The controversy over the canonization of Pope Pius XII concerns whether
he spoke out enough against the slaughter of Jews during World War II.
But that question is a red herring when trying to grasp the big picture
of the Vatican's role during the war.
The real question is whether the Vatican supported the world order, or
at least aspects of it, that the Third Reich promised to bring, a world
order in which dead Jews were collateral damage - which Pius indeed
regretted. The answer can be found in a region of Europe that is
generally ignored despite being the nexus of world wars: the Balkans.
The Catholic Church was looking for a bulwark against expanding,
ruthless, church-destroying communism, but in doing so it supported a
Croatian movement called Ustasha, which rose to become the genocidal
regime of Nazi satellite Croatia.
American historian Jared Israel points to a February 17, 1941 New York Times
article which reported that the archbishop of Zagreb (Croatia's
capital), Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac, was holding conferences in
Vatican City "seeking the freedom of Catholic priests detained in
[pre-Nazi] Croatia in connection with the circulation of... 'Free
Croatia!' pamphlets, attributed to Ante Pavelic." Pavelic, who once
criticized Hitler for originally being too soft on the Jews, was the
founder of the fascist Ustashas, who were engaging in terrorism all
over Europe to "liberate" Croatia from Yugoslavia. He famously said, "A
good Ustasha is one who can use a knife to cut a child from the womb of
Israel explains the significance of the understated Times
article: "The arrested priests were agitating for a fascist coup
d'etat," and if these had been rogue priests, "the Vatican would have
disciplined them and perhaps issued a statement condemning them; it
certainly would not have [held] top-level conferences to manage their
At the time, Pavelic was being harbored in Mussolini's Italy - where
his Ustasha soldiers were being trained - after France sentenced him to
death for masterminding the 1934 double assassination of Yugoslavian
King Alexander I and French foreign minister Louis Barthou. When Hitler
invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, Pavelic was activated and became
fuehrer, or "Poglavnik," of the new, clerical-fascist Croatia.
Archbishop Stepinac held a banquet for Pavelic, blessed the Ustasha
leader and regime, calling them "God's hand at work," and the following
month had Pavelic received by Pius XII. This was four days after the
massacre in the town of Glina, where the Ustashas locked hundreds of
Serbian Orthodox inside their church and burned it down, as became
standard practice in Pavelic's Independent State of Croatia (known by
its Croatian acronym NDH). Pius XII received Pavelic despite a Yugoslav
envoy's request that he not do so, given the atrocities taking place.
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In July of that year, Pavelic's minister of education, Mile Budak,
publicly outlined the purification process, already being implemented
against Serbs: Kill a third, expel a third, convert a third.
That August, more than a thousand Serbs had gathered inside another
Glina church for conversion, after which Zagreb police chief Bozidar
Corouski announced, "Now that you are all Roman Catholics, I guarantee
you that I can save your souls, but I cannot save your bodies." In came
Ustasha henchmen with bludgeons, knives and axes, killing all but one
man - Ljuban Jednak - who played dead, then stole away from the mass
grave he was dumped into.
Pius and Pavelic continued exchanging "cordial telegrams," as author
Vladimir Dedijer - former cochairman of Bertrand Russell's
International War Crimes Tribunal - wrote in his 1992 book The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican
. The Croatian Catholic press consistently published approving articles about the regime.
In his forthcoming book The Krajina Chronicles: A Short History of Serbs in Croatia
Slavonia and Dalmatia, Dr. Srdja Trifkovic writes, "A part of the Roman
Catholic hierarchy became de facto accomplices, as did a majority of
the clergy. The leading NDH racial 'theorist' was a clergyman, Dr. Ivo
Guberina... He urged Croatia's 'cleansing of foreign elements' by any
means. His views were echoed by the influential head of the Ustasha
Central Propaganda Office, Fr. Grga Peinovic.
"When the anti-Serb and anti-Jewish racial laws of April and May 1941
were enacted, the Catholic press welcomed them as vital for 'the
survival and development of the Croatian nation'... Archbishop of
Sarajevo [then part of Croatia] Ivan Saric declared... 'It is stupid
and unworthy of Christ's disciples to think that the struggle against
evil could be waged... with gloves on.'"
IN AN unusual move, Germany entrusted Croatia with running its own
concentration camps, without oversight. Shamefully, clergy members took
a voracious dive into the bloodbath, serving as guards, commanders and
executioners at the 40 camps, most famously Jasenovac, the Holocaust's
third-largest yet least spoken-of camp. There, they killed Serbs, Jews,
Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats. On August 29, 1942, a friar from the
monastery of Siroki Brijeg, named Petar Brzica, won first place for
killing the most Serbs in the shortest time, boasting 1,350 throats
slit in one night.
