Friday, September 30, 2016

Aloysius Stepanic - to canonise or not to canonise - that is the question

Aloysius Viktor Stepinac (1898-1960)

Saint, martyr, collaborator, conspirator, antisemite or …?

Aloysius Stepinac has been a source of controversy for over 70 years.  Depending on who one listens to, or what one reads about this man, he has been either praised as a fearless bishop who defended to the best of his ability the Jews of Croatia who were slated for death by the Ustase; a Catholic martyr who gave his life in defence of the faith in the face of Communism; a pro-Ustase Croatian nationalist who was silent as Pavelic’s regime perpetrated some of the most horrible crimes against Jews, Orthodox Christian Serbs, Roma and more than a few of his fellow Croats.

The historical record is not clear.  There are sources from both sides that point to Stepinac’s protests at the murder of the Jews; but there is more documentation that demonstrates his intense dislike of Orthodox Christianity, a tacit approval of forced conversion, and, above all, the most significant historical fact of his relationship with the Ustase regime until the end of the so-called “Independent State of Croatia” in 1945. 

Stepinac’s defenders cite verified documentary evidence of the archbishop’s protests, but none are able to satisfactorily explain why he did not break with the Ustase once the enormity of their genocidal criminal actions became clear – which was virtually from day one of the regime’s life in 1941.  Attempts to explain his alliance with Pavelic as a way of mitigating the evils perpetrated are simply threadbare and hold no weight.  Further, arguments that Stepinac sought help from Pius XII are likewise weak, if only because Pius XII insisted on playing a diplomatic cat and mouse game with a regime he abhorred but considered a lesser evil to a communist alternative.  Even by the standards of the day – in the middle of a war – this logic was brutal and appalling. 

If Metropolitan Andrej Sheptysky of Lviv in the Ukraine who very quickly realized the German intentions towards the Jews and other “undesirables” could not only order his clergy and religious to open their doors to take in those fleeing for their lives but write forcefully to Hitler, Himmler and then the Pope protesting as strongly as he could denouncing the slaughter of the Jews and the enslavement of Ukraine begs the question why Stepinac could not have done the same? 

And while it is true that the murderers were, for the most part, fellow Croats not Germans, was it not the archbishop’s duty to speak the truth – “You shall not murder”?  And could he not speak to his fellow bishops, the clergy, religious orders and the Catholic people a word in the same way that bishops in France and Holland did?

After the war Stepinac was put on trial by the new communist regime charged as a collaborator and sentenced to life imprisonment.  After five years he was released to house arrest in his home parish of Krasic where he remained until his death in 1960. 

Pope John Paul II believed Stepinac was a martyr for the faith and declared him “Blessed” in 1998.  Catholic tradition allows a person to be beatified without the customary miracle if they are believed to have been a martyr.  In his homily the Pope said of Stepinac:

One of the outstanding figures of the Catholic Church, having endured in his own body and his own spirit the atrocities of the Communist system, is now entrusted to the memory of his fellow countrymen with the radiant badge of martyrdom.

Nothing was mentioned about the war years.

The cause for canonization proceeded slowly gaining pace under Benedict XVI.  By 2012 it appeared that canonization would indeed take place, a decision that was confirmed in early 2014.  The Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irenij wrote a letter to Benedict asking that the canonization be halted until such time as all the evidence relating to Stepinac was studied.  A reply was received from Cardinal Bertone that made it clear that the matter was an internal Catholic affair, leading some to believe that Benedict did not see the letter.  Undaunted and with growing concern voiced by Serbs, Patriarch Irenij wrote again on 30 April 2014 to Pope Francis. 

In his letter to Pope Francis Patriarch Irenij wrote:
We are afraid that there are too many open questions and wounds which Cardinal Stepinac symbolizes. His canonization, to our great regret, would return the relations between Serbs and Croats, as well as between Catholics and Orthodox faithful, back to their tragic history… We ask you to remove the question of the canonization of Cardinal Stepinac from the agenda, and to leave it to the infallible judgment of God.

