Some Croats compare Aloysius Stepinac to Cardinals Stefan Wyszyński and József Mindszenty. But neither the Polish nor the Hungarian “Prince of the Church” had an episode of collaboration with a satellite state of the Third Reich in their biography.
“Poland is a nice canary, observed by several cats, attempted to be swallowed by two hawks,” proclaimed an English wisecrack in the late 1930s, which sounds quite ambiguous, given the feline deftness with which they abandoned us at Yalta. Shouldn’t we at least partly attribute such a desperate bravado to today’s Serbia? The deadlock over Kosovo, cool relations with almost all neighbors, a growing distance from the European Union and gravitating towards Russia, which is a quite uncomfortable ally and protector, is apparently not enough for a small country that is now showering the Vatican, still an important player on the world scene, with protests, and preparing for a radical cooling of its relations with the neighboring Croatia, reveling in its newly acquired EU member status.
Serbia cannot ignore the deep traumas inherent in the collective memory. One of them is the memory of the martyrdom of the Serbs in the areas controlled by the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a satellite of the Nazi Germany: at least several dozen thousands were killed (radical estimates put it at 700 thousand); nearly a quarter of a million Orthodox believers were brutally
blackmailed into converting to Catholicism. A large part of the Serbian public opinion is ready to put some part of the responsibility for these actions on the man who within a few months will almost certainly become a Catholic saint: Blessed Aloysius Stepinac, Archbishop of Zagreb in the period from 1937 to 1960, a victim of communist persecution and one of the greatest heroes of modern Croatia.
The Dispute over a Hero
The “disputed hero” situation itself is not unique to Serbia. The twentieth century was curious about the parallelism of merit and guilt in two historical figures: the masterpiece of Allan Bullock, juxtaposing Hitler and Stalin, was imitated by biographers of Kennedy and Khrushchev, Miłosz and Herbert, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But specific for Central Europe are biographies which in the historiography of two neighboring countries are split into two profiles, black and white, or perhaps form a playing card figure with two heads. Historians studying Polish-Lithuanian (Żeligowski), Polish- Ukrainian (Bandera) or Hungarian-Romanian relations have to deal with that problem. But the matter rarely regards a prince of the church.
Many volumes have been written about the slim, tall, shy and assertive clergyman; although 30 years have passed, one of the best summaries still is the monograph by the British researcher Stella Alexander called The Triple Myth, showing the fake picture of Stepinac painted—sometimes in good faith, sometimes in a purely libelous mode—by the wartime Ustashe, Communists, Orthodox traditionalists and Croatian chauvinists. During the war a traditionalist and mystic was looking in horror at a world in which the only possible winners were three forces equally alien to him: Fascism, Communism and permissive liberalism. But from today’s perspective he seems to be a victim of a much more local conflict between the Serbian and Croat vision of the “first Yugoslavia,” the ethnic order in the Balkans and the times of the Second World War.
A peasant son of a large family, considering priesthood even before he was pulled into the maelstrom of the Great War (he started it as an Austro-Hungarian conscript on the Italian front and finished, after he had become heavily wounded and stayed in POW camps, as a volunteer- officer in the Serbian army in Thessaloniki) would have had excellent qualifications for a pastor in the Catholic and constitutional Habsburg monarchy. Inclined to asceticism and easily scandalized (physiognomists would probably be able to read a lot from the narrow, pinched mouth), but also kind to people in an old-fashioned way; not especially curious about the world, but also immune to its new “tribal” ideologies, he would thrive in the world of Cardinal’s crimson, processions and carriages: a kind of (too) highly elevated Field Chaplain Martinec from The Adventures of the Good Soldier Schweik, whom even the anticlerical Hašek mockingly but warmly called “a pious and just soul.” He did not lack talent: he finished his theological studies with distinction at the Roman Gregorianum, where he learned several languages, and at the age of less than 40, in 1937, he became the Archbishop of Zagreb and the head of the Catholic Church in Yugoslavia under the Karađorđević dynasty.
From that moment on he was unable to part with the dream about an unambiguous posthumous description of his role in history, about a simple and favorable testimony of the kind that he had been absorbing in his diligent school days. The Serbian and Croat visions of the “first”Yugoslavia, with all their shadings, remain fundamentally divergent and are getting even more so with the years. For a huge majority of the Serbs, regardless of their orientation, the Kingdom of SHS (“Serbs, Croats and Slovenes”), in 1929 renamed the “Kingdom of Yugoslavia” by King Alexander, remains a source of pride, an important step in the history of building not only their own statehood, but also a part of the interwar order. The Croats have a hard time understanding these sentiments: the history course book by Professor Dragutin Pavličević, which has already run in three editions in Zagreb and has been translated into Polish, Hungarian and other languages, notes that for Croatia “the former independence from Vienna and Budapest was replaced by occupation by Belgrade and Serbia.”
A Tug of War
The entire Yugoslavian interwar period can be perceived as an overall consequence of a Serbo-Croatian tug of war regarding the spheres of influence in the country, a conflict between the “unitary” and “federalist” visions, during which there were dramatic turning points: shots being fired in Parliament in June 1928, when the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party, Stjepan Radić, was mortally wounded; the change of the name of the state and its historical administrative boundaries 18 months later by Alexander. The assassination attempt on the life of Alexander, made in 1934 with a tacit support of the Croatian political emigration, and the story of the concordat, signed first, but ultimately rejected in the face of the mass protests by the faithful of the Orthodox Church, have contributed to a deepening mutual distrust between the Serbs and the Croats.
