Shades of Grey: The Record of Archbishop Stepinac

Srdja Trifkovic

Srdja Trifkovic

As a long-time upholder of friendship and alliance between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditionalists, I am disheartened by Pope Benedict XVI’s uncritical portrayal of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac (1898-1960) as a saintly figure during his visit to Croatia earlier this week.

In a homily at the Zagreb Cathedral the Pontiff called Stepinac “a fearless pastor and an example of apostolic zeal and Christian fortitude, whose heroic life continues today to illuminate the faithful of the Dioceses of Croatia, sustaining the faith and life of the Church in this land”:

The merits of this unforgettable bishop are derived essentially from his faith: in his life, he always had his gaze fixed on Jesus, to whom he was always conformed, to the point of becoming a living image of Christ, and of Christ suffering. Precisely because of his strong Christian conscience, he knew how to resist every form of totalitarianism, becoming, in a time of Nazi and Fascist dictatorship, a defender of the Jews, the Orthodox, and of all the persecuted, and then, in the age of communism, an advocate for his own faithful, especially for the many persecuted and murdered priests.

The historical record presents a more nuanced and ambivalent picture of Stepinac. The leading American historian of the Balkans, H. James Burgwyn, notes that, as “a vocal nationalist Croat,” Stepinac “conferred respectability on the Ustaša regime by his immediate approval of the new government… Without the urging of prelates and priests, many Croats, who otherwise would have turned their backs on the Ustaša atrocities, allowed themselves to be co-opted by Pavelic’’s regime” (H. James Burgwyn. Empire on the Adriatic: Mussolini’s Conquest of Yugoslavia, 1941-1943. New York: Enigma Books, 2005, pp. 52-53).

Specifically, on April 28, 1941, Archbishop Stepinac issued a pastoral letter in which he called on the clergy to take part in the “exalted work of defending and improving the Independent State of Croatia,” the birth of which “fulfilled the long-dreamed-of and desired ideal of our people” (Katolic(ki List, April 28, 1941).  The pastoral letter was read in every Croatian parish and over the radio.

The clergy hardly needed the Archbishop’s encouragement, however. This phenomenon was soon noted by various Axis officials in the field. The German Security Service (SD) expert for the Southeast, Dr. Wilhelm Hoettl, noted that forced conversions from Orthodoxy to figured prominently in the clerical agenda from the outset: “Since being Croat was equivalent to confessing to the Catholic faith, and being Serb followed the profession of Orthodoxy, they now began to convert the Orthodox to Roman Catholicism under duress. Forced conversions were actually a method of Croatization” (Walter Hagen. The Secret Front: the Story of Nazi Political Espionage. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1953, p. 238. ‘Hagen’ was Hoettl.).

A devout and austere man, distressed by the deportations and mass killing around him, “Stepinac was no admirer of the Nazi and Fascist creeds beyond their authoritarian ideas and anti-Communism,” Burgwyn notes, but for over two years “he refrained from open criticism of Pavelic’’s blood-soaked rule and kept silent over the Ustaša murders of the Orthodox” (Burgwyn, op. cit. p. 53).

In what is cited by his apologists as a bold move, Stepinac once declared from pulpit that “all men and races are children of God,” specifically mentioning “Gypsies, Black, European, or Aryan”—but no Serbs. He did not mention the main victims of the regime by name—not once—for the rest of the war. After more than two years of Ustaša rule, on October 31, 1943, Stepinac stated in a sermon that “there are people who accuse us of not having taken action against the crimes committed in different regions of our country. Our reply is… we cannot sound the alarm, for every man is endowed with his own free will and alone is responsible for his acts. It is for this reason that we cannot be held responsible for some in the ecclesiastical ranks.” Under the circumstances this view amounted to an abdication of moral responsibility.

No less contentiously, Stepinac stated at the Council of Croatian Bishops that a “psychological basis should be created among the Orthodox followers” for the conversions: “They should be guaranteed, upon conversion, not only life and civil rights, but in particular the right of personal freedom and also the right to hold property.” He did not say, or appear to think, that those rights were due to the unconverted Serbs. (Over a year before Yugoslavia’s collapse, on January 17, 1940, Stepinac wrote in his diary: “The most ideal thing would be if the Orthodox Serbs were… to bend their heads before Christ’s Vicar, our Holy Father [the Pope].”)

