h i s t o r i c a l  p e r s p e c t i v e  

c h r i s  a g e e 





In this essay, the author examines how Hubert Butler’s experiences in post-war Yugoslavia led to the “Nuncio Incident” in the ultramontane Ireland of 1952, recounted in “The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue,” and considers why his writing on the Croatian Church remains deeply relevant to the mounting controversy over the beatification of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, Archbishop of Croatia during the Second World War.




In the summer of 1947, on his first trip to postwar Yugoslavia, Hubert Butler arrived at the reading room desk of the Municipal Library in Zagreb. Fluent in Serbo-Croat, he obtained his ticket and spent the next few days perusing the newspapers, especially the ecclesiastical papers, published during the 1941-45 Quisling regime of Independent Croatia. He was hoping to make, he would later say, “a study of the Christian crisis in Yugoslavia.”[1] He had stumbled on the trail — the very beginning of the trail — of what I shall call, echoing his own phrasing, “the Stepinac File.”

At 46, Butler was no stranger to the great events of his period. Already he had firsthand experience of the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism, and what is surely the matrix for both, the unraveling of four empires on European soil. In 1931 he spent three months teaching English in Leningrad at the beginning of the Stalinist Terror. On the Dalmatian coast in the mid-thirties he saw early waves of refugees from Hitler and then, working with the Quakers in Vienna in 1938-39, helped expedite the flight of Jews after the Anschluss. Closer to home, traveling from Charterhouse during the term break, he had passed through the smoking ruins of Dublin in the aftermath of the Rising on Easter Monday and concluded he was an Irish republican.

Unlike many or most nationalists at the time, Butler from an early stage did not view the War of Independence in primarily insular terms. The freedom of Ireland was inextricably bound up with a wider pan-European phenomenon, the disintegration of empires and the emergence of what in the interwar period were known as the Succession States; a dozen small nations, he wrote, “formed at the same time (1918-1921) and under the influence of much the same ideas.”[2] From this perspective, which he never abandoned, indeed never ceased refining, the ideals of the Easter Rising were but a spiritual stone’s throw from those that brought forth the new states in the East. Pearse in Dublin was cognate with Princip in Sarajevo.

Notwithstanding the writerly potential of his wanderlust through the late twenties and thirties, Butler had not, by the end of the Second World War, written much in his own voice; and of this, very little had appeared in print. An early interest in Russia and Russian had resulted in book translations of Leonid Leonov’s THE THIEF in 1931 and Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in 1934. But by the age of 46 his own work consisted of only a handful of essays and reviews. These included “Riga Strand in 1930” and “In Dalmatia,” neither of which would appear until the Lilliput volumes, plus several others from the thirties which remain unpublished; three postwar reviews of Soviet literature; and two wartime essays, “The Barriers” (1941) and “Two Languages” (1943) in which, as from an Indian-summer chrysalis, Butler’s prose genius is suddenly glimpsed in full flight. In short, Butler began unusually late.

When he arrived at the Municipal Library in Zagreb he had therefore little in the way of a published literary career behind him outside his considerable gifts as a translator.  But although he had barely begun, the virtuosity of that beginning is unmistakable.  His prose is already an instrument of unusual richness. It had long been tuned by his notebooks and letters.

Indeed, one wonders if he ever had a literary career in the usual sense; there is something of the urgent Reuters report in all his work, as if from the thick of life and its pressing issues, in a posting far from the literary world, he had found time to dispatch another report from the ethical front. In contrast to much of the professionalized literary milieu, there is never the sense of suborning life’s grist to the mill of the next deadline or book; never the heresy of adjusting the course of living to the calculus of literary ambition; never the sacrifice of the passions of the amateur for the royal road of the professional career.  That note of the far-flung ethical dispatch — the letter from the literary nowhere — is itself part of the distinction of the style.

To flourish, though, like the proverbial mustard seed, Butler’s style still needed, it seems to me, the right soil. The instrument might be ready, mellowed by years of travel, but what would he play — and what would be the leitmotifs? In the best writing such themes are never wholly a matter of choice. The X-axis of the individual sensibility intersects the Y-axis of the historical moment. There is a sense in which many of the most indispensable writers — think of Kafka or Wilfred Owen — have been chosen by the themes imposed by the narrow gate of circumstance. Of potential, Ted Hughes remarks that “it is as if one grain of talent — in the right psychological climate — can become a great harvest, where a load of grains — in the wrong climate — simply goes off.”[3]




What Butler uncovered during those first days in the Municipal Library in 1947 — and subsequent visits to the library of the University of Zagreb during the same trip and again in 1950 — astounded him. On every plane: ethical, historical, psychological, emotional. “The moment in the library,” as I will call his various visits to the Zagreb files, would have a decisive influence on the course of his life and work. If Butler was one of a rare breed of writers, like Swift or Orwell, for whom the source of inspiration is what I have termed elsewhere “the ethical imagination,” then we might liken his discovery in that first reading room to the moment before the madeleine with which Marcel Proust begins A LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU.

