Mass grave of history: Vatican's WWII identity crisis

Catholic Church, looking for a bulwark against communism, supported what became genocidal regime of Nazi satellite Croatia.

croatia concentration camp 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Unites States Holocaust Memorial Museu)
croatia concentration camp 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Unites States Holocaust Memorial Museu)
The controversy over the canonization of Pope Pius XII concerns whetherhe 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 pictureof the Vatican's role during the war.
The real question is whether the Vatican supported the world order, orat least aspects of it, that the Third Reich promised to bring, a worldorder in which dead Jews were collateral damage - which Pius indeedregretted. The answer can be found in a region of Europe that isgenerally 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 aCroatian movement called Ustasha, which rose to become the genocidalregime of Nazi satellite Croatia.
American historian Jared Israel points to a February 17, 1941 New York Timesarticle which reported that the archbishop of Zagreb (Croatia'scapital), Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac, was holding conferences inVatican City "seeking the freedom of Catholic priests detained in[pre-Nazi] Croatia in connection with the circulation of... 'FreeCroatia!' pamphlets, attributed to Ante Pavelic." Pavelic, who oncecriticized Hitler for originally being too soft on the Jews, was thefounder of the fascist Ustashas, who were engaging in terrorism allover Europe to "liberate" Croatia from Yugoslavia. He famously said, "Agood Ustasha is one who can use a knife to cut a child from the womb ofits mother."
Israel explains the significance of the understated Timesarticle: "The arrested priests were agitating for a fascist coupd'etat," and if these had been rogue priests, "the Vatican would havedisciplined them and perhaps issued a statement condemning them; itcertainly would not have [held] top-level conferences to manage theirdefense."
At the time, Pavelic was being harbored in Mussolini's Italy - wherehis Ustasha soldiers were being trained - after France sentenced him todeath for masterminding the 1934 double assassination of YugoslavianKing Alexander I and French foreign minister Louis Barthou. When Hitlerinvaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, Pavelic was activated and becamefuehrer, or "Poglavnik," of the new, clerical-fascist Croatia.
Archbishop Stepinac held a banquet for Pavelic, blessed the Ustashaleader and regime, calling them "God's hand at work," and the followingmonth had Pavelic received by Pius XII. This was four days after themassacre in the town of Glina, where the Ustashas locked hundreds ofSerbian Orthodox inside their church and burned it down, as becamestandard practice in Pavelic's Independent State of Croatia (known byits Croatian acronym NDH). Pius XII received Pavelic despite a Yugoslavenvoy's request that he not do so, given the atrocities taking place.
In July of that year, Pavelic's minister of education, Mile Budak,publicly outlined the purification process, already being implementedagainst Serbs: Kill a third, expel a third, convert a third.
That August, more than a thousand Serbs had gathered inside anotherGlina church for conversion, after which Zagreb police chief BozidarCorouski announced, "Now that you are all Roman Catholics, I guaranteeyou that I can save your souls, but I cannot save your bodies." In cameUstasha henchmen with bludgeons, knives and axes, killing all but oneman - Ljuban Jednak - who played dead, then stole away from the massgrave he was dumped into.
Pius and Pavelic continued exchanging "cordial telegrams," as authorVladimir Dedijer - former cochairman of Bertrand Russell'sInternational 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 RomanCatholic hierarchy became de facto accomplices, as did a majority ofthe clergy. The leading NDH racial 'theorist' was a clergyman, Dr. IvoGuberina... He urged Croatia's 'cleansing of foreign elements' by anymeans. His views were echoed by the influential head of the UstashaCentral Propaganda Office, Fr. Grga Peinovic.
"When the anti-Serb and anti-Jewish racial laws of April and May 1941were enacted, the Catholic press welcomed them as vital for 'thesurvival and development of the Croatian nation'... Archbishop ofSarajevo [then part of Croatia] Ivan Saric declared... 'It is stupidand unworthy of Christ's disciples to think that the struggle againstevil could be waged... with gloves on.'"
