The Role of the Catholic Church in Yugoslavia’s Holocaust

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On April 6th 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia. By April 10th, Croatian fascists led by Ante Pavelic were allowed by Hitler and his ally Mussolini to set up an “independent” puppet state of Croatia. Hitler granted “Aryan” status to Croatia as his fascist allies carved up Yugoslavia. Pavelic had been awaiting these developments whilst under the auspices of Mussolini in Italy who had granted them the use of remote training camps on a Aeolian island and access to a propaganda station Radio Bari for broadcasts across the Adriatic. As soon as the new fascist state of Croatia was born, a campaign of cold-blooded terror began, as noted by John Cornwell in his book Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (Viking, London, UK, 1999):

“(It was) an act of ‘ethnic cleansing’ before that hideous term came into vogue, it was an attempt to create a ‘pure’ Catholic Croatia by enforced conversions, deportations, and mass exterminations. So dreadful were the acts of torture and murder that even hardened German troops registered their horror. Even by comparison with the recent bloodshed in Yugoslavia at the time of writing, Pavelic’s onslaught against the Orthodox Serbs remains one of the most appalling civilian massacres known to history” (p 249)

Furthermore, as Cornwell notes, Pius XII had not only “warmly endorsed” Croat nationalism, he had, before the war in November 1939, described the Croats in a speech as an “the outpost of Christianity” of whom “the hope of a better future seems to be smiling on you”. Pavelic and Pope Puis XII “frequently exchanged cordial telegrams” according to Dedijer, one on New Year’s Day 1943, saw the Pope give his blessing to Pavelic:

Everything that you have expressed so warmly in your name and in the name of the Croatian Catholics we return gracefully and give you and the whole Croatian people our apostolic blessing (Dedijer, p 115).

On April 25th 1941, following his seizure of power, Pavelic decreed that all publications, private and public, of the Cyrillic script was banned. In May 1941, anti-Semitic legislation was passed, defining Jews in racist terms, preventing them from marrying “Aryans”. One month later all Serb Orthodox primary and preschools were closed. As soon as Pavelic had taken power, the Catholic Church in Croatia began compelling Orthodox Serbs to convert to the Catholic religion. But this was, as pointed out by Cornwell, a highly-selective policy: the fascists had no intention of allowing Orthodox priests or members of the Serb intelligentsia into the religion – they were to be exterminated along with their families. However, for those Serbs who were forced to convert, there was no immunity or protection from the Catholic church when the “crazed bloodletting” of the Ustashe began, as indicated by the speech made by the Croatian Nazi Mile Budak, who was a Minister in the Ustasha regime in Gospic, Bosnia during July 1941:

We will kill one part of the Serbs, the other part we will resettle, and the remaining ones we will convert to the Catholic faith, and thus make Croats of them (Dedijer, p 130).

Budak was talking about something that had already started: In an example of savage butchery carried out in the village of Glina on May 14th 1941, hundreds of Serbs were brought to a church to attend an obligatory service of thanksgiving for the fascist state of Croatia. Once the Serbs were inside, the Ustashe entered the Church armed only with axes and knives. They asked all present to produce their certificates of conversion to Catholicism – but only two had the required documents, and they were released. The doors of the church were locked and the rest slaughtered.

Like with the Jews, who had to wear the Star of David in public, the Serbs were forced to wear a blue band with the letter “P” (i.e., Orthodox) on their sleeve. The Nazi regime decreed that the Roma were to be “treated as Jews” and they were forced to wear yellow armbands. (A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia, David M. Crowe, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, USA, 1994).

