Menachem Shelah, "The Catholic Church in Croatia, the Vatican and the Murder of the Croatian Jews," Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 4:3 (1989) 323-339

Abstract by Jerry Darring


Shelah sets out to discuss "the deeds and misdeeds of the Catholic Church in Croatia and the Vatican's attitude to the Jews there" (p. 324). He begins by describing the Catholic Church in Croatia between the two world wars. Its rivalry with the Serbian Orthodox Church and its virulent anti-communism caused the church, under the leadership of Archbishop Aloys Stepinac of Zagreb, to be considered a "bulwark of Catholicism." Church leaders were moderately antisemitic, but the clerical rank and file were savage in their hatred of the Jews. The church blessed the establishment of an independent Croatia, and the Vatican gave it de facto recognition. Among the clergy, Stepinac set the policy tone based on a belief that Germany was a lesser evil than communism. He tried to wield influence upon the regime and had modest success in preventing atrocities. Many of the other bishops, like Saric of Sarajevo and Aksamovic of Djakovo, eagerly collaborated with the regime and were openly antisemitic. And there were priests who actually participated in the expulsions and murders.

The conversion of Jews and the fate of converted Jews was a major issue. Stepinac defended converted Jews, but he expanded his defense to include all Jews. The Bishops' Synod of November 1941 intervened exclusively on behalf of converted Jews. Shelah describes the various attempts by Stepinac, working in close touch with the Vatican, to influence the course of events during the deportations of 1942 and 1943. These efforts failed completely.

Shelah's conclusions are: 1) the Vatican knew by no later that the middle of 1942 that the Jews were being systematically exterminated; 2) the Vatican was driven by its fear of communism to maintain a moderate attitude towards Nazi Germany and its satellite governments; 3) the Church did not want to destabilize the Ustasa regime in Croatia, and combined with traditional Christian antisemitism, this caused it to look the other way when murderous actions took place; 4) priests involved in murdering Jews were never expelled or admonished; bishops who incited to murder were never reprimanded; and after the war the Croatian church hid war criminals and smuggled them out of Yugoslavia; 5) "Nevertheless one has to say that the Church of Croatia and the Vatican were opposed to the murder of Jews" (p. 337).