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Involvement of Croatian Catholic clergy with the Ustaša regime

Involvement of Croatian Catholic clergy with the Ustaša regime refers to the role of the Croatian Catholic Church in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), founded by the Ustaše in 1941 as a Nazi puppet state. The Catholic hierarchy in Croatia never broke all of its ties with the Ustaše regime. During this time, the most senior-ranking member of the Croatian clergy was archbishop Aloysius Stepinac of the Croatian metropolitan see in Zagreb, who criticized the new government at times, while at times cooperating with it. With forced conversions on one hand and condemnations of the Ustaše atrocities on the other, the involvement of the clergy is still a controversial chapter in the history of the Catholic Church in Croatia.

Initial Church position

In 1941 the Independent State of Croatia was established by the Ustaša puppet regime with Ante Pavelić as its leader (Poglavnik). The Independent State of Croatia was one of several Nazi puppet states. The Ustaša regime, according to a number of historians, pursued a genocidal policy against the Serbs (who were Eastern Orthodox Christians), Jews and Roma. The senior Wehrmacht officer in Zagreb, General Edmund Glaise-Horstenau protested against the senseless killings by the Ustaše, as did the German diplomat in SE Europe, Hermann Neubacher.

The creation of the Independent State of Croatia was initially welcomed by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and by many Catholic priests. In the aftermath of the declaration of independence on April 10, 1941, leading churchmen viewed the rise of the Independent State of Croatia in the context of a rebirth of a Catholic regime intent on following what they viewed as Christ's laws. At first Stepinac was an active supporter of the Ustaša regime headed by Ante Pavelic, praying for the well-being of the puppet state.

Author Hubert Butler reviewed documents and newspaper accounts from the period in Zagreb after the war. According to Butler:

I did not expect to find outspoken criticism or condemnation in the Church papers because, if it had been published, the papers would certainly have been suppressed. But I was wholly unprepared for the gush of hysterical adulation which was poured forth by almost all of the leading clergy upon Pavelitch, who was probably the vilest of all war criminals. He was their saviour against Bolshevism, their champion against the Eastern barbarian and heretic, the Serb; he was restorer of their nation and the Christian faith, a veritable hero of olden time.

Turn, for example, to Katolicki Tjednik (The Catholic Weekly), Christmas 1941, and read the twenty-six verse ‘Ode to Pavelitch’, in which Archbishop Sharitch praises him for his measures against Serbs and Jews.(Butler, cited in Agee).

Mr. Schmidlin of the International Red Cross frequently visited Stepinac seeking means of aiding Jews and others ((SL 9)). Amiel Shomrony, secretary to the last Chief Rabbi of Zagreb, recalled:­

"I took part in many actions to save Jews in the war with, the help of the Kaptol (the Archbishopric). In that way we managed to get many children out to Hungary and from there to Palestine. . . . besides that, the Archbishop personally saved a lot of people and children by hiding them. He gave the community flour every month and financially supported Jews who had been left without any means of support by the persecution. . . .". ((MTA 156)).

Meir Touval-Weltmann, Jewish relief official in Turkey wrote that Archbishop Stepinac had done all that was possible for the Jews of Croatia ((JFM 161)). The World Jewish Congress was grateful in September 1943 to Cardinal Godfrey of Great Britain and the Vatican for assisting in the transfer of 4,000 Jews to a safe Italian island ((JFM 162)).

Louis S. Breire, Programme Director of the American Jewish Committee ((AHO 72)), said during a speech on the 13th October 1946:

"This great man of the Church was accused of being a Nazi collaborator. We Jews deny this. We know from his life, from 1934 onwards, that he was always a true friend of the Jews, who in those times were subjected to the persecution of Hitler and his followers. Alojzije Stepinac is one of those rare men in Europe who stood up against Nazi tyranny, precisely at the time when it was most dangerous to do so . . . He spoke openly and fearlessly against the racist laws of Nuremberg and his opposition never faltered. It is due to him that the law of the 'yellow armband' was withdrawn . . . Next to His Holiness Pope Pius XII, Archbishop Stepinac was the greatest champion of the Jews who were being persecuted in Europe". ((OR 29-4-92)).

