Victim of Communism: Archbishop Stepinac
Neither a victim nor a saint
Editor’s note: We do realize that the Ustaše had camps and the horrors they committed there, and there will be future articles since many of them are honored in the Tribute to Liberty memorial. This article focuses on Archbishop Stepinac.
Despite Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, in an affront to the concept of justice itself, dying peacefully in his home from complications of a rare blood disorder, he managed to find himself posted on True To Liberty's “Victims of Communism” wall not once, but twice – and worse, beatified by John Paul II on 3 October 1998. If Alojzije Stepinac rests in a state of bliss then surely all proponents of decency the world over will be forgiven in short order for taking the torch from Sufi poet Rabia Al Basri in order to “set fire to Heaven and put out the flames of Hell, So that voyagers to God can rip the veils.”
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True to its subsequent treatment of Archbishop Stepinac, any cursory glance at historical documents from the 1920s demonstrates the Vatican then had as little to offer in the way of opposition to fascism as it did when Stepinac was created Cardinal in 1952, as it did at his beatification 46 years later.
Shortly following the seizure of power in Italy by the National Fascist Party led by Mussolini, Secretary of State to the Vatican one Cardinal Gasparri, on 20 January 1923, took a meeting with Mussolini cloaked in the organizations typical secrecy; no record of the meeting's specific minutes exist, though what we know for sure is that the Vatican played an instrumental role in the elimination of one of the Fascist regime's political opponents: Partito Popolare, a centrist Christian-democratic party built around Catholic social teachings whose pro-labor and antifascist faction stuck in Mussolini's craw1.
Within a month following this meeting, Mussolini allowed for the restoration of the cross, began to pay tribute to the Church its land that was seized by the state, among other favors. Henceforth the upper echelons of the Catholic Church found themselves remiss to not support the Fascist state, a position that only snowballed with time; a mere 15 years later on 12 January 1938, seventy-two bishops and 2.340 priests stood before Palazzo Venezia chanting for the Devil: “Duce! Duce! Duce!”2
As such we must not try too hard to locate our surprise that even prior to joining the priesthood, Stepinac exhibited fascist inclination, joining in 1922 Hrvatski Orlovi (Croatian Eagles) – officially a youth football club, unofficially a source for training in paramilitary operations for the Independent State of Croatia. In 1924, a mere two years later, at age 26, Stepinac was accepted to Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum, a German language seminary in Rome, benefiting from a Vatican decree issued a few years prior greatly expanding the scope of education in accordance with the Catholic teachings of the time.
Ordained on 26 October 1930 and saying his first mass on the following 1 November, Stepinac was swiftly appointed to the position of liturgical master of ceremonies to the Archbishop of Zagreb, Antun Bauer, on 1 October 1931. One scarcely has time to consider what a seemingly lofty title and position this is for a main ordained less than one year prior to hold before learning that slightly less than three years later on 28 May 1934, he was made Bauer's coadjutor bishop. Reportedly somewhere between the fifth and eighth choice for the politically sensitive position, the previous five or eight all being rejected by the powers which had say in the matter, both the Crown and the Vatican. Stepinac was looked upon favorably by the Vatican due to his ascetic lifestyle while in seminary, and King Alexander granted assent upon learning of Stepinac volunteering for the Yugoslav Legion in 1918 for approximately 4 months after WWI had ended.
The king latter wished to withdraw his support after receiving “additional information” (possibly regarding what was then Stepinac's ardent Croatian nationalism?), to which Archbishop Bauer responded [sic] “the Royal Word is irrevocable.”3
Thus, less than 4 years after ordination into the priesthood, Stepinac was consecrated archbishop on 24 June 1934. At age 36, he was the youngest bishop in the Catholic church–an archbishop, no less–now presiding over the largest archdiocese in Europe, without ever having been so much as a parish priest, and utterly unknown to the Croat peoples.
The new Archbishop Stepinac now found himself charged with the task of appointing presidents and general staff of Catholic Action and its affiliated organizations all hanging as an umbrella over a total of 49,000 members. Running parallel to these events in Borgatoro, Italy, on a budget of 25 Million Lira earmarked by Mussolini himself and the aide of the Italian army, one Ante Pavelić was overseeing the training of no small number of right-wing extremists in the art of sabotage and terror. In the year of Stepinac's consecration as archbishop, the Ustaše had bragged "that they had branches all over Yugoslavia," and by 1939, Stepinac had appointed Dr. Feliks Niedzelski, a committed Ustaše member as the head of the “Great Brotherhood of Crusaders” in Banja Luka under the direct supervision of Catholic Action.
Many Ustaše members were also members of the clergy. At a hearing before the Yugoslav authorities, priest Branimir Župančić, confessed: "In 1938, right on our Catholic St. Nicholas Day, I went from Zagreb (where Stepinac was the Archbishop) to Rome and did it through Florence and Siena. In Siena, I learned from some Dalmatians, especially from Francis Dionysus Juric, that Pavelić has an apartment five kilometers from Siena in one village (I do not know the name of this village for sure, but I think it is called Certosa). The three of us: me, Dionysus and another one whose name I don't remember, we agreed to go see Pavelić. Through an Italian pastor, we found out where Pavelić was, and he allowed us to meet Pavelić at the communion of His Church"
Of course, it was not only the 'lowly' parish priests who met with Ante Pavelić during his years as a terrorist. Ivan Šarić, archbishop of Sarajevo, met with Pavelić in the Vatican and penned a fawning ode to the meeting, later published on Christmas Day in an Ustaše newspaper:
In St. Peter's Basilica I saw you in the Eternal City With him with you the hug was pleasant Like our house. God, himself accompanied you kind, strong, To stand up for the house of our sacred word
The Independent State of Croatia's official news organization reported that they had recruited fighters from high schools, Franciscan monasteries, and the University of Zagreb – primarily its theology department, which of course fell under the purview of Archbishop Stepanic.