At the very beginning of that novel, the narrator experiences an epiphany as he tastes a small pastry of that name, and it is the pursuit of the significance of this moment of sudden apprehension that informs the whole meandering epic flowing from it. Likewise, metaphorically, Butler’s “moment in the library” is the ethical epiphany that would decant into much of his greatest writing. As Joseph Brodsky observed while the Bosnian war raged,


For modern readers, Hubert Butler’s most valuable insights would be no doubt those that have to do with Mitteleuropa. He knew the reality firsthand, and its worst period at that. Which is to say that our understanding of its present conditions logically stands to benefit from what Hubert Butler depicted half a century ago. A man of immense learning, he was interested in this borderline zone, with its fusion of Latin and Slavic cultures, presumably because he sensed in their interplay the future of European civilization. Born where he was, he couldn’t help being concerned with the fate of Christendom, whose natural son he was.[4]


We will come to the specifics of the Stepinac case, and “its supreme importance,” as he put it, “to all thinking Christians.”[5] But let us first register the haunting presence of the Zagreb files in Butler’s writing. No other single experience is accorded such a repeated airing. A direct account of the visits to the two libraries is related in seven essays, while the nature of what he uncovered there appears in varying degrees in another four, as well as in a dozen or so uncollected letters published in the Irish and English press in the late forties and fifties.

Lining up all this material in the order it issued from his pen gives us Butler’s accumulating account of Archbishop Stepinac. Since Butler had not written much before “the moment in the library,” the Stepinac file becomes a fugal narrative that runs right through his entire corpus, from the clutch of early Yugoslav essays in the late forties, dealing directly with his post-war visits, to the last paragraphs of his last essay in 1990, “A Three-Day Nation,” where the Stepinac theme reappears, and he concludes: “I have always thought that compared with the question of how we behave, what we believe is of little importance.”[6]




Of what, then, did the epiphany in the reading room consist? For an answer let us now turn to the man himself, in four extracts.


Extract one, from “The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue” (1956):


I have been reproached several times by sincere and civilized unbelievers for my efforts to find out the details of the vast campaign in Croatia in 1941 to convert two and a half million Orthodox to Catholicism. ‘Why not let bygones be bygones?’ they say. ‘If we rake these thing up we’ll merely play into the hands of the Communists. And anyway, they are always killing each other in the Balkans.’ I once heard an ambassador in Belgrade argue like that, and indeed I have never heard a British or American official abroad argue in any other way. When in 1947 I went to Zagreb and looked up the files of the war-time newspapers of Croatia in which the whole story was to be read, it was obvious no foreign inquirer had handled them before, and the library clerks regarded me with wonder and suspicion.[7]


Extract two, from “Report on Yugoslavia” (an address to War Resisters International, in Shrewsbury, England, in August, 1945):


When I was in Zagreb I spent several days in the public library looking up the old files of the newspapers that were issued in the occupation period, particularly the Church papers. I wanted to see what resistance, if any, was made by organized Christianity to the ruthless militarism of Pavelitch, the Croat national leader, and his German and Italian patrons; I am afraid the results were disheartening. I did not expect to find outspoken criticism or condemnation in the Church papers because, if it had been published, the papers would certainly have been suppressed. But I was wholly unprepared for the gush of hysterical adulation which was poured forth by almost all of the leading clergy upon Pavelitch, who was probably the vilest of all war criminals. He was their saviour against Bolshevism, their champion against the Eastern barbarian and heretic, the Serb; he was restorer of their nation and the Christian faith, a veritable hero of olden time. As I believe that the Christian idiom is still the best in which peace and goodwill can be preached, I found this profoundly disturbing . . . .[8]


Extract three, from “The Invader Wore Slippers” (1950):


When an incendiary sets a match to respectability, it smoulders malodorously, but piety, like patriotism, goes off like a rocket. The jackboot was worn by the Croats themselves and used so vigorously against the schismatic Serbs that the Germans and Italians, who had established the little state, were amazed. Pavelitch, the regicide ruler of Croatia, was himself the epitome, the personification, of the extraordinary alliance of religion and crime, which for four years made Croatia the model for all satellite states in German Europe. He was extremely devout, attending mass every morning with his family in a private chapel built onto his house. He received expressions of devoted loyalty from the leaders of the churches, including the Orthodox, whose murdered metropolitan had been replaced by a subservient nominee. He gave them medals and enriched their parishes with the plundered property of the schismatics, and he applied the simple creed of One Faith, One Fatherland, with a literalness that makes the heart stand still. It was an equation that had to be solved in blood. Nearly two million orthodox were offered the alternatives of death or conversion to the faith of the majority. . . .