Stepinac’s failing was primarily in his timid and reluctant attitude to those members of the Croatian clergy who openly identified with the Ustaša regime, or even became supporters of and participants in the genocide.

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” (Hrvatska Straža, May 11, 1941)—yet Stepinac did not intervene. On the subject of those laws, the Archbishop of Sarajevo Ivan Šaric’ declared that “there exist limits to love” and declared it “stupid and unworthy of Christ’s disciples to think that the struggle against evil could be waged in a noble way and with gloves on.” Stepinac did not reprimand him. Those were the early days of the Ustaša regime, however, before the slaughter started in earnest. Later, “when the Ustaša launched their massacres, the Holy See took no overt measures to bring them to a halt” (Bergwyn, op. cit. p. 54).

This need not have been so:

Because Pavelic’ so eagerly sought Vatican diplomatic recognition and led a movement of zealous Catholics, Pius had the leverage to force Pavelic’ and the Ustaša to stop murdering Serbs and Jews.  [Pavelic’ requested recognition immediately after arriving in Zagreb: “I fervently ask Your Holiness with Your highest apostolic authority to recognize our state, and deign as soon as possible to send Your representative, who will help me with Your fatherly advice . . . “]  The Vatican never attempted to use this leverage to prevent this genocide. Pius XII never condemned the destruction of the Serbian and Jewish population in Croatia, even though he held great sway over Pavelic’ and his followers [Robert McCormick: Pius XII, in History in Dispute, Volume 11: The Holocaust, 1933-1945. St. James Press, 2003, p. 193].

By the summer of 1941 some priests abandoned all pretense of restraint. Fr. Dragutin Kamber, SJ, as the Ustaša trustee in the city of Doboj, in central Bosnia, personally ordered the execution of hundreds of Serbs. Fr. Peric’ of the Gorica monastery instigated and participated in the massacre of over 5,000 Serbs in Livno and the surrounding villages. He encouraged the local Ustaša bands to start the slaughter with his own sister who was married to a Serb. The Catholic Weekly, the official journal of the Archdiocese headed by Stepinac, warned what was in store for the “schismatics” and enemies of the New Order: “When in the past God spoke through papal encyclicals, they closed their ears. Now God has decided to use other means… The sermons will be echoed by cannon, tanks and bombers” (Katolic(ki tjednik, Zagreb, 31 August 1941).

Particularly controversial was the role of Stepinac in a belated attempt to save the Ustaša state from collapse. In March 1945, he presided over a commemorative assembly in Zagreb devoted to “Catholic priests killed by the hand of the enemy” (Katolic(ki list, Zagreb 1945, No. 12-13, 29 March 1945, pp. 99-100).

At the ensuing Easter student assembly Stepinac stated, “If all nations have the right to secure their life and independence, then it is impossible to impose a solution contrary to the popular will of the Croat people either” (ibid. pp. 95-97).

In the message to the faithful signed by Stepinac and the Catholic episcopate on 24 March 1945, the bishops made a ringing assertion that “during the Second World War the will of the Croat people was expressed and realized in our own State” and that “nobody has the right to accuse any citizen of the State of Croatia because they respect this immutable will of the Croat People, to which it has the right both by God’s laws and those of men” (ibid. pp. 93-95).

The moral consequences of such posture are illustrated by Dr. Vladko Maček’s personal encounter with a mass murderer. The leader of the Croatian Peasant Party, interned at the Jasenovac camp headquarters in 1941-42, recalled hearing from the other side of the barbed wire “the screams and wails of despair and extreme suffering, the tortured outcries of the victims, broken by intermittent shooting.” They “accompanied all my waking hours and followed me into sleep at night.” He noticed that one of the guards assigned to watch him crossed himself each night before going to bed. Maček asked the guard whether he was not afraid of the punishment of God. “Don’t talk to me about that,” the guard replied, “for I am perfectly aware what is in store for me. For my past present and future deeds I shall burn in hell, but at least I shall burn for Croatia” (Vlatko Maček, In the Struggle for Freedom, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1957, p. 234).