Stepinac blesses the puppet Nazi regime in Croatia

When the Nazi’s installed the puppet Ustashi regime in May 1941, Stepinac immediately offered his congratulations to Pavelic, and held a banquet to celebrate the founding of the new nation. After the opening of the Ustasha Parliament, Pavelic attended Zagreb cathedral, where Stepinac offered special prayers for Pavelic and ordered a solemn “Te Deum” to be sung in thanks to God for the establishment of the new regime. In May 1941, Stepinac also arranged to have Pavelic received personally by Pope Pius XII in Rome in the Vatican, where on the same occasion, he signed a treaty with Mussolini. Once Pavelic was in power, Stepinac issued a Pastoral Letter ordering the Croatian clergy to support the new Ustasha State. Stepinac later recorded in his diary on 3rd August 1941 that “the Holy See (the Vatican) recognized de facto the independent State of Croatia”. In the same year, Stepinac himself declared:

“God, who directs the destiny of nations and controls the hearts of Kings, has given us Ante Pavelic and moved the leader of a friendly and allied people, Adolf Hitler, to use his victorious troops to disperse our oppressors… Glory be to God, our gratitude to Adolf Hitler and loyalty to our Poglavnik, Ante Pavelic.”

The involvement of Catholic clergy either in active participation or in blessing the Ustashi involvement in the Holocaust is well-documented. Stepinac himself headed the committee which was responsible for forcible “conversions” to Roman Catholicism under threat of death, and was also the Supreme Military Apostolic Vicar of the Ustashi Army, which effected the slaughter of those who failed to convert. Stepinac was known as the ‘Father Confessor’ to the Ustashi and continually bestowed the blessing of Catholic Church upon its members and actions.

Right from the very beginning, the Vatican knew what was happening in Croatia, and certainly known to Pius XII when he greeted Pavelic in Vatican – just four days after the massacre at Glina. On this visit, Pavelic had a “devotional” audience with Pius XII, and the Vatican granted de-facto recognition of fascist Croatia as a “bastion against communism” – despite the fact that the Vatican still had diplomatic ties with Yugoslavia. Cornwell observes that right from the start it was known that Pavelic was a “totalitarian dictator”, a “puppet of Hitler and Mussolini”, that he had passed racist and anti-Semitic laws, and that he was “bent on enforced conversions from Orthodox to Catholic Christianity”. Effectively, on behalf of Hitler and Mussolini, the Pope was “holding Pavelic’s hand and bestowing his papal blessing” to the new puppet state of Croatia. Thus, it can argued, that the Catholic Cardinals in the Vatican were accomplices of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia and the extermination of the country’s Jews, Serbs and Roma citizens. Indeed, many members of the Croatian Catholic clergy took a “leading part” in the Holocaust.

One leading member of the Catholic church in Croatia was the Nazi collaborator Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac. When he met Pavelic on April 16th 1941, he later noted that he had promised that he would “not show tolerance” to the Orthodox Serbian church – which gave Stepinac the impression that Pavelic “was a sincere Catholic”. By June 1941, when German army units were reporting that the “Ustashe have gone raging mad” killing Serbs, Jews and Roma, Catholic priests, notably Franciscans took a leading part in the massacres, as pointed out by Cornwell:

“Priests, invariably Franciscans, took a leading part in the massacres. Many, went around routinely armed and performed their murderous acts with zeal. A Father Bozidar Bralow, known for the machine gun that was his constant companion, was accused of performing a dance around the bodies of 180 massacred Serbs at Alipasin-Most. Individual Franciscans killed, set fire to homes, sacked villages, and laid waste the Bosnian countryside at the head of Ustashe bands. In September of 1941, an Italian reporter wrote of a Franciscan he had witnessed south of Banja Luka urging on a band of Ustashe with his crucifix.” (p 254).

