Saturday, September 3, 2011

Abbot Marcone and Croatia

I have been rather busy of late and been kept away from blogging.  Just before work commitments went into top gear, this article appeared in L'Osservatore Romano.  It looks at the Apostolic Visitor to Croatia, Abbot Giuseppe Marcone OSB, (1882-1952).  The Ustasha dictator, Ante Pavelic (1889-1959) desperately wanted Vatican recognition of his regime.  His visit to Rome in May 1941 (See ADSS 4.348, 351, 352, 356, 358) was a tight-rope exercise for the Vatican.

ADSS makes it clear that the pope wanted to avoid anything that would create an impression that the Holy See recognised the Croatian state or that is endorsed the policies of the Ustasha.  It is not difficult to see how these impressions were possible.  It mattered little that Pavelic's visit had none of the trappings associated with diplomatic visits; the fact remained that the pope received him.  To be fair to Pius, he had little choice.

One of the outcomes of the Pavelic visit was the appointment of Marcone as an Apostolic Visitor, a promise Pius made to Archbishop Stepinac in June 1941 (ADSS 4.392).  It was not until July 1941 that the pope appointed Marcone as Apostolic Visitor (ADSS 5.21), and August when the Visitor arrived in Zagreb (ADSS 5.36).

Marcone held no formal diplomatic credentials and was a guest of the Croatian government, nothing more.  His role was to watch the concerns of the Church in Croatia.  Nonetheless, Marcone not only watched Catholic interests, but also the growing rabid antisemitism in Croatia.  On 23 August 1941 he wrote to Cardinal Maglione, the Secretary of State, about the marking of Jews that had just begun in Croatia.  He also mentioned the hatred Jews were exposed to.  Maglione's instructions to Marcone (ADSS 8.139) were basically to do whatever he could to help while keeping out of anything that could compromise his official status.  I will post my translation of this document in the next post.  The Cardinal also added that Marcone was to ensure that the clergy kept out of politics and remain neutral.

Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac
Abbot Giuseppe Marcone,
Apostolic Visitor to Croatia

The papers of Apostolic Visitor, Giuseppe Ramiro Marcone reveal the Holy See’s commitment to helping Jews persecuted by Nazis

2011-08-09 L’Osservatore Romano

While the Second World War was blazing on the European continent, Benedictine abott, Monsignor Giuseppe Ramiro Marcone, was sent, in the summer of 1941, by the Holy See to the Croatian episcopate, as an Apostolic Visitor, to look after the Catholic interests in that country.

Detailed instructions from the Secretary of State of the Holy See clearly state that Abbot Marcone’s mission had “a completely spiritual and religious aim…from which it follows that the Most Reverend Abbot Marcone visiting the Kingdom of Croatia…will endeavor to avoid official contact with the governing authorities, in such a way that his mission be, and appear to be, in accordance with the desires of the Holy See, of a strictly religious nature...Particularly, the Most Reverend Prelate will advise and support Monsignor Stepinac and the Episcopate in combating the evil influence of neo-pagan propaganda which could be exercised in the organization of the new state.”

Only three weeks after his arrival, the diligent Apostolic Visitor sent a detailed report to the Holy See in which he described, in an abundance of detail, the precarious condition of the Jews in Croatia. The Roman Curia did not delay in replying, and on September 3rd, a letter from the Secretariat of State reached him containing precise directives which the Pope’s representative was advised to follow scrupulously: “Moderation is recommended regarding the treatment of Jews who reside in Croatian territory.” I

In reality, as Marcone’s secretary, Don Giuseppe Masucci, writes in his diary of the events, beginning on February 10, 1942, Abbot Marcone was asked to approach, with a certain swiftness, the Ustasa authorities to plead the cause of the Jews who were about to be taken to concentration camps; the prelude to the wicked “final solution to the Jewish problem.” S.S. Captain, Franz Abromeit, had been sent to Croatia to oversee the transfer of 5,500 Jews who – between August 13-20, 1942 – were removed from Croatian concentration camps and put on five trains destined for Auschwitz.

