The Role of the Catholic Church in Yugoslavia’s Holocaust
By: Seán Mac Mathúna
The Nazi collaborator Archbishop Stepinac (right) and the Vatican representative to fascist Croatia, Abbot Marcone (left).Croatia has recently renamed a village in Krajina after Stepinac.
During the Second World War in Yugoslavia, Catholic priests and Muslim clerics were willing accomplices in the genocide of the nations Serbian, Jewish and Roma population. From 1941 until 1945, the Nazi-installed regime of Ante Pavelic in Croatia carried out some of the most horrific crimes of the Holocaust (known as the Porajmos by the Roma), killing over 800,000 Yugoslav citizens – 750,000 Serbs, 60,000 Jews and 26,000 Roma. In these crimes, the Croatian Ustasha and Muslim fundamentalists were openly supported by the Vatican, and the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who openly encouraged Muslims to join Nazi units that would be later implicated in crimes against humanity – the infamous Hanjar (or Handschar) 13th Waffen SS division. What united al-Husseini and the Third Reich was a common hatred of the Jewish people, and the Nazis had taken him under their protection following the wartime invasion of Iraq. He was to spend most of the war living in a luxurious suite at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin. Hitler had enjoyed quite a following among the nationalist youth of Egypt during the war, after Nassiri Nasser, the brother of the future president of Egypt, had published an Arab edition of Mein Kampf in 1939, describing its author as the “strongest man of Europe”.
The bones of Serbs thrown into pits by the Ustashe, during the Second World War, just before they were buried in a crypt at Prebilovci, Herzegovina, Yugoslavia, in June 1991.
Many of the victims of the Holocaust/Porajmos were murdered in the Second World War’s third largest death camp – Jasenovac, where over 200,000 people – mainly Orthodox Serbs met their deaths. Some 240,000 were “rebaptized” into the Catholic faith by fundamentalist Clerics in “the Catholic Kingdom of Croatia” as part of the policy to “kill a third, deport a third, convert a third” of Yugoslavia’s Serbs, Jews and Roma in wartime Bosnia and Croatia (The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican, Vladimar Dedijer, Anriman-Verlag, Freiburg, Germany, 1988).
Like with the Jews, who had to wear the Star of David in public, the Serbs were forced to wear a blue band with the letter “P” (i.e., Orthodox) on their sleeve. The Nazi regime decreed that the Roma were to be “treated as Jews” and they were forced to wear yellow armbands. (A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia, David M. Crowe, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, USA, 1994). Likewise, the Cyrillic script was banned, and almost immediately following the invasion in 1941, the massacre of the Serb, Jewish and Roma in Yugoslavia had begun.
The Croatian Nazi Mile Budak, who was a Minister in the Ustasha regime talked on 6th June 1941 at a meeting in Krizevci, about the question of the liquidation of the Serb Orthodox religion. He described Croatia – which had also annexed Bosnia – thus:
We are a state of two religions: Catholicism and Islam
In July 1941, at another meeting in Gospic, Bosnia, Budak made his infamous statement:
We will kill one part of the Serbs, the other part we will resettle, and the remaining ones we will convert to the Catholic faith, and thus make Croats of them (Dedijer, p 130).
This Nazi criminal has had streets in Croatia named after him by the Tudjman regime following the countries succession from Yugoslavia in 1991. Tudjman himself is on record as having said that he is “proud that his wife has no Jewish or Serbian blood in her”. Like the French Nazi Jean-Marie Le Pen (who described the Holocaust as a “mere detail of history”), he has also become a Holocaust revisionist. In his book Wastelands of History, he questioned the truth behind the Holocaust and moved to cover up the role of Ustashe regime in the darkest period of Croatia’s history. Worse, he has rehabilitated fascist war criminals and given them medals.
One book I would consider essential reading for those investigating the role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust/Porajmos is Vladimar Dedijer’s The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican (Anriman-Verlag, Freiburg, Germany, 1988). The following is from the introduction to the book:
In this collection we are publishing documents that testify to the fact that the highest dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church gave their blessing to Ante Pavelic at a time when the so-called independent state of Croatia was proclaimed, i.e., at a time when the Yugoslav state and its army still existed.
Roman Catholic priests and monks organized mercenary troops that attacked the Yugoslav army units while the latter were also severely pressured by Hitler’s divisions. Throughout the whole war in more than 150 newspapers and magazines, the church justified the fascist state under Pavelic as the work of God.
Many Roman Catholic priests served the Ustasha state in high positions. The pope appointed the highest military vicar for Croatia. The latter had a field chaplain in every unit of the Ustasha army. The task of this field chaplain consisted among other things of repeatedly goading the Ustasha units in their mass murders of the peasant population. High dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Ustasha state together organized the mass conversion of the Orthodox Serbian population. Hundreds of Orthodox churches in Serbia were plundered and destroyed; the three highest dignitaries and two hundred clerics were murdered in cold blood; the remainder of the clergy were driven into exile. In the concentration camp of Jasenovac, hundreds of thousands of Serbs were murdered under the command of Roman Catholic priests.