Yet, as I read the papers in Zagreb, I felt it was not the human disaster but the damage to honoured words and thoughts that was most irreparable. The letter and spirit had been wrested violently apart and a whole vocabulary of Christian goodness had been blown inside out like an umbrella in a thunderstorm.[9]


Extract four, from the “Artukovitch File” (1970-88) (Artukovi was the Croatian Himmler):


These terrible Church papers, 1941 to 1945, should destroy forever our faith in those diplomatic prelates, often good and kindly men, who believe that at all costs the ecclesiastical fabric, its schools and rules, its ancient privileges and powers, should be preserved. The clerical editors published the Aryan laws, the accounts of the forced conversions, without protest, the endless photographs of Pavelitch’s visits to seminaries and convents, and the ecstatic speeches of welcome with which he was greeted. Turn, for example, to Katolicki Tjednik (The Catholic Weekly), Christmas 1941, and read the twenty-six verse ‘Ode to Pavelitch’, in which Archbishop Sharitch praises him for his measures against Serbs and Jews. Examine the Protestant papers and you will find the same story. Is it not clear that in times like those the Church doors should be shut, the Church newspapers closed down, and Christians, who believe that we should love our neighbours as ourselves, should go underground and try to build up a new faith in the catacombs?[10]


 Returning to my earlier imagery, is this not the soil in which a great crop first flourished?

What crystallizes for the first time in the early Yugoslav writing is an ensemble of characteristic themes the cohesion or which can be felt to descend through the variousness of the entire work. Butler’s palette, I have written elsewhere, “is narrow yet profound: he writes out of a compact but interrelated set of preoccupations which over the course of his life he elaborated into a unique terrain of historical, cultural, religious and philosophical reflection.” The outline of that terrain first migrates from the cast of sensibility to the temper of the writing in the Balkan work of the late forties. Orwell remarked that a writer should never depart too far from his first style, and the same might be said of first themes. Certainly Butler never did so.

To extend the point: Butler not only begins late, he begins, mainly, in the East. By my reckoning, up to and including 1948, the year after his first visit to Zagreb, Butler’s published and unpublished essays, articles and reviews have expanded to include only three on an Irish topic, but fifteen on the Balkans, five on Russia, two on the small nations of Europe, and one each on a German and English topic. Thereafter, his output quickens still further and the Irish topics multiply; but even at mid-century the tally is twenty-five on the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and five on Ireland.

When the preponderance of the East in the early writing is appreciated, the place of the Croatian genocide in the overall evolution of his work also comes clear. “The moment in the library” was the first great Reuters report from the historical front; this was where “the ethical imagination” consolidated and embarked. As with Proust’s small but momentous pastry, it was the démarche that he never quite left.

Spanning five decades, the Yugoslav work is not, therefore, some Ruritanian spur to a more central Irish track. On the contrary, the Croatian genocide is firmly at the center of his corpus; it not so much a limb as a backbone. To read the Balkan essays in chronological order is to become aware of the fugal skill with which he broaches and elaborates the matter of the genocide. Themes are introduced and outlined; later they are embellished and extended. He begins by writing of his Balkan time in the thirties, his postwar visits, and the wartime genocide; then the “Nuncio” controversy in Ireland intervenes; then he interlaces both perspectives. What emerges in the later essays is something more universal, transcending the particulars of either country.

The difficulty is that, scattered throughout the four volumes, the pattern of the Balkan work, second nature to the author, is lost on the reader not intent on unraveling it. Even when laid out in chronological order the titles have an occasional and even strange air to the English ear, and so do not quite do justice to the crafted and supple orchestration that they embody. After all, did he not consider the events in Croatia “the most bloodthirsty religio-racial crusade in history, far surpassing anything achieved by Cromwell or the Spanish Inquisitors?[11] How could a writer like Butler with his ethical and historical and cultural cast of mind, with an intimate knowledge of the country and that defining moment in Zagreb Municipal Library, give the theme short shrift? Indeed, how could he not make it central?




At the heart of the Croatian work is, of course, the figure of Monsignor Alojzije Stepinac, the Archbishop of Croatia during the Quisling regime. Although there is no single essay devoted to Stepinac alone, Butler’s J’accuse, his shrewd and meticulous portrait of a compromised prelate, belongs to one of his quintessential modes: the focus on the single personality through which a wider historical, cultural and/or ethical picture is adumbrated. Most of these figures — such as Anton Chekhov, Boucher de Perthes, Ernst Renan, Carl von Ossietsky, Mr. Pfeffer of Sarajevo — are drawn from Butler’s eclectic pantheon of intellectual heroes, and in his hands they become universal parables for the struggle of the independent spirit against the conformist tide of history, culture or scholarship.

