The BALKAN ESSAYS of Hubert Butler
The Irish Pages Press, 2016
I bought Hubert Butler’s Balkan Essays specifically to read The Artuković File. Naturally, I finished it first but after I had read everything else, Butler’s effect of understated horror was just as strong. In the restrained style of the scholar, he allows the reader to create his own vision of Croatia during World War 2. The writing is beautiful but unimpassioned, its strength lying in the absence of concessions to any collective subconscious, Croat, Serb, Communist or Catholic, that might lure the reader down a prejudiced path. Andrija Artuković was the Minister for the Interior under Ante Pavelić, the leader of the Ustasha, the Croatian fascist terrorist organization that, with the blessing of Hitler and Mussolini, governed the Independent State of Croatia, as it was called, that also included Bosnia. Artuković was a ‘desk-murderer’ wrote Butler, who preferred the Nazis’ disciplined approach to genocide to the savagery of the Ustasha. Butler’s attempts to pick up his trail as he fled through Europe after the war, through Ireland to the USA, include anecdotes from good Catholics who had assisted his flight and, knowing nothing of his past, assured Butler what a nice man he had been.
‘So evidently we in Ireland had sheltered this notable man for a whole year. He was…a maker of history, dedicated to the extermination not of Jews alone, but also of his fellow-Christians, the Serbian Orthodox. He was a member of the government which in the spring of 1941 introduced laws which expelled them from Zagreb, confiscated their property and imposed the death penalty on those who sheltered them. Some twenty concentration camps were established in which they were exterminated. Did we cherish him because he presented himself to us as a Christian refugee from godless Communism? That seems to me rather likely.’
‘I spent a part of last summer in Yugoslavia, which I knew well before the war, because I was a teacher in Zagreb and held a travelling scholarship from the school of Slavonic Studies.’
Butler was fluent in the language and returned in 1947 and 1950 when he investigated the wartime genocide committed by the Ustasha. After time spent in the public library in Zagreb 'looking up the old files of the newspapers that were issued in the occupation period, particularly the church papers', Butler concluded that Pavelić was supported by the Croatian people with as much adulation as Hitler in Germany. The relationship between church and state is the crux of the essays. The church is no longer the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus brought to earth, but the vehicle of such protagonists as Pavelić and Artuković who ‘believed that the interest of their churches could be forwarded by wars, coups d’etat and physical force. They were champions of that militant and political ecclesiasticism which it is our duty to condemn.’ Indeed, in the current dispute around the proposed canonization of Aloysius Stepinac, Butler, as a Christian, asks a very relevant question: What is the church? Here in Australia the church has never needed to be the nationalistic body that it had become in Croatia. We have not been suppressed by empires. We have not had to struggle against a hostile government. Stepinac, as Archbishop of Zagreb, was the head of a church whose history had molded it to represent the Croat. Yet, this ‘wide-scale convergence of patriotism and piety’ was a dangerous development, and to what extent it encouraged ‘the extraordinary alliance of religion and crime’ under that devout Catholic, Ante Pavelić, the reader must judge. Butler’s research led him to conclude that the Church was indeed involved with the murders and forced conversions of Serbs far above the exceptional case 'of a mad priest' or 'isolated instances of priests blinded by national and party passions' as was later claimed by the bishops. Butler visited Archbishop Stepinac in Lepoglava Prison after he was convicted of collaboration with the Ustasha by the Yugoslav Government. Butler liked him, describing him as brave, kind and simple (which I understand to mean socially unsophisticated). Yet the archbishop was compromised by his errors of judgement. When Butler asked him why he had collaborated with a fellow priest who had shown such enthusiasm for the Serb conversion campaign, ‘the archbishop gave the stock reply he had so often given at his trial (which incidentally has become the stock answer among the flippant of Zagreb to any awkward question): “Our conscience is clear”.’ Pavelić's actions upset Stepinac, but did not cause him to break his rule of supporting the government of the day. Under very different regimes, he fought against the Serbs in World War 1, then fought with them, upheld the government of King Alexander and, after that, the government of Pavelić who had arranged the King's assassination. He tried to save the life of Father Franjo Rihar whom Pavelić arrested and shot for refusing, as Stepinac had not, to celebrate High Mass and sing the Te Deum Laudamus at the anniversary of the founding of the Independent State of Croatia. '[Stepinac] stands surely for the principle of the State-controlled church,' wrote Butler. 'Unquestionably his conciliatory attitude influenced others who were not capable of his restraint.' Because I have a perverse sense of humour, I would love to know what Hubert Butler might make of today's opposing posts about the archbishop on the internet. Butler is a writer of great insight – as well as actually meeting the man – and I have to say that contemporary views For and Against Stepinac are so vastly different to anything in the Balkan Essays that the bloggers themselves must have taken lessons in either Hagiography or Indictment.
I will let Mr Butler have the last word. In 1988 he wrote, 'As for Mgr Stepinac, I believe he underwent martyrdom in order that the truth should be misrepresented.'