IN AN unusual move, Germany entrusted Croatia with running its ownconcentration camps, without oversight. Shamefully, clergy members tooka voracious dive into the bloodbath, serving as guards, commanders andexecutioners at the 40 camps, most famously Jasenovac, the Holocaust'sthird-largest yet least spoken-of camp. There, they killed Serbs, Jews,Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats. On August 29, 1942, a friar from themonastery of Siroki Brijeg, named Petar Brzica, won first place forkilling the most Serbs in the shortest time, boasting 1,350 throatsslit in one night.
Historian Carl Savich quotes an AP report stating that "a priest fromPetricevac led Croat fascists, armed with hatchets and knives, to anearby 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 cutfrom their mothers' womb[s] and slaughtered. Of the remaining childrenin the village, all under the age of 12, the Ustashas brutally removedarms, legs, noses, ears and genitals. Young girls were raped andkilled, while their families were forced to witness the violation andcarnage. The most grotesque torture of all was the decapitation ofchildren, their heads thrown into the laps of their mothers, who werethemselves then killed."
Archive photos of sadism that would make horror filmmakers blushsurvive today: Ustashas displaying an Orthodox priest's head; aneyeless peasant woman; Serbs and Jews being pushed off a cliff; a Serbwith a saw to his neck; and a smiling Ustasha holding the still-beatingheart of prominent industrialist Milos Teslitch, who had beencastrated, disemboweled and his ears and lips cut off.
Italian writer Curzio Malaparte in his 1944 book Kaputtoffers this detail: "While [Pavelic] spoke, I gazed at a wicker basketon the Poglavnik's desk [which] seemed to be filled with mussels, orshelled oysters... 'Are they Dalmatian oysters?' I asked. [Pavelic]said smiling, 'It is a present from my loyal Ustashas... Forty poundsof 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 ofwartime Croatia, where not only did the Vatican not speak out againstcrimes, not only was it complicit in the genocide of a million people,but it subsequently never expressed remorse for the spilled Orthodoxblood as it's done for Jewish blood. Because the world never demandedit. Which points to the same apprehensions that have dogged Jewishgroups about the Vatican's genuineness, especially with its reluctanceto open archives about Pius's World War II conduct.
ONE CAN'T help wondering whether the Vatican as an institution wassilently cheering the decimation of its Orthodox rival. Stepinac, whowas photographed blessing the Ustashas before an upcoming battle orslaughter, reported in May 1944 the good news about 244,000 forcedconversions to Pius. (Pius himself might have caught BBC broadcastssuch as on February 16, 1942: "The Orthodox are being forciblyconverted to Catholicism and we do not hear the archbishop's voicepreaching revolt. Instead it is reported that he is taking part in Naziand fascist parades.") Observing the liquidation of Croatia's Orthodox,Heinrich Himmler's second-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, wrote aFebruary 17, 1942, letter to Himmler stating, "It is clear that theCroat-Serbian state of tension is not least of all a struggle of theCatholic Church against the Orthodox Church."
It is not Jews to whom the Church owes the biggest apology over WorldWar II, but Serbs. If by not speaking out about Europe's Jews Piushoped to avoid endangering millions of Catholics, what could have beenthe reason for not speaking out about Croatia, which itself horrifiedthe Nazis to the point that German and Italian soldiers startedshielding Serbs from Ustashas? And what would have been the risk to thefaithful inside Croatia?
A July 5, 1994, Washington Timesarticle attempted to get to the bottom of why so little is known of theCroatia chapter of World War II, and why Jasenovac is so rarely spokenof: "For years the gruesome details... remained officially taboo.Although documents and eyewitness accounts were at first ignored, andthen mysteriously removed from international archives... [i]t nowappears that a vast international conspiracy involving Marshal JosipBroz Tito... [and] the United Nations, some Vatican officials and evenJewish organizations strove to keep the Jasenovac story buriedforever... Tito's watchwords were 'brotherhood and unity,' and topursue these high goals he tried to erase the chapter of Jasenovac. TheWest generally went along, particularly after Tito broke with Stalin in1948. The Vatican wanted to protect Roman Catholic Croats, who had beenwilling Nazi proxies in the Balkans.