Historian Carl Savich quotes an AP report stating that "a priest from
Petricevac led Croat fascists, armed with hatchets and knives, to a
nearby village. In the 1942 attack, they butchered 2,300 Serbs."
Testimony from a survivor of that February 7 massacre, Selo Drakulic,
reads: "Prior to killing the adults, unborn children were violently cut
from their mothers' womb[s] and slaughtered. Of the remaining children
in the village, all under the age of 12, the Ustashas brutally removed
arms, legs, noses, ears and genitals. Young girls were raped and
killed, while their families were forced to witness the violation and
carnage. The most grotesque torture of all was the decapitation of
children, their heads thrown into the laps of their mothers, who were
themselves then killed."
Archive photos of sadism that would make horror filmmakers blush
survive today: Ustashas displaying an Orthodox priest's head; an
eyeless peasant woman; Serbs and Jews being pushed off a cliff; a Serb
with a saw to his neck; and a smiling Ustasha holding the still-beating
heart of prominent industrialist Milos Teslitch, who had been
castrated, disemboweled and his ears and lips cut off.
Italian writer Curzio Malaparte in his 1944 book Kaputt
offers this detail: "While [Pavelic] spoke, I gazed at a wicker basket
on the Poglavnik's desk [which] seemed to be filled with mussels, or
shelled oysters... 'Are they Dalmatian oysters?' I asked. [Pavelic]
said smiling, 'It is a present from my loyal Ustashas... Forty pounds
of human eyes.'"
In their 1991 book Unholy Trinity: The Vatican, the Nazis and the Swiss Banks
, reporter Mark Aarons and former Justice Department attorney John Loftus corroborate the grisly Croatian crimes, as does Genocide in Satellite Croatia 1941-1945
by Edmond Paris: "The Italians photographed an Ustasha wearing two chains of human tongues and ears around his neck."
It has been 60 years, and the world still doesn't know the story of
wartime Croatia, where not only did the Vatican not speak out against
crimes, not only was it complicit in the genocide of a million people,
but it subsequently never expressed remorse for the spilled Orthodox
blood as it's done for Jewish blood. Because the world never demanded
it. Which points to the same apprehensions that have dogged Jewish
groups about the Vatican's genuineness, especially with its reluctance
to open archives about Pius's World War II conduct.
ONE CAN'T help wondering whether the Vatican as an institution was
silently cheering the decimation of its Orthodox rival. Stepinac, who
was photographed blessing the Ustashas before an upcoming battle or
slaughter, reported in May 1944 the good news about 244,000 forced
conversions to Pius. (Pius himself might have caught BBC broadcasts
such as on February 16, 1942: "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.") Observing the liquidation of Croatia's Orthodox,
Heinrich Himmler's second-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, wrote a
February 17, 1942, letter to Himmler stating, "It is clear that the
Croat-Serbian state of tension is not least of all a struggle of the
Catholic Church against the Orthodox Church."
It is not Jews to whom the Church owes the biggest apology over World
War II, but Serbs. If by not speaking out about Europe's Jews Pius
hoped to avoid endangering millions of Catholics, what could have been
the reason for not speaking out about Croatia, which itself horrified
the Nazis to the point that German and Italian soldiers started
shielding Serbs from Ustashas? And what would have been the risk to the
faithful inside Croatia?
A July 5, 1994, Washington Times
article attempted to get to the bottom of why so little is known of the
Croatia chapter of World War II, and why Jasenovac is so rarely spoken
of: "For years the gruesome details... remained officially taboo.
Although documents and eyewitness accounts were at first ignored, and
then mysteriously removed from international archives... [i]t now
appears that a vast international conspiracy involving Marshal Josip
Broz Tito... [and] the United Nations, some Vatican officials and even
Jewish organizations strove to keep the Jasenovac story buried
forever... Tito's watchwords were 'brotherhood and unity,' and to
pursue these high goals he tried to erase the chapter of Jasenovac. The
West generally went along, particularly after Tito broke with Stalin in
1948. The Vatican wanted to protect Roman Catholic Croats, who had been
willing Nazi proxies in the Balkans.
