, everything from running a spice shop to managing housing units to the natural resource trade. Then only four years after moving to Budapest, he uprooted his family once again when he started speculating in Viennese property.
Wild Fantasies – Waking Up To A Nightmare
The fact that Matuschka moved so often in his postwar life – at least five times in the first six years of the 1920’s – raises questions on whether he had reason to be on the run so much. Perhaps he was trying to run away from the demons that plagued him, perhaps not. One thing is for certain, Matuschka could not run escape from his mental problems. Soon they would overwhelm him to the point that he felt compelled to act out his wildest fantasies. For society, Matuschka’s fantasies turned out to be a terrible nightmare.