Implication in murders and conversions

During World War II a number of Croatian Catholic priests, not only cooperated with the regime but were implicated in murders and forced religious conversions of Serbs and Jews. In a few cases the whole population of villages was killed because they were Serb Orthodox; conversely, there have been cases where villagers were superficially converted and remained alive. There were cases of local involvement in genocide, including Friar Majstorović who was expelled from the Franciscan Order on April 28, 1942. Katolicko svecenstvo u NOB-u 1941-1945. According to Dr. Mišić, the Bishop of Mostar, even newly-converted Serbs were rounded up and murdered:

While the newly-converted are at Mass they seize them, old and young, men and women, and hunt them like slaves. From Mostar and Chapljina the railway carried six waggons full of mothers, girls, and children under eight to the station of Surmanci, where they were taken out of the waggons, brought into the hills and thrown alive, mothers and children, into deep ravines. In the parish of Klepca seven hundred schismatics from the neighbouring villages were slaughtered. The Sub-Prefect of Mostar, Mr Bajitch, a Moslem, publicly declared (as a state employee he should have held his tongue) that in Ljublina alone 700 schismatics have been thrown into one pit.(Mishitch, cited in Butler, 1956).

Church protests against crimes

On March 14th, 1943 ((RP 271-6)), and again on October 25th ((RP 276-281)), Stepinac publicly and firmly condemned racialism as it affected the Jews, but his words also applied to the Serbs and Gypsies.

During a further sermon to thousands on the 31st of October 1943 he said:­

"We have always asserted the value in public life of the principles of the eternal law of God without regard to whether it applied to Croats, Serbs, Jews, Bohemians, Catholics, Mohammedans, or Orthodox. . . . we cannot physically force anyone to fulfill the eternal laws of God. . . . each will answer for his actions (Gal.6:5). For this reason we are unable to answer longer for those hotheads and extremists amongst the clergy. . . .The Catholic Church knows nothing of races born to rule and races doomed to slavery.

The Catholic Church knows races and nations only as creatures of God . . . for it the Negro of Central Africa is as much a man as the European. For it the king in a royal palace is, as a man, exactly the same as the lowest pauper or gypsy in his tent. . . .The system of shooting hundreds of hostages for a crime, when the person guilty of the crime cannot be found, is a pagan system which only results in evil. . . . all the world is fighting for a new social order . . . the "Neue Ordnung". . . .We condemn all injustice; all murder of innocent people; all burning of peaceful villages; all killings, all exploitation of the poor. . . .the Catholic Church upholds that order which is as old as the Ten Commandments of God. We are for that social order which is written not on paper that will fall into dust but which is written by the hand of the living God in the souls of men". ((RP 283-6)).

The Ustasha leaders were furious and priests were arrested for publicly reading extracts from the sermon. Stepinac was placed under house arrest for several days and the sermon banned from the press ((AHO 20)). But it was made known by leaflets.

Jules Makanec, Minister of Public Instruction, in a long article in 'Nova Hrvatska' of 7th November ((RP 287-291)) extolled racism:­

"If a man is the image of God, then European man is so to a special degree: he is, without doubt, more so than a Negro of Central Africa". He attacked clergy who: "spread political confusion and defection among the soldiers. He wrote of: ". . . that high ecclesiastical dignitary who has recently, in his sermons, passed beyond the limits of his vocation and begun to meddle in affairs in which he is not competent".

Anyone who makes an estimate of the number of conversions, should state as to which type he is referring. A total of 200-300,000 has been suggested ((MT 111)). But amongst them would have been Catholics, who had "conformed to the Serbian Church due to pressure or bribery, and were now returning to the church of their youth. It was estimated that pre-war 30,000 Catholic girls had become Orthodox in order to marry ((TB 12)) and many men had done so for career or social reasons. It was generally accepted in Catholic circles that 200,000 Catholics had become Orthodox between the wars due to discrimination and political pressure ((SL 22)).