It is clear now, that other members of the Catholic Cardinals in Europe also knew about the massacres. On March 6th 1942, a French Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, a close confidant of the Pope to the Croatian representative to the Vatican:

“I know for a fact, that it is the Franciscans themselves, as for example Father Simic of Knin, who have taken part in attacks against the Orthodox populations so as to destroy, the Orthodox Church. In the same way, you destroyed the Orthodox Church in Banja Luka. I know for sure that the Franciscans in Bosnia and Herzegovina have acted abominably, and this pains me. Such acts should not be committed by educated, cultured, civilized people, let alone by priests”. (p 259)

The Catholic Church took full advantage of Yugoslavia’s defeat in 1941 to increase the power and outreach of Catholicism in the Balkans – Stepinac had shown contempt for religious freedom in way that even Cornwell says was “tantamount to complicity with the violence” against Yugoslavia’s Jews, Serbs and Roma. For his part, the Pope “was never but benevolent” to the leaders and representatives of fascist Croatia – in July 1941 he greeted a hundred members of the Croatian police force headed by the Zagreb chief of police; in February 1942, he gave gave an audience for Ustashe youth group visiting Rome, and he also greeted another representation of Ustashe youth in December of that year. The Pope showed his true colours when in 1943 he told a Croatian papal representative that he was:

“Disappointed that, in spite of everything, no one wants to acknowledge the one, real and principal enemy of Europe; no true, communal military crusade against Bolshevism has been initiated” (p 260)

Stepinac for one, appears to have been a full supporter of forced conversions – along with many of his bishops, one of whom described the advent of fascist Croatia as “a good occasion for us to help Croatia save the countless souls” – i.e., Yugoslavia’s non-Catholic majority. Throughout the war, Croatian bishops not only endorsed forced conversions, they never, at any point, dissociated themselves from Pavelic’s regime, let alone denounce it or threaten to excommunicate him or any other senior member of the regime. In fact, before Yugoslavia was invaded, Stepinac had told Regent Prince Paul of Yugoslavia in April 1940:

“The most ideal thing would be for the Serbs to return to the faith of their fathers, that is, to bow the head before Christ’s representative (the Pope). Then we could at last breathe in this part of Europe, for Byzantinism has played a frightful role in the history this part of the world” (p 265)

The Pope was better informed of the situation inside Yugoslavia than he was about any other area of Europe. His apostolic delegate, Marcone, was a regular visitor to Croatia, travelling on military planes between Rome and Zagreb. Cornwell describes Marcone – who was the Popes personal representative in Croatia – as “an amateur who appeared to sleepwalk through the entire bloodthirsty era” (p 257).

The Vatican would also have been aware of frequent BBC broadcasts on Croatia, of which the following (which were monitored by the Vatican State), on February 16th 1942, was typical:

“The worst atrocities are being committed in the environs of the archbishop of Zagreb [Stepinac]. The blood of brothers is flowing in (the) streams. The Orthodox are being forcibly converted to Catholicism and we do not hear the archbishop’s voice preaching revolt. Instead it is reported that he is taking part in Nazi and Fascist parades” (p 256)

And, according to to Dedijer:

Throughout the whole war in more than 150 newspapers and magazines, the church justified the fascist state under Pavelic as the work of God.

 

Many Roman Catholic priests served the Ustasha state in high positions. The pope appointed the highest military vicar for Croatia. The latter had a field chaplain in every unit of the Ustasha army. The task of this field chaplain consisted among other things of repeatedly goading the Ustasha units in their mass murders of the peasant population. High dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Ustasha state together organized the mass conversion of the Orthodox Serbian population. Hundreds of Orthodox churches in Serbia were plundered and destroyed; the three highest dignitaries and two hundred clerics were murdered in cold blood; the remainder of the clergy were driven into exile. In the concentration camp of Jasenovac, hundreds of thousands of Serbs were murdered under the command of Roman Catholic priests.

Execution of prisoners at the Jasenovac concentration camp, which was briefly run by a Franciscan military chaplain, Miroslav Filipović, who was reportedly stripped of his status by the church but was hanged in his clerical robes

The papal emissary Marcone was in Croatia during this entire time. He sanctioned silently all the gory deeds and permitted pictures of himself with Pavelic and the German commanders to be published in the newspapers. After the visit to Pope Pius XII, Ante Pavelic exchanged Christmas and New Year’s greetings with him that were published in the Ustasha press.

