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On the Serbian Orthodox New Martyrs of the Second World War

A Brief Historical Background

by Joachim Wertz

The twentieth century has seen the crowning of a multitude of martyrs. Holy Russia, from the time of the Bolshevik revolution to the present, has given us millions of new heavenly intercessors, champions of the faith. This is well known to the entire Orthodox Church. Unfortunately, many Orthodox Christians are ignorant of the sufferings of the nearly 750,000 Orthodox Serbian Christians who gave their lives in the defense and confession of the faith during the time of the last world war in the so-called "Independent State of Croatia" and in other parts of German-occupied Yugoslavia at the hands of the Croatian nationalists and other enemies of the Orthodox Church, at the instigation of and with the open participation of the Latin clergy. This persecution was aimed at the complete elimination of the Orthodox Church in these areas. Attempts at forced conversion to Catholicism were joined to a systematic and completely overt destruction of every trace of Orthodoxy. All of this was done in such a fierce and inconceivably brutal manner and in such a short span of time and relatively small geographic area that it is difficult even to imagine. Indeed the characteristics of this recent persecution are unprecedented in the history of the Church after the persecutions of the first centuries. The sacrifice and memory of these martyrs must not be allowed to remain hidden, known only to their fellow Orthodox countrymen, but should be published and commemorated for the edification of all Orthodox Christians.

Briefly, several points should be kept in mind concerning the history of Serbia and of Yugoslavia between the two world wars. After World War I the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later to become the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) was created by the victorious allies out of the former kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro as well as virtually all of the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire inhabited by the South Slavic peoples. This included Slovenia and Croatia, both predominantly Roman Catholic, as well as Dalmatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, areas of mixed Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Moslem populations. Bosnia, Herzegovina and Dalmatia, as well as parts of Slovenia (the area of north-central Yugoslavia between the historic Croatian and Serbian lands), acquired large permanent Serbian populations during the centuries of Turkish rule. The Serbs in these regions, in the main, settled there after fleeing Turkish oppression, and were granted land and privileges in return for military service in defense of the Austro-Hungarian borders against the Turks. Historically, in these areas the Serbs lived peacefully alongside their Croatian neighbors. They lived, however, in a state of constant harassment on the part of the Austrians, sometimes subdued and at other times violent in character. The Austrians from time to time attempted to impose the Unia on the Serbs. These efforts, for the most part, met with little success, though this did produce several martyrs and heroic confessors of the Orthodox faith. But Austrian and Vatican policy considered it potentially more profitable to devote the full force of the Uniate movement to the western Ukrainian lands. In Slovenia there was no Orthodox populace. Although Roman Catholics, the Slovenes have always been friendly to the Serbs and valued their political union with Serbia in the Yugoslavian kingdom. One must bear in mind that, although Yugoslavia was politically based and founded on the Serbian kingdom, this was not something brought about by Serbian imperialism. It was an arrangement devised by the major world powers after the First World War, and accepted by Serbia and the Serbian king in a spirit of duty and friendship in the hope that the South Slavic peoples could live in peace after many centuries of occupation and oppression. In fact, since the 18th century, this "Yugoslav idea" based on a strong Serbian state was always popular among the Croats and championed by their intellectuals.

Nevertheless, in the 19th century hatred for the Serbs began to be cultivated as part of the policy of the growing Croatian nationalist movement. This hatred, which previously had been more or less confined to the Croatian clergy, Austrian Jesuits and the Austro-Hungarian government, began to infect certain elements of the populace with the rise of various political figures such as Ante Starcevic who claimed that "the Serbs are a breed fit only for the slaughterhouse."

In World War I, the policy of the Austrians was to sow as much discord between the Croats and Serbs living in the Dual Monarchy as possible, since Austria was at war with the two Serbian kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro. One of the causes of this war, of course, was Austrian attempts to prevent a unified Serbian kingdom which would naturally include the largely Serbian portions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It must also be remembered that one of Austria's allies in that war was Bulgaria, which, though an Orthodox kingdom, was a traditional enemy of Serbia and was certainly not favorable to a large unified Serbian state on its borders. Also, Austrian policy historically sought to keep Serbia and Bulgaria enemies and to damage any fraternal relations between them.