"The silence of Jewish organizations is less easily explained... [The
late Milan Bulajic, of Belgrade's Genocide Museum, met] officials of
the Holocaust Museum [in Washington to] find out why no one mentions
the Yugoslav Jews who died there. He did not seem to get a clear-cut
answer... When Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991... troops of newly
independent Croatia briefly captured the site and, according to Serbian
sources, blew up whatever was left of the camp and destroyed all
An apology is also owed to Catholic clergy whose appeals the Church
ignored. Archbishop Misic of Mostar, Herzegovina, asked Stepinac to use
his influence with authorities to prevent the massacres. And Bulajic
wrote of a group of Slovenian Catholic priests who were "sent to the
Jasenovac camp because they refused to serve a mass of thanksgiving to
Ustasha leader Ante Pavelic... One of the imprisoned Slovenian priests,
Anton Rantasa, managed to escape... On 10 November 1942, he informed
[Stepinac and the papal legate Ramiro Marcone]... on the crimes of
genocide being perpetrated at Jasenovac. He was told to keep silent."
Similarly, historian Savich writes, "It bears noting that Stepinac was
tried and convicted... by Roman Catholic Croats... under the regime of
a Roman Catholic Croatian... Many of the historians who documented the
Ustasha NDH genocide were Roman Catholic Croats, such as Viktor Novak."
In his 1950 book Behind the Purple Curtain
Walter Montano wrote of the Stepinac trial: "A parade of prosecution
witnesses testified at Zagreb, on October 5, 1946, that Catholic
priests armed with pistols went out to convert Orthodox Serbs and
massacred them... Most of the witnesses were Croat Catholic peasants
INDEED, JUST as blame for tacit approval of a genocide and subsequent
escape for the perpetrators can't fall merely on "a few individuals,"
it's more than a few individuals who deserve credit for the opposite.
For example, Jews were saved by the entire Catholic nation of Italy (in
its sovereign pre-1943 form), including the commandant of the
Ferramonti concentration camp, who "said his job was to protect the
inmates, not kill them," as UPI reported in 2003. Not surprisingly,
Italian soldiers also intervened in the slaughter of Serbs by Croats
and Axis-aligned Albanians in Kosovo.
Unfortunately, rather than distancing the Church from Aloysius Stepinac, the Vatican-centered newspaper L'Osservatore Romano
responded that the "trial was a trial against the Catholic Church." New
York cardinal Francis Spellman outrageously named a parochial school in
White Plains after Stepinac, and in 1952 Pius XII made him cardinal.
Then, despite requests by the Simon Wiesenthal Center to hold off until
the cardinal's wartime role could be better assessed, Pope John Paul II
beatified Stepinac in 1998.
Croatian groups (and some Croatian Jews) even appealed to Yad Vashem to
give Stepinac the Righteous Gentile title, since he saved some Jews on
condition of conversion. To which Yad Vashem had to reply in almost
absurd terms: "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
The same should be said to Pope Benedict about his efforts to canonize
Pius XII. Even as it denied Stepinac's well known association with the
Ustasha, Pius's Vatican served as the conduit for smuggling the
Ustashas out after the war. According to declassified US documents
introduced in a recent class-action lawsuit against the Vatican Bank
for laundering Ustasha loot - used to finance the Ustashas' escapes and
postwar sustenance - Pavelic was hidden in a Croatian Catholic
monastery in Rome, where the office of the American Counterintelligence
Corps on September 12, 1947, reported that "Pavelic's contacts are so
high, and his present position is so compromising to the Vatican, that
any extradition of subject would deal a staggering blow to the Roman
Catholic Church." From Rome, Pavelic fled to Argentina, where he became
a security adviser to Juan Peron, who issued thousands of visas to
in 2006 reported that
Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, Pius's undersecretary of state and
later Pope Paul VI, learned of "the investigation [that US Army
counterintelligence agent William] Gowen's unit was conducting. Montini
complained about Gowen to his superiors and accused him of having
violated the Vatican's immunity by having entered church buildings,
such as the Croatian college, and conducting searches there. The aim of
the complaint was to interfere with the investigation."
A May 2007 press release from plaintiffs' attorney Jonathan Levy in the
Vatican Bank case states, "To date, the Vatican attorneys... [are]
insisting that the Vatican Bank's money laundering scheme for Axis
plunder violated no international law, since the Ustasha's victims,
mainly Orthodox Christian Serbs, were technically citizens of
'Independent' Croatia. The unrepentant tone of the Vatican bodes poorly
for Pius XII and the current controversy involving his elevation to
THE VATICAN'S ongoing World War II identity crisis was evident last
September when, after prodding from Croatian leaders, Zagreb Archbishop
Josip Bozanic paid a 60-year-late visit to the Jasenovac memorial site,
the first official representative of the Croatian Church to attend the
annual memorial ceremony. Instead of an apology, Bozanic defended
Stepinac and the Church, and used the long-awaited moment to also mourn
the massacre of fleeing Nazis by partisans in Bleiburg, Austria - where
an annual, Croatian government-sponsored commemoration ceremony is well
attended by Catholic dignitaries. Bozanic was not reproached by the
Vatican, which also doesn't reproach the Croatian Church's tolerance of
the ubiquitous pro-Nazi symbolism in that country, which reemerged as
Croatian "culture" in the early 1990s.