"The silence of Jewish organizations is less easily explained... [Thelate Milan Bulajic, of Belgrade's Genocide Museum, met] officials ofthe Holocaust Museum [in Washington to] find out why no one mentionsthe Yugoslav Jews who died there. He did not seem to get a clear-cutanswer... When Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991... troops of newlyindependent Croatia briefly captured the site and, according to Serbiansources, blew up whatever was left of the camp and destroyed allremaining records."
An apology is also owed to Catholic clergy whose appeals the Churchignored. Archbishop Misic of Mostar, Herzegovina, asked Stepinac to usehis influence with authorities to prevent the massacres. And Bulajicwrote of a group of Slovenian Catholic priests who were "sent to theJasenovac camp because they refused to serve a mass of thanksgiving toUstasha 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 ofgenocide being perpetrated at Jasenovac. He was told to keep silent."
Similarly, historian Savich writes, "It bears noting that Stepinac wastried and convicted... by Roman Catholic Croats... under the regime ofa Roman Catholic Croatian... Many of the historians who documented theUstasha 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 prosecutionwitnesses testified at Zagreb, on October 5, 1946, that Catholicpriests armed with pistols went out to convert Orthodox Serbs andmassacred them... Most of the witnesses were Croat Catholic peasantsand laborers."
INDEED, JUST as blame for tacit approval of a genocide and subsequentescape 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 (inits sovereign pre-1943 form), including the commandant of theFerramonti concentration camp, who "said his job was to protect theinmates, not kill them," as UPI reported in 2003. Not surprisingly,Italian soldiers also intervened in the slaughter of Serbs by Croatsand Axis-aligned Albanians in Kosovo.
Unfortunately, rather than distancing the Church from Aloysius Stepinac, the Vatican-centered newspaper L'Osservatore Romanoresponded that the "trial was a trial against the Catholic Church." NewYork cardinal Francis Spellman outrageously named a parochial school inWhite Plains after Stepinac, and in 1952 Pius XII made him cardinal.Then, despite requests by the Simon Wiesenthal Center to hold off untilthe cardinal's wartime role could be better assessed, Pope John Paul IIbeatified Stepinac in 1998.
Croatian groups (and some Croatian Jews) even appealed to Yad Vashem togive Stepinac the Righteous Gentile title, since he saved some Jews oncondition of conversion. To which Yad Vashem had to reply in almostabsurd terms: "Persons who assisted Jews but simultaneouslycollaborated or were linked with a fascist regime which took part inthe Nazi-orchestrated persecution of Jews, may be disqualified for theRighteous title."
The same should be said to Pope Benedict about his efforts to canonizePius XII. Even as it denied Stepinac's well known association with theUstasha, Pius's Vatican served as the conduit for smuggling theUstashas out after the war. According to declassified US documentsintroduced in a recent class-action lawsuit against the Vatican Bankfor laundering Ustasha loot - used to finance the Ustashas' escapes andpostwar sustenance - Pavelic was hidden in a Croatian Catholicmonastery in Rome, where the office of the American CounterintelligenceCorps on September 12, 1947, reported that "Pavelic's contacts are sohigh, and his present position is so compromising to the Vatican, thatany extradition of subject would deal a staggering blow to the RomanCatholic Church." From Rome, Pavelic fled to Argentina, where he becamea security adviser to Juan Peron, who issued thousands of visas tofleeing Ustashas.
Haaretz in 2006 reported thatMsgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, Pius's undersecretary of state andlater Pope Paul VI, learned of "the investigation [that US Armycounterintelligence agent William] Gowen's unit was conducting. Montinicomplained about Gowen to his superiors and accused him of havingviolated the Vatican's immunity by having entered church buildings,such as the Croatian college, and conducting searches there. The aim ofthe complaint was to interfere with the investigation."
A May 2007 press release from plaintiffs' attorney Jonathan Levy in theVatican Bank case states, "To date, the Vatican attorneys... [are]insisting that the Vatican Bank's money laundering scheme for Axisplunder 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 poorlyfor Pius XII and the current controversy involving his elevation tosainthood."
