Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac collaborated with the fascist regime in Croatia, whose atrocities shocked even the Nazis. The US Congress then spent years attempting to free him in the name of anti-communism.

A woman holding a placard that reads “We demand justice and freedom for Archbishop Stepinac and the Croatian People” at a protest against the incarceration of Croatian archbishop Aloysius Stepinac, United States, circa 1946. (FPG / Archive Photos / Getty Images)

“The times are such that it is no longer the tongue which speaks but the blood with its mysterious links with the country,” Aloysius Stepinac, the archbishop of Zagreb and the head of the Croatian Catholic Church, wrote to his bishops on April 28, 1941. “Who can reproach us if we also, as spiritual pastors, add our contribution to the pride and rejoicing of the people, when full of devotion and warm thanks we turn to Almighty God?”

The occasion for Stepinac’s joy was the creation of the Nezavisna Država Hrvatska (NDH), the Independent State of Croatia, installed by the Nazis after their invasion and occupation of Yugoslavia. The NDH regime would soon become infamous for its brutality, even in the eyes of the Nazis themselves. Its persecution of Jews, Roma, and, above all, Orthodox Serbs — for whom the NDH adopted a policy of “convert a third, expel a third, and kill a third” — rivaled the crimes of any fascist regime. The most notorious NDH death camp, Jasenovac, was the third-largest in Europe during the war. More than half a million Serbs, thirty thousand Jews, and sixteen thousand Roma were murdered, while around 250,000 Serbs were expelled and 200,000 forcibly converted to Catholicism. The Waffen-SS, not known for its squeamishness, described the NDH’s atrocities as “bestial.”

The Croatian Catholic Church — led by Stepinac — was deeply entangled with the NDH regime. However, after it was overthrown by the communist partisans in 1945 and Stepinac was imprisoned for treason and wartime collaboration, anti-communists in the United States rebranded him as an innocent and courageous martyr. The US government soon fought for his release and began a wide, long-term campaign across the Western world on behalf of clerical fascism in the Balkans.

Stepinac’s Wartime Record

Neither Stepinac nor his bishops participated directly in NDH atrocities. Indeed, sometimes they objected to them and gave assistance to their victims. Objections, however, came with caveats. In a 1941 unpublished letter to NDH leader Ante Pavelić about the savagery of the forced conversion campaign in Bosnia (which was part of NDH territory), Stepinac argued that the Serbs provoked the genocidal violence that they suffered and that the real problem with mass murder was that it was “letting slip excellent opportunities which we could use for the good of Croatia and the Holy Catholic cause. From a minority we might become a majority in Bosnia and Hercegovina.” When Stepinac later argued, euphemistically, against “unjust behavior” toward Serbs and Jews in his sermons, he did so in fear that such “behavior” would drive people into the arms of the partisans (a concern that was shared by the Waffen-SS).

As Stella Alexander documents in her relatively sympathetic biography of Stepinac, he always saved his unqualified condemnations for communists; he remained polite and deferential toward Pavelić and never broke with the NDH regime; and he maintained, as late as 1944, when he was well aware of the NDH’s worst crimes against Serbs, Jews, and Roma, that the biggest victims of the war were Croats.

Stepinac was an opportunist who saw in fascism a priceless opportunity to secure his long-held desire for an independent Croatia cleansed of “schismatic Serbs.” The best things that can be said for him are that he wasn’t a murderer, he didn’t condone or take pleasure in violence, and he probably behaved no worse than many would under a fascist regime.

Stepinac’s Remaking Into a Martyr of Communist Oppression

Stepinac was detained by the Communist authorities who took over Yugoslavia in 1945. Their leader, Josip Broz Tito, did not want to make a martyr of Stepinac and was willing to let him go free so long as he left the country. Stepinac — encouraged by the Vatican — instead chose to stay in Yugoslavia and stand trial in 1946, after which he was sentenced to sixteen years in prison for treason and collaboration.