As this episode illustrates, the Ustaša criminality is measured not only by the numbers of dead Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, but also by the impact of their crimes on the society at large. That impact remains enormous, seven decades after the deed. Pope Benedict’s uncritical praise of Stepinac does not help heal the wounds and build the bridges.

Five years ago, in an address to the Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California, I noted that to regain the war-ravaged remnants of Christendom “it should be admitted by every Christian that others—people outside his particular tradition—may share Christian virtues and lead good lives… They need to hang together, in these trying times, or else they will most assuredly hang separately.” Of this need I remain equally convinced today, which is why I find Pope Benedict’s rhetoric in Zagreb so disheartening and regrettable.

Read the entire article on the Chronicles of Culture website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.


  1. It is especially rich that this article was written by a man who denies the Srebrenica genocide (not just to slightly mitigate it, as some do) and who once worked for a woman who stated “It was genetically deformed material that embraced Islam. And now, of course, with each successive generation it simply becomes concentrated. It gets worse and worse. It simply expresses itself and dictates their style of thinking, which is rooted in their genes. And through the centuries, the genes degraded further.”

    A Serb dislikes a Croat archbishop. The sky is blue.

  2. Pravoslavac :

    I usually like Dr Trifkovic’s writings, so I find this piece depressing, since – pace Trifkovic’s claims to favor Catholic-Orthodox amity – this will hardly help that worthwhile cause.

    Did the Catholic Church in Croatia behave less than well during the 1941-1945 “Independent State of Croatia” (NDH) dictatorship? Certainly. Did individual priests, mostly Franciscans, participate in atrocities? Sadly, yes. Yet Abp Stepinac’s role was a good deal more ambiguous, and there is plenty that speaks to his credit too. See Tom Piatak’s response to Trikovic at Chronicles (where this article first appeared) for a more balanced assessment of Stepinac’s role. While it would have been nice, in the name of Catholic-Orthodox amity, to have Benedict perhaps note that Stepinac is viewed negatively by Serbs especially, I hardly see that sort of Christian charity on display from Orthodox generally, and Serbs particularly, who seem to neglect that Stepinac suffered mightily for the faith under the Communists, and was basically powerless to do much during the NDH period either, since the Ustashas were criminals who executed opponents without blinking an eye – including some Catholic priests.

    I would note that the Orthodox Church after WWII did some awful things too, above all their complicity in the destruction of Eastern Catholic Churches in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe, a bloody process that generated some of the worst Christian suffering under Communism. Of course this was orchestrated by the KGB, but the Orthodox leadership at all levels covered themselves with something less than glory with their involvement in doing away with the hated “Uniates”. Those Eastern Catholics, who lived through hell from 1945 to 1990, are still waiting for an apology, last I checked ….

    Saying “we had no choice” is no better than what devout Catholics say about Stepinac. As Christians, we are supposed to forgive. It would be great to have someone say, as the Polish Catholic bishops said to their German counterparts in the 1960s: “We forgive, and we ask for forgiveness.”

    This would be a good place to start in the name of Catholic-Orthodox charity and amity. Trifkovic’s piece is one-sided and uncharitable, and hardly helps.

  3. First, why is it that Orthodox care about who the RC decides to proclaim a “saint”? It is sheer lunacy and as idiotic as sending an Orthodox delegation to sit through Vatican II. Or conversely, as idiotic as having Roman bishops attend what should be purely internal Orthodox meetings.

    (Just think, the current Bishop of Istanbul would invite RC bishops to his version of a weekend get away “Great and Holy Council” rubberstamping pre-masticated academic tracts that validate and confirm his position as Supreme All-Everything, but not invite all Orthodox bishops in the Americas. But, I seriously digress.)

    All of this is just as puzzling as the “Jewish” reaction to another RC prelate, Pius XII’s, “candidacy” for sainthood.

    That said, facts are facts – exposed in spades by Dr. Trifkovic and others here and elsewhere. Facts are one-sided and uncharitable: the historical person that was Stepinac was a legal and moral criminal. And Pius XII, to use a putatively more “charitable” word, “controversial,” at best. Yeah, that hampers and “hardly helps” Catholic-Orthodox charity and amity. You bet.