The papal emissary Marcone was in Croatia during this entire time. He sanctioned silently all the gory deeds and permitted pictures of himself with Pavelic and the German commanders to be published in the newspapers. After the visit to Pope Pius XII, Ante Pavelic exchanged Christmas and New Year’s greetings with him that were published in the Ustasha press.
In mid-year 1986 the government of the United States released documents of their counter-espionage agency. These reveal that the Vatican had organized a safe-flight route from Europe to Argentina for Pavelic and two hundred of his advisors known by name. The fascists hid frequently during their flight in cloisters and in many instances disguised themselves as Franciscan monks.
Ante Pavelic was a man of great piety. In his palace in Zagreb he had a chapel built; he had two confessors. Shortly before his death in Madrid in 1959, Pope John XXIII granted him his special blessing; on his death bed, Pavelic held a wreath that was a personal gift from Pope Pius XII from the year 1941.
The Catholic Church was not only closely involved with the Ustasha movement in wartime Croatia, it helped many Nazi war criminals escape at the end of the war, including Ante Pavelic, who fled to Argentina via the Vatican and the “ratlines” of the Vatican. Pavelic and Pope Puis XII “frequently exchanged cordial telegrams” according to Dedijer, one on New Year’s Day 1943, saw the Pope give his blessing to Pavelic:
Everything that you have expressed so warmly in your name and in the name of the Croatian Catholics we return gracefully and give you and the whole Croatian people our apostolic blessing (p 115).
Led by Archbishop Stepinac, the Catholic Church was deeply involved in the Holocaust in Yugoslavia – its bishops and priests openly supported the murderous regime of Ante Pavelic, the wartime Croatian leader who pursued a ruthless policy of “kill a third, deport a third, and convert a third” of all the Serbs, Jews and Roma of Croatia and Bosnia. Abbot Marcone was Pavelic’s confessor and Archbishop Stepinac, was convicted of war crimes after the war. Several members of his clergy were involved in the genocide at Jasenovac – notably the Franciscan priest, Pater Miroslav Filipovic, who was one of the commandants of the camp. Stepinac recorded in his diary on 3rd August 1941 that “the Holy See (the Vatican) recognized de facto the independent State of Croatia”.
Another recently published book has thrown new light on the wartime collaboration of the Vatican with fascism: Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell (Viking, London, UK, 1999). On April 6th 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia, by April 10th, Croatian fascists led by Ante Pavelic were allowed by Hitler and his ally Mussolini to set up a “independent” puppet state of Croatia. Hitler granted “Aryan” status to Croatia as his fascist allies carved up Yugoslavia. Pavelic had been awaiting these developments whilst under the auspices of Mussolini in Italy who had granted them the use of remote training camps on a Aeolian island and access to a propaganda station Radio Bari for broadcasts across the Adriatic. As soon as the new fascist state of Croatia was born, and campaign of cold-blooded terror began, as noted by Cornwell:
“(It was) an act of ‘ethnic cleansing’ before that hideous term came into vogue, it was an attempt to create a ‘pure’ Catholic Croatia by enforced conversions, deportations, and mass exterminations. So dreadful were the acts of torture and murder that even hardened German troops registered their horror. Even by comparison with the recent bloodshed in Yugoslavia at the time of writing, Pavelic’s onslaught against the Orthodox Serbs remains one of the most appalling civilian massacres known to history” (p 249)
Furthermore, as Cornwell notes, Pius XII had not only “warmly endorsed” Croat nationalism, he had, in November 1939, described the Croats in a speech as an “the outpost of Christianity” of whom “the hope of a better future seems to be smiling on you”.
On April 25th 1941, Pavelic decreed that all publications, private and public, of the Cyrillic script was banned. In May 1941, anti-Semitic legislation was passed, defining Jews in racist terms, preventing them from marrying “Aryans”. One month later all Serb Orthodox primary and preschools were closed. As soon as Pavelic had taken power, the Catholic Church in Croatia began compelling Orthodox Serbs to convert to the Catholic religion. But this was, as pointed out by Cornwell, a highly-selective policy: the fascists had no intention of allowing Orthodox priests or members of the Serb intelligentsia into the religion – they were to be exterminated along with their families. However, for those Serbs who were forced to convert, there was no immunity or protection from the Catholic church when the “crazed bloodletting” of the Ustashe began (p 251). An example of this savage butchery happened in the village of Glina on May 14th 1941: hundreds of Serbs were brought to a church to attend an obligatory service of thanksgiving for the fascist state of Croatia. Once the Serbs were inside, the Ustashe entered the Church armed with axes and knives. They asked all present to produce their certificates of conversion to Catholicism – but only two had the required documents, and they were released. The doors of the church were locked and the rest butchered.
