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Stepinac in 1937, the year he was appointed Archbishop of Zagreb (© Imagno/Getty Images)

Almost exactly 70 years ago, on October 11, 1946, Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac of Zagreb was sentenced by the High Court of the People’s Republic of Croatia, in Communist Yugoslavia, to 16 years’ imprisonment with hard labour and five years’ loss of civil rights. It was one of the earlier show trials aimed at discrediting the Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe. As such, it can be linked to the trials of Cardinal Slipyj, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (1945), Cardinal Beran, Archbishop of Prague (1949), and most famously Cardinal Mindszenty, Hungary’s Prince-Primate and Archbishop of Esztergom (also 1949).

Stepinac’s five years of imprisonment — he was released early, mainly because of pressure from the US Congress — and his subsequent eight years’ internment in his home parish of Krašić — destroyed his health. (He was also probably the victim of attempted poisoning.) But he did not suffer the diabolic torments meted out to Mindszenty. Nor, unlike hundreds of other Catholic clergy in Yugoslavia, was he murdered or tortured or broken in Tito’s camps. His show trial used the standard Communist template. As the American vice-consul noted in his report of the proceedings:

It is idle to speak of the trial of Archbishop Stepinac as a Court trial. It was more like a melodrama performance in which the Public Prosecutor was the hero; the President of the Court his right-hand man, who did most of the work for which the hero got the applause; the defendant was the villain; and the public was the “claque”.

Yet certain characteristics hint both at the trial’s immediate political purpose and at why the ramifications of the Stepinac affair are today still a subject of bitter controversy. Of 37 witnesses the defence asked to call, only 22 were accepted, of whom eight actually appeared, and one was then driven from the court. The prosecutor not only vetoed witnesses, he vetoed the submission of written evidence — writing “ne” (no) on anything he thought helpful to the defence.

The case against the Archbishop related to what can be summed up as different counts of collaboration with the occupying forces (German and Italian) and the fascist Ustaše movement which controlled the quisling NDH (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska — Independent State of Croatia). Significantly, no attempt was made to link him to the murder and persecution of the Jews. Attention was focused instead on the persecution of the Croatian Serbs and, especially, the forced conversion of the Serbian Orthodox. The great majority of prosecution witnesses were selected to illustrate this theme. Similarly, those ethnic Serbs who were brave enough to volunteer to testify for Stepinac were, in the event, kept out of the witness box. The immediate purpose was to use the Stepinac trial to appease nationalist Serb opinion outraged by the trial (and execution) of the Chetnik leader, Draža Mihailović, the previous July. The broader calculation — and a shrewd one, it has turned out — was that the best way to persuade the Orthodox Christian majority in Yugoslavia to accept atheistic Communism as a system of rule was to heighten and exploit Orthodox hatred of the Catholic Church. The campaign against Stepinac was based upon Communist lies. But the slander was subsequently adopted and elaborated by the Orthodox Church and Serbian nationalists.

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Ivan S
November 8th, 2016
7:11 PM
Your picture of Stepinac blessing the people is from a reversed negative. His ring is only on his right hand, which he uses to bless with. Also proving your image (or Getty's image) is flipped is that his biretta hat's flat corner is on the right side, whereas the biretta's flat corner is universally on the left. Please flip your image (so he faces to left), so that people are not accidentally misled into thinking that a hand raised to bless is a hand raised for other purposes. Thank you.

Mary J
October 30th, 2016
4:10 PM
Wish we had a Stepanac to-day!! Can't wait to read the book on my return to London

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