    In the making of Roman “saints” business, the “balancing” of either’s “historical record,” charitably, uncharitably, or without passion or prejudice, is left squarely with Benedict XVI and whatever title-engorged super sub-committee at the Vatican is responsible for “vetting” people they may proclaim. What, we Orthodox have standing to tell Rome, “ohhh, please don’t make so and so a saint, because we don’t agree and may be offended?” Huh?

    But to be clear, those outside the RC — like Dr. Trifkovic — can and perhaps even should analyze, question, mock, and ridicule the inherent contradiction and hypocricy of the Roman Catholic Church contending that rather dubious characters like Stipanac and Pius XII are “saints.” Though, a cautionary word to the wise is to first be careful about throwing stones in glass houses. (Cf. the Serbian Orthodox Church’s recent politicizing of glorification.)

    One other thing. I’m all for forgiving. But it seems odd to me, an admitted spiritual and intellectual midget, to suggest that we — Orthodox or otherwise – should forgive “saints,” regardless of who proclaims and considers them such.

  4. Whatever kind of a man Stepinac was, a good many Croatians still mention him in the same breath as their pro-Nazi leader Dr. Ante Pavelic (see here ). JPII’s dubious role in the YU war and, following the triumph of his diabolical and bellicose Balkanpolitik, his subsequent rush to a Croatia freshly ethnic-cleansed of its Serbs to beatify Stepinac was about quickly forging the narrative by which later generations would understand WWII & subsequent Yugoslavia: “a place where there was a lot of killing, but which was shepherded by a saintly, martyric bishop of the Catholic Church, which stood heroically against both Nazism and Communism.” Any questions on the role of the RCC in the Balkans will be stared down thereafter by the holy figure of the beatus.

    Against such a slick propaganda machine, the forlorn Serbs never stood a chance. The mold has been cast, history has been written, and Trifkovic, no matter what he says, will never come off as anything other than a bitter revisionist. Milosevic put it quite humorously at the Hague in 2002:

    “We heard here that we financed and helped the Serbs. The Serbs helping the Serbs, and that seems to be a crime. Why then is it not a crime that, for example, the Vatican provided money through the Vatican bank for the purchase of weapons for Croatia. By the same token, as Serbs helped Serbia, I am a criminal, but the Vatican helped Croats to secede by violent means but the Pope remains the Holy Father.”

    Well, he’s more than just “the Holy Father” now, being himself on the way to sainthood as well. History in the making…

    • Yes, so right, although citing to Milosevich does not lend much credibility to any discussion.

      L. succinctly captures some of the recent politics of “canonization” in the Roman Church in the context of the former Yugoslavia. But, of course, there are politics of glorification in local Orthodox Churches. And some of that is against the backdrop of the tragedy that was the former Yugoslavia.

      In Serbia, it did not take long after the fall of Titoism (Communism, Socialism, or whatever that period of collective lobotomy can be formally described as) for the SOC to glorify a whole host of martyrs, venerable confessors, and saints. Few can credibly contend that these martyrs and saints were anything but saintly and worthy of glorification.

      But read some of the Serbian Tropars and Kondaks and wonder if there isn’t a political bent to their decision making process. And consider some of the timing and context. If you want real nitty gritty, in the trenches, politicizing of this process, read up on the treatment of St. Stanko in Montenegro in the context of Djukanovich’s reign of kleptomania.

      St. Justin of Chelije, St. Nicholai of Libertyville, St. Barnabas of Gary, the Martyrs of Jasenovac, and the some dozen murdered clerics should have been glorified years if not decades sooner. There’s just too much of a coincidence that what the SOC did is — at the very least — in partial response to Rome’s parallel efforts regarding Stipanac, Pius, and therafter, JPII. The big difference, of course, is that none of the Serbian saints were themselves the “controversial” bad actors, far from it — although efforts to “discredit” St. Nicholai are rampant.

      Ohh, and in response to Owen: Srebrenica was a terrible thing for which there is no explanation or apology. The cold-blooded murder of one innocent life is the loss of one innocent life too many. Mladic is no war hero, he is a coward who failed to prosecute a military campaign as a commander in his position should.

