On Trial Again

by Robin Harris


The campaign to defame Cardinal Stepinac, which continues to this day, began when Tito could not convince the Zagreb archbishop to break with Rome.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, August/September 1998

Pope John Paul II's decision to go to Croatia in October and beatify Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, the Archbishop of Zagreb who was tried by Yugoslav Communists in 1946 as a war criminal, is one of the bravest of this courageous pontificate. If the Pope were interested in his image rather than his mission, this is one visit he would think twice about making. It is another revelation of his priorities that he is going despite the potential pitfalls.

The Church's conclusion as to the heroic sanctity of Zagreb's former archbishop is not, of course, a political statement. It is perfectly possible to believe that Stepinac may at times have made misjudgments during the turbulent and terrible war years, without for that reason doubting his personal holiness. On the other hand, the forthcoming beatification is a direct challenge to the black legend circulated in Croatia about the Vatican's role during the Second World War. And nine years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, seven years after the collapse of Yugoslavia, this is still a subject about which Western liberal opinion parrots the outrageous slanders devised by Yugoslav Communism.

Historical background

In order to understand the circumstances in which Stepinac found himself during the war time years around which the controversy rages, it is also necessary to know something of conditions in the first government of Yugoslavia, which was born in 1919 and remained until the Nazi invasion of 1941. Croats had hoped that within the new state, founded after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they might find wider opportunities for the expression of their national identity as well as guarantees for their faith and culture. But it was not to be. Accommodation between Yugoslavia's peoples and faiths was rendered impossible by Serb extremism.

In 1928 the most important Croatian politician and leader of the Croatian Peasant Party, Stjepan Radic, was assassinated in the Yugoslav parliament. The following year King Aleksandr instituted a dictatorship in which Croatia's position as a separate nationality went unrecognized. It was then that the future Fascist Croatian leader. Ante Pavelic, fled to Italy and founded his Ustasha movement. In 1934 King Aleksandr was himself assassinated in Marseilles by a Bulgarian in the pay of the Ustasha. His successor, the cultivated and moderate regent Prince Paul, governing on behalf of the boy king Peter II, strove to find a satisfactory solution to the conflict of nationalities within Yugoslavia. But although he made some advances on the political front, the Serbian Orthodox Church and militant Serb nationalists in the military ultimately blocked progress.

The position of the Catholic Church had become intolerable long before 1937, when Alojzije Stepinac became the youngest archbishop in Zagreb's history. The government authorities systematically encouraged the "Old Catholic" schism, on the grounds that the breakaway sect represented a more "national" alternative to Roman Catholicism. Heavy pressure was also placed on. Catholics to convert to Serbian Orthodoxy. The fact that shameless discrimination was practiced in favor of Serbs and against Croats in state employment —even within Croatia—increased the pressure.

The last straw came in 1935, when after long negotiations between Belgrade and the Holy See, a concordat was established giving the Catholic Church in Yugoslavia equal standing for the first time—only to be thwarted by a violent campaign orchestrated by the Serbian Orthodox Church. Finally, a coup in April 1941—organized by British intelligence after Prince Paul was forced by Hitler to join the alliance of Axis powers—brought to power, albeit briefly, the most militantly Serb nationalist elements under the nominal rule of King Peter, Yugoslavia quickly collapsed before the German invading forces. Hardly a Croat regretted its demise. There appeared to exist an opportunity for an independent Croatian state, and the fact that Croats were celebrating the 1300th anniversary of Croatia's first relations with the Holy See seemed to make this a still more propitious moment of destiny. The Germans offered the leadership of the new state first to the moderate Croatian Peasant Party leader, Vladko Macek, but he refused. Instead Ante Pavelic, at the head of a few hundred Ustasha Fascists whose views were largely unknown to ordinary Croats, returned from exile and proclaimed himself Poglavnik (leader). The Croatian population, including Stepinac, at first enthusiastically welcomed the new so-called Independent State of Croatia (NDH). But disillusionment with the new regime soon arose, as some Croatian territory was ceded to Italy, while the Italians and Germans divided up the remainder into their own spheres of influence. Above all, chaos and bloodshed descended on the land.