This time the reply was much different.  The canonization process was stopped in April 2016 on direction of Pope Francis.

Reactions from some Croatians were not positive, but the Archbishop of Zagreb showed pastoral restraint and welcomed the opportunity for a joint study of Stepinac’s life.  One of the most balanced articles was the short piece in the Jerusalem Post written by Drago Pilsel who argues convincingly that Francis’ decision was a sound and prudent choice.

An Orthodox delegation from Serbia met with Vatican officials to begin a conversation.  This led to the formation of a commission under the Presidency of Fr Bernard Ardura, president of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences. 

The commission was made up of equal representatives from the Catholic Church in Croatia and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Members of the Catholic Church of Croatia: Cardinal Josip Bozanić, archbishop of Zagabria; Bishop Ratko Perić of Mostar-Duvno; Bishop Antun Škorčević of Požega; Dr. Jure Krišto, Croatian Institute for History; Dr. Mario Jareb, Croatian Committee for Historical Sciences.

Members of the Serbian Orthodox Church: His Eminence Amfilohije, Metropolitan of Montenegro and of the Littoral; His Eminence Porfirije, Metropolitan of Zagabria and Ljubljana; Bishop Irinej of Novi Sad and of Bačka; Bishop Jovan of Slavonia, Professor Darko Tanasković, ambassador and permanent delegate of the Republic of Serbia at UNESCO.

The first meeting of the Commission met over 12-13 July 2016 in Rome.  The mandate of the Commission is to clarify questions about Stepanic’s life that is to be done as a joint “re-reading” of the evidence.  The Commission is not an alternative canonisation process; the original cause remains a matter for the Holy See.

Both sides said the meetings were positive and respectful.  The next meeting will be in Zagreb on 17-18 October 2016.

Whatever the outcome will be, this shared re-evaluation of documentation is a positive step not only in sound history and historiography, but for Catholic and Orthodox Christians it is a valuable and precious opportunity to grow in understanding of one another.  For Catholic Christians the need to understand the deep hurt that still resonates in many parts of Orthodoxy over the past is essential.  For Orthodox Christians the need to come to a more full appreciation of the diversity of Catholicism and the attempts at reform of the institution are also necessary. 

Jovan Culibrk "Historiography of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia"

Last night I was honoured to launch "Historiography of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia" by my colleague and friend, Bishop Jovan Culibrk of Slavonia.  I met Jovan in 2009 when I participated in a Yad Vashem sponsored seminar on Pope Pius XII.  Fr Jovan, as he was then, was a wonderfully hospitable host while I was in Jerusalem and I have valued his friendship.  Now as a bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church he is in a position to be a voice of historical scholarship for the preservation and memorialisation of those who died in Yugoslavia during the war especially the Jews and Serbs who perished at the hands of the Ustase and their collaborators.  Jovan is a man of towering intellect who knows Balkan history intimately, who knows the history of the Shoah and who likewise has a sound grasp on Catholic-Orthodox relations.  

There was a near-full house at the Sydney Jewish Museum including several Holocaust survivors who were born in Bosnia and Serbia.  They were enthusiastic in the welcome of the bishop.  Also present were many Serbian Orthodox Christians, including clergy and a considerable number of young people.  The Serbian Consul General also attended.

Jovan's reputation as a scholar of the Holocaust and modern Yugoslav / Balkan history places him in a unique position.  As part of his determination to ensure due honour and respect is given to those who died he invited the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, to visit Slavonia, and come to the site of the Jasenovac concentration camp in September this year.  Bartholomew came.

He was recently appointed a member of the Vatican-Serbian-Croatian Commission to study the life of the controversial Archbishop of Zagreb, Aloysius Stepanic (1898-1960).  I will post an entry on Stepanic after this one.

This the transcript of what I said last night.

Jovan Culibrk (2014) Historiography of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia, Belgrade

I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation as the first peoples of this land upon which we gather, and I pay my respects to Elders past and present and to any Aboriginal people present this evening.