With this policy of Austria in mind, we see that in 1884 a movement was begun in Croatia, founded by a certain Josip Frank, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, called the Pravasi or the Frankovci. This was an ultra-nationalist Croatian Movement created to foster hatred towards Serbs among Croatians. It was composed of some wealthy residents of Zagreb, clergy, small-townsmen, and certain undesirables of Croatian society who organized local gangs of terrorists. One of its members in the early 20th century was Ante Pavelic, later to become the head of the so-called "Independent State of Croatia." These Frankovci were used by the Austrians for terrorizing the Serbian inhabitants of Bosnia, where they succeeded in murdering quite a few Serbian clergy.

In the 1930's, after the creation of Yugoslavia, this movement was secretly revived in the form of the notorious terrorist organization known as the Ustasi led by Ante Pavelic, who busied himself training his followers in Italy and Hungary. At the same time anti-Serbian and anti-monarchist terrorist groups were formed across the border from Yugoslavian Macedonia in Bulgaria. Some of these groups allied themselves with Pavelic's Ustasi. Also, in 1934, a camp for terrorists at Janka. Puszta in Hungary was founded to train potential assassins of King Alexander of Yugoslavia, while enjoying the protection of the Horthy government in Budapest.

On October 9, 1934, King Alexander was indeed assassinated in Marseilles, France. He suffered a martyr-like death at the hands of a Bulgarian-Macedonian terrorist working in collaboration with the fanatical Ustasi. His murder was a very fortunate occurrence for the enemies of the Serbs and Yugoslavia, since there was no one to take his place as leader of the Serbs and unifier of Yugoslavia.

King Alexander died leaving as his heir his young son Peter. Peter was in his teens and thus a regency was established according to King Alexander's will, headed by his cousin Prince Paul. Prince Paul was not well liked, and he himself felt out of place in Yugoslavia, favoring as he did Western European culture. During the regency two notorious and extremely unwise policies were worked out, the first by the regent and his prime minister, Stojadinovic, a man who earlier advocated the recognition of the Soviet Union. These two agreements, extremely unpopular among the Serbs, were the Concordat with the Vatican, and the Sporazum, creating a virtually autonomous Croatia in a highly preferred position. The Concordat was an attempt by the leader of the Slovene Clerical Party to settle the Croatian problem by appealing to the more conservative Croats and at the same time to gain autonomy for Slovenia. In effect it would have virtually established the Roman Catholic Church in Yugoslavia and granted it privileges denied to the Orthodox Church.

The Serbs felt this to be an attack on the Orthodox Church, and the Church together with virtually all the Serbian people mounted unprecedented resistance to the proposed agreement. In the midst of the crisis Patriarch Varnava died. His health had suffered under the strain of the controversy, and it was even rumored that he had been poisoned. The concordat was passed by the parliament on the very day the patriarch died and was immediately followed by the excommunication of those Serbian deputies who voted in favor of it. There was also a demonstration organized by the Church and headed by bishops and clergy that set but from the cathedral in Belgrade and was violently broken up by the police. The prime minister had a serious crisis on his hands and withdrew the proposal. The Sporazum of 1939 was negotiated by Premier Cvetkovic, who replaced the extremely unpopular Stojadinovic, and the Croatian political leaders. It created an internally autonomous Banovina of Croatia. But most importantly, the Banovina included the territory of the historic Croatian kingdom, including even areas where the majority of the population was Serbian. Even this did not satisfy the demands of the Croats, and the Serbs feared that Srem and all of Bosnia would be given away. Within a week after the Sporazum was signed, war broke out in Europe.

On August 25, 1939, Prince Paul's government, bowing to German' pressure, signed the Three-Power Pact with Germany and Italy. Intense indignation arose in Serbia. Two days later a coup d' etat was carried out by a group of officers, who in noble Serbian tradition preferred destruction and martyrdom to treachery and dishonor. King Peter was declared of age, and Prince Paul fled the country. One week later, on Palm Sunday morning, German planes bombed Belgrade. The war had now come to Yugoslavia.

