Live Not By Lies and the Croatian Prophet of Totalitarianism

The life of Croatian Jesuit Stjepan Tomislav Poglajen gives us a warning about the troubling direction in which the United States, Europe, and the entire West could move in the 21st century.

The Croatian Jesuit Stjepan Tomislav Poglajen (1906-1990), better known in the world today under his code name Tomislav Kolaković, was suddenly torn out of historical oblivion by Rod Dreherʼs book Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (2020). Although Poglajen was a Croatian priest, Dreher did not write about Croatia but instead focused on Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. 

However, by looking at Poglajen’s Croatian context, we can find a warning for the direction in which the United States, Europe, and the entire West could move in the 21st century.

As an unusual personality who had a multitude of pseudonyms in the second half of his life, Poglajen is a member of several traditions. The first of these is the tradition that Christ described anticlimactically as prophets who were not recognized in their own homeland. Poglajen is forgotten in Croatia today, and it would not be surprising if, thanks to Dreherʼs work, he is better known in the English-speaking area than here in Croatia. Another tradition to which Poglajen belongs is that of Croatian Catholic idealists and, many would say, blinded romantics.

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Just as the priest Juraj Križanić made a pilgrimage to the Russian Tsar Alexei I Mikhailovich in the 17th century to restore Christian unity, so did Poglajen, after the end of the Second World War, as part of his project of re-Christianization of the Soviet Union, wish to meet Stalin.

Like Križanićʼs endeavor, Poglajenʼs task ended without political (but not necessarily spiritual) success, immeasurable by worldly standards. Just as Križanić ended up in Siberia, Poglajen was arrested and sentenced to further exile. The later stages of his life—which he spent traveling the world in coordination with the Church leadership on tasks that are still unknown today—resemble a spy thriller, in part even realized in the book God’s Underground, which he published in 1949 with a preface by Fulton Sheen. Poglajen died in Paris in 1990, shortly after communism—whose demise he made a significant contribution to—finally collapsed.

But the part of Poglajenʼs life that served as the inspiration for Dreherʼs book also provides material for raising awareness of the third tradition to which Poglajen belonged. This tradition consists of a small number of people with a double gift—both a prophetic and practical one: the gift of evangelization.

The best example of this practical aspect is perhaps St. Benedict, to whom Dreher dedicated his previous book, The Benedict Option. Just as a medieval saint established monasteries that preserved Christian cultural and spiritual heritage from the devastation of barbarian hordes that besieged Europe, so Poglajen, under the pseudonym Kolaković, on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Slovakia, established the Family, a secret community of believers dedicated to preserving the Catholic truth. The chain reaction in which the members of the Family played a significant role would lead to the death of the communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia a few decades later.

Poglajen demonstrated the visionary aspect of his personality on the eve of the Second World War, writing essays on the dangers and deep similarities of all totalitarianisms. “If two men begin to destroy the whole of Christian culture from two very distant starting points, there must necessarily come a time when they will meet on the ruins of a devastated sanctuary,” he wrote in 1939, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. Essays containing sentences such as “One Stalin hid in Adolf Hitler and one Adolf Hitler hid in Stalin” afforded him only one accolade—his name appeared on the Gestapoʼs blacklist. After the new Croatian state was formed in 1941 in alliance with Germany and Italy, Poglajen changed his name for security reasons and set out to roam the world for almost half a century.

What Dreher is trying to show today is that social tendencies in the West hide totalitarian potential. Correctly referring to several authors ranging from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Hannah Arendt, his view of todayʼs “soft totalitarianism” is worth supplementing with a few remarks. For example, almost all aspects of the totalitarianism that prevailed in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union reappear in the West today. Totalitarianism is not a feature of the Left or the Right, but it is a transideological phenomenon that can haunt liberalism, just as it possesed fascism and communism in the 20th century. Totalitarianism is not the ideology but the spirit which haunts ideologies.

I believe there are five key points that characterize any totalitarianism.

The first is secular, earthly utopianism, which in todayʼs ideology of Progressivism is manifested in the phrase “the right side of history.” The second point is the extermination of members of an undesirable group, which is not treated as human. These today are not an undesirable class or race but millions of unborn children every year. The third point is the attempt to shape a “new man”—not Stalinʼs Homo Sovieticus or Hitlerʼs Übermensch, but a sexless, seemingly immortal homo deus. Fourth, any totalitarianism is distinctly anti-Christian. Today, such tendencies, apart from the legislative and cultural level, are also manifested in the destruction of sacral buildings and statues of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints such as Junípero Serra. And fifth, according to Hannah Arendt, is the complete social domination of the totalitarian idea to which almost the entire population consciously or subconsciously agrees.

The only point the West does not satisfy today is the last one. Instead of utter unanimity, the population of the United States, Europe, and most other developed societies is deeply divided on key issues of today. The best example of polarization is around Donald Trump and Joe Biden running in the presidential election, or attitudes toward COVID-19 control measures and the imposition of vaccinations as a prerequisite for participation in social life. Yet the struggle is not equal.