I also wish Shanah Tova to everyone here tonight, may you be sealed in the Book of Life and may it go well over the fast.

29 September – feast of the Archangels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel – Latin Rite
21 November – Serbian Orthodox; patron of the Cathedral in Belgrade

In 1991 a student at my school who was not in my class asked to sit in one of my classes.  I was teaching the Arab-Israeli conflict at the time.  I asked why he wanted to "sit in"?  He said he wanted to listen and learn.  However, very early into the first lesson he began asking questions about the truthfulness of the historical record – questions about the veracity of Zionism and its claims for a Jewish homeland; the integrity of Theodore Herzl; the current situation in Israel and Occupied Territories; and finally, questions about the historical reliability of the received histories of the Holocaust, Antisemitism and Judeophobia.

There comes a time when one realizes that the child’s questions are coming from someone else.  I asked him why he was so interested in these questions.  I knew his background was Croatian – but not much more.  These were my pre-Yad Vashem days and my knowledge of the Shoah was only beginning to deepen.  My young man’s grandfather had been an Ustase officer during the war years.  I knew enough to be concerned.  It transpired that my student had been discussing my history classes with his grandfather who, it appears, was keen to give his grandson the “truth”.  It was a potent example of the hates of the Old World emigrating to Australia.  This boy was Australian, of Australian-born parents of Croatian descent.  His grandfather had brought the family to Australia after the war.  His pride in his grandfather’s membership in the Ustase was obvious – he had been richly fed on a diet of selective memory and history.  In his adolescent mind “he knew the truth” – and it was not the “truth” I was teaching.  I had to ask him not to attend any more classes.  This was my serious introduction to the complex, murky, oft-misunderstood, neglected and ignored world of Balkan history.

“The study of history itself is more important than the study of the writing about the history …  Nevertheless … this book has a certain duality, which is evident from its title: it primarily studies the scholarship about the destruction of the European Jews that took place in the region of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, but … also deals with the way in which historians in Yugoslavia regarded and studied the Holocaust.” (Culibrk 7)

Bishop Jovan chronicles with detail and academic rigour the course of Yugoslavia’s relationship with its Jewish subjects and citizens throughout the inter-war and war years.  It is not easy reading and is a reminder yet again, that while I am familiar with the history of the Shoah across Europe, there remain large gaps. One of those gaps bears the name “Yugoslavia”.

If I have read Bishop Jovan’s book correctly and done it justice, I believe the significance of his contribution to our understanding of the events of 1941-45 is great, but perhaps it is his meticulous study of how the history was created, rather than recorded.

The remains of the Jewish communities in Yugoslavia are scarce.  The ferocity of the German invasion in April 1941 was such that there was no time to save community records, create texts such Oneg Shabbat or even compile lists of names that would be remembered.  Literally, within months, most Jews in Yugoslavia were gone; and very few ever returned and fewer still recorded their experiences. 

It is not that we do not know what happened – there are the accounts created by the perpetrators and parallels with other experiences in other countries – but it is the intersection of the Jewish experience with the other genocidal action perpetrated by Ante Pavelic’s fascist Croatia against the Serbs that is more often remembered because of the horrific, horrifying, brutality and savagery employed by the Ustase and its collaborators.  Ustase sadism was so revolting that even the SS found it hard to stomach. The victims rapidly assumed a certain ”sameness”.  I think it fair to say that the two genocides merged into one.

The maxim – the victor writes the history – is appropriate in our understanding of the post-war years.  Bosnian Serb scholar, Vaso Cubrilovic, interestingly the last surviving member of the Black Hand group that assassinated Franz Ferdinand in 1914, wrote in 1958: “… our contemporary history could be divided into two epochs: the history of the old Yugoslavia (1918-1941) and the history of the new Yugoslavia, better said – the history of her People’s Revolution, from 1941 until today”. (39)

As I understand the development of Yugoslav historiography from 1945 until the collapse of the federation in 1992 was made to fit a Marxist ideological world view where the efforts of the Communists and Communism created the new Yugoslavia that rose from the destruction of the war.

