Written by Vladimir Moss



     In 1941 Hitler was preparing Operation Marita, the invasion of Greece, for which he needed Bulgarian and Yugoslav support… The Bulgarians procrastinated, but eventually agreed to join the Tripartite Alliance on the very first day of the invasion, March 1.


     As for the Yugoslavs, they were negotiating a treaty with the Germans in Vienna that was, according to Misha Glenny, “a diplomatic triumph. The only real concession made to the Germans in the secret clauses attached to the published agreement concerning the transport of war materials through Yugoslavia. The Germans were not permitted to send troops across the country; nor did the agreement burden Yugoslavia with any other military obligations towards the Axis powers. Although a member of the Tripartite Pact, Yugoslavia would keep her neutrality virtually intact.”[1]


     However, this judgment concerning the Vienna treaty was disputed by many Yugoslavs, and on March 27 the government under Prince Paul was overthrown in a coup led by the head of the Yugoslav air force, General Dušan Simović. The new pro-Allied government under King Peter renounced the agreement with the Axis powers. This coup was supported by the famous Bishop Nikolai Velimirović, who sent the following telegram to the citizens of Kraljevo: “Grateful to God, thankful to the people, we now look forward to a bright future without the stain of shame.”[2]


     While the coup was morally admirable (and was acclaimed as such by Churchill), the Yugoslavs were in no position to make an effective resistance. The basic problem lay in the fact that Yugoslavia was no longer a centralized state. For, as Glenny writes, “in August 1939 Cvetković, the Prime Minister, had come to an agreement with Vladko Maček, the man who had assumed the leadership of the Croatian Peasant Party after the murder of Stjepan Radić. The Cvetković-Maček Sporazum (Agreement) had effectively split the country in two, creating an autonomous area of Croatia which included roughly half of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Most Serb opposition parties deeply resented the Sporazum”, as did the Church in the persons of Patriarch Gavrilo and Bishop Nikolai Velimirović


     “Simović was not in a position to establish control throughout the country unless he could come to an agreement with the Croats, and with Maček in particular. He secured this agreement, but only under certain conditions. The most important of these was a declaration to stand by the Vienna Agreement, committing Yugoslavia to the Tripartite Pact. Belatedly recognizing that the Yugoslav Army could not possibly resist a German onslaught, Simović and the new government consented to Maček’s condition. So the very reason for organizing a coup in the first place – resistance to the Tripartite Pact – was thrown out by the new government almost as soon as it was formed.


     “Yet before Simović persuaded the Croats to back his government, Hitler had undergone a dramatic change of mood. Irritated by the intricacies of Balkan politics, the Führer exploded in fury on receipt of the news from Belgrade. Almost immediately, he tore up the Tripartite Agreement with Yugoslavia, and ordered the Wehrmacht to invade the country. As Maček appeared to be cooperating with Simović, Ribbentrop was persuaded by Mussolini to switch German backing in Croatia to Ante Pavelić and his small gang of fascist thugs, who numbered no more than 360 when they seized control of the government in Zagreb in early April. They were brought to power solely by German guns and Italian politicians, and not by popular sentiment in Croatia, which overwhelmingly backed Maček. The installation of Pavelić’s brutal fascist regime resulted in the single most disastrous episode in Yugoslav history, whose consequences were still being felt in the 1990s…”[3]


     Hitler invaded on April 6. Deserted by Pavelić’s Croats, the Serbian resistance was soon crushed… The surrender was so rapid that many Serbian units, the so-called Četniks, escaped and formed an anti-Nazi resistance movement led by Draža Mikhailović that was loyal to Prince Pavle’s government-in-exile in London. The Bulgarians occupied Yugoslav Macedonia, the Hungarians – Vojvodina, the Italians - Kosovo, and the Croatian Ustaše – much of Bosnia. Many bishops, priests and laity were killed in all these occupied regions.