Right from the very beginning, the Vatican knew what was happening in Croatia, and certainly known to Pius XII when he greeted Pavelic in Vatican – jus four days after the massacre at Glina. On this visit, Pavelic had a “devotional” audience with Pius XII, and the Vatican granted de-facto recognition of fascist Croatia as a “bastion against communism” – despite the fact that the Vatican still had diplomatic ties with Yugoslavia. Cornwell observes that i from the start it was known that Pavelic was a “totalitarian dictator”, a “puppet of Hitler and Mussolini”, that he had passed racist and anti-Semitic laws, and that he was “bent on enforced conversions from Orthodox to Catholic Christianity”. Effectively, on behalf of Hitler and Mussolini, the Pope was “holding Pavelic’s hand and bestowing his papal blessing” to the new puppet state of Croatia. Thus, it can argued, that the Catholic Cardinals in the Vatican were accomplices of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia and the extermination of the countries Jews, Serbs and Roma citizens. Indeed, many of members of Croatian Catholic clergy took a “leading part” in the Holocaust.
One leading member of the Catholic church in Croatia was the Nazi collaborator Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac. When he met Pavelic on April 16th 1941, he later noted that he had promised that he would “not show tolerance” to the Orthodox Serbian church – which gave Stepinac the impression that Pavelic “was a sincere Catholic”. By June 1941, when German army units were reporting that the “Ustashe have gone raging mad” killing Serbs, Jews and Roma, Catholic priests, notably Franciscans took a leading part in the massacres, as pointed out by Cornwell:
“Priests, invariably Franciscans, took a leading part in the massacres. Many, went around routinely armed and performed their murderous acts with zeal. A Father Bozidar Bralow, known for the machine gun that was his constant companion, was accused of performing a dance around the bodies of 180 massacred Serbs at Alipasin-Most. Individual Franciscans killed, set fire to homes, sacked villages, and laid waste the Bosnian countryside at the head of Ustashe bands. In September of 1941, an Italian reporter wrote of a Franciscan he had witnessed south of Banja Luka urging on a band of Ustashe with his crucifix.” (p 254).
It is clear now, that other members of the Catholic Cardinals in Europe also knew about the massacres. On March 6th 1942, a French Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, a close confident of the Pope to the Croatian representative to the Vatican:
“I know for a fact, that it is the Franciscans themselves, as for example Father Simic of Knin, who have taken part in attacks against the Orthodox populations so as to destroy, the Orthodox Church. In the same way, you destroyed the Orthodox Church in Banja Luka. I know for sure that the Franciscans in Bosnia and Herzegovina have acted abominably, and this pains me. Such acts should not be committed by educated, cultured, civilized people, let alone by priests”. (p 259)
The Catholic Church took full advantage of Yugoslavia defeat in 1941 to increase the power and outreach of Catholicism in the Balkans – Stepinac had shown contempt for religious freedom in way that even Cornwell says was “tantamount to complicity with the violence” against Yugoslavia’s Jews, Serbs and Roma. For his part, the Pope “was never but benevolent” to the leaders and representatives of fascist Croatia – in July 1941 he greeted a hundred members of the Croatian police force headed by the Zagreb chief of police; in February 1942, he gave gave an audience for Ustashe youth group visiting Rome, and he also greeted another representation of Ustashe youth in December of that year. The Pope showed his true colours when in 1943 he told a Croatian papal representative that he was:
“Disappointed that, in spite of everything, no one wants to acknowledge the one, real and principal enemy of Europe; no true, communal military crusade against Bolshevism has been initiated” (p 260)
Stepinac for one, appears to have been a full supporter of forced conversions – along with many of his bishops, one of whom described the advent of fascist Croatia as “a good occasion for us to help Croatia save the countless souls” – i.e., Yugoslavia’s non-Catholic majority. Throughout the war, Croatian bishops not only endorsed forced conversions, they never, at any point, dissociated themselves from Pavelic’s regime, let alone denounce it or threaten to excommunicate him or any other senior member of the regime. In fact, befor Yugoslavia was invaded, Stepinac had told Regent Prince Paul of Yugoslavia in April 1940:
“The most ideal thing would be for the Serbs to return to the faith of their fathers, that is, to bow the head before Christ’s representative (the Pope). Then we could at last breathe in this part of Europe, for Byzantinism has played a frightful role in the history this part of the world” (p 265).
