In October 2008, the Archdiocese of Zagreb celebrated the 10th anniversary of the beatification of Aloysius Cardinal Stepinac, who led the Catholic Church in Croatia during the Second World War. Though he is a hero in Croatia, his reputation elsewhere is a matter of controversy: The Communist regime that took over after the war convicted him of having collaborated with the Nazi puppet regime during the war. The evidence that the Communists manufactured for the cardinal’s show trial confounds students of history even today.
Early in World War II (March 1941), Croatia came under the control of a new government led by Ante Pavelić and his Nazi-like party, the Ustashi. The Ustashi unleashed a wave of brutality against Jews and Orthodox Serbs that shocked even the Nazis. From the beginning, then-Archbishop Stepinac used his position to protest the abuses and to protect the victims. A German Nazi general once declared: "If any bishop in Germany were speaking this way, he would not descend alive from his pulpit!"
After the war, Communist partisans under Marshal Josip Broz — better known as Tito –established a new Serbian-dominated Communist regime, the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia. The new government persecuted Catholics and the Catholic Church, confiscating property, closing seminaries and schools, banning Masses, and arresting clergy.
Before coming to power, the Communists had used Archbishop Stepinac’s speeches against the Ustashi in their propaganda. Now, however, the archbishop was a threat. After more than a year of his protesting Communist abuses — and Tito doing what he could to silence the Catholic leader — Yugoslav authorities arrested Archbishop Stepinac and charged him with having collaborated with the Ustashi.
The archbishop’s trial started on September 30, 1946. The world press recognized it as a sham. The prosecution had had 15 months of open access to captured government and Church documents in which to prepare its case. Meanwhile, Archbishop Stepinac’s lawyers had one week to collect evidence and one hour to meet with their client. Many defense witnesses were not permitted to testify, much defense evidence was ruled inadmissible, and (as clearly established later) key prosecution evidence was manufactured. Naturally, Archbishop Stepinac was found guilty and sentenced to 16 years at hard labor.
Due to indignation throughout the democratic world, the archbishop was not made to do the hard labor. Instead, he was kept in a small cell, isolated from the outside world. Tito did, however, permit carefully selected groups to observe the prisoner and report back on how well he was being treated. (Time magazine wrote that these reports were not worth the paper they were printed on.)
In 1950, a group of American senators sought to allow American aid to Yugoslavia on the condition of Archbishop Stepinac’s release. Realizing the need for better relations with the West, and also concerned about the archbishop’s declining health, in 1951 Tito said that he would release the archbishop on the condition that he leave the country. But Archbishop Stepinac refused to leave his people. Finally, in December of that year, Tito sent him to house arrest in his native village of Krasic. Pope Pius XII named Archbishop Stepinac a cardinal, but he did not make the traditional trip to Rome; he knew that if he left the nation, Tito would not let him return.
Cardinal Stepinac’s health declined, and he died on February 10, 1960, while still under house arrest. (Later tests indicate that he had in fact been slowly poisoned.) In 1992, Croatia came out from under the thumb of Communism. One of the first acts of the new parliament was to issue a declaration condemning "the political trial and sentence passed on Cardinal Alojzij Stepinac in 1946." Archbishop Stepinac was condemned, Parliament said,
because he had acted against the violence and crimes of the communist authorities, just as he had acted during the whirlwind of atrocities committed in World War II, to protect the persecuted, regardless of the national origin or religious denomination.
Yugoslavian political dissident Milovan Đilas said, the problem with "Stepinac was not his policy towards Ustashi, but towards the Communists."
But the archbishop’s trial would have greater repercussions than anyone could have known at the time. In 1946, prior to the trial, the Communist Party had published a book that contained forged and carefully edited documents designed to make the prelate and the Catholic Church look bad. In the 1960s, Italian writer Carlo Falconi sought permission from the Yugoslav authorities to conduct research in Croatian archives for a book that he was writing. Party officials were in a quandary: If they gave him access to the relevant files, the fraud would be uncovered. Eventually, they handed over carefully selected documents and provided Falconi with a copy of the Communists’ 1946 book. He was not given access to any materials that could contradict the Communist-manufactured propaganda.
Thus, on the basis of forged and edited documents assembled by the Yugoslav secret police, Falconi wrote his book, The Silence of Pius XII. That book presented what we now know to be fabricated documents that have confounded scholars for decades, and it shaped much of the later writing on Pius XII.
Archbishop Stepinac and Pius XII are both under consideration for sainthood — no thanks to the enemies of the Church who did their best to tarnish their names. If saints truly serve as our examples, one of the many important lessons we can learn from their lives is that human institutions, including our courts, are only as good as the people who run them.