On April 10, as the German troops were being welcomed into Zagreb, the independent state of Croatia was proclaimed. Many Croats, blinded by chauvinism, enlisted in the service of the invading armies. Croatian militia units joined the Ustasi in attacks on isolated Yugoslavian army units, after which they handed over the Serbian officers and soldiers to the Germans.

Yugoslavia formally capitulated on April 18, and the country was immediately carved up. The provinces of Slavonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Srem were given to the Croatian state. During the first days of the occupation, the most prominent Serbs, at the head of whom stood the patriarch, Gavrilo, and the renowned bishop of Zica, Nikolai (Velimirovich), both of whom had sought refuge in the monastery of Ostrog in Montenegro, were arrested. They were later taken to the concentration camp of Dachau in Germany, where they were interned until the end of the war, and where they suffered and endured much abuse and indignities. Later, after their arrests, Bishop Irinej (Djordjevic) of Dalmatia another prominent hierarch, was seized by the Italians and imprisoned in a camp in Italy until the end of the war.

Very revealing as to the utter fanaticism that gripped the Roman Catholic Church in Croatia during these early days of the war and the infant Croatian state, is this excerpt from the diocesan newspaper of the archdiocese of Sarajevo: "Until now, God spoke through papal encyclicals. And? They closed their ears... Now God has decided to use other methods. He will prepare missions. European missions. World missions. They will be upheld not by priests, but by army commanders. The sermons will be heard with the help of cannons, machine guns, tanks and bombers." The Ustasi were known to have publicly taken oaths in the Catholic churches, pledging to work for the eradication of the Serbs and Orthodoxy. Especially militant and very prominent in the Ustasi were members of the Franciscan Order. Immediately after the proclamation of the Ustasi state, the Croatian primate, Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac of Zagreb, gave his blessing in the name of the Roman Church to the Croatian state and established "close collaboration." (It should be pointed out, however, that the Croatian Catholic Church was, at least officially, speaking for itself at that time. The procedure for obtaining recognition by the Vatican was in full progress, but officially the Vatican still recognized the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and had diplomatic relations with the government-in-exile. In short, the Vatican gave de facto recognition to the Ustasi regime, together will full diplomatic protocol at state occasions, though never official recognition.)

The massacres of Orthodox Serbs began shortly after the creation of the Croatian state. In the Serbian villages in the Bjelovar region 250 people were buried alive. In the village of Otecac some 331 Serbs were slain together with their priest who was tortured to death. In Kosinj the Ustasi assembled about 600 Serbs and slaughtered them. In a similar manner in these first months alone hundreds were massacred and forced to undergo horrible tortures, both physical and psychological, in scores of villages.

Soon both the private and public use of the Cyrillic alphabet was prohibited, and the Serbs were required to wear the letter "P" (for Pravoslavac — Orthodox) on their arms.

The Ustasi plan called for the extermination of one portion of the Serbian population and for the forced conversion to Roman Catholicism of the other. in either case, the Serbs, as an Orthodox people, had no place in the Catholic Croatian state. This shows that in spite of the presence of widespread National Socialist "Aryan" racist propaganda in Croatia, the hatred for the Serbs was based on their being Orthodox. One Catholic periodical in lauding the head of the Ustasi state, Pavelic, praises the Ustasi "Crusader" (Krizar) organization as "Raised in the spirit of radical Catholicism, which knows no compromises so far as principles are concerned, that never knew what it meant to give in and abandon any part of the program of Croatian nationalism." Thus the program of Serbian conversion and/or liquidation, can be viewed as being in the tradition of the medieval crusades which were launched to stamp out the enemies of the Roman church. Archbishop Stepinac saw the Serbs as being schismatics and an evil "almost greater than Protestantism." Croatia was viewed as a bastion of Roman Catholicism in the Balkans. In 1944 a Berlin newspaper wrote: "An extraordinary ecclesiastical struggle is going on in Croatia. The Ustasi government is persecuting the Orthodox Church and is trying to convert as many Orthodox people as possible to Catholicism by means of intimidation and all kinds of devices. At the opening of the so-called Croat Assembly, Pavelic said that religious freedom did exist in principle, but it did not include the Orthodox Church. Apart from nationalistic reasons, Pavelic endeavored to represent himself as a missionary by virtue of his work on behalf of the church, thus desiring to acquire greater prestige. We still recall his visit to the pope at the time when he was just organizing his 'State'."