Seriously worried for the precipitation of events, Chief Rabbi of Zagreb, Miroslav Shalom Freiberger, in the late afternoon of February 10, 1942, decided to immediately call on the Pope’s representative. In Don Giuseppe Masucci’s diary the entry reads, “Chief Rabbi Dr. Freiberger presented himself to me at 6 pm, out of breath, and communicated to me that the city is full of notices announcing that all Jews, without distinction, must present themselves to the police. I told him that I would ask to speak with the Chief of Police the following day, and ask for an explanation. He added that the situation was very urgent because they would have already arrested everyone that night. So I telegraphed Dido (Eugen Kvaternik) saying that I had an extremely urgent matter to discuss with him and that there was no time to waste; he told me that I could come at 7 pm. At 7 pm I went to him and at length spoke, implored him and begged on behalf of these unfortunate Jews. I told him that mixed marriages should not be considered Jewish, but as part of the Catholic Church.”

The Police Chief , “was fairly pensive and immediately gave the order to publish in the newspapers that the notices were annulled. That all Jews in a mixed marriage should not be further disturbed, and that those who were still alive in concentration camps should be immediately released.” Abbot Marcone then took it upon himself to organize the transport of a small group of Jewish children – among whom was the son of the Chief Rabbi of Zagreb – through Hungary and Romania to safety in neutral Turkey.

As a sign of his gratitude, Rabbi Freiberger sent a letter to the Pontiff, on August 4, 1942, in which he expressed his deepest thanks for the sacrifice of many Catholic religious in assisting the Jews, and hoped that the Vatican would continue in this direction: “Full of respect, I dare come before the throne of Your Holiness to express, as Grand Rabbi of Zagreb and spiritual head of the Jews in Croatia, my most profound gratitude, and that of my congregation for the goodness, without limits, that the representatives of the Holy See and the heads of the church have shown to our poor brothers.”

By Giovanni Preziosi


  1. Paul, what I find puzzling about Croatia, is that Pavelic was a devout Catholic...a daily communicant, according to some sources. I can understand that efforts were made by individual Catholics, clergy and Vatican representativeshurchmen and Nuncios etc. to stop the slaughter of Jews, but the document above is quite ambiguous. Abbot Marcone convinces the police chief that Jews who had married Catholics should not be considered Jews, so they are released. But what about putting pressure on Pavelic - even threatening him with excommunication. One can understand the Pope having no control over Hitler...but over Pavelic, one would have thought he had total control.

  2. Priest-president of Slovakia, Jozef Tiso, could also be classified as a "devout Catholic" by some. The position of the Apostolic
    Visitor was purely related to Church matters; he had no diplomatic standing since the Vatican did not recognise the Croatian state (no states created during war were recognised) and could only appeal to the government on issues that touched the life of the church directly. This included the laws surrounding marriage. Given that the Croatian state recognised the status of Catholic marriage as equal to Croatian civil law, Marcone could support Stepinac in appealing on behalf of Jewish spouses of Catholics.

    It is important to keep in mind the level of anti-Jewish hostility in Croatia, and other places, among the clergy - bishops as well as priests - let alone that Catholic people. Saving Jewish spouses was done because they were married to Catholics and the marriage bond was sacrosanct. It was the only way Marcone had to do anything outside of appeals to the consciences of Pavelic and his government to stop anti-Jewish measures.

    The timing is also important. The murder of the Jews had escalated dramatically after the invasion of the USSR, but most of the killing took place in European Russia, the Baltic States and Ukraine. Mass killing at Auschwitz was still to come and the death camps at Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno and Belzec were still in the planning stages. Pavelic was a rabid antisemite whose government was rapidly becoming lethal towards the Jews and others. Marcone was well informed, but I do not believe he could imagine just how bad things were to get.

    Pressuring Pavelic ... looking at the Vatican's relations with Tiso and the appeals made to him as a priest as well as president, leads me to suggest that Rome was not going to openly challenge Pavelic to abandon the persecution of the Jews. There is also the argument posited by Mike Phayer that Croatia was seen by the Holy See as the bulwark of Catholicism in the Balkans against the Orthodox and Islam. I tend to agree with this argument but qualify it with the assertion that the "dream" of a Catholic Croatian bulwark was quickly replaced by a terrible realisation that the brutality and horror of the Ustasha would only ensure an equally terrible revenge once the war turned against the Axis. In the autumn of 1941 these thoughts were still another twelve to eighteen months away.

    At best, the situation with Croatia was another example of the limits of papal power. I have no doubt that Pius knew that Pavelic was trying to use the papacy to get recognition of his regime. Pius played a very tricky game in trying to avoid a complete break with the gangster regime while attempting to assert some form of moral authority.


You are welcome to post a comment. Please be respectful and address the issues, not the person. Comments are subject to moderation.