Pavelic escapes to Argentina disguised as a Catholic priest

The Catholic Church was not only closely involved with the Ustasha movement in wartime Croatia, it helped many Nazi war criminals escape at the end of the war, including Ante Pavelic, who fled to Argentina via the Vatican and the “ratlines” of the Vatican. In mid-year 1986 the U.S. government released documents of their counter-espionage agency, the OSS. These reveal that the Vatican had organized a safe-flight route from Europe to Argentina for Pavelic and two hundred of his advisors known by name. The fascists hid frequently during their flight in cloisters and in many instances disguised themselves as Franciscan monks (Pavelic himself escaped disguised as a Catholic priest).

Also, at the end of the war, the Ustashe looted some $80 million from Yugoslavia, much of which was composed of gold coins. Here again, they had the total collaboration of Vatican, which according to Cornwell included not only hospitality of a pontifical Croatian religious institution (the College of San Girolamo degli Illirici in Rome), but also provision of storage facilities and safe-deposit services for the Ustashe treasury. During the war, the College of San Girolamo became a home for Croatian priests receiving Vatican-sponsored theological education – after the war, it became the headquarters for the postwar Ustashe underground, providing Croatian war criminals with escape routes to Latin America.

A leading figure at the College of San Girolamo was the Croatian priest and Nazi war criminal Father Krunoslav Draganavic – described once by U.S. intelligence officials as Pavelic’s “alter ego”. His arrival in Rome in 1943 was to coordinate Italian-Ustashe activities, and after the war, he was a central figure in the organising escape routes for Nazi’s to Argentina. It was later claimed that members of the CIA had said that he had been allowed to store the archives of the Croatian legation inside the Vatican, as well as valuables brought out of Yugoslavia by fleeing Ustashe in 1945.

The most famous Nazi mass-murderer who passed through the College of San Girolamo was Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyons, the Gestapo police chief in that French city between 1942 and 1944, who had tortured and murdered Jews and members of the French resistance. Barbie lived under Draganavic’s protection at San Girolamo from early 1946 until late 1947, when the US Counter Intelligence Corp helped him escape to Latin America. Another Nazi war criminal, Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka death camp was assisted with false papers and hiding places in Rome by the Nazi sympathizer Bishop Alois Hudal. Draganavic was expelled from San Girolamo a few days after Pope Pius XII death in October 1958.

While it may be true that individual Catholics risked their lives to save the Jews, Roma and Serbs from the Holocaust, the Catholic Church, as an entity, did not. The Vatican also assisted thousands of Nazi war criminals such as Adolph Eichmann, Franz Stangl (the commandant of Treblinka), Walter Rauf (the inventor of the “mobile” gas chamber), and Klaus Barbie (the “Butcher of Lyons”). Pope Pius XII personally authorized the smuggling of Nazi war criminals, which was directed by his political advisor Giovanni Montini (who later became Pope Paul VI). Shortly before his death in Madrid in 1959, Pope John XXIII granted Pavelic his special blessing. On his death bed, Pavelic held a wreath that was a personal gift from Pope Pius XII from the year 1941.

Stepinac found guilty of collaboration

After the war Stepinac was arrested by the Yugoslav government and sentenced to 17 years in prison for war crimes. A parade of prosecution witnesses at his trial in Zagreb testified on October 5, 1946, that Catholic priests armed with pistols went out to convert Orthodox Serbs and massacred them. In one instance, one witness said 650 Serbs were taken into a church under false pretenses, and then were stabbed and beaten to death by Ustashi members after the doors were locked. Stepinac was convicted on all principal counts of aiding the Axis, the Nazi puppet of Ante Pavelic, and of glorifying the Ustashi in the Catholic press, pastoral letters, and speeches. He eventually died under house arrest in 1960 after being sentenced to life imprisonment for collaboration by the postwar communist government in Yugoslavia.