Abroad, anti-communists wasted no time in whitewashing Stepinac’s history of fascist collaboration to recast him as a victim a repression. In Ireland, the Count of Thomond, Anthony Henry O’Brien, wrote a short biography of Stepinac in 1947 arguing that he was a Christ-like victim of communist persecution. In the United States, the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman, embedded O’Brien’s book in the foundation stone of a new Stepinac Institute and sponsored the creation of the Archbishop Stepinac High School, which still provides secondary education in White Plains, New York.

Spellman and his allies in the US Congress began a campaign for Stepinac’s release. Subtly but forcefully, the State Department and the US embassy in Belgrade gave this campaign concrete support.

Leveraging Congressional Hostility

After Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Cominform in June 1948, American diplomats were reluctant to fight for Stepinac because they were trying to court, rather than antagonize, Tito in order to deepen his break with Joseph Stalin and encourage further disunity in the Eastern Bloc. In February 1949, the US ambassador to Yugoslavia, Cavendish Cannon, warned Secretary of State Dean Acheson that, while “world conscience demands action on behalf [of] Stepinac,” the US government should “choose [the] timing and method” of any campaign for his release carefully in order “to ensure that benefits outweigh probable disadvantages.” Crucially, Cannon advised against linking the Stepinac issue to future aid programs, because this would give the impression to Tito that the United States was trying “to extort political advantages from him” while he was vulnerable and isolated from his former Soviet allies.

Acheson had written to Cannon asking for his opinion on how to respond to a House of Representatives resolution condemning the treatment of Stepinac. The House majority leader, Massachusetts Democrat John McCormack, had personally called Acheson to demand that the resolution be acted upon. While both Acheson and Cannon were initially more circumspect than the House, both the embassy and the State Department soon recognized that congressional hostility toward Yugoslavia could be useful.

In his first conversation with Tito in January 1950, Cannon’s successor as ambassador, George Allen, “took occasion to say, in all frankness, that . . . outright economic aid from US would face serious difficulties” because there was “considerable opposition in US Congress” to “subsidizing” socialistic economic polices abroad. In March and again in June, Acheson instructed Allen to keep reminding Tito that “Congress and public opinion play [an] essential role in US foreign policy” and that “religious liberty” was among their primary concerns with the Yugoslav government.

In November, the Yugoslav ambassador in Washington asked Acheson how Yugoslavia could improve its chances of receiving urgently needed food aid in the aftermath of a disastrous drought. Acheson advised that the continued detention of Stepinac made “it most difficult for many in [the] US, Catholics and non-Catholics, to support aid” to the country.

With Acheson’s cajoling, Congress approved emergency food aid for Yugoslavia in December 1950, but stingily, and only after publicly calling Tito, among other things, “an average, if unusually energetic type, of international thug,” a “declared enemy of everything America stands for,” and “as blackhearted and treacherous a Communist as Stalin himself.” In April 1951, Majority Leader McCormack and the House Speaker, Texas Democrat Sam Rayburn, told Assistant Secretary of State George Perkins that “the time was now ripe for us to proceed actively to try to get some results” on Stepinac. Perkins, in turn, instructed the embassy in Belgrade to tell Yugoslav officials that “we have no assurance that . . . the existence of the Stepinac complication might not make the difference between aid, and no aid for Yugoslavia” in the future.

This message was relayed to Tito himself in July, when George Allen organized a two-hour conference with Tito and Connecticut Democratic senator Brien McMahon. “Speaking frankly,” McMahon “wished to let Tito know that 30 million Catholics in [the] US could not remain indifferent to [the] continued imprisonment of Stepinac.” Tito reminded McMahon that he was willing to let Stepinac free as long as he left Yugoslavia — an offer that Stepinac and the Vatican refused. McMahon said they refused because “acceptance would be admission of guilt.” Tito then said that the “Pope [could] make Stepinac cardinal which [would] certainly not indicate admission of guilt,” before McMahon suggested that Stepinac be released “for residence in [a] monastery inside Yugoslavia.” “Tito said he was ready to grant this,” which, in Allen’s view, represented “distinct progress.”