President Stjepan Mesic himself, who just left office after 10 years,
had to recently ask the Vatican to pay closer attention to a bishop and
military chaplain who regularly recites a violent poem that ends with
the Ustasha saying: "For the fatherland, ready."
This is the Balkan country that's on the fast-track for EU membership.
That's where decades of evasion, deflection and cover-up get us,
something that contributed to John Paul II's own neglect of Jasenovac -
the Balkans' largest killing grounds - during his three trips to
Croatia. It also leads us to last December's spectacle of Pope Benedict
having a private audience with Marko Perkovic, lead singer of the
notorious clerical-fascist Croatian pop band Thompson, which regularly
invokes "For the fatherland, ready" and had odes to concentration camps
on earlier albums. Many Thompson fans engage in Nazi salutes, and nuns
and politicians attend the "patriotic" concerts.
People bury history in order to repeat it. John Ranz, chairman of Buchenwald Survivors, in a 1996 letter to The New York Times
wrote: "Ironically, with US help, [1990s president] Franjo Tudjman was
able to accomplish last year what the Nazis and their World War II
collaborators could not, namely the uprooting of the entire Serbian
Krajina population... The World War II fascist regime of Ante Pavelic
is being officially rehabilitated in Croatia today. Streets and public
buildings are being named after the architects of the Holocaust,
Nazi-era currency revived, while the numbers and scope of the human
carnage are being rewritten."
Had history not been dumped into a mass grave, Western publics might
have been allowed a fuller understanding of the Balkan wars, given that
by 1991 it was "normal to kill Serbs," as Zarko Puhovski, of the
Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, put it. When Croatia seceded from
Yugoslavia in June 1991 - and the Vatican was the first to recognize it
despite a UN resolution warning this could imperil a peaceful solution
- survival dictated that the Serbs secede from the secessionists. "A
few days after the Croatians declared war," writes historian Israel,
Pope John Paul II "sent a letter to the Yugoslav government demanding
it not suppress the rebellion." And so it was that in 1991 three
Croatian soldiers saw "truckloads of bloated, stinking bodies, mothers
and children blown up by bombs, and someone wearing a necklace made of
ears," Reuters reported on January 28, 1998.
And so it was that president Tudjman was a prominent guest at the
inauguration of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, despite
saying that "900,000 died, not 6 million," and ranged from calling
Jasenovac a "myth," to blaming Jews for the killings there, to offering
a formal apology for the 20,000 Jews killed there - but not for the
several hundred thousand Serbs. And so it was that in 1995, as Croatian
soldiers with Ustasha insignia cleansed the Krajina of Serbs - under US
air cover - the Glina massacre survivor Ljuban Jednak once again fled
for his life, dying a refugee in 1997.
And so it was that in 2005, when then Hague prosecutor Carla del Ponte
learned that indicted 1990s war criminal Gen. Ante Gotovina was being
sheltered in a Franciscan monastery in Croatia, the Roman Catholic lady
found herself "'extremely disappointed' to encounter a wall of silence
from the Vatican" which, she told the Daily Telegraph
, "could probably pinpoint exactly which of Croatia's 80 monasteries was sheltering him 'in a few days.'"
And so it was that at the 2006 inauguration of the spruced-up Jasenovac
memorial, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Efraim Zuroff observed "the
absence of any identification of the individuals responsible for the
crimes described... I was amazed that none of the speakers mentioned...
Croatia's greatest achievement in facing its Ustasha past - the
prosecution and conviction of Jasenovac commander Dinko Sakic... Could
it be that the punishment of such a criminal... is so unpopular, even
in today's Croatia...?"
And so it was that Sakic was buried last July in full Nazi uniform,
with a Father Vjekoslav Lasic - one of many who hold masses in honor of
Ante Pavelic - officiating. "Independent State of Croatia is the
foundation of today's homeland of Croatia," Lasic said. "Every
honorable Croat is proud of the name Dinko Sakic."
When no Croatian official of stature spoke out against the display,
Zuroff called on the president to condemn the organizers and remind
Croatian society that Sakic brought it shame, not pride.
In enshrining the Church's divided World War II loyalties by canonizing
the ambivalent pope at the time, the Church would be announcing to the
world what it's made of. But the Church is better than the sum of its
nastier parts. Canonizing Pius XII would be unjust to Catholics who did
more than he, and an insult to Catholics everywhere. Pius shouldn't be
demonized, but he shouldn't be sanctified.
The writer specializes in the Balkans, and is an unpaid advisory board member of the American Council for Kosovo.
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