Almost exactly 70 years ago, on October 11, 1946, Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac of Zagreb was sentenced by the High Court of the People’s Republic of Croatia, in Communist Yugoslavia, to 16 years’ imprisonment with hard labour and five years’ loss of civil rights. It was one of the earlier show trials aimed at discrediting the Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe. As such, it can be linked to the trials of Cardinal Slipyj, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (1945), Cardinal Beran, Archbishop of Prague (1949), and most famously Cardinal Mindszenty, Hungary’s Prince-Primate and Archbishop of Esztergom (also 1949).
Stepinac’s five years of imprisonment — he was released early, mainly because of pressure from the US Congress — and his subsequent eight years’ internment in his home parish of Krašić — destroyed his health. (He was also probably the victim of attempted poisoning.) But he did not suffer the diabolic torments meted out to Mindszenty. Nor, unlike hundreds of other Catholic clergy in Yugoslavia, was he murdered or tortured or broken in Tito’s camps. His show trial used the standard Communist template. As the American vice-consul noted in his report of the proceedings:
It is idle to speak of the trial of Archbishop Stepinac as a Court trial. It was more like a melodrama performance in which the Public Prosecutor was the hero; the President of the Court his right-hand man, who did most of the work for which the hero got the applause; the defendant was the villain; and the public was the “claque”.
Yet certain characteristics hint both at the trial’s immediate political purpose and at why the ramifications of the Stepinac affair are today still a subject of bitter controversy. Of 37 witnesses the defence asked to call, only 22 were accepted, of whom eight actually appeared, and one was then driven from the court. The prosecutor not only vetoed witnesses, he vetoed the submission of written evidence — writing “ne” (no) on anything he thought helpful to the defence.
The case against the Archbishop related to what can be summed up as different counts of collaboration with the occupying forces (German and Italian) and the fascist Ustaše movement which controlled the quisling NDH (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska — Independent State of Croatia). Significantly, no attempt was made to link him to the murder and persecution of the Jews. Attention was focused instead on the persecution of the Croatian Serbs and, especially, the forced conversion of the Serbian Orthodox. The great majority of prosecution witnesses were selected to illustrate this theme. Similarly, those ethnic Serbs who were brave enough to volunteer to testify for Stepinac were, in the event, kept out of the witness box. The immediate purpose was to use the Stepinac trial to appease nationalist Serb opinion outraged by the trial (and execution) of the Chetnik leader, Draža Mihailović, the previous July. The broader calculation — and a shrewd one, it has turned out — was that the best way to persuade the Orthodox Christian majority in Yugoslavia to accept atheistic Communism as a system of rule was to heighten and exploit Orthodox hatred of the Catholic Church. The campaign against Stepinac was based upon Communist lies. But the slander was subsequently adopted and elaborated by the Orthodox Church and Serbian nationalists.
Stepinac was beatified by Pope St John Paul II in 1998. In political terms, this was an extraordinary turnaround. On Stepinac’s death in 1960, Tito had at the last minute agreed that his old enemy should be buried in Zagreb cathedral. The Communists saw this concession as tactically warranted by their desire to restore relations with Rome — formally broken in 1952, when Stepinac was made a Cardinal. They saw correctly that a new era had opened up with the death of Pius XII in 1958.
The headache was that Stepinac dead turned out to be almost as much of a problem as Stepinac alive. His tomb became a place of pilgrimage where forbidden national symbols repeatedly appeared. The authorities were, above all, desperate to stop the Cause for Stepinac’s canonisation. Bishops were lobbied and the Vatican left in no doubt of the consequences. But well before the collapse of Yugoslavia it had made progress.
The Yugoslav Communists suffered another disappointment. The Party entertained high hopes of the Second Vatican Council. The Council, by saying nothing about the errors of Communism and by providing a framework for the new Vatican Ostpolitik, was obviously useful. But in Croatia the Council did no good to the Party at all. Conciliar reforms to involve the laity merely demonstrated that, apart from a few mainly compromised intellectuals, Croats looked to Stepinac as their mentor, model and martyr.
A huge amount of information about Stepinac and his times has now been published. Several large volumes of documents are available — in Croatian — of Stepinac’s sermons, letters and interventions. His diary is published. This documentation had long been suppressed, or distorted and supplemented by forgeries. But clean and credible editions are now available. Similarly the secret police (Udba) files on Stepinac — four large boxes of them — can be consulted in the Croatian state archives — though other Udba material, for whatever reason, seems to be missing.
The Vatican records for the controversial wartime period are also largely published, though the archives themselves remain closed. The most important deduction is that Stepinac acted at every stage — notably in the matter of the Jews and the Serbs — fully in accord with the wishes of Pius XII. This is, of course, what Communist propagandists had earlier suggested. But the difference is that, contrary to the black legend, the exchanges reveal the Church’s concern for the persecuted and the difficult balance which Pius and Stepinac faced in trying to influence Croatia’s quisling government without becoming ensnared by it.