And yet all this seems idyllic compared to the Second World War, which came to the land of Yugoslavia only in the spring of 1941. On March 25, under pressure from Berlin, Belgrade joins the Axis, and two days later, as a result of a British-backed coup, the king and the political orientation of the country change (becoming pro-Allied). Ten days later, the army of the Third Reich and its allies invade the country from all sides, and after 11 days of desperate fighting the country capitulates. Even earlier, however, on April 10, Croatian radicals in Zagreb establish the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). This was, even compared to other political puppets created by Berlin and Rome, a particularly sham and at the same time cruel state, with no parliament, no clearly defined boundaries, at odds even with other allies of Hitler from Hungary to Italy, and with a faltering army. It seems that the most real thing in Ante Pavelić’s puppet state was the network of concentration camps centered on Jasenovac, the deaths of thousands of Jews, Roma, Serbs and Bosnians, and—based on the ultranationalist doctrine—the forced “re-conversion” to Catholicism of Orthodox Serbs, regarded as “Croats who had lost their way.” And Stepinac in all that: naive, honest, with no political qualifications, trying to see the NDH as a step towards the dreamed-of independent state, and at the same time publicly castigating the dictator Ante Pavelić, filing one helpless protest after another, involved in hiding dozens of Jews, which in no way could have saved the entire nation from the approaching Holocaust.
Stepinac deserves to be defended from calumnies by simple recalling of facts—there are no documents confirming his participation in the crimes of the Ustashe; but there are testimonies of his protest and resistance as well as of intrigues of the Ustashe, pushing for his dismissal from the archbishopric throne in the Vatican. We must be aware that he had no jurisdiction over the clergy engaged in “converting” the Serbs in the Bosnian lands, outside the diocese of Zagreb, and even less over the policy of the NDH. Finally, as noted by the historian of the Balkans James Kumoch, we must beware of the error of seeing the past from the current perspective, which undermines any chroniclers work: we cannot project our memory about the crimes of the Ustashe on April 1941, the time of the proclamation of the Croatian quasistate: in the eyes of the vast majority of Croats (including the Archbishop), the failure of “Serbian militarists,” who had just engineered a coup d’état, meant—regardless of the uneasy international context—a step towards an independent Croatia, which, to quote Kumocha, “was gifted its statehood by the Axis.” At the same time, when reading the official statements of the Archbishop from those years and his private notes, we get a sense of profound, even embarrassing naivety.
The Most Zealous Disciple of Stalin
After the war, the Communist leader Joseph Broz Tito for a few months tried to cajole Stepinac. There was no talk about “acts of collaboration” then; instead there were several meetings, and the Archbishop found his place, although not a very prominent one, on several tribunes from which the brotherhood and unity of the nations of Yugoslavia were celebrated. It all ended much sooner than in other countries of the People’s Democracy, which should not surprise us if we remember that until breaking up with Moscow, Tito belonged to the most zealous disciples of Stalin. Already in the autumn of 1945, he started arresting priests and confiscating Church property, pre-emptively arresting the head of the Croatian church for 48 hours and instigating “spontaneous outbursts of popular anger.“ The stakes are clear: Tito seeks to create a national Roman Catholic Church, which would renounce its allegiance to the Vatican. Open letters of Croatian bishops and participation of the clergy in hiding persons wanted by the security services only fuelled the flames.
The Archbishop was arrested on 18 September 1946; the trial, broadcast on the radio, started two weeks later. The verdict was passed very quickly, on October 11: guilty of “collaboration, war crimes and forced conversion” and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor. After Tito’s breaking with Moscow and turning towards the West, he was transferred to house arrest in the rectory of Krašić, where he had been born and where he was to spend the next nine years, until his death. In 1952, he received, in absentia, a Cardinal’s hat, and these circumstances (a show trial, exile to the countryside along with him keeping there, in the daily uncertainty of what the fate may bring, a very personal diary as well as allegiance to the Vatican) make some Croats compare Stepinac, perhaps too hastily, to two other Cardinals, Wyszyński and Mindszenty. But neither the Polish nor the Hungarian prince of the church had an episode of collaboration of with a satellite state of the Third Reich in their biography. In October 1998, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II.
Serbia is the only Orthodox country apart from Russia which was not visited by John Paul II or any of his successors. Preparations for a visit were undertaken at least twice: in 2003 the Pope and the then head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, “holy old man” Patriarch Pavle, meet during the visit of Pope John Paul II in Banja Luka; seven years later the successor of Pavle, Patriarch of Irina, said he would invite Pope Benedict XVI for the celebrations of the 1700th anniversary of the “Edict of Milan” by Emperor Constantine, organized with great fanfare in the hometown of the emperor, that is in the Serbian Niš, built on the foundations of a Roman military settlement. Both visits came to nothing—for no other reason than the memory of the NDH and the Croatian Cardinal. The visit to Banja Luka was organized by someone (deprived of the memory of the past, or on the contrary, able to handle it adroitly?) in the Franciscan monastery Petrićevac, around which the Ustashe gathered in 1941–42 before the massacres of Serb villages. The fact that a year earlier Benedict XVI prayed at the tomb of Archbishop Stepinac in the Zagreb cathedral, was enough to thwart the visit in Niš…
The canonization of the Croatian Cardinal is not very widely discussed in Serbia so far—but already in July 2014 the Vatican received letters from the Episcopate of the Serbian Orthodox Church and President Tomislav Nikolić expressing “surprise” and “alarm,” and “encouraging reconsideration.” Journalists, churchgoers and football fans are far less reticent. Serbian public opinion is inclined to perceive the expected canonization of Stepinac as yet another humiliation of Serbia on the part of the West. The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, who plans to go for a three-day visit to Belgrade in mid-November, is certainly not going to liberate his brothers in faith from this illusion. As a result it will turn out that Serbia may count on Moscow not only in not recognizing the sovereignty of Kosovo and their hostility towards NATO, but also—how long has this term not been used in Europe!—in a deep distrust of the “papists.”
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