The scale of the atrocities which now occurred was subsequently greatly exaggerated for political purposes. Viktor Novak, in his slanderous work Magnum Crimen (1948), created out of it a theory of fifty years of Croatian "clero-fascism." A former priest. Carlo Falconi, constructed a book called The Silence of Pius XII, using evidence supplied (and in fact manufactured) by the Yugoslav Secret Service (UDBA). The Falconi book blackened the reputation of the pontiff by besmirching the Croatian Church.

But there is no doubting that the reality of war-time Yugoslavia was terrible enough. The Ustasha concentration camp at Jasenovac gained a particular notoriety for the cruelty perpetrated on the regime's opponents (Croats as well as non-Croats). At the same time, Serbian nationalist forces under the command of Draza Mihailovic committed genocide against Muslims; a puppet pro-Nazi government in Belgrade proudly declared that Serbia after its deportations was "Jew-free"; the Partisans commanded by Tito ruthlessly eliminated their opponents; and both German and Italian forces—often backing opposite sides—added to the slaughter.

The two most soundly based modern accounts—drawn up respectively by a Croatian and a Serbian scholar—show how the post-war Communists and present Serb nationalists have exaggerated the total losses in order to exaggerate the crimes of the Croats. The scholars suggest that just over a million people lost their lives on the territory of Yugoslavia. Jews suffered the heaviest casualties, followed by Muslims, Serbs, and Croats in that order. After the war, the Communist government increased the "official" estimate of those killed to 1.7 million, in order to increase pressure for German reparations. The figure has continued to grow ever since that time, while the implication (or sometimes the assertion) is that the whole tragedy consisted of Croat atrocities against Serbs, rather than being in fact the result of a tri-partite civil war encouraged by outside powers.

The accusations at the trial

The accusations against Archbishop Stepinac and the Church are all connected with these events. At his trial Stepinac was accused of welcoming the proclamation of Pavelic's NDH. He never denied this. "I would have been unworthy if I had not felt the pulse of the Croatian people, for whom the old Yugoslavia was a prison," he testified. A document was presented purporting to show that he had gone further by defending the Ustasha to the Vatican. But that document was a clumsy forgery; the need for its invention in fact demonstrated the prosecution's lack of real evidence. Stepinac was also held responsible for Catholic newspapers which extolled the Ustasha, but these propagandist passages were manifestly dictated by the authorities of the day. The archbishop himself had no regrets about his conduct. "My conscience is clear," he told the tribunal.

Stepinac was essentially accused of uncritically supporting the Ustasha and thus of complicity in their crimes. But the evidence shows that this is quite untrue. Pavelic, the Poglavnik himself, complained bitterly to the German and Italian foreign ministers about Stepinac's uncooperative attitude. Stepinac had no more sympathy with the ideology of racism than with Communism. As early as 1937 he had founded a committee to look after Jewish and other refugees from Hitler's Germany. It was the year of both Divini Redemptoris (condemning Communism) and Mit Brennender Sorge (condemning Nazism), and Stepinac took both these solemn papal statements as his guides.

The archbishop personally knew very little about the small clique which arrived to constitute the NDH government. They proclaimed themselves Catholics—which in Yugoslavia was synonymous with proclaiming oneself a Croat—but were they also, as their enemies claimed, terrorists and revolutionaries? Stepinac was uneasy about the new Croatian ruler; he asked the Poglavnik directly whether he had been involved with King Aleksandr's murder. Pavelic lied. The truth was, in any case, soon to become quite apparent.

