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Tito’s turbulent priest

13 January 2017

Michael Bourdeaux on the injustice done to Cardinal Stepinac

Stepinac: His life and times
Robin Harris
Gracewing £20
Church Times Bookshop £18



THIS is not hagiography: it is the righting of 70 years of injustice. The trial of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac in the new Yugoslavia in 1946 inaugurated what was to become a series that devastated the Roman Catholic leadership of Eastern Europe. Cardinals Slipyi (Ukraine), Beran (Czechoslovakia), and Mindszenty (Hungary) followed into communist prisons. Every man in this gallery of heroes of the faith remained unbroken; the sum of their testimony is an indictment of a morally destitute system.

Stepinac spent the last 14 years of his life under judicial sentence before his premature death in 1960, aged 62. This biography, with pinpoint clarity, depicts him in his forties, as a new Archbishop of Zagreb, struggling to save both Jews and his Church from the effects of Nazi occupation. The Germans had prised the nascent Yugoslavia apart and established a puppet regime in Croatia under the Ustaša. With access to a trove of documents, Robin Harris proves that, despite the indictment of the 1946 trial, Stepinac was absolutely innocent of collaboration with the Nazis. Subsequently, he was equally resolute in his refusal to compromise with Tito’s blandishments and attempts to break the ties between Croatia and the Vatican. Rome’s steadfastness comes well out of this book.

The trial of Stepinac was a farce: despite a brave counsel, no proper defence could be mounted, and witnesses were barred from appearing. It would be misleading to suggest that his treatment in prison or, after five years, his house confinement was humane, but it is surprising that he was permitted to celebrate mass. No Soviet priest in the gulag ever had that privilege. Whether ultimately he was poisoned remains an open question.

Cardinal Stepinac (as he became in prison in 1953) was not an easy man. He lacked humour and was not outgoing with his visitors, perhaps deliberately, so as to deprive his eavesdropping captors of ammunition. His integrity, howevr, under years of constant pressure to renounce his principles, shines forth from every page. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1998. The present Pope withdrew his plans to canonise him, apparently under pressure from a delegation from the Serbian Orthodox Church (about which one would like to know more).

Britain loved Tito. Fitzroy Maclean, the British officials who sent Croatian refugees back to their death at the hands of Tito’s partisans, and the whole sorry succession of British “diplomatic non-intervention” saw Charles Peake’s dispatches as British Ambassador in Belgrade summed up in this formal statement in Parliament after Stepinac’s sentence: “The Yugoslav Government contend that this trial and sentence of a Yugoslav citizen is entirely a domestic matter, and His Majesty’s Government, having considered the matter fully, find it impossible to dispute this contention.”

Harris dedicated his book to the late Chris Cviic, the outstanding Croatian political commentator who moved to the UK as a young man. It is a worthy tribute, not only righting decades of wrong during which Stepinac was denounced as a Nazi collaborator, but also rectifying British appeasement of Tito.


Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.

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