The Investigation by the Yugoslav War Crimes Commission established that Stepinac had played a leading part in the conspiracy that led to the conquest and breakdown of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1941. It was furthermore established that he had played a role in governing the Nazi puppet state of Croatia, that many members of his clergy participated actively in atrocities and mass murders, and, finally, that they collaborated with the enemy down to the last day of the Nazi rule, and continued after the liberation to conspire against the newly created Federal Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia.

Stepinac only served a few years in prison because of the Vatican’s anti-Communist propaganda of the “suffering martyr” and their organizing of “Cardinal Stepinac Associations” which lobbied for his release.

Jews and Serbs say that Stepinac was a Nazi collaborator. Catholic supporters claim he initially backed the regime, but later withdrew his support because of the mass executions and forced conversions of Orthodox Christians to Catholicism – although little credible evidence is presented of this.

Archbishop Stepinac was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Croatia on October 1998. Following the countries succession from Yugoslavia in 1991, the ultra-Nationlist Tudjman regime in Croatia renamed a village in Krajina after him. The late President Tudjman himself is on record as having said that he is “proud that his wife has no Jewish or Serbian blood in her”. Ironically, unlike Pavelic himself, whose wife seems to have been Jewish (Pavelic’s mother-in law, Ivana Herzfeld was said to be was Jewish).

Like the French Nazi Jean-Marie Le Pen (who described the Holocaust as a “mere detail of history”), Tudjman also become a Holocaust revisionist. In his book Wastelands of History, he questioned the truth behind the Holocaust and moved to cover up the role of Ustashe regime in the darkest period of Croatia’s history. Worse, Tudjman rehabilitated fascist war criminals and gave them medals, and, as in the case of Stepinac, had streets named after them.

On two occasions in 1970 and 1994, attempts were made to the Yad Vashem Holocaust to get Stepinac added to the “List of the Righteous” – which includes people like Oskar Schindler, but this was turned down. Interestingly, the request was sent by private Jewish citizens from Croatia and not the official Jewish organization in Croatia, which has never sent such a request. Explaining the refusal, an official of the Yad Vashem explained that:

“Persons who assisted Jews but simultaneously collaborated or were linked with a Fascist regime which took part in the Nazi orchestrated persecution of Jews, may be disqualified for the Righteous title”.

Nazi connection to Franciscan Order uncovered near Medjugorje, Bosnia

The Franciscan order has always denied the evidence of its wartime ties to the Ustasha regime in Croatia. They acted as facilitators and middlemen in moving the contents of the Ustasha Treasury from Croatia to Austria, Italy and finally South America after the war. During the Nazi occupation of Bosnia, the Franciscans were closely involved with the Ustashe regime. Not far from Medjugorje in Bosnia (where the Virgin Mary is said to put in nightly appearances for the tens of thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims), is the Franciscan monastery at Sirkoi Brijeg which has become the centre of allegations linking it to disappearance of the Ustashe treasury after the war.

In San Francisco Federal Court in November 1999, in what was described as “tangible proof” of the Nazi Franciscan connection, was obtained when cameramen working for Phillip Kronzer (who has helped expose the Medjugorje myth) obtained entry to the Monastery and filmed a secret shrine honouring the Ustashe. A plaque dedicated to Franciscan monks who were Ustasha members was filmed along with a massive shrine lining the walls complete with photographs of Ustasha soldiers some in Nazi uniforms. The admonition, “Recognize us, We are yours” can clearly be seen in the video footage. On a later visit to the monastery the shrine had been dismantled but the videotape preserved the evidence and has now been made available by the Kronzer Foundation.

Cold War Era Files May Hold the Key to Holocaust Lawsuit

A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit was filed in August 2000 in San Francisco, USA by California attorneys Jonathan Levy and Tom Easton against the U.S. Army and the CIA. Easton and Levy are also pursuing a Holocaust era lawsuit against the Vatican Bank and Franciscan Order regarding the disappearance of the World War II Nazi Croatian treasury including gold, silver, and jewels plundered from concentration camp victims in Croatia and Bosnia, mainly Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies.