In November, Allen arranged another meeting between Tito and two members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee: Wisconsin Democrat Clement J. Zablocki and New York Democrat Edna F. Kelly, a staunch Tito critic. Allen reported that “Zablocki and Kelly pressed Tito vigorously on question of Stepinac, asking why they had not been allowed to visit him.” In response,

Tito said Stepinac [would] be released within a month and [would] be allowed to act as priest if he wished but [not] as bishop or archbishop. While Zablocki appeared to be satisfied with [this] outcome, Mrs. Kelly told me subsequently she [would] reserve any judgement or statement until she had seen Holy Father in Rome.

Although Allen believed that Tito “wish[ed] to avoid appearance of acting under congressional pressure” in freeing Stepinac, he credited “continual representations by various Congressmen” as “primarily responsible for [his] release,” which was finalized on December 5, 1951.

The Legacy of the Stepinac Myth

The Stepinac campaign was an early and successful example of American apologia for crimes against humanity in the Balkans; but it was far from the last.

The Irish essayist Hubert Butler, one of the few Western commentators who criticized the myth of Stepinac’s martyrdom from the beginning, warned, in 1956, that fervent anti-communism was morphing into apologia for fascism. Butler observed how NDH head Ante Pavelić, who had mysteriously escaped to Argentina via British-occupied Austria and Rome after the war, had “cashed in very effectively on the Stepinac legend,” transforming his own image in the West from “a monster of iniquity” into something “more respectable, and if he was wanted again in a campaign against Communism in the Balkans it is possible that he and his friends would be used.”

Indeed, NDH revivalists — calling themselves “Ustaše,” in honor of the original organization founded by Pavelić in 1929 — soon began just such a campaign from Australia, where, beginning in 1963, “they established new Ustaša networks which trained new members, financed chapters overseas, launched incursions into Yugoslavia, and waged a terrorism campaign against the Yugoslav migrant community in Australia.” The Australian intelligence services knew about these activities but ignored them because the Ustaše were “good anti-Communists.”

In the United States, members of Congress, emboldened by the successful Stepinac campaign, went on to argue against the extradition to Yugoslavia of the NDH’s former interior minister Andrija Artuković, despite his central role in orchestrating the regime’s genocidal policies. In June 1958, Michigan Republican congressman Victor A. Knox described Artuković as “an exemplary Catholic and a Knight of Columbus, with a Catholic wife and five children,” “one of the most brilliant and patriotic Yugoslavs living,” and someone who “knows so much about Titoism and the horrible massacres and other outrages perpetrated by Tito and his crowd.” For these reasons, “Tito wants to get his hands on Artuković and silence him.” In 1955 and 1958, California Republican congressman James B. Utt introduced bills attempting to give Artuković American citizenship. After a protracted legal battle, Artuković was finally extradited to Yugoslavia in 1986.

When the Cold War ended, and the United States no longer had a strategic interest in Yugoslavia’s survival, the US and Germany supported the secessionist aspirations of the Croatian president Franjo Tuđman, well-known for his “Ustaša nostalgia.” President Tuđman, a revisionist historian of the NDH regime, had described the NDH as “an expression of the historic aspirations of the Croatian people.” Tuđman was not in the same league as Pavelić, but his government ultimately achieved what Pavelić could only dream of: the complete ethnic cleansing of Croatia, when it expelled two hundred thousand Serbs from the Krajina region in August 1995. US president Bill Clinton welcomed this news.

The wider Stepinac myth endures today. The man who welcomed a Nazi-installed government as a gift from God was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998. Stepinac, the pope proclaimed, was “one of the outstanding figures of the Catholic Church, having endured in his own body and his own spirit the atrocities of the Communist system.” In 2016, a Zagreb court annulled Stepinac’s 1946 convictions for treason and collaboration. And in March this year, the European Parliament hosted an event honoring Stepinac’s legacy of “Faith, Perseverance, and Hope.”

The more diplomatic and sensitive Pope Francis has so far resisted calls for Stepinac to be made a saint. Perhaps worse people have been made saints; certainly, worse people have supported fascist governments. But given the number of truly extraordinary people who suffered so much at the hands of fascism in Yugoslavia, real martyrs and real saints shouldn’t be hard to find.

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