     The Bulgarians were especially ruthless. “As a result of wholesale ethnic cleansing, only 2,000 of Skopje’s pre-war population of 20,000 Serbs… remained in the city by the spring of 1942.”[4]


     The Germans arrested Patriarch Gavrilo and Bishop Nikolai; but although the two hierarchs were to spend the whole war in prisons and concentration camps (the last one was Dachau), they refused the Nazis’ suggestion that they collaborate with them.[5] Once they were asked whether they would call on the Serbian people to rise up against the partisan communists. They replied: “The Serbian Church is not fighting against the communists. The Serbian Church is fighting against the atheists and the atheist ideology, against the atheists on the right and on the left, that is, against the German atheism from outside and our atheism from within and with every other atheism. But the partisans are our lost and deceived children and brothers. When the thunders of military conflict die down, each of them will return to his own peaceful work.”


     Nikolaj told Gavrilo that “a proclamation against the Communist Party would have been a grave mistake and an unpardonable error,” because “it is very dangerous for the Church to issue proclamations against a political party, in this case the Communist Party. The Church is only concerned with whether a respective party programme propagates atheism or not. We are against atheism whether it is from the left or right; in other words, we are opposed to Hitler’s atheists just as we are opposed to the Soviet ones. We can issue a proclamation only insofar as it is opposed to atheism and not communism. For should Communism recognize religion and revoke atheism from the party’s program tomorrow, which could happen, we then have nothing against communism and its economic program or political program in general.”[6]


     In neighbouring Czechoslovakia Bishop Gorazd of Moravia-Silesia, a former Old Catholic, after being cut off from the Serbian Patriarchate, to which he was canonically subject, turned to ROCOR’s Metropolitan Seraphim (Lyade) in Berlin, asking him to take his diocese under his protection. Metropolitan Seraphim agreed, and gave him holy chrism and antimensia.[7] However, in September, 1942 “when the Nazi governor of Czechoslovakia was assassinated, those involved hid in the cathedral but were discovered by authorities. St. Gorazd (who had actually been trying to get them out of the cathedral basement) chose to take full responsibility for harboring them and so, he was tortured, then executed on September 4. Slain with him were the two priests of the cathedral, Sts. Vaclav (Vyacheslav), Vladimir and a pious layman Jan (John), and 546 others, including an entire village.[8]“The Orthodox Church in Bohemia and Moravia was shut down and its priests sent to camps in Germany.”[9]


     It was in Croatia and Bosnia that the worst atrocities were committed against the Serbs by the Ustaše and the Catholics.[10] On April 28, 1941, the Catholic Archbishop Stepinac of Zagreb issued an appeal rapturously praising the Ustaše and calling on all Catholic priests to collaborate with them. Three days before, the government had issued banned the Cyrillic script and  imposed a special tax on the patriarchate. On May 8-10 the Serbs in Zagreb were expelled to the suburbs and forbidden from leaving their homes before six in the evening. On June 3 all Orthodox schools and kindergardens were closed, and on June 26 all Serbs were forced to wear coloured armbands with the letter “P” (for Pravoslovac – Orthodox). On July 18 the use of the term “Serbian Orthodox religion” was banned; in its place  “Eastern Greek faith” was to be substituted. On August 9 services were banned in all Orthodox churches. On June 22 the minister of education said that one third of the Serbs in Croatia would be expelled, one third killed and one third converted to Catholicism. In July the arrests of Serbs began. By the autumn over 15,000 Serbs had passed through the camps, and by 1943 there were 300,000 Serbia refugees from Croatia in Serbia. On April 4, 1942 the Croatians passed a law ordering all Church feasts to be celebrated according to the new calendar. The Russian émigrés were informed of this, and were threatened with punishment if they did not obey. Metropolitan Anastasy, however, immediately petitioned for an exception to be made for the Russian parishes, and with the help of the German Evangelical Bishop Hackel, this request was granted. However, no Serb was allowed to visit the émigré services.[11]


     Joachim Wertz writes: “In many villages the massacres followed a certain pattern. The Ustashi 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.”[12]


     According to Archbishop Stepinac’s report to the Pope on May 8, 1944, 240,000 Serbs apostasized to Catholicism. However, many of these returned to Orthodoxy after the war. Hundreds of churches were destroyed or desecrated, and vast amounts of property were confiscated. According to German Nazi figures, about 750,000 Orthodox Serbs were killed, including five bishops and 177 other clergy.


