Page 8, 3rd October 2008

3rd October 2008
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Page 8, 3rd October 2008 — Stepinac: war criminal or saint?

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Locations: Berlin, Zagreb


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Stepinac: war criminal or saint?

Robin Harris defends the reputation of Croatia's controversial wartime Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac

0 ne of the most vehemently attacked decisions made by Pope John Paul II was the beatification of Zagreb's wartime archbishop and later Cardinal, Alojzije Stepinac. On Friday September 19, a decade later, an international conference in the Croatian capital, addressed by foreign scholars, took stock of the various controversies surrounding Stepinac's life. The more absurd and gruesome accusations have in the intervening period been exposed as nonsense. The old polemics about who did what in wartime Yugoslavia have also been calmed, if not stilled. Genocide was clearly committed by the Croatian Fascist Ustasha regime, by the Belgradebased Nazi puppet state, and by the extreme nationalist Serbian Chetnilcs. At the end of the War the partisans proceeded to eliminate many thousands of opponents. Since the collapse of the Second Yugoslavia a new bout of genocide, principally committed by Serbs against Muslims, has challenged ethnic stereotypes. It is at last possible, too, to examine the horrors perpetrated by Communism worldwide on the basis of verifiable fact. In these conditions, Alojzije Stepinac deserves historical reassessment.

Stepinac faced two totalitarian ideologies: that of the Ustasha, behind which lay the Third Reich, and then that of communism. Both National Socialism and communism had been condemned by Pius XI in 1937. But the threat they posed, and the circumstances in which they had to be resisted in Croatia, were necessarily different.

Alojzije Stepinac, as a patriotic Croat exasperated by years of national and religious persecution in the First Yugoslavia, welcomed the proclamation of the socalled Independent State of Croatia (the NDH) on April 10 1941. He had, though, grave doubts about the manner in which Croatia had acquired its fragile statehood. He saw Hitler's Germany as deeply pagan; he had already denounced National Socialism as inherently diabolical; and he had personally witnessed its consequences. When the Nazis began systematic persecution of the Jews in Germany many came to Croatia to seek sanctuary, and Stepinac was the main coordinator of assistance.

So in 1941 the Germans already regarded him as an enemy, as did the Ustasha leader, or Poglavnik, Ante PaveliC.. Since there was no tradition of Croatian antiSemitism — Pavelie's own wife was Jewish — it was reasonable to hope that the worst abuses could be mitigated. The first of Stepinac's interventions on behalf of the Jews took place within a fortnight of the NDH's proclamation. They continued until almost all of Croa tia's Jews had been deported or killed. He spoke out in public, to the fury of the authorities and at risk of his life, in 1942, declaring in a homily on the Feast of Christ the King: "Every nation and every race that exists today on earth has the right to a life worthy of Man and to be treated in a fashion worthy of Man. All without differentiation, whether gypsies or members of any other race, whether blacks or polished Europeans, whether despised Jews or proud Aryans, have an equal right to say: Our Father, who art in heaven. And if God has given them that right, then what human authority can deny it?"

The Ustashe were mainly following Berlin's orders in persecuting Jews and Gypsies. But they had their own mad purpose in persecuting the ethnic Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia. Stepinac again intervened with the Poglavnik as soon as he saw what was happening. Part of the Ustasha plan consisted of forced conversions of the Orthodox to Catholicism, equivalent in a Balkan context to the abandonment of Serbian ethnicity.

But soon most of the demand for conversions was coming from terrified Serbs who vainly hoped that their lives might be spared by a change of denomination. Stepinac refused to accept forced conversions. But he also issued confidential advice to priests to accept conversion if people demanded it to save their lives, adding: "When this time of madness and barbarism passes, those who converted because of faith will remain in our Church and the rest when danger departs will return to their own."

It is worth observing that the Ustashe, as nationalist revolutionaries, were not motivated by Catholic zeal. When Pavelk decided that his ethnic programme was failing, he simply set up his own Croatian Orthodox Church. He enjoyed excellent relations with its prelates, with the German Evangelical Bishop and with the Muslim Mufti of Zagreb. Stepinac was the thorn in his side.

With the German defeat, one totalitarian regime succeeded another. In a sense, it was simpler to confront Communism, because the issues were clearer. The prime target of atheistic Bolshevism, wholly embraced by Tito and other partisan leaders. was necessarily the Catholic Church: When Stepinac saw that, despite initial assurances, the survival of the Church was at stake, he embarked on an all-out public struggle with the regime. A few days after the partisans entered Zagreb came his first arrest. But it was only months later, after he had made clear in his one private meeting with Tito and through a scorching denunciation of anti-Church measures that he would not bend or break, that a public trial was decided upon.

It was a show trial much like others behind the Iron Curtain, without a semblance of justice. Only seven of the 35 defence witnesses were heard. Among those excluded were leading Serbs he had saved. The public accounts of the trial were heavily doctored at no time until the fall of communism was Stepinac's speech in his defence allowed to be published in Croatia. He was sentenced to 16 years hard labour and despatched for the first five to Lepoglava prison, before being exiled to his home parish of Kragi6, north of Zagreb.

Stepinac was not physically tortured. Others were. Some 600 Croat Catholic priests, religious and seminarians died. After Tito's break with the Soviet Union and turn to the West, in 1948, the attraction of expelling Stepinac or securing his withdrawal sharply increased. But the archbishop would not oblige. He was determined to share in the Church's suffering and refused to seek treatment abroad for the blood condition which filially killed him, because he feared that he would be unable to return. His consuming preoccupation in these years was to foil the government's attempts to undermine Croatia's allegiance to the Holy See. Tito wanted a malleable national "Catholic" church and decided on the creation of religious front organisations — a classic tactic still practised by the Party in China. In this case officially approved priests' associations were set up whose members received government protection and largesse.

A substantial number of priests elsewhere succumbed — but not in Croatia, where Stepinac's moral authority was now absolute. In his spiritual testament, read out at his funeral in 1960, he instructed the Croats: "Always be loyal to the Catholic Church, loyal to the grave!"

Fearing that KraiZ would become a place of pilgrimage, the regime at the last moment gave permission for his remains to be interred in the vault of Zagreb's cathedral. It was a stupid mistake. Thousands and thousands of pilgrims came and kept on coming. Favours and miracles multiplied. The Communists could do nothing. Stepinac, in death as in life, has proved a stumbling block to ignoble compromise. It is the significance of his example.

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