1. Yugoslavia collapsed in 1941 for two reasons – firstly the Axis led onslaught overwhelmed the country, and secondly, the state itself was a “rotten bourgeois” creation of the Versailles Peace Conference.

2. Under the guidance of Marshal Josip Tito and the Communist partisan movement Yugoslavia was liberated.  A Yugoslavia built on brotherhood and unity effected a necessary class-revolution and a new age began.

3. Central to the founding mythology of Tito’s Yugoslavia was the role of the anti-fascists and partisans.  Nothing that would tarnish the image of the heroic partisan, including examples of antisemitism, was permitted.

4. Jewish suffering was a part of the suffering of all anti-fascists, not ignored, but not differentiated.  (Histories of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia were mostly written by Yugoslav survivors in Israel. (75))

5. Gathering of archival material was essential to not only secure the founding myths of the new Yugoslavia but for the recording and prosecuting war criminals, collaborators and others.

Interwoven in the historiographical narrative are other concerns such as the role of the Christian Churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church and its relationship with the Ustase and complicity in its crimes.  The trial of Aloysius Stepinac, Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb was, I believe, more about the new Communist-controlled government exerting total control over Yugoslavia, than solely about Stepinac’s action or lack thereof when confronted with the enormity of Ustase crimes.  In any case, Stepinac’s case is difficult even from 2016 – and needs more research, if only to prevent the Archbishop becoming a lightning rod for revisionists who would attempt to convince us that he was indeed a saint and possibly a martyr saint.  The same level of difficulty confronts the historian over the role of Pope Pius XII and the relationship, however tortured, between Pavelic’s Croatia and the Holy See. (Culibrk 65)

Upon the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Balkans war that followed, the historiography of the war years underwent another change fuelled in no small part by the resurgence of ethnic rivalries and ancient hatreds.  At the same time more and more investigation into the roles played by different groups across the former Yugoslavia led to a rise in the number of serious histories written in the 1990s, even as the war raged.  These included new studies of Croatia, the role of Bosnian Muslims and the Holocaust and fresh studies into the murder of the Yugoslav Jews including serious studies of individual camps and killing centres. (Culibrk 79-95)

By the 1990s historians were publishing an increasing number of monographs and studies on the Holocaust in Yugoslavia.  These writers were influenced by the growing study of the Shoah as an integral part of German government policy that relied on all agencies of the state, including the Wehrmacht, allied governments and their military and police forces. This process also applied to a growing number of historians in the former Yugoslavia.

Another element in the study of Yugoslav Holocaust historiography has been the appropriation of the words “Holocaust” and “genocide” along with an equal appropriation of the Holocaust to suit the political agendas of both Croatia and Serbia.  During the 1992-95 war international media and foreign governments used the language of the Holocaust to describe the Bosnian catastrophe.

What did I learn?

1. Historiography is an essential component for the study of history.  I am reminded of standard history teaching practice in my classroom – the “what, where, who, why and how” when examining sources.  Awareness of bias, subjectivity, objectivity, audience, reliability, usefulness, perspective, and above all, context/s.

2. There is no such thing as “simple” history.  All history is a vast and intricate tapestry of waft and weave that affords many different avenues and lines of enquiry.

3. History demands respect; Holocaust history demands greater respect – we are studying human beings, not abstract concepts.  Their stories matter.  The stories of victims, perpetrators, bystanders, beneficiaries and legatees are important. 

4. Yugoslavia’s history and its study are demanding.  For an Australian who lives in a country that has never known civil war or strife on the scale that the nation states of the Balkans have lived with, it is hard to “get into the zone” in order to begin appreciate the realities that confront historians; but it is necessary.

5. Bishop Jovan’s academic rigour is unrelenting and so it should be.  History is a discipline that requires serious effort and often arduous and time-consuming old fashioned hard work to find patterns, put pieces of the puzzle together, to connect previously unconnected ideas, chronologies, people and places, to uncover, recover and discover the past as truthfully as possible.