     Bishop Nikolai Velimirović inscribed these martyrs into the Church calendar for August 31: “The 700,000 who suffered for the Orthodox faith at the hands of the Roman crusaders and Ustashi during the time of the Second World War. These are the New Serbian Martyrs.”[13]


     With the single exception of the Catholic Bishop of Mostar, all the Catholic bishops joined in the persecution of the Orthodox. The Franciscans were particularly cruel. Thus in the notorious camp of Jasenovac, where 200,000 Serbs perished, together with many Jews and Gypsies, 40,000 of them died on the orders of the Franciscan Father Filipovich. In Livno one Franciscan told his flock: “Brother Croats, go and kill the Serbs. And first of all, kill my sister, who has married a Serb. And then kill all the Serbs one by one. When you have finished your job, come to me, I will listen to your confessions and give you absolution of your sins.”[14]


     The Germans knew what was going on. Thus on February 17, 1942 Heindrich, who masterminded the Holocaust, wrote to Himmler: “The number of Slavs destroyed by the Croats by the most sadistic methods has reached 300,000… If the Serbs living in Croatia accept Catholicism they are allowed to live without persecution.”[15]


     One of those martyred in Jasenovac was an old man called Vukashin. He was standing “in an aura of peace and joy, softly praying to Christ. The executioner was greatly angered by the old man’s peacefulness and saintly composure, and he ordered that he be dragged to the place of execution.


     “St. Vukashin was given the usual charge, ‘Accept the Pope or die a most terrible death’.


     “The old man signed himself with the honourable Cross and peacefully intoned, ‘Just do your job, my son’.


     “The executioner trembled with anger. He brutally slashed off one of the saint’s ears, repeating his charge. The Holy Martyr again peacefully replied, ‘Just continue to do your job, my son.’ And so the irrational persecutor continued: first the other ear, then the nose, and the fingers one by one. Like a new James of Persia, St. Vukashin was ‘pruned as a sacred grapevine of God.’ With each grisly and bloody cut, the noble Vukashin, filled with peace and joy by the Holy Spirit, calmly replied, ‘Just continue to do your job, my son.’


     “At length, the vicious torturer gouged out the eyes of the martyr, and the saint once more replied, ‘Just continue to do your job, my son.’ With that, the executioner flew into a rage and slew the holy martyr. Almost immediately, the executioner lost his mind and went completely mad.”[16]


     In February, 1942, Dr. Privislav Grisogno, a Croatian Catholic member of the former Yugoslav cabinet, wrote in protest to Archbishop Stepinac: “I am writing to you as a man to a man, as a Christian to a Christian. I have been meaning to do this for months hoping that the dreadful news from Croatia would cease so that I could collect my thoughts and write to you in peace.


     “For the last ten months Serbs have been killed and destroyed in Croatia in the most ruthless manner and the value of their property that has been destroyed reaches billions. Blushes of shame and anger cover the faces of every honest Croat.


     “The slaughter of Serbs began from the very first day of the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia (Gospic, Gudovan, Bosanska Krajina, etc.) and has continued relentlessly to this very day. The horror is not only in the killing. The killing includes everybody: old men, women and children. With accompanying barbaric torture. These innocent Serbs have been impaled, fire has been lit on their bare chest, they have been roasted alive, burned in their homes and churches while still living, covered with boiling water, then their skin was peeled off, salt poured into their wounds, their eyes have been pulled out, their ears, noses and tongues cut off, the priests have had their beards and moustaches torn off from their skulls, their sex organs severed and put into their mouths, they have been tied to trucks and then dragged along the ground, nails have been pressed into their heads, their heads nailed to the floor, they have been thrown alive into wells and over cliffs, and grenades thrown after them, their heads smashed against walls, their backs broken against rocks and tree stumps, and many other horrible tortures were perpetrated, such as normal people can hardly imagine.