The lawyers are seeking the release of over 250 documents from the files of Draganavic. He is now regarded as one of the principal operators of the so-called Vatican “ratline” that smuggled Nazis and their loot to South America between 1945 and the late 1950’s. Beneficiaries of the ratline included Adolf Eichman, Klaus Barbie “the butcher of Lyons” and the notorious Croatian mass murderer Ante Pavelic as well as thousands of lesser known Nazis and collaborators.

While file releases on the ratline date from as early as the 1983 Barbie case, a core of documents remain withheld on grounds of “national security.” It is these documents the attorneys want from the Army and CIA. They describe him as a “sinister priest” who is alleged to have worked at various times for the secret services of Croatia, the Vatican, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia as well as British and American intelligence.

The attorneys have suggested that the withheld documents, most well over 40 years old are highly embarrassing to the Americans, the British, and Vatican and hold the key to a multinational money laundering scheme that used Holocaust victim loot to finance covert Cold War era operations against the Soviet Union and its allies.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.


Originally published in December 2015

About the author: Born in Tralee, Co. Kerry in 1936, Seán Mac Mathúna spent many years working as a teacher before taking up writing full-time in the 80s. His collection of short stories ‘Ding’ established Mac Mathúna as a gifted short story writer and ‘The Atheist’ was nominated for the European Literary Prize.

Source: Church and State

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A Father of NationUkraine is an East European territory which was originally forming a western part of the Russian Empire from the mid-17th century. That is a present-day independent state and the separate ethnolinguistic nation as a typical example of Benedict Anderson’s theory-model of the “imagined community” – a self-constructed idea of the artificial ethnic and linguistic-cultural identity. According to Anderson, the nation is an abstract and firstly subjective social construction that defy simple, objective definition yet has been for the last two centuries the crucial basis of conflict in world politics and international relations, through the assertion of their ...
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Inside Kacanik, Kosovo’s Jihadist Capital
Nestling in a wooded valley that its citizens laid their lives down to defend, the town of Kacanik in southern Kosovo is fiercely proud of its war dead. Well-kept cemeteries include nearly 100 victims of Serb-led ethnic cleansing in 1999, while in the town centre, a statue clutching an RPG honours fallen members of Brigade 162 of the Kosovan Liberation Army. But a decade and a half on from the war that brought about Kosovo’s independence, there is rather less pride in Kacanik’s new crop of warriors.   Infamous son: Lavdrim Muhaxheri, from Kacanik, in Syria  In the last three years, some 24 local menfolk ...
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New British Documents about Srebrenica
In early January 2020, Serbian media reported the sensational news that recently declassified British Ministry of Defense files contained important new evidence suggesting that the official account of what happened in Srebrenica was unfounded.As from time to time has been the case, Western sources have again disclosed some information about Srebrenica in July 1995, which until recently was kept confidential and therefore not available to the public. The source of this particular batch of documents is the UK Department of Defense. The documents that have finally been declassified contains very interesting assessments and reports that take on even greater significance ...
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Albanology and Political Claims of the Albanians
The interest of European scholars, primarily German and Austrian, in research on Albanian ethnical origin, rose gradually during the second half of the 19th century.[1] Their interest in Albanian and Balkan studies came later in comparison with the study of other ethnic groups and regions in Europe. The reason was that Euro-centrism of the late 19th century and the early 20th century defined the Balkans and its nations as the territory and peoples of obscure identity. In contrast to the  “real Europe”, the Balkans was seen as the “Orient”, not part of Europe at all, and above all, it was ...
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Who are the Ukrainians?
Inside Kacanik, Kosovo’s Jihadist Capital
New British Documents about Srebrenica
Albanology and Political Claims of the Albanians
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