Even Catholic grade schools were not out of bounds for Ustaše recruitment fields, as testified one former student:
Even as a sixth-grader, in the Catholic school in Orešković, I joined the religious organization "Crusaders" in 1939. It was here, we were brought up in the spirit of the Ustaše. Jurica Frković and Juco Rukavina came to our meetings and gave us lectures against Serbs, Jews and Communists. Our slogan was "Kill the Antichrist, in the name of Christ.”
On 6 April 1941, upon the invasion of Yugoslavia by the Axis powers and respective collaborators, the Yugoslavian Army, considered quite strong was surprisingly felled in short order, thanks to the network of Ustaše whose acts prior acts of sabotage and terror which made the army's disarmament comparatively effortless. Per the above sixth grader, now presumably an eighth grader and child soldier:
"We also organized our own strike group, which attacked the leftists at night. When the war broke out and the Yugoslav army broke out, we disarmed it. We immediately entered Ustaše, because we considered it our national duty."4
One week later on 13 April 1941, Pavelić's march into Zagreb was complete – he claimed his throne as Poglavnik of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), where the following day, Archbishop Stepinac blessed him.
In two weeks and one day's time from Pavelić assuming power, on 28 April 1941, the Ustaše, using the deaths of two members as pretense, 190 Bjelovar Serbs were gathered from Gudovac and surrounding areas, deemed Yugoslav rebels and executed by firing squad, surviving Gudovac inhabitants were made to dig a mass grave for the nearly two hundred victims, given quicklime to pour on their corpses to hurry the erasure of evidence. On this same day, Archbishop Stepinac dictated a letter to every church, clergyman and Catholic organization in Croatia stating:
"You should therefore readily answer my call to do elevated work for the safeguarding and progress of the Independent State of Croatia."
The relatives of one of the victims, however, unlike Archbishop Stepinac, were appalled by the heinous nature of this unquestionable crime against humanity, and reported it to the only authorities that were available: the Germans. A partial exhumation of the mass grave was ordered and 40 suspected perpetrators were arrested on the evening of 29 April following an investigation conducted by two Nazi officers who then reported to their superiors decrying the “disorder” in their sphere of control – the arrested Ustaše were disarmed and cordoned off in a high school before Mladen Lorković, an Ustaše official, following a meeting with Siegfried Kasche, the Nazi ambassador, wherein Lorković maintained it was an “internal Croatian matter,” (as well as inventing the prior crime of what was now “eleven dead Croat officials” to justify the massacre), was able to secure the release of the perpetrators on the condition a thorough investigation would be conducted. Obviously this investigation never took place, but it would begin a trend of Archbishop Stepanic demonstrating a higher tolerance/appreciation for violence against humanity than the literal Nazis.
Between 3 and 11 May, over 560 Serbs were killed by the Ustase in Glina, found in mass graves strewn through many courtyards, examination of the bodies left it safe to conclude that those who were merely shot could be counted amongst “the lucky.” Consider one Milos Buncic, the brother of the mayor of a neighboring town, the brother mayor was among the dead, along with his wife and their children. Seeing his brother and sister-in-law and nieces and nephews massacred, he fled, running directly into news that the Ustase were threatening to burn down his home and kill everyone in it lest he report to the Ustase command. Buncic complied and for his trouble was tortured for the next eight hours, until he finally lost consciousness. Believing that he was dead, the Ustase threw him in the cellar with five other corpses. On his reawakening, Buncic recognized among the corpses Adam Resanovic, a local shoemaker, and Stojan Slepcevic, a farmer, the others were tortured beyond his recognition. Upon seeing this wretched tableau, Buncic escaped through a window in the cellar.
Thee stench of this evil wafted its way to the ambassador to Vichy France, who wrote a letter to our Archbishop Stepanic expressing his "concern” to which Stepanic wrote:
At that moment, I received news that 260 Serbs had been shot without trial and investigation in the uprisings in Glina. I know that the Serbs have committed grave crimes in our homeland during these twenty years of rule.
But I consider it my episcopal duty to raise my voice and say that this is not allowed according to Catholic morality, so I ask you to take the most urgent measures throughout the territory of the independent state of Croatia so as not to kill a single Serb if his guilt is not proven that he deserved death. Otherwise, we cannot count on the blessing of heaven, without which we must perish. I hope you don't mind this open word.
With great respect, etc.
Zagreb 14. V. 1941.
The letter in its original Croatian
This awkwardly worded pseudo poetry which more prominently blames the Serbs for their own massacre and fears the possible dissolution of the NDH more than it does the potential of future massacres, serving more as a heads up to the Ustase that their insatiable bloodlust was becoming a PR issue and making them look bad before the... Nazis..
Compare that with what a Wehrmact General wrote about the Ustase
Compare the Gestapo's report on the Ustase monstrosity:
What is there to say about a man whose humanity utterly pales in comparison to the Gestapo writing to Himmler? Pope John Paul II's assurance that this man rests in a state of bliss, beatified, permitting his public veneration, blessed be, is incompatible with decency and good sense.
LITTLEFIELD, WALTER. “Cardinal Gasparri.” Current History (1916-1940) 32, no. 1 (1930): 53–58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45336178.
Marco Severini, Some recent studies on Romolo Murri, in "Ricerche di storia politica, Quadrimestrale dell'Associazione per le ricerche di storia politica" 3/2008, pp. 347-354, doi: 10.1412/28202
Tomasevich, “War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-45, pp. 552
Sime Balen, “Pavelić”, pp-78-80