THE VATICAN'S ongoing World War II identity crisis was evident lastSeptember when, after prodding from Croatian leaders, Zagreb ArchbishopJosip Bozanic paid a 60-year-late visit to the Jasenovac memorial site,the first official representative of the Croatian Church to attend theannual memorial ceremony. Instead of an apology, Bozanic defendedStepinac and the Church, and used the long-awaited moment to also mournthe massacre of fleeing Nazis by partisans in Bleiburg, Austria - wherean annual, Croatian government-sponsored commemoration ceremony is wellattended by Catholic dignitaries. Bozanic was not reproached by theVatican, which also doesn't reproach the Croatian Church's tolerance ofthe ubiquitous pro-Nazi symbolism in that country, which reemerged asCroatian "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 andmilitary chaplain who regularly recites a violent poem that ends withthe 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 toCroatia. It also leads us to last December's spectacle of Pope Benedicthaving a private audience with Marko Perkovic, lead singer of thenotorious clerical-fascist Croatian pop band Thompson, which regularlyinvokes "For the fatherland, ready" and had odes to concentration campson earlier albums. Many Thompson fans engage in Nazi salutes, and nunsand 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 wasable to accomplish last year what the Nazis and their World War IIcollaborators could not, namely the uprooting of the entire SerbianKrajina population... The World War II fascist regime of Ante Pavelicis being officially rehabilitated in Croatia today. Streets and publicbuildings are being named after the architects of the Holocaust,Nazi-era currency revived, while the numbers and scope of the humancarnage are being rewritten."
Had history not been dumped into a mass grave, Western publics mighthave been allowed a fuller understanding of the Balkan wars, given thatby 1991 it was "normal to kill Serbs," as Zarko Puhovski, of theHelsinki Committee for Human Rights, put it. When Croatia seceded fromYugoslavia in June 1991 - and the Vatican was the first to recognize itdespite a UN resolution warning this could imperil a peaceful solution- survival dictated that the Serbs secede from the secessionists. "Afew days after the Croatians declared war," writes historian Israel,Pope John Paul II "sent a letter to the Yugoslav government demandingit not suppress the rebellion." And so it was that in 1991 threeCroatian soldiers saw "truckloads of bloated, stinking bodies, mothersand children blown up by bombs, and someone wearing a necklace made ofears," Reuters reported on January 28, 1998.
And so it was that president Tudjman was a prominent guest at theinauguration of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, despitesaying that "900,000 died, not 6 million," and ranged from callingJasenovac a "myth," to blaming Jews for the killings there, to offeringa formal apology for the 20,000 Jews killed there - but not for theseveral hundred thousand Serbs. And so it was that in 1995, as Croatiansoldiers with Ustasha insignia cleansed the Krajina of Serbs - under USair cover - the Glina massacre survivor Ljuban Jednak once again fledfor his life, dying a refugee in 1997.
And so it was that in 2005, when then Hague prosecutor Carla del Pontelearned that indicted 1990s war criminal Gen. Ante Gotovina was beingsheltered in a Franciscan monastery in Croatia, the Roman Catholic ladyfound herself  "'extremely disappointed' to encounter a wall of silencefrom 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 Jasenovacmemorial, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Efraim Zuroff observed "theabsence of any identification of the individuals responsible for thecrimes described... I was amazed that none of the speakers mentioned...Croatia's greatest achievement in facing its Ustasha past - theprosecution and conviction of Jasenovac commander Dinko Sakic... Couldit be that the punishment of such a criminal... is so unpopular, evenin 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 ofAnte Pavelic - officiating. "Independent State of Croatia is thefoundation of today's homeland of Croatia," Lasic said. "Everyhonorable 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 remindCroatian society that Sakic brought it shame, not pride.
In enshrining the Church's divided World War II loyalties by canonizingthe ambivalent pope at the time, the Church would be announcing to theworld what it's made of. But the Church is better than the sum of itsnastier parts. Canonizing Pius XII would be unjust to Catholics who didmore than he, and an insult to Catholics everywhere. Pius shouldn't bedemonized, 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.