Serbian-born Szilveszter Matuska pulled off four train wrecks in Hungary and Austria in the 1930s that killed 22 people and injured hundreds of people. He said God made him do it. Was he a revolutionary or a mad man?
by Chuck Lyons
“I like to see people die,” Szilveszter Matuska said at his trial. “I like to hear them scream.” For a two-year period during the early 1930's, Matuska did his best to make that happen, eventually killing 22 people and listening to the screams of hundreds in Hungary and Austria. He just picked a strange way to do it.
He engineered train wrecks.
The Serbia-born Matuska is credited with engineering four such wrecks, though there may have been others. After his capture he revealed that he enjoyed witnessing the crashes and sometimes experienced a sexual release as the metal tore and fire burst from the engines, throwing screaming passengers from the wreckage.
But questions remain even today about his motivations. Were they political or sexual or something else altogether? Was Matuska a revolutionary or a madman?
Matuska was fascinated by the trianwrecks he engineered to the point he was sexually aroused by witnessing them. But anti-Nazi graffiti left at least one of his crash sites—as well as his later rumored involvement with Russian and Chinese military efforts indicate Matuska also carried an interest in communism and possibly a commitment to the cause. He claimed after his arrest in Hungary that he arranged the crashes at God’s bidding, a statement that further complicates his suspected motives. We may never fully know why Matuska derailed trains.
A decade after the train derailments, Matuska escaped from a Hungarian prison during World War II and disappeared. There are rumors about what happened next, where he went, what he did, and what his ultimate fate was, but the story of his later life is clouded with rumors and unsubstantiated reports.
Szilveszter Matuska was born on January 29, 1892, at Csantavér (now Čantavir), an ethnic Hungarian village in an agricultural region in northern Serbia. Little is known of his formative years except that he trained as a mechanical engineer at some point and that he may have served as an officer in the Austro-Hungary army during World War I as an explosives specialist. (He would have been 21-years old when the war broke out in 1914).
After the war he worked in mining and may have owned his own mine. He began following his true calling—derailing railroad trains—in December 1930 and again in January 1931 when he tried unsuccessfully to engineer two wrecks in Austria. There may have been other unsuccessful attempts, but he first succeeded on August 8, 1931 when the explosives he planted on the tracks of Berlin-Basel express south of Berlin was able to knock the train off the tracks and cause a large number of injuries. Unfortunately from Matuska’s point of view there were no fatalities.
By this time, Germany’s National Socialist (Nazi) Party, headed by Adolph Hitler in 1925, had become the second largest political party in Germany and was gaining strength almost daily. The Nazi’s primary enemy at that time were communists.
Investigators at the site of the Berlin-Basil crash found a Nazi newspaper that had been defaced and began speculating that the derailment was a political act, quickly blamed on communists. Anonymous letters sent to authorities praising the “revolution’ led them to connect the attempted derailments to political motives. A reward of 100,000 reichsmarks (the equivalent to about $150,000 U.S. dollars in 2016) was announced for information leading to the arrest of whoever was responsible for attempting to crash the express.
Then in September, Matuska struck again—this time with even greater success.
He blew up a portion of the Biatorbágy Bridge near Budapest, Hungary at 12:20 a.m. on September 13, 1931 and succeeded in derailing the Vienna Express as it crossed the bridge. The train’s engine and nine of its 11 cars plunged off the structure and down 98 feet (30m) into a ravine killing 22 people outright and injuring 120 others, 17 of them seriously. Matuska, who was found lurking in the area. But in the confusion that followed the crash, Matuska was able to pass himself off as a surviving passenger from the train and disappear. (The track over Biatorbágy bridge has since been abandoned, but in 1982 it was reused in a recreation of the 1931 train wreck for the West German and Hungarian motion picture The Train Killer, based on Matuska)
Still under the impression the crashes were politically motivated, Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Károlyi declared martial law and executed two representatives of the banned Hungarian Communist Party. By this time, however, authorities from at least two European countries were closing in on Matuska, and he was arrested on Oct. 10, 1931 in Vienna, Austria. At least one source reports that he was arrested after he tried to collect compensation from Hungarian Railways claiming that he was a passenger on the Vienna Express and had been injured in the crash.
After his arrest, Matuska readily confessed to his crimes, and at his trial the search for motive began to veer away from the political. During the trial he commented on liking to see people die and further claimed that God had ordered him to cause the crashes. Matuska also mentioned an imaginary accomplice and was quite open about the sexual component of his actions. In all, his sanity was clearly called into question.
He was nonetheless tried and convicted in Austria for his unsuccessful December and January attempts and then extradited to Hungary on condition that he not be executed. (Austria has a long history of opposition to capital punishment having first outlawed the practice—though it was later reinstituted—as early as 1787). In his Hungarian trial he was found guilty of murder in connection with the Vienna Express crash and sentenced to death. But because of the agreement between Hungary and Austria, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Matuska was imprisoned in northern Hungary at Vac but disappeared from there in 1944 as World War II raged in Europe and Russian forces pushed west into Germany and German-occupied territory. What happened to him after that is open to speculation. The Russian army may have used him as an explosives expert in the remaining months of the war, as some investigators have claimed.
Unsupported rumors circulated that he was later involved in work with the Chinese communists during the Korean War. In other reports he returned to Hungary under a false name in the 1970’s, and he may have been part of a right-wing Hungary officers’ association that arranged his escape from the Vac prison. Some people also claim he was a long-serving Russian agent that had been planted in Hungary years earlier. Any of these possibilities, if true, have never been definitely determined.
Matuska was never recaptured. His fate remains as unclear as the motives behind his actions. Despite his possible political connections and the apparent mental illness of his later statements, modern researchers have also suggested Matuska suffered from symphorophilia, a condition that involves arousal when staging and watching disasters. The term was created by psychologist and author John William Money who wrote that the illness may be more widespread than initially assumed. “For those members of the general public who have a touch of sadomasochism in them,” Money wrote, “disaster as an unrehearsed event is often a large part of the appeal of entertainment stunts and sports, from the circus to stock-car racing.” Matuska may have had more than “a touch of sadomasochism” in him and could have suffered from symphorophilia.
Modern phycologists could diagnose Matuska with having mental illness. His reported involvement with communist causes in Europe and Asia added to his folklore. Many people still suggest he was making a political statement with his train derailments in addition to getting a sexual thrill out of the resulting mayhem. But in the end, as one researcher wrote, “No one will ever know if Szilveszter Matuska started out a political extremist and developed a taste for the chaos and destruction.” Or, as appears to be the case, “was a complete madman.” In truth, he was probably all those things.