     “Their rivers Sava, Drav, the Danube and their tributaries have carried thousands and thousands of their corpses. Dead bodies have been found with the inscription: ‘direction Belgrade – traveling to King Peter’. In a boat which was found on the Sava river there was a heap of children’s heads with the head of a woman (which could have been a head of one of the mothers of the children) with the inscription: ‘Meat for the Jovanova Market in Belgrade’.


     “Horrifying is the case of Mileva Bozinic from Stanbandza whose child was removed from her womb. There was also the case of the roasted heads in Bosnia, the vessels full of Serbian blood, the cases of Serbs being forced to drink the warm blood of their slaughtered kin. Countless women, girls and children in front of their mothers were raped or else sent off to Ustashi camps to serve the Ustashi; rapes even took place on the altars of Orthodox churches. In the Petrinje county a son was forced to rape his own mother. The slaughter of the Serbs in the Glina Orthodox church and the murder of Serbs on the altar of the Kladusa church is without precedent in history. There are detailed and original accounts of all these horrors. Even the Germans and Italians were astounded by these crimes. They photographed a large number of cases of such slaughter. The Germans are saying that the Croatians did this also during the Thirty Years War and that is why there has been a saying in Germany since then: ‘God save us from plague, hunger and Croats.’


     “The Srem Germans despise us because of this and behave in a more humane fashion with the Serbs. The Italians photographed a vessel with 3.5 kilograms of Serbian eyes, as well as a Croat who wore a necklace strung with Serbian eyes, and another one who came to Dubrovnik with a belt on which severed Serbian tongues were hanging!


     “The horrors of the camps in which thousands of Serbs were killed or were left to die from exposure, hunger and cold weather, are too terrible to mention. The Germans have been talking about a camp in Lika where there were thousands of Serbs; but when the Germans got there they found the camp empty, drenched in blood and bloody clothing. In that camp it has been said a Serbian bishop also lost his life. Thousands upon thousands of Serbs in the camp of Jasenovac are still being tortured as they are spending fierce winter in wooden Gypsy shacks with no straw or covering and with a ration of two potatoes per day. In the history of Europe there have been no similar cases. One would have to go to Asia at the time of Tamerlane, or Genghis-Khan, or to Africa, to the countries of their bloodthirsty rulers to come upon similar situations. These events have shamed the name of Croatia for centuries to come. Nothing can absolve us fully from this ever again. We will not be able to tell even the last wretched man in the Balkans about our thousand year old Croatian culture, because even the Gypsies never perpetrated such cruelties. Why am I writing this to you, when you are not a political personage and cannot bear responsibility for all this. Here is why: in all these unprecedented barbarian crimes which are more than Godless, our Catholic church participated in two ways. A large number of clergy, priests, friars and organized Catholic youth took an active part in all this. It has also happened that Catholic priests became camp guards and Ustashi accomplices and so approved of the torture and slaughter of Christians. A Catholic priest even personally slaughtered an Orthodox clergyman. They could not have done all this without the permission of their bishops, and if they did, they would have had to lose their jobs and be taken to court. Since this did not happen, it means that their bishops granted them permission.


