By Rupen Savoulian
The old adage ‘you are known by the friends you keep’ has never been more relevant than with the American-adopted cause célèbre of former Archbishop Stepinac of Croatia.
Aloysius Stepinac – chief of the Catholic Church in Zagreb, Croatia – welcomed the establishment of the nazi Ustasha puppet state in 1941. Misleadingly named the Independent State of Croatia (NDH is the acronym in Croatian), the Ustasha regime massacred Jews, Serbs, antifascist Croats and Bosnian Muslims throughout its brief existence.
Defeated by the communist Yugoslav Partisans, the political and military functionaries of the nazi-collaborating, fanatical Ustasha regime fled into exile. Stepinac, who spent his tenure advocating for the NDH, remained in Yugoslavia. Put on trial for treason and collaboration with the enemy, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
His case became a cause célèbre for the U.S. Congress, with senior American politicians depicting Stepinac as a martyr of Communist oppression. His crimes as an accomplice of a murderously fascist and racist regime were covered up.
There is no disputing the role of the Catholic Church in wartime Croatia as one of deep involvement with the NDH government. No, Stepinac did not kill anyone himself, but he endorsed the violent racism of the Ustasha, and their vicious crimes – particularly the mass killings of the NDH-operated concentration camp at Jasenovac, appalled even the Nazis.
If Stepanic expressed any criticisms or reservations of the NDH regime’s mass atrocities, it was not out of concern for the lives of the racist Croat government’s many victims; it was because such conduct would drive Croats into the arms of the Yugoslav partisans. The new Yugoslav authorities agreed to release Stepinac – on condition that he leave the country forever. He refused, with the encouragement of the Vatican.
Meanwhile, senior figures in the Ustasha NDH wartime regime, including its leader Ante Pavelic, were escaping Europe to find sanctuary in Latin American nations via the now infamous ‘ratlines’. Essentially an underground network organised with the collusion of the Vatican, Pavelic and his nazi-collaborator friends escaped the danger of facing any war crimes trials.
Stepinac however, imprisoned by the Yugoslav authorities, was the object of a campaign of lionisation, scrubbing his record as an accomplice of genocidal violence. Numerous Congressional politicians took up the cause of Stepinac as a religious martyr suffering under the totalitarian Communist yoke.
However, there was a problem. In 1948, Moscow expelled Belgrade from the Communist movement. The brewing conflict between Stalin and Marshall Tito erupted into the open. Washington sensed an opportunity to secure Yugoslavia’s orientation to the West. Pushing for the release of Stepinac had to be balanced against the larger geopolitical objective of securing Yugoslav cooperation.
Tito did indeed orient to the West, accepting American financial aid and establishing diplomatic relations with West European nations. The Yugoslav version of socialism morphed into a kind of state-managed capitalism, a marketisation of key areas of the economy. From the late 1940s, the Truman administration provided Yugoslavia with loans, military assistance and access to much needed supplies.
Washington continued to quietly urge Belgrade to release Stepinac, which they did in 1951. He died in 1960. In 2016, the Croatian government officially annulled the 1946 Yugoslav verdict of the Stepinac trial, a decision heavily condemned by Jewish organisations.
The Croat Ustasha and its followers enjoyed a new lease of life after the Second World War. Numerous wartime collaborators found sanctuary in Australia, among other Western nations. Organising clubs, sporting groups, founding churches and distributing publications, Ustasha cells popped up in the expatriate Croat community. A version of history sympathetic to the NDH made the rounds among the Croat migrant community.
Numerous Ustasha followers – tolerated by the Australian authorities as good anti-communists – plotted and carried out terrorist acts against the wider Yugoslav migrant community, and targeted Whitlam-era Labour politicians for officially recognising the Yugoslav government. Even now, there are Croat expatriates who still admire the activities of the wartime NDH.
The Stepinac case is worth remembering – with thanks to Harry Blain in Jacobin magazine – for a number of reasons. The public campaign to endorse Stepinac was not an isolated example of aberrant behaviour by the U.S. Congress.
After the conclusion of World War Two, numerous ultranationalist Eastern European Nazi collaborators were surreptitiously spirited out of Europe and recruited by American intelligence agencies. Their horrifying crimes as servants of Nazi imperialism were overlooked, as they were regarded as reliable anti-communist militants in the Cold War.
There is another reason why we should remember the Stepinac case – it demonstrates whom the U.S. (and Britain) regard as worthy of friendship and support. It was not too long ago that both Washington and London listed the late Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) as terrorist entities. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Mandela was routinely dismissed as a Communist dupe and terrorist by the American and British governments.
As African Americans embraced the anti-apartheid struggle, the ruling circles in Washington and London continued to marginalise the ANC. The ostensible reason for this rejection was the ANC’s adoption of armed struggle. However, the violent racist crimes of former Nazi collaborators was swept under the carpet as they gained sanctuary in the United States. You certainly are known by the friends you keep.