6. Finally, Bishop Jovan’s work is a testimony to the man’s integrity and honesty to being faithful to the past, honouring those who died and ensuring their memories are not forgotten.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

ADSS 1.238 Maglione to Micara: Christmas truce appeal failed

ADSS 1.238 Luigi Maglione, Sec State, to Clemente Micara, Belgium.

Reference: AES 9358/39

Location and date: Vatican, 31.12.1939

Summary statement: Pope tried to obtain a Christmas truce without success.

Language: Italian


Your Excellency’s report number 16.776 regarding the Christmas truce arrived here on the evening of 25 December, together with the enclosed letters of Count Capelle (1)

I might add however that in observance of the Revered orders of the Holy Father this Secretariat of State had taken the necessary steps to bring about the total suspension of hostilities during Christmas Day.

But the Supreme Pontiff’s fatherly initiative has not been accepted and the beneficial results which were expected from it have unfortunately been frustrated.


(1) Micara forwarded a letter of Robert Capelle (1889-1974), secretary of King Leopold III (1934-47) which in turn was a request from the Florez Fund (146 rue de l’Universite, Paris) asking for a Christmas truce.  Domenico Tardini wrote on the letter: “It arrived on Christmas Day – 26.12.39 – To be answered.  Received 25th evening.  The Holy See has already taken the initiative for the truce but …” On the subject of the truce there was also the letter of Abbot Primate Fidelis de Stotzingen (1871-1947) of Sant’ Anselmo, Rome (1913-47).

ADSS 1.237 Pius XII to King Vittorio Emanuele and Queen Elena of Italy

ADSS 1.237 Pius XII to King Vittorio Emanuele and Queen Elena of Italy.

Reference: ASS, 1939, p62.

Location and date: Quirinal Palace, Rome, 28.12.1939

Summary statement: Address of the Pope in the Quirinal; the return visit after the royal visit to the Vatican.

Language: Italian


On this auspicious day, in this august Royal Palace, as if a modern Palatinate of a new history of Rome, before His Majesty the King Emperor and Her Majesty the Queen Empress, mirror of motherly virtues to the Italian people, in the presence of a distinguished gathering of Royal Princes and Princesses, of court dignitaries and Government – and of the Eminent Cardinals and our retinue – We renew the expression of deeply felt pleasure at the solemn visit of their Majesties the Apostolic Vatican Palace made with that feeling of veneration for St Peter’s See which honours the Catholic spirit of the Dynasty of Savoy, made glorious by its Saints.  In this royal palace We confirm today the happy relations between Church and State, established ten years ago and which will remain one of the most shining glories of Our revered predecessor Pius XI and of His Majesty Victor Emanuel III.

Vatican and Quirinal, separated by the Tiber river, are united by the bonds of peace and by the memory of the religion of fathers and forebears.  The flowing water of the Tiber has carried away and buried the confused relics of the past in the Mediterranean sea and on its banks olive branches have blossomed again.

Today in this splendid hall, while the hand of a Roman Pontiff, for the first time after so many years, is raised again in the sign of benediction and peace, Italy watches and rejoices; the Catholic world watches and rejoices, and the two Princes of the Apostles, still sitting at the entrance of this palace, also seem to rejoice that they witness the dawn of a new era.  And Our lady of the Annunciation, who has her sacred altar here, will, I am sure bestow the bounty of her Grace on the Royal Family who revere her as the emblem of their highest Order of Chivalry.  And We too implore God and the Virgin Mother to extend the protection over the august Sovereigns, the Royal Princes and Princesses, over the distinguished Head and Members of the Government and all persons here present and bless the peace which, protected by the wisdom of its Rulers, makes Italy great, strong and respected.  And We hope with all Our heart that this example may urge and guide the peoples as brothers turned into enemies fighting each other on land, air and sea, to future understanding – an understanding whose content and spirit promise the development of a new peaceful and lasting order based on justice and Christian charity, without which there is no hope of lasting peace.