On the side I have labeled as progressive are the mass media, the political establishments of the big parties, academic intellectuals from the most respected universities, NGO structures and techno-corporate monopolists, and even street revolutionaries who destroy the symbols of America, the West, and Christianity. When there is a reaction to them, in the form of protests for Trump, it manifests itself in an equally destructive way—by occupying Congress, as a symbol of American democracy. It is a vicious circle from which it is difficult to get out.

But the path that offers a way out of such a vicious circle is—as Poglajen well knew—precisely Christianity. It is completely opposed to all the features of totalitarianism; moreover, all features of totalitarianism are inversions and perversions of Christian doctrine. This fact reveals the parareligious core of totalitarian projects.

First, Christians do not believe in a utopia on this Earth but in a utopia beyond. That is why they will not even try to build it on Earth. They are aware that things can be fixed but that life cannot be perfect. Totalitarian projects want to create a “perfect life” by eliminating anyone who does not fit into their image of perfection. Second, Christians oppose human sacrifice, whether it be the sacrifice of virgins in pre-Christian times, the mass killing of undesirables in World War II camps, or the “health service” in the abortion clinic in post-Christian times. Third, everyone becomes a “new man” only—as the apostle Paul wrote—in Jesus Christ, and the title of homo deus is not intended for humanity but only, in its literal sense, to the Godman of Nazareth. Finally, Christianity insists on the free will of the individual, whom no ideology should deprive of that freedom. For these reasons, Christianity is, in relation to any totalitarianism, a supreme subversion.

Then why is Poglajenʼs influence non-existent in Croatia? The obvious answer would be: because he was forced to flee the country and change his identity. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons, but there is another, much deeper reason, which can be related to the state of the entire West today.

This reason, in short, is: because after the Second World War, Croatia found itself in communist Yugoslavia, which—the first of the communist countries—managed to build a positive image and enviable status in Western countries. This marketing, or more precisely propaganda, is evident in one of the definitions by which many still describe the Yugoslav regime: “Socialism with a human face.” Comparing Yugoslavia with other Eastern Bloc countries, many today argue that there was a true dictatorship in other communist countries, while the regime in Yugoslavia was progressive, mild, almost liberal. But what many are not even aware of, even in Croatia, is that this “human face” was just a mask under which the real face of the communist regime was hidden.

To illustrate, letʼs compare Poland, which has about ten times more inhabitants, with Croatia. Soviet communists killed 22,000 Poles in the Katyn Forest in 1940, and this crime is the greatest tragedy of the Polish people in the 20th century. Immediately after taking power in May 1945, the Yugoslav communists killed from 50,000 to 250,000 people. The uncertainty of that number testifies to the secrecy of the crimes, which only began to be made public in the 1990s, and the fact that they were—and still are—deliberately uninvestigated. After such a massacre, where the potential opposition—the intelligentsia, the bourgeoisie, the young people, the clergy—was cut at the root, it was not difficult for the Yugoslav regime to demonstrate so-called liberalism.

Unlike other communist regimes, the Yugoslav one was particularly perfidious—it allowed the people a little more of the irrelevant freedoms, but when someone went beyond the bounds of what was allowed, the way of dealing with dissidents was as harsh as in other communist countries, if not even harsher.

Let’s take another example. As an example of the regimeʼs benevolence, many cite the fact that Yugoslavia allowed its inhabitants to work abroad, while residents of other communist countries were generally not allowed to cross the state border. But at the same time, Yugoslavia is a country whose agents executed more of its own dissidents abroad, nearly a hundred of them until the collapse of 1991, than all other communist states, including the Soviet Union.

But only because of superficial, insignificant freedoms, the resistance of many was dulled. Where evil is clearly manifested, resistance more often grows spontaneously. Where the illusion of good reigns, many will not recognize the evil behind that misperception. As Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, remarked after reading 1984, a novel by his informal successor George Orwell, the tyranny of the future will not be based on the threat of violence, but on the manipulation of pleasure. Or, as we can see in todayʼs situation, on the promise of physical health.

Just as the core of the Yugoslav regime was hidden by cheap concessions to the people, that is also the case with the ideology of progressivity in the modern West. Today, our passive fellow citizens are not bought with a crumb of freedom but with popular culture, narcotics, and sexual apps. In communist Yugoslavia, where “socialism with a human face” ruled, unlike Czechoslovakia, there were no secret cells of Catholic believers. Luckily, the role of the main enemy of the regime was taken over by the Catholic Church.

But what when the institutional Church fails; moreover, when its influence, as today, vanishes? Then the only resistance can be offered by the laity. Poglajen was aware of that. Let us not allow the new totalitarianism with a “human face” to deceive us again.

  • Matija Štahan

    Matija Štahan is a PhD student of comparative literature at Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb. He writes about politics, religion and culture for a number of Croatian publications.

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