     “Secondly, the Catholic Church made us of all this to convert the surviving Serbs. And while the soil was still steaming from the innocent victims’ blood, while groans shuddered from the chests of the surviving victims, the priests, friars, nuns carried in one hand the Ustashi daggers and in the other their prayer books and rosaries. The whole of Srem is inundated with leaflets written by Bishop Aksamovic and printed in his printing shop in Djakovo, calling upon Serbs to save their lives and property by converting to Catholicism. It was as if our church wanted to show that it could destroy souls just as the Ustashi authorities destroy bodies. It is an even greater blot on the Catholic church, since at the same time many Orthodox churches and all the Orthodox monasteries have been confiscated, their property plundered as well as many historical treasures. Even the Patriarchal church in Sremski Karlovci has not been spared. All this violence against conscience and the spirit has brought even greater disgrace to the Croat nation and name…


     “I write this to save my soul and leave it to you (Archbishop Stepinac) to find a way to save your soul.”[17]


     Although some have claimed that Stepinac tried to restrain the murderers, there can be no doubt about his fanatical hatred of Orthodoxy. Thus on March 27 and 28, 1941, he wrote in his diary: “The spirit of Byzantium – that is, of the Eastern Orthodox Church – is something so terrible that only the Omnipotent and Omniscient God could tolerate it… The Croats and the Serbs are from two different worlds, two different poles; without a miracle of God they will never find a common language. The schism of the Eastern Orthodox Church is the greatest curse in Europe, perhaps even worse than Protestantism.” In 1946 Stepinac was tried by the communist government, found guilty of treason to the State and the murder of Serbs, and imprisoned for five years. On coming out of prison he was awarded a cardinal’s hat by the Vatican, and in 1998 was beatified by Pope John Paul II!


     In spite of their mass murders of the Serbs, the Croats failed to achieve their “final solution” of the Serbian problem. So they had recourse to a clever plan: to create a so-called “Croatian Orthodox Church” for the Serbs in Croatia that would be completely under their control. On June 8, 1942, Archbishop Hermogen (Maximov) of Yekaterinoslav was raised to the rank of metropolitan of this uncanonical church, whose main task was to “Croatize” the Serbs. It enjoyed the full support of the Croatian authorities, but was rejected by the Serbian Church and by ROCOR under Metropolitan Anastasy, who banned Hermogen.


     Nor did any other Orthodox Church recognize the new Church de jure. De facto, however, the Romanian Patriarch recognized it by sending Metropolitan Vissarion (Puo) to Zagreb in order to consecrate a new bishop, Spyridon (Mifka), together with Hermogen. The Serbian Church protested, pointing out that it had defrocked Spyridon in 1936. In October, 1944, Metropolitan Vissarion, learning that the Serbs and ROCOR had refused to recognize the Croatian Church, apologized to Metropolitan Anastasy.[18]


     By the end of 1942 Metropolitan Hermogen had about 70 clergy and 42 parishes. But by the end of 1944 he had about 30 priests. So not many Orthodox supported him…[19]


     On May 8, 1945 Metropolitan Hermogen was captured by Yugoslav partisans and dragged naked through the streets. On June 29 he, Bishop Seraphim and other clergy and laymen – 49 people in all – were sentenced to death by a Titoist court in Zagreb and killed – some by shooting, others by hanging – a few days later.[20] On March 7, 1956 the ROCOR Synod issued a special decree that “although Archbishop Hermogen committed a terrible sin against the Church, having fallen away from the Russian Church, and, having created an uncanonical church organization, he did not fall completely away from Orthodoxy, but partly redeemed his guilt through a martyric death.”[21]


     But can schismatics be martyrs? That is the question…


     By contrast, in 1946 Cardinal Stepinac, who had killed so many Serbian Orthodox, was sentenced to sixteen years in prison, being released after only two years. He died in 1960, and was put forward for canonization by Pope John-Paul II.


November 3/16, 2020.

[1] Glenny, op. cit., pp. 473-474.

[2] Velimirović, Pastirski glas, no. 3, 1941; in The New Chrysostom, Bishop Nikolai Velimirović, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2011, p. 141.

[3] Glenny, op. cit., pp. 475-476.

[4] Hastings, All Hell Let Loose, p. 465.

[5] See Jovan Byford, From ‘Traitor’ to ‘Saint’: Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović in Serbian Public Memory”, Analysis of Current Trends In Antisemitism, 22 (2004) pp. 1–41; Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 3, p. 20.

[6]Bishop Artemije, The New Chrysostom, Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2011, p. 85.