Stepinac reacted immediately to the NDH's first anti-Jewish laws relating to mixed marriages. Similarly, he protested to the Poglavnik about the forced deportation of Serbs which took place, amid much violence, beginning in the summer of 1941. His tactic (perhaps initially it was also more than a tactic) was to assume that the authorities were not fully aware of the abuses being perpetrated in their name. So in March 1942, he wrote a letter to the Minister of the Interior condemning the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, and saying that the Jews had been subject to mistreatment by "irresponsible elements." In May he protested in writing against measures "to take away all possibility of normal existence from members of other nations or races and to mark them with the stamp of infamy. . . ."

Eventually despairing of the effect of private interventions, in May 1942 Stepinac began to speak out openly in his sermons against the persecution of Jews, Gypsies, and Serbs. These sermons were so powerful that they were circulated by the Partisans; the texts of several were broadcast by the BBC. In March 1943, angered by new measures against the Jews, he proclaimed: Everyone, no matter to what race or nation he belongs . . . bears within himself the stamp of God and has inalienable rights of which no earthly power has the right to deprive him. Last week there were many occasions to see the tears and hear the sighs of men and the cries of defenseless women. . . . As representatives of the Church we cannot and dare not be silent.

The single most difficult issue the archbishop had to face was that of forced conversion of Orthodox Serbs to Catholicism. In fact, the much-trumpeted Catholicism of the NDH government was fundamentally insincere and opportunistic. It was "Catholic" only insofar as religion provided a measure of national allegiance. Thus the state blithely made its own rules for the program, without regard for canon law. Similarly, conversion to the Byzantine rite Catholic Church was not enough for a Serb to save his life; it had to be to the Latin rite, because the government thought the Eastern Catholics were insufficiently Western in their outlook on the world. Faced with strong resistance, the Poglavnik revised his approach; in February 1942 he stated publicly that he had no objection to the Orthodox Church as such. Accordingly, a few months later he found a Russian bishop to set up a Croatian Orthodox Church. Nor had Pavelic any objections to Islam. Muslims he liked to describe as "the flower of the Croatian people," and he had a prominent museum in central Zagreb turned into a mosque with four minarets.

It was sometimes impossible for the archbishop of Zagreb to supervise effectively the actions of all the country's priests, particularly members of the religious orders in distant Bosnia and Herzegovina. But those involved were left in no doubt about where their duty lay. In November 1941 the bishops solemnly insisted that conversions under duress must not be accepted. At the same time the archbishop also circulated other pastoral instructions, characterized by their realism and humanity. When people of the Jewish and Orthodox religions come to you and, finding themselves in danger of death, want to convert to Catholicism, receive them to save their lives. Do not ask for any special religious instruction, for the Orthodox are Christians like us, and the Jewish religion is that from which Christianity draws its origins. The role and the duty of Christians are in the first place to save people. When this era of savagery and madness has passed, those who are converted by conviction will remain in our Church, while the others, when the danger is passed, will return to theirs. What then had been the archbishop's real offense? Why did it take 16 months to bring this apparently notorious war criminal to justice—months during which he appeared in public with Communist leaders and had polite private discussion with Tito himself? The famous French novelist (and Resistance fighter) Francois Mauriac provided an answer, writing in Le Figaro after the trial: "Everything becomes clear if one remembers that on September 8, 1945, the archbishop of Zagreb, the first of the Croat bishops, refused to break with Rome."

From his first meeting with the Croatian bishops Tito had expressed his wish to create a national church. It was a policy in line with that of the government of the old Yugoslavia; it was equally in line with the policy of Communists everywhere to create church institutions under their own control and separate from Rome—the same policy which applies today in the so-called "Patriotic Church" in China. Had Stepinac bowed to this demand, he would have escaped his trial: had he complied in prison or under house arrest in his home parish of Kralic—to which he was confined while dying—he would quickly have been released. Instead, the most vile accusations were leveled against him and against the great Pope Pius XII, who supported and sustained him. The present pope's mission to Croatia thus constitutes a double vindication.

Robin Harris is a British journalist who is an expert on the Balkan region.

© The Catholic World Report, P.O. Box 591300, San Francisco, CA 94159-1300, 800-651-1531.


This item 513 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org