In April 1941, after Germany invaded, occupied, and partitioned Yugoslavia, a Versailles Treaty-created state, the Nazis permitted the local fascist organization, the Ustasa, to create the “Independent” State of Croatia. Croatia was the province of Yugoslavia with the largest proportion of Roman Catholics. Orthodox Catholic Serbs and Muslims resided primarily in the provinces of Serbia, Bosnia, and Slovenia, which dominated the rest of the divided country. Almost immediately, the Ustasa regime under the leadership of dictator Ante Pavelic unleashed a brutal reign of terror in which hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Catholic Serbs, Jews, Muslims, and Gypsies were murdered. John Cornwell, author of “Hitler’s Pope,” describes Pavelic’s “reign of terror:
“(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 (the 1992– 95 Bosnian War) in Yugoslavia at the time of writing (1999), Pavelic’s onslaught against the Orthodox Serbs remains one of the most appalling civilian massacres known to history.”
Serbs were considered to be the primary threat in Croatia; Jews were the secondary threat. The regime established concentration/death camps, the largest of which was the Jasenovac complex, southeast of Zagreb. Others camps were located at Danica, Loborgrad, Jadovno, Gradiska and Djakovo. Despite being a secondary threat, more than 80 percent of Yugoslavia’s Jews were murdered. As happened elsewhere in occupied Eastern Europe, members of local nationalist militias and auxiliaries participated in the slaughter of targeted minorities. The Italian army, despite Italy’s alliance with Germany, however, helped rescue thousands of Croatian Jews, refusing to comply with the Ustasa plan to deport them from Italian held regions of Croatia.
Clergymen of the Croatian Catholic Church from priests to a cardinal were complicit in the mass murder occurring on Croatian soil. From 1941 to 1945, Ante Pavelic’s puppet regime carried out some of the more horrific crimes of the Holocaust, killing over eight hundred thousand people — 750,000 Serbs, sixty thousand Jews, and twenty-six thousand Gypsies. In these crimes, Croatia’s fascist regime was supported by Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, archbishop of Zagreb. Cardinal Stepinac, primate of Croatia, was an advocate for elimination of Jews and Orthodox Catholic Serbs from Croatian society. A staunch nationalist and anti-Bolshevist, Stepinac asserted, among other things, that Jews were pornographers and that their doctors were the country’s primary abortionists.
Many victims of the Pavelic regime were killed in the Jasenovac complex, where over two hundred thousand people died, mainly Orthodox Catholic Serbs. Several fundamentalist priests were involved in the killing, notably Fr. Miroslav Filipovic, photo supra, a Franciscan, and one of the commandants of Jasenovac who was hanged for war crimes (wearing his clerical robes) after the war. Some 240,000 people were “rebaptized” into Roman Catholicism in “the Catholic Kingdom of Croatia” as part of the Pavelic regime’s policy to “kill a third, deport a third, convert a third” of the Serbs, Jews and Gypsies in Bosnia and Croatia.
John Cornwell has charged that from the beginning of Pavelic’s regime, the Vatican was fully aware of what was happening in Croatia. Nonetheless, in May, 1941, according to Cornwell, Pius XII greeted Pavelic during a devotional audience at St. Peter’s in Rome. At that time, the Vatican granted de-facto recognition of the Pavelic regime, calling it a “bastion against communism,” despite the fact that the Vatican still had diplomatic ties with the country of Yugoslavia. Cornwell further charged that from the start of the Ustasa regime, Pavelic was known to be a puppet of Hitler and Mussolini, who, like them, promulgated anti-Semitic laws, but unlike them, favored forced conversions of Serbs from Eastern Orthodox to Roman Catholicism.
At war’s end, the succeeding communist regime of Josip Broz Tito placed Cardinal Stepinac on trial for war crimes, namely, collaboration with the Nazis, collaboration with the Pavelic regime, allowing chaplains in the Ustasa army to act as religious agitators, forceful conversions of Orthodox Catholic Serbs, and high treason against the Yugoslav government.
After a trial in Zagreb, Stepinac was convicted and sentenced to seventeen years in prison. Prosecution witnesses testified, among other things, that a group of priests armed with pistols sought to convert or kill Serbs. One witness testified that up to six hundred fifty Serbs were stabbed or beaten to death while they were seeking sanctuary in a church. Specifically, Stepinac was convicted of collaboration with and glorifying the Pavelic regime in the Catholic press, pastoral letters, and speeches. Stepinac died under house arrest in 1960. The trial was condemned by the Holy See as “political theater.” Pope Pius XII excommunicated everyone involved in the court proceedings, including jury members, and termed the process “un tristissimo processo” (a “saddest trial”). Neither Fr. Filipovic nor Cardinal Stepinac was excommunicated. To this day worldwide, many traditionalist Catholics consider Cardinal Stepinac a hero for his resistance to communism and consider his trial, conviction, and imprisonment to have been unjust.
Michael Phayer, author of “The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965,” commenting on the Stepinac trial wrote: “The charge that Stepinac supported the Pavelic regime was, of course, true, as everyone knew… if Stepinac had responded to the charges against him, his defense would have inevitably unraveled, exposing the Vatican’s support of the genocidal Pavelic.”
Ante Pavelic, the original “Butcher of the Balkans,” died peacefully in Madrid in 1959. The mass murderer survived WWII and never faced a war crimes tribunal. Instead he was offered sanctuary by the Vatican and became a security adviser to Juan and Eva Peron before retiring to fascist Spain.