On May 8, 1941, the infamous martyrdom of the Serbs of the Glina region began. The Ustasi began by killing seven Serbs. In the short time that followed, they arrested and murdered 560 people from that region. Then on May 11 a train carrying 120 Serbs stopped at Glina. They were then removed to the courtyard of a local Jewish merchant, where a number of them were killed, and the rest taken to an unknown destination.

On May 4, the Orthodox bishop of Banja Luka, Platon, was ordered by the Ustasi to leave town immediately. He then appealed to the local Catholic bishop to intercede with the authorities to grant him several days to prepare. The Catholic bishop gave him his word, but during the night six Ustasi terrorists came and arrested the hierarch. Then, together with Father Dugan Subotic, he was led some six kilometers away to the village of Vrbanja, where they were all killed. Their bodies revealed how they had been tortured. They were shaved with a blunt knife, their eyes were put out, their ears and noses cut off, and fires were lit on their chests. Their remains were found in the Vrbanja river on May 23.

A few days later the eighty-year old metropolitan of Bosnia, Peter (Zimonjic), was arrested by an Ustasi cleric. He was ordered to forbid the use of the Cyrillic alphabet, and when he refused, he was taken to Zagreb and later to the infamous concentration camp of Jasenovac, where he perished.

On May 21, Bishop Sava (Trlajic) of Karlovac was arrested at his home. He was taken, together with three priests and thirteen other Orthodox Serbs, in a truck to Ogulin. There they were locked in a stable, beaten and tortured, and then taken to Gospic, from where on August 15, they were sent together with 2,000 other Serbs to the Adriatic island of Pag, where they were all killed.

The metropolitan of Zagreb, Dositej, is also numbered with those who suffered martyrdom, having been beaten and tortured before his death.

The martyrdom of these hierarchs and other clergy, the imprisonment of others, as well as the conditions of the occupation in general, caused the disintegration of all Orthodox ecclesiastical administration and open Church life in the territories of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Vojvodina from 1941 to 1945.

In many villages the massacres followed a certain pattern: The Ustasi would arrive and assemble all the Serbs. They would then order them to convert to Catholicism. Those who refused, as the majority did, were told to assemble in their local Orthodox parish church. They would then lock them in the church and set it ablaze. In this manner many Orthodox men, women and children perished in scores of Serbian settlements.

In the area between Gospic and Velebit, where the terrain is rocky with many canyons and ravines, the Ustasi would take their Orthodox Serbian prisoners in long convoys on foot, two-by-two and all linked by a' long chain, to the edge of a cliff, where they would kill them and then throw their bodies into the ravine. Thousands were killed in this manner in that area alone.

Even more horrible, in the same general area, in village after village, children were found impaled on stakes, all the rest of the inhabitants having been already slaughtered.

On August 3, 1941, all Orthodox between the ages of sixteen and sixty from the villages of Virgin Most and Cemernica were assembled to be forcibly proselytized. There were about 3000 in all. But instead of Croatian clerics, trucks arrived and the Serbs were herded into them and taken to Glina, where they were told that a priest was waiting to convert them to Catholicism, after which they would be returned home. In Glina they were joined by Serbs from Topusko. But instead of being converted they were put in jail, from which every night a thousand of them were taken to the local Orthodox church and there stabbed one-by-one. In this manner 2000 were put to death in the Glina church, while the last group of a thousand was burned to death, together with the church itself and its pastor, Father Bogdan Opacic.

Massacres of the Serbian Orthodox population were also carried out in the Vojvodina, a region under Hungarian occupation. In the town of Curug, Serbs were rounded up and gunned down on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ in 1942. But the most numerous massacres occurred in Novi Sad from January 21-23 of the same year, when nearly a thousand Serbs were martyred. Some of them were even thrown into the ice-covered river while still alive.