[7] Seraphim, with the blessing of the Serbian Bishop Irinei, also took under his wing the parishes in Vojvodina that were now part of Hungary.

[8] Angelo Pepps, Facebook, September 5, 2020.

[9] Monk Gorazd, "Sviashchennomuchenik Gorazd" (Hieromartyr Gorazd), Pravoslavnaia Rus' (Orthodox Russia), N 12 (1465), June 15/28, 1992.

[10] See Sean Mac Mathuna, “The Role of the Catholic Church in Yugoslavia’s Holocaust”,

[11] M.V. Shkvarovsky, Istoria Russkoj Tserkovnoj Emigratsii (A History of the Russian Church Emigration), St. Petersburg: Aleteia, 2009,p. 105; in Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 3, p. 35.

[12] Wertz, "On the Serbian Orthodox Martyrs of the Second World War", Orthodox Life, vol. 33, N 1, January-February, 1983, pp. 15-26.

[13] However, more recent scholarship gives generally lower figures for those killed. The SimonWiesenthalCenter calculated that 600,000 Serbs, 30,000 Jews and 29,000 Gipsies were killed (Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 3, p. 21). Mark Almond writes: "Probably about 325,000 Serbs were killed by the Ustasha in the NDH [Independent State of Croatia, which included Bosnia], including about 60,000 at Jasenovac alone. In other words about one in every six Serbs in Pavelic's realm was killed." (Europe's Backyard War, London: Mandarin, 1994, p. 137. See also Aleksa Djilas, "The Yugoslav Tragedy", Prospect, October, 1995, p. 39). Again, the Serb scholar Bogoljub Kocovic writes that 487,000 Serbs were killed during World War II altogether, as opposed to 207,000 Croats, 86,000 Muslims and 234,000 others; while the Croatian scholar Vladimir Zerjavic gives: 530,000 Serbs, 192,000 Croats, 103,000 Muslims and 202,000 others (Kocovic, Zrtve drugog svetskog rata u Jogoslaviji, London: Libra Books, 1985, pp. 102, 174, 182; Zerjavic, Gubici stanovnistva Jogoslavije u drugom svjetskom ratu, Zagreb: Jugoslavensko Viktimolosko Drustvo, 1989, pp. 61, 82).

[14] Shkvarovsky, op. cit., p. 110.

[15] Heindrich, in Karlheinz Deschner, With God and Fuhrer, p. 282; Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 3, p. 38.

[16] "Holy New Martyr Vukashin", Orthodoxy Canada, N 114, May-June, 1986, p. 3.

[17] Quoted in Liudmilla Perepiolkina, Ecumenism – A Path to Perdition, St. Petersburg, 1999, pp. 230-233, and "Stepinac's Hat is Blood-Red", The Christian Century, January 14, 1953, pp. 42-43. See also the article by the Catholic writer Richard West, "The War in Bosnia", Orthodox Christian Witness, September 11/24, 1995, and Marko Markovich, “La Responsabilité de l’Eglise Catholique dans le Genocide des Serbes par les Oustachis au cours de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale”, in G. Ivanoff-Trinadtsaty, Regards sur l’Orthodoxie (Points of View on Orthodoxy), Lausanne: “L’Age d’Homme, 1997, pp. 173-190.

[18] Shkvarovsky, op. cit., p. 158. In 1953, Metropolitan Vissarion, together with Archbishop John Maximovich and Bishop Nathaniel (Lvov), consecrated Archimandrite Theophilus (Ionescu) for the new calendarist Romanian flock in Western Europe.

[19] Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 3, pp. 43-44, 44-45; Bishop Gregory Grabbe, Zaviet Sviatogo Patriarkha(The Testament of the Holy Patriarch), Moscow, 1996, p. 33.

[20] Shkvarovsky, op. cit., pp. 160-161; Ilya Goriachev, in Monk Benjamin, op. cit., vol. 3, pp. 89-90.   

[21] Shkvarovsky, op. cit., p. 160.

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