The Orthodox accepted as 'converts' in order to save their lives, were not considered by the Church as real converts. Others would have been opportunists lacking any true religious commitment. After the war, Stepinac stated that there were very few true conversions amongst the Serbs ((SAA 106)). Confirmation that the policy of 'forced conversions' was not motivated by religion comes from an unexpected source. In the Communist Indictment of Stepinac, read at his 'trial', were the words:­

"No one believed at the time, since it was clear to all, that Pavelic or the Ustasha were interested in religion at all, but in terrorism against the Serb people. Everyone was aware that even conversion did not save the people from massacre". ((RP 182-3)).

Popagandists draw a picture of close Church-Ustasha co-operation and a cosy friendship between Stepinac and Pavelic. The killings and 'conversions' reached their peak in July 1941. Yet at that time Stepinac and Marcone were striving to prevent Stepinac's personal friend and subordinate, Canon Loncar, from being executed because of his outspoken defiance of Pavelic.

Some of Stepinac's actions

a. As the Yugoslav state collapsed in the spring of 1941, the Orthodox Metropolitan bishop of Zagreb, Dositej Vasic, was arrested and beaten prior to being expelled to Serbia. He told a fellow prisoner that he would have been killed if Stepinac had not firmly intervened on his behalf, and arranged for his release and safe journey to Serbia on May 14th. He also said that his Cathedral would have been burnt down with the Synagogue ((SSJ 53: 97)).

b. When Stepinac heard from Catholic Archbishop Ujcic of Belgrade, that Orthodox bishop Sava Trlajic of Gornji Karlovic was in jail, he went with Marcone to Pavelic to ask for his release. But they found he had already been murdered ((SAB 73)).

c. Orthodox bishop Ireneus Ciric asked Stepinac to help his brother Stephen Ciric, a former Yugoslav government Minister, who was in a concentration camp. Following Stepinac's intervention, Pavelic promised that he would be released ((SL 20)).

d. On May 14th 1941, Stepinac protested to Pavelic that he had heard that 260 Serbian men had been murdered at Glina ((AHO 15)).

e. After the war, Stepinac's secretary, Stephen Lackovic, wrote regarding his Archbishop: "Innumerable were his protests and interventions before Croatian and German authorities in favour of single or entire villages or groups of Serb Orthodox in Croatia, for whom the Archbishop sought mercy. I was there, as his former secretary. I wrote the protests and petitions and accompanied him". ((SL 21)).

f. Stepinac rescued 7-8,000 homeless, orphaned Serbian children of Chetnik and Partisan parents from camps ((RJW 57, SAA 36)). He placed them in foster homes or Catholic institutions and gave instructions that they were not to be brought up as Catholics ((SAA 75)).

g. Stepinac was criticised for putting Catholic monks into the Orthodox monastery of Orahovica. But this building had earlier been taken from the Catholic Pauline Fathers and handed over to the Orthodox. When they left it empty in 1941, Stepinac considered that he had the right to use it for sheltering Trappist monks driven out of Slovenia by the Germans ((SL 23, SAB 163)).

h. In July 1941 he protested to Pavelic regarding young priests being recruited into the Ustasha ((CF 411)).

i. In December 1941, Bogdan Raskovic, secretary to the Ministry of Communications in the Belgrade government, visited Stepinac secretly. He was pleased at all the archbishop had done to save Serbs ((RP 296)). . When, during a sermon on December 31st 1941, Stepinac condemned Nazi and Ustasha principles, some threatened to kill him ((AHO 17)).

k. In February 1942 Stepinac protested to the minister of the Interior regarding the destruction of Orthodox churches especially in Senj ((SL 21, AHO 17)).

l. Stepinac sent chaplains and welfare aid to Croats in German and Italian camps in various parts of Europe ((AHU 22)).

m. Stepinac has been criticised for not expelling any priests from the priesthood. but his immediate authority was limited to the priests in the Zagreb diocese. Of these five hundred, it is thought that 15 were in the Ustasha and thirty sympathised with it ((RP 354)). Although a few had to be disciplined for meddling in politics, none were guilty of a crime ((SL 17)). He did suspend priests who had come to Zagreb from other dioceses and were guilty of crimes. Also, as Vicar General of the army, he was able to suspend unworthy chaplains when he had proof of their misdeeds. [See Military Vicar section].

n. He helped a German Communist who was escaping from the Nazis to reach the Soviet Union ((MR 39-40)). He persuaded German and Italian commanders to discipline troops who had committed crimes ((RP 262-6)).

o. When professor Zunic criticised the anti-Ustasha activities of the clergy, Stepinac expelled him from the University ((SSJ 2: 20)).

