Victims of the Nazi-backed Ustasha regime killed at the end of the World War Two lay on the ground surrounded by posing Ustasha soldiers near the Sava River in Croatia in 1945.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Simon Wiesenthal Center has expressed outrage over the recent annulment of the 1946 conviction of Croatian Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, for treason and collaboration with the Nazi-aligned Ustasha regime.
“As the leading Catholic priest in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), Stepinac’s responsibility was to speak out on behalf of the innocent victims of the Ustasha, not to lend spiritual support to their murderers,” said the Wiesenthal Center’s top Nazi-hunter, Dr. Efraim Zuroff. “The genocidal campaign waged by the Ustasha against Serbs, their active participation in Holocaust crimes against Jews, and the murder of Roma and anti-fascist Croatians carried out in their network of concentration camps are among the most heinous crimes of World War II. No person who supported that regime should have their conviction annulled.”
The Zagreb County Court Judge Ivan Turudic overturned the verdict last week, saying it had violated the right to a fair trial, the prohibition of forced labor, and the rule of law.
Zuroff was dismissive of accounts that Stepinac later condemned Ustasha atrocities against Jews and Serbs.
“Bottom line is, he was [NDH leader] Ante Pavelić’s priest – that says it all, and it’s totally unforgivable,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “He openly supported the regime which committed mass murder, and afforded them spiritual comfort and support.”
Zuroff said the stance Stepinac took was of “huge significance,” and that for this reason, the annulment of the verdict is cause for celebration for nationalist and ultra-rightwing Croatians.
“Right now in Croatia there is a cultural, ideological war,” with a segment seeking to whitewash or modify the crimes of the Ustasha.
“There are many people who view them as heroes because of their fierce patriotism and nationalism,” said Zuroff.
Stepinac died in 1960, but remained as controversial a figure in death as in life. In 1998, Pope John Paul II beatified Stepinac, and his eventual canonization appears to be inevitable, though it was suspended by Pope Francis. Some Croatians believe he deserves the title of “Righteous Among the Nations,” but Yad Vashem twice denied him the honor.
Yad Vashem reaffirmed on Monday that the reason for the Committee for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations not granting him Righteous Gentile status “was due to the archbishop’s close ties to the Ustasha regime.”
The Wiesenthal Center is not alone in its ire over the annulment of Stepinac’s verdict, which also drew strong Serbian condemnation.
According to news outlet Balkan Insight, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said on Friday that Croatia risked losing “the support of the civilized, anti-fascist and anti-Nazi part of humanity. I interpret this as a kind of pressure on the pope to give up on establishing the truth and canonize the former cardinal.”
Zuroff said the controversy over Stepinac is part of an ongoing war between Croatia and Serbia.
“In Croatia there were 40,000 Jews,” Zuroff said. “Of those, 20,000 were murdered by the Ustasha” and many others were deported to Auschwitz.
“But that was only a sideshow to the mass murder of the Serbs. This is tragedy of monumental proportions.”
The famed Nazi-hunter also asserted that this latest development in Croatia is part of a much wider phenomenon, which he has also observed in Ukraine, Lithuania and Hungary – “the tendency to honor people who fought communism, without checking what they did in WWII.”
Zuroff said that honoring people who were involved in anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews is “a form of attack on the Jewish narrative of the Holocaust. It is a form of anti-Semitism, part of a larger picture which is trying to say that the Holocaust is not unique, and that communism is just as bad, if not worse. And if communism is genocide, then Jews committed genocide because there were Jewish communists. So if everyone is guilty, then no one is guilty.”