The Pope was better informed of the situation inside Yugoslavia than he was about any other area of Europe. His apostolic delegate, Marcone, was a regular visitor to Croatia, travelling on military planes between Rome and Zagreb. Cornwell describes Marcone – who was the Popes personal representative in Croatia – as “an amateur who appeared to sleepwalk through the entire bloodthirsty era” (p 257). The Vatican would also have been aware of frequent BBC broadcasts on Croatia, of which the following (which were monitored by the Vatican State), on February 16th 1942, was typical:
“The worst atrocities are being committed in the environs of the archbishop of Zagreb [Stepinac]. The blood of brothers is flowing in (the) streams. 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” (p 256).
At the end of the war, the Ustashe looted some $80 million from Yugoslavia, much of which was composed of gold coins. Here again, they had the total collaboration of Vatican, which according to Cornwell included not only hospitality of a pontifical Croatian religious institution (the College of San Girolamo degli Illirici in Rome), but also provision of storage facilities and safe-deposit services for the Ustashe treasury. During the war, the College of San Girolamo became a home for Croatian priests receiving Vatican-sponsored theological education – after the war, it became the headquarters for the postwar Ustashe underground, providing Croatian war criminals with escape routes to Latin America. A leading figure at the College of San Girolamo was the Croatian priest and Nazi war criminal Father Krunoslav Draganavic – described once by U.S. intelligence officials as Pavelic’s “alter ego”. His arrival in Rome in 1943 was to coordinate Italian-Ustashe activities, and after the war, he was a central figure in the organising escape routes for Nazi’s to Argentina. It was later claimed that members of the CIA had said that he had been allowed to store the archives of the Croatian legation inside the Vatican, as well as valuables brought out of Yugoslavia by fleeing Ustashe in 1945.
The most famous Nazi mass-murderer who passed through the College of San Girolamo was Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyons, the Gestapo police chief in that French city between 1942 and 1944, who had tortured and murdered Jews and members of the French resistance. Barbie lived under Draganavic’s protection at San Girolamo from early 1946 until late 1947, when the US Counter Intelligence Corp helped him escape to Latin America. Another Nazi war criminal, Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka death camp was assisted with false papers and hiding places in Rome by the Nazi sympathizer Bishop Alois Hudal.
Draganavic was expelled from San Girolamo a few days after Pope Pius XII death in October 1958. Archbishop Stepanic was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Croatia on October 1998. The ultra-Nationlist Tudjman regime in Croatia renamed a village in Krajina after him – after the entire Serb population were expelled in 1995.
The Franciscan order has always denied the evidence of its wartime ties to the Ustasha regime in Croatia. They acted as facilitators and middlemen in moving the contents of the Ustasha Treasury from Croatia to Austria, Italy and finally South America after the war. During the Nazi occupation of Bosnia, the Francisans were closely involved with the Ustashe regime. Not far from Medjugorje in Bosnia (where the Virgin Mary is said to put in nightly appearances for the tens of thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims), is the Franciscan monastery at Sirkoi Brijeg which has become the centre of allegations linking it to disappearance of the Ustashe treasury after the war.
In San Francisco Federal Court in November 1999, in what was described as “tangible proof” of the Nazi Franciscan connection, was obtained when cameramen working for Phillip Kronzer (who has helped expose the Medjugorje myth) obtained entry to the Monastery and filmed a secret shrine honouring the Ustashe. A plaque dedicated to Franciscan monks who were Ustasha members was filmed along with a massive shrine lining the walls complete with photographs of Ustasha soldiers some in Nazi uniforms. The admonition, “Recognize us, We are yours” can clearly be seen in the video footage. On a later visit to the monastery the shrine had been dismantled but the videotape preserved the evidence and has now been made available by the Kronzer Foundation.
A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit was filed In August 2000 in San Francisco, USA by California attorneys Jonathan Levy and Tom Easton against the U.S. Army and the CIA. Easton and Levy are also pursuing a Holocaust era lawsuit against the Vatican Bank and Franciscan Order regarding the disappearance of the World War II Nazi Croatian treasury including gold, silver, and jewels plundered from concentration camp victims in Croatia and Bosnia, mainly Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies. The lawyers are seeking the release of over 250 documents from the files of Draganavic. He is now regarded as one of the of the principal operators of the so-called Vatican “ratline” that smuggled Nazis and their loot to South America between 1945 and the late 1950’s. Beneficiaries of the ratline included Adolf Eichman, Klaus Barbie “the butcher of Lyons” and the notorious Croatian mass murderer Ante Pavelic as well as thousands of lesser known Nazis and collaborators.
While file releases on the ratline date from as early as the 1983 Barbie case, a core of documents remain withheld on grounds of “national security.” It is these documents the attorneys want from the Army and CIA. They describe him as a “sinister priest” who is alleged to have worked at various times for the secret services of Croatia, the Vatican, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia as well as British and American intelligence.
The attorneys have suggested that the withheld documents, most well over 40 years old are highly embarrassing to the Americans, the British, and Vatican and hold the key to a multinational money laundering scheme that used Holocaust victim loot to finance covert Cold War era operations against the Soviet Union and its allies.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.