Although battlefields are part of history, history is itself a battlefield. The liberal-minded West forgot that, hence the shock now felt as statues are tipped into the sea and memorials defaced by left-wing ideologues and mobs. Nations that experienced communism, however, never enjoyed the luxury of a neutral historical understanding. The Party sought to erase pre-communist history or to refashion it by forgery and defamation.
Attacks by post-communists on what Marxists term “revisionism” show how potent the issues remain. Most recently, the Cardinal Archbishop of Sarajevo was denounced and physically threatened for celebrating Mass to mark the 75th anniversary of the Bleiburg tragedy, when tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians were handed back by British troops to be killed by the partisans. The mass graves that have been excavated show the plaited hair of little girls thrown into pits: but saying Mass for their souls is portrayed as an abuse.
In Croatia, perhaps more than anywhere else, the mission of preserving national history, tradition and culture fell to the Catholic Church. A small nation, at the edge of Europe, at the traditional political and cultural dividing line between West and East, Croatia has defined itself more by religion than by any other factor.
A Western orientation – allegiance to Rome rather than Constantinople – quickly emerged as a distinctive factor in Croatia’s development. Over the years, the message was reinforced by celebrating historically significant anniversaries of the relationship with the papacy. In the 10th century Croatia was recognised by the pope as a kingdom. In the Great Schism of the 11th century, the Croats were to be found with the Latin West not the Orthodox East.
The narrative is actually more complicated than this, because Croats also pressed for – and won concessions regarding – celebration of the Mass in Croatian Church Slavonic. The issues of language and Slavic identity resurfaced problematically. But the fact remains that the most distinctive difference between a Croat and a Serb even today is not so much language as religion.
Alongside the Catholic element within Croatian nation-building there was always, however, a secular one. The “Croatian National Renaissance” in the 1830s and 1840s concentrated on unifying language and culture. The Nazi puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, or NDH) sought to create an ethnically pure Greater Croatia. Religion was no more than a cynically manipulated occasional tool. The modern Croatian war of independence fought against the Second (Communist) Yugoslavia (1991-1995) was an assertion of sovereignty and democracy: even if the soldiers wore rosaries, it was ultimately a national, not a religious, struggle.
Yet without the Catholic Church no enduring national consensus could ever have been achieved. The Church has never claimed that only Catholics could be “real” Croats. It was the NDH that temporarily sought to impose, for its own secular purposes, that doctrine, leading to so-called “forced conversions”. In the 19th and early 20th centuries there were, indeed, Orthodox Croats, mainly living in the territories of the former Austro-Hungarian military frontier. Until recent times, a substantial section of the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina happily called themselves Croats. (Now the “Bosniak” national identity has largely replaced that.)
The Catholic commitment of many of Croatia’s rulers over the centuries has often been highly questionable. Freemasonry was encouraged and flourished both under Austria-Hungary and the First Yugoslavia. The dominant Peasants’ Party (Hrvatska Seljačka Stranka or HSS) was strongly “anti-clericalist”, both under its first leader – the charismatic Stjepan Radić (assassinated in the Belgrade Parliament in 1928 by a Serb nationalist) – and Radić’s successor, the more cautious Vladko Maček. This meant, in practice, that they often had bad or competitive relations with the Catholic hierarchy. But the peasants whom the HSS represented, and who constituted four-fifths of the population, were almost all devout Catholics. The HSS leaders could not afford to overlook that.
Tito, after 1945, hoped to seduce a substantial section of the bishops and priests to accommodate communism. The combination of an offer to release clergy from prison, to reduce penal taxes, and to provide a pension proved too tempting for some.
As in post-war Hungary, and in today’s Communist China, there was an attempt to set up what amounted to an alternative Church, subservient to Marxism and the state. Professional Associations, organised and supported by the Yugoslav secret police (UDBA), made some progress in Croatia, but much less than in either Slovenia or Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ordinary faithful knew and supported, often at great personal sacrifice, the priests who stayed loyal to Rome and the magisterium.
The most important figure in securing the position of the Church in the national consciousness was Blessed Cardinal Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac. Not surprisingly, therefore, the attempt to undermine the Church and to defame Croats as a whole has focused heavily on him. It is Stepinac’s wartime role that has proved controversial – or that is the expression still adopted. In fact, the “controversy” has come to an end with the completion of discussions of the joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission set up by Pope Francis to investigate Stepinac, in view of allegations from the Serbian Patriarch of Belgrade. The papers presented showed no evidence that Stepinac ignored the Holocaust, or procured the death of Serbs, or supported the Ustaša (Croatian fascist) movement – on the contrary. Stepinac welcomed the declaration of an Independent Croatia but then repeatedly criticised the policies of the regime, intervened for and saved thousands of intended victims, and categorically denounced racism. These papers have still not been published, presumably because they would increase the pressure on the Pope to sign the decree for Stepinac’s canonisation.
The real motivation for the attacks on Stepinac is threefold. The first is that the Communist Party hated him even in the 1930s. Stepinac denounced communism and founded 14 new parishes in Zagreb, many in working class areas that the Party regarded as its preserve. Secondly, Stepinac refused to cooperate with Tito. He and the bishops issued a ferocious condemnation of the mass killing of priests and civilians, the extinction of Catholic institutions and publications, the hobbling of Catholic education and the systematic proclamation of atheism. Stepinac was physically attacked, subjected to a show trial, imprisoned, later consigned to house arrest in the parish where he was born, and probably poisoned. But, third, during these hidden years he was sending out secret messages to the Catholic clergy of Croatia to stand firm. By and large, they did so. As a result, when, after the Second Vatican Council, there was an opening up of relations between Church and State, Croatian Catholicism emerged unshaken and uncorrupted – as it still is.
Most Croats, if you press them, whether they are devout or not, admit that if the Catholic Church had not stood up for Croatia, and particularly under the ideological assaults of the 20th century, the national identity would have been crushed. That small country would be nothing more today than what Hitler in his table-talk cheerfully envisaged – “a tourist paradise for us Germans”.