      But, a proper history of Srebrenica is not some 10 day old “Bosnian” press release, the Clinton Administration “justification” for bombing Serbs on Pascha, one of Richard Holbrooke’s nicotine fit inspired tirades, or even what some New York Slimes “investigative report” asserts. The tragedy of Srebrenica itself is a political football, many of its dimensions contrived, distorted and contorted. Trifkovic exposes this.

      And, finally, Owen, for whom did Dr. Tifkovic work? And why is it that he is responsible or tainted by what you assert she stated?

    • Pravoslavac :

      Please get your facts straight. Since 2004, pro-Ustasha statements in Croatia are a crime (just as pro-Nazi ones are in much of the EU). Any Croat who publicly goes around wearing the “U” t-shirt and yelling “Long live Ante Pavelic!” runs the risk of getting arrested.

      There certainly are Croats who have pro-Ustasha views, but they keep quiet about it. There are plenty of Serbs who think Mladic, Karadzic, and the gang are wonderful, even saint-like, which is bizarre and the sign of a diseased culture.

      And citing Milosevic makes you look like a crank. He was the worst thing to happen to the Serbs in centuries, look at the condition of the country – politically, economically, socially – after a decade of Milosevic’s horrible rule.

      I have a lot of sympathy for Serbs, but they are largely to blame for their own misfortunes today. We should pray for them but we should not defend their misdeeds simply because they are Orthodox (at least nominally: Serbs are not a pious people, church attendance is very low even by Eastern European post-Communist standards). I certainly don’t respect Catholics who defend Croatian crimes – whether in 1943 or 1995 – simply because they are Catholics.

      • Your supposed straightening out of “my facts” pretends I made claims about Croatian law, when all I talked about were the sentiments of a “good many” Croats, even offering a citation. The truth is that Croatian Nazis see Stepinac as one of theirs, and place him next to Pavelic in their pantheon. Secondly, not that I mind being labelled a crank–especially by a Stepinac-defending, Serb-criticizing (“sympathizing”) non-Serb calling himself Pravoslavac (huh??)–but still: so what if I cited Milosevic? Even a stopped watch is right twice a day, and on this one he raised a very good point, in a humorous way to boot. You can be sure, though, that we Orthodox will never make him a saint.

        • Pravoslavac :

          So a “good many” Croats have pro-Ustasha views? And you know that how? Sounds very scientific …

          I have spent a lot of time in the region, and I can assure you that a high percentage of Croats and Serbs hold views which would distress post-modern secularists, but most of them are by no-means fascists. You are doing what the Communists did, conflating moderate nationalism (both Croatian and Serbian) with homicidal extremism. We know how well that worked out …

          And your “source” is Julia Gorin, who is a lunatic, Croat-hating Jewish blogger who believes every scurrilous thing ever said about Croats. Which is like believing Serbian ultranationalists that Albanians have tails and eat children.

          As for myself, I am by family origin from the “former Yugoslavia” and of course Orthodox, but I am not a Serb (nor a Croat), so I understand the issues and have some sympathy with all sides. They can all behave badly. But demonization of whole groups is factually and morally wrong.

          You should be aware that Patriarch +Pavle, that good man of blessed memory, spoke out many times in harsh criticism of the Milosevic regime, for its crimes and debauchery – he understood that Milosevic was a worse enemy to Serbdom than any Croat; he said it best:

          “So I say: if a Great Serbia should be held by committing crime, I would never accept it; may Great Serbia disappear, but to hold it by crime – no. If it were necessary to hold only a small Serbia by crime, I would not accept it. May small Serbia disappear, but to hold it by crime – no. And if there is only one Serb, and if I am that last Serb, to hold on by crime – I do not accept. May we disappear, but disappear as humans, because then we will not disappear, we will be alive in the hands of the living God.”

          • Let’s try this yet again:

            First, what I have been saying was:

            (1) a good many Croatians still mention Stepinac in the same breath as their pro-Nazi leader Dr. Ante Pavelic.

            To which I then added the related, but not identical, point:

            (2) Croatian Nazis see Stepinac as one of theirs, and place him next to Pavelic in their pantheon.