Beginning in May 1941, Archbishop Stepinac protested against the crimes of the Ustaše, including the massacre of Serbs at Glina and the establishment of the Jasenovac concentration camp. The bishops Aksanović and Mišić began to protest to the Ustaše authorities regarding its crimes (a very dangerous activity). The protests however were nearly fruitless and the military vicariate of the Ustaše army, though deeply involved in forced conversions and murders was not forbidden to carry them out or even reprimanded, leading many to believe the protests were a public show. Many among the clergy actually felt that forcible conversion offered an opportunity:

The Archbishop’s letter reveals the regret and revulsion which the violent methods used by Pavelitch’s missionaries inspired in the Catholic hierarchy. The formal resolution, which was passed in conclave in November, 1941, was an attempt to bring the conversion campaign under the control of the Church, and to check the rule of violence. The attempt was belated since the fury had spent itself by July, 1941, three months earlier.

If we exclude Archbishop Sharitch [of Bosnia], the author of the celebrated odes to Pavelitch and the fervent advocate of all his designs, the letters of Mgr Stepinac and the four bishops, whom he quotes, are moderate and humane. Why was the hierarchy so utterly impotent to check this inroad of fanatical barbarians into the purely ecclesiastical domain of conversion? I think the answer can be seen by a close examination of the letters [of the four bishops]. Pity for the heretic had always to be qualified, and was sometimes neutralized, by zeal for the extension of the Catholic Church. Never once did they say, ‘Let there be an end to conversions! There can be no talk of free will and voluntary change of faith in a land invaded by two armies and ravaged by civil war!’ Their concern is all for the right ordering of things…. A great opportunity had come to them. They must use it wisely, and not barbarously, for the saving of souls, but use it they must. . . (Butler, cited in Agee).

Other sources, however, outline how Stepinac had on many occasions spoke out against the atrocities. One such occasion was on October 25, 1943 in which he stressed the dignity of each man:­

"All of them without exception, whether they belong to the race of Gypsies or to another, whether they are Negroes or civilized Europeans, whether they are detested Jews or proud Aryans, have the same right to say, 'Our Father who art in heaven'. . . .the Catholic Church condemns . . . every injustice and every violence committed in the name of the theories of class, race or nationality. One cannot exterminate intellectuals . . . as Bolshevism has taught . . . One cannot extinguish . . . Gypsies or Jews because one considers them inferior races". A Question of Judgement Dr. Alojzije Stepinac and the Jews.

In a confidential rescript sent to Croatian clergy in 1941, Archbishop Stepinac wrote: "The role and task of Christians is on the first place to save people. When this time of madness and wildness is over, only those will remain in our Church who converted out of their own conviction, while others, when the danger is over, will return to their (Orthodox) faith."

Stepinac also protested to Pavelic, both orally and in written form. In one such letter, written in Autumn 1941, Stepinac stated that the Jasenovac concentration camp was a stain on the honour of Croatia. The Case of Cardinal Stepinac.

Aftermath

By the end of the war, a large number of Croatians fled Croatia. This number included at a minimum several hundred Croatian priests.It is clear many were involved with the Ustase regime..Though the exact number is unknown due to the coverups..

After the war, Cardinal Stepinac was indicted by the Yugoslav communist government for collaboration with the Nazi regime. Stepinac was found guilty and sentenced to 16 years of hard labour by communists. He served 5 years in the Lepoglava prison before the sentence was commuted to home arrest. He was appointed a Cardinal in 1952. He was transferred back home to the village of Krašić in 1953 and died in his residence seven years later. In 1998 Pope John Paul II declared him a saint and beatified him; steps which divided public opinion in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.

References

  • Chris Agee, 2000, "The Stepinac File," Archipelago, Vol. 5, No. 1,
  • Hubert Butler, 1956, "The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue," Archipelago, Vol. 5, No. 1,
  • http://www.churchinhistory.org/pages/booklets/croatia.pdf

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