In the meantime, the wheels of the Stepinac Cause kept turning. The detailed Positio with its numerous personal testimonies was approved. Miracles were verified. An announcement was even made in February 2014 by Cardinal Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, suggesting that canonisation was imminent.
At this juncture, however, the leadership of the Serbian Orthodox Church, acting in collaboration with the Serbian government, intervened directly with the Pope. Francis—doubtless to the surprise of the Serbs as much as the Croats, let alone the Vatican — decided that the decision would be postponed. Meanwhile, a joint commission of Catholics and Serbian Orthodox would examine the behaviour of Stepinac. It is already clear that the Pope’s ecumenical expectations are likely to be frustrated. The Orthodox demonstrated their attitude when they nominated no historians to the historical Commission, just four bishops and a retired diplomat, whereas the Catholic side nominated two historians to join its clerical contingent. Meanwhile, Serbian politicians and Orthodox Church leaders stepped up their campaign against Stepinac.
This recently involved the use by the Serbian government of a forgery in an official protest note. The statement by the Ustaše leader Ante Pavelić’s deputy, Slavko Kvaternik, on April 10, 1941, announcing the institution of the NDH was quoted verbatim — but the words were described as from Stepinac’s Easter Sunday sermon. Stepinac, who like most Catholics had given up on Yugoslavia well before 1941, did indeed welcome the new Croatian state. But whereas Kvaternik also welcomed the Germans and praised the Ustaše, Stepinac deeply distrusted the former and had almost no personal knowledge of the latter.
Stepinac had been a strong public opponent of Nazism in the pre-war period. He was described as Deutschfeindlich (anti-German) by the Gestapo in Graz. He had gone to extraordinary lengths to assist fleeing Jewish refugees after the Austrian Anschluss and the carve-up of Czechoslovakia. During the war years, he had close relations with the Chief Rabbi of Zagreb, Miroslav Shalom Freiberger, whom he also tried to save but who insisted on joining his own people transported to Auschwitz. Freiberger did, though, ask that his library be moved to the archdiocese for safe-keeping, where it remained until the end of the war, before being returned intact to the Jewish community. After a bitter struggle, Stepinac managed to save Jews in mixed marriages. Within weeks of the proclamation of the NDH, the Archbishop had begun vigorous protests to Pavelić at the killing of Serbs. He later saved 7,000 children whose parents were Communists (mostly Serbs) from almost certain death. In doing so, he mobilised Church institutions, engaged hundreds of Catholic families, and also worked closely with ethnic Serbs in Zagreb.
The Catholic bishops under Stepinac sought to prevent forced “conversions” of Serbian Orthodox by the Ustaše, in which decision he was fully supported by Rome. But in private instructions he told his priests to accept would-be converts if it was a matter of saving lives, adding:
When this time of madness and savagery passes, those who were converted for reasons of conviction will stay in our Church, while the rest when the danger passes will return to their own.
Stepinac intervened to save the lives of Jews, Serbs, Communists and, at the end, Ustaše who had fallen out of favour with the regime. Only the elimination of the Gypsies was conducted so swiftly that he learned of their fate when it was too late. The volume of his interventions, of which only a proportion are acknowledged, was immense, as evidenced, for example by more than 200 pages submitted (and then suppressed) at his trial listing the Jews and Serbs he helped.
Stepinac’s sermons denouncing Nazism, racism and totalitarian brutalities were, despite censorship, copied secretly and widely distributed, their contents broadcast not just by Vatican Radio but by Tito’s Partisan radio channel, and reported in the Western press. Compared with today’s style of denunciation the language seems remote and archaic. But when Stepinac declared from the pulpit on the Feast of Christ the King, October 25, 1942, as the Jews were rounded up, that “all nations and races come from God . . . there exists one race and that is God’s race . . . the members of that race are equal . . . the Catholic Church has always condemned, and condemns today, every injustice and violence which is committed in the name of theories of class, race or nationality” — he was at the very edge of what was permissible. The Gestapo files are available and show what they thought of him.
The broader question, which should be more honestly addressed than it is in the West even now, is what the moral and practical options were for those in the Church — or other positions of responsibility and influence — in Axis-controlled or quisling-controlled states in this era. As Stepinac explained to Stanislav Rapotec, an intelligence agent working for the Yugoslav government in exile, who visited him secretly in 1942, if he had fled the country, he would be hailed as a hero, but he could have helped no one. In any case, Stepinac was unapologetic. At his trial he declared:
If I should be convicted, then I say, before God, that I am convicted as an innocent man; my conscience is clear; and the future will show that I was in the right.
On the copious available evidence, Stepinac’s confidence is justified.