            Do you have anything to say on what I actually said?

            Second, Julia Gorin is not my “source,” but a useful collator of a series of articles, not written by her, which she has taken from a variety of newspapers. They are the sources I am citing. I have seen those things described with my own eyes.

            Third, on the demonization of a whole people. You mean like your “Serbs are not a pious people”? You are the one who have been doing the racial generalizing, Sir.

            Fourth, on the Patriarch Pavle quote, very nice. I am glad he said it. However, the Milosevic one speaks better to the point I was trying to make, a point that, as far as I can see, has gone unaddressed.

          • Pravoslavac :

            Since you seem to not actually read what I write, let’s try this again. Per your questions/comments:

            First: So what? What do think it proves that some Croats mention Stepinac and Pavelic together? Nothing.

            Second: She is your source, you cited it.

            Third: Check the stats, they are easily available, Serbs are less church attending, on average, than, say, Ukrainians or even Russians. Not demonizing anyone, merely stating facts.

            Fourth: Milosevic’s “point” was meaningless and factually wrong. Belgrade was sending “secret” arms shipments to Krajina Serbs by the summer of 1990, a full year becore Croatia declared independence. Well documented stuff, suggest you read up.

          • Pardon my absence, been busy; I am gonna keep to the points.

            (1) It shows Stepinac was a problematic personality, and that his beatification was not going to be accepted without raising eyebrows.

            (2) No, she is not my source. The sources are the articles she has pasted verbatim, and which form 90% of her piece. Think of it as a citation with an apud.

            (3) Everybody who’s really from the Balkans, and not some self-righteous wannabee, knows that regular church attendance is not a measure of “piety.” Orthodox popular piety follows different patterns. That is not to say that pious people do not go to church, but only that irregular attendees are not necessarily impious. You simply cannot say, “Serbs are not a pious people,” just because they don’t score well on your favorite (and skewed) piety index.

            (4) All know that everybody was running guns to everybody, well before Croatian independence. Also, kindly stop calling yourself Pravoslavac; [reality check]you are not Serbian[/reality check].

          • Pravoslavac :

            On your points:

            1. I agree entirely. This is the sort of balanced and moderate statement heretofore absent in your comments.

            2. You linked to the website of a lunatic – check your June 15 post – and that is a source by any standard. Sourcing someone like Julia Gorin in any way discredits you among the sane.

            3. When did I say I was from the Balkans? Moreover, I’ve never met a Balkan “wannabe” – most people avoid association with the Balkans, for valid reasons. Your answer is a cop-out, at best. I adhere to the teachings of the Orthodox Church, that attendance at Divine Liturgy is the real barometer of piety. Call me old fashioned. Read St. Nikolaj Velimirovic’s comments on his own people and their lack of piety – and that as the root of their problems – for detailed analysis of Serb irreligiosity far harsher than anything I have said.

            4. Since you mentioned “reality check”: Who was “everybody”? Get your facts straight. The Serbian SDB was illegally running guns to the Krajina Serbs, with the help of criminals like Arkan, no later than June 1990. The Croats did not start arming till months later, when signs of imminent aggression against Croatia, directed by Belgrade, were obvious.

            As for calling myself Pravoslavac, I shall call myself that because I am. I am no Serb but certainly Orthodox. Or does your bigoted mind think that only Serbs can be Orthodox? Since you don’t seem to know – you are either stupid or a Great Serbian fascist (I find there’s a lot of overlap in those groups) – Pravoslavac means Orthodox in Croatian (and Bosnian) too.

            There are plenty of Orthodox in Croatia who are not Serbs, FYI. My people are among them. They are Ukrainians (technically Rusyns) who emigrated from their homeland to Baranja – until 1918 it was all part of Hungary – over 150 years ago and, since then, many have moved to other parts of Croatia. You will note that this is Central Europe, not the Balkans, thank you. They are strong defenders of the Orthodox faith who don’t like nationalists, whether Serbian or Croatian.

            Your ethno-nationalist offense at my calling myself what I am, Pravoslavac, indicates a bigoted mind which has no place in the Orthodox Church, in which all nations are equal before God. You should pray about it.

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