As the tide of the war began to turn, and the Ustasi regime began to lose control of the mountainous regions, it became more difficult to continue to carry out village massacres. The Ustasi were afraid to enter certain areas without the support of the German army, and the Germans could not spare the troops to help in, this kind of madness. Therefore the regime began to put all their efforts into centralized concentration camps. These camps became nothing less than slaughterhouses for Orthodox Serbs. The camps began to multiply rapidly. There were many but for brevity we will discuss only the most infamous, that of Jasenovac. in all, hundreds of thousands perished in these camps.

Jasenovac was made up of wooden huts built on damp marshy land on the banks of the river Sava. The conditions were unsanitary, and it was plagued by famine. In all, during 1941 and 1942 about 200,000 people died or were killed there. The commander-in-chief of the Croatian concentration camps boasted with pride: "We have slaughtered here at Jasenovac more people than the Ottoman empire was able to do during its occupation of Europe." In 1942 alone some 12,000 children were murdered at Jasenovac. Most of those who survived the camp later perished from weakened health. Utterly indescribable tortures have been reported by foreign observers as having been inflicted on Serbian women and children at Jasenovac. Most are too terrible to recount. The Ustasi even killed, in a horrible fashion, babies just about to be born, right in the very wombs of their mothers.

An example of the character of the fanatically clever thinking of the Ustasi is provided in this quote from a communication of a Franciscan to the Ustasi commander at the village of Derventa, from whence 500 Serbs were deported to the camps: "There are 500 widows in the five villages who could marry Catholics, for there are no more Serbian Orthodox. This would be an excellent chance to indoctrinate them, and they in turn would indoctrinate their families with Catholicism and Croatism. " The fanatics would stop at literally nothing to erase all traces of the Orthodox Serbs and at the same time increase the numbers of Croatian Catholics.

It should be emphasized that the Ustasi program was a total one of either the extermination or complete assimilation of the Orthodox. Thus for the most part the Unia, which existed in Croatia, did not seriously enter into their considerations. This was still too "eastern" for them and too much of a reminder of Orthodoxy. The regime, if it could, would probably have decreed its complete latinization. But the Unia was too valuable an institution to the Vatican for its own purposes for this to have been attempted.

It must also be pointed out that of those Serbs who were coerced into accepting Catholicism and who survived the war, most did in fact return to Orthodoxy after the war. However, during the persecutions, many Serbian children were taken from their parents or "rescued" from the camps. Many of these orphans still remain unaccounted for. They were taken to be raised as Catholics, and no doubt they grew up as Catholics, not knowing their true identity or their original faith.

After the surrender of Italy, the Ustasi regime's days were numbered. In May, 1945 Pavelic, his deputies and about 500 clerics fled to Austria after entrusting what was left of the government and their wealth stolen from their victims, to Archbishop Stepinac.

During the time of the persecution, nearly 300 Orthodox churches in the territory of the Croatian state were destroyed. In the diocese of Karlovac 173 out of 189 temples were demolished. Others were desecrated by being turned into slaughterhouses, stables and latrines. Still others were given over to the Roman Catholics, as were several of the historic Orthodox monasteries. Many of the damaged churches have been restored by the Serbian Church since the war. Others are still to be repaired and can be seen crumbling and abandoned in Yugoslavia today.

The new Serbian martyrs of World War II included five bishops and at least 177 other clergy martyrs. In all, both clergy and lay, they number about 750,000. The late Bishop Nikolai (Velimirovich), over a quarter of a century ago, inscribed into the Church calendar by his own hand the following notation for the date August 31 (0. S.): "The 700,000 who suffered for the Orthodox faith at the hands of the Roman crusaders and Ustasi during the time of the Second World War. These are the New Serbian Martyrs."

Through their prayers may all the Orthodox be saved and strengthened in the defence of the Faith! Amen.

References

1. Paris, Edmund; Genocide in Satellite Croatia, American Institute for Balkan Affairs, Chicago, 1961.

2. Martyrdom of the Serbs, Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States and Canada, 1943.

3. Alexander, Stella: Church and State in Yugoslavia since 1945, Cambridge University Press, London, 1979.

Note: All dates in this article were new style, unless otherwise indicated.

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1983), pp. 15-22.