Only in the writing on Stepinac does this pattern vary decisively. The figure of the Archbishop is Butler’s great parable for something at odds with the cussedness he extols in his heroes — not something more complex, necessarily, but something more opaque, fluid, unsettling, elusive. The Monsignor’s is a parable about a breakdown in the ethical machinery connected to the absence of that independence of spirit.

Butler does not simply lay charges at the door of the Archbishop. With the forensic eye for inner detail that characterizes all his writing on personality, he is interested in something more important, more exemplary of a social process than simple moral condemnation. Butler avoids any sense of anathematizing the character of Stepinac, whose courage, piety and personal kindliness he emphasizes. Moreover, there is no suggestion that the Monsignor belongs to the same moral universe as actual war criminals like Paveli, Artukovi, and Eichmann.

  Nonetheless, Butler does not shirk from making a decisive comparison with them in the matter of the process of behavior.  For Butler, Stepinac is another avatar of the Organization Man, subset Ecclesiastical. In a period of Alice-in-Wonderland values, institutional order itself, in a sense, is the problem. “The Organization Man’s fatal respect for orderliness”[12] becomes integral to the vastness of the criminal enterprise. In bureaucratic cases like Eichmann and Artukovi, who were dutiful cogs in the momentum of the state, the role of the Organization Man is now well-understood. But what I think Butler saw in the figure of Stepinac — what he first saw firsthand in the Municipal library in Zagreb — is a less obvious form of the phenomenon, a corollary of the first, though perhaps no less essential to that breakdown in the ethical machinery: the Organization Man in proximity to crime.

These two faces of the Organization Man are so entwined as to suggest the continuum of human nature itself. If Eichmann and Artukoviã are instances of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, then Butler on Stepinac concerns what I would call the gentility of evil — so long as we understand the word evil as a moral evaluation of consequences and not an explanation of its metaphysical provenance.




Remembrance of things past was, of course, the emotional atmospheric behind Butler’s return to Zagreb in 1947. Awarded a Travelling Scholarship to Yugoslavia by the School of Slavonic Studies in London, he had lived in the country for three years, from 1934 to 1937. “I think I was first attracted there,” he wrote in 1979, “by the fact that it attained its independence at the same time as we did in Ireland and had to confront similar problems of diverse religions, cultures, loyalties.”[13] Although he took seriously the adjective traveling andspent much of his time crisscrossing Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, his main base was Zagreb, where he taught English for the Anglo-Yugoslav Society and had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including several notable literary and ecclesiastical figures.

Several essays tell us, in fact, that he was quite familiar with the public role of Stepinac in the interwar period. A mere four years after his ordination, Stepinac had become Archbishop of Croatia — the youngest archbishop in the world — and was soon embroiled in two major political controversies, the Yugoslav King’s concordat with the Vatican (which was associated in the public mind with a simultaneous commercial treaty with Fascist Italy) and Catholic opposition to the building of an Orthodox cathedral in Zagreb. In such firsthand and telling detail, we see why Butler has good reason to remark, in the Introduction to ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL (1985), that Yugoslavia “is the foreign country I know best”[14]; those familiar with both Ireland and the Balkans will marvel at how his command of the cultural geography of the latter is no less magisterial than that of the former.

Butler heard of the terrible events in Croatia at an early stage. In a letter to The Irish Times in October, 1946, commenting on the recent Yugoslav trial of Stepinac, found guilty of collaboration, he mentions that he read during the war a volume entitled YUGOSLAVIA IN ARMS, by M. Sudjic. It had been published in 1942 in London on behalf of the exiled monarchist government as part of the “Europe under the Nazis” series. He adds: “The writer accused Stepinac and other prominent Catholic prelates of collaboration. For example, he asserted that Mgr Sharitch, Archbishop of Bosnia, published under his own name in a Zagreb paper a poem hailing the Quisling Pavelitch as ‘the sun of Croatia.’”[15] Having gotten wind of the genocide, his intimate knowledge of prewar Croatia would have given him a vivid image of the nature of cataclysm engulfing Orthodox, Jew, and Roma.

Furthermore, from an unpublished letter of October, 1947, declined by the leading Irish Catholic weekly The Standard, one can glean the sequence of events that led him to the reading room in Zagreb:


Before I went last summer to Zagreb, where thirteen years ago I held for a couple of years a scholarship from the School of Slavonic Studies, I made an examination of the large collection of documents dealing with the Churches under the occupation published by the Yugoslav Government in 1946 (known as Dokumenti). . . . A large part of these were photostats of the signed depositions of witnesses or of letters from prominent people in the Church or the Quisling state. I saw no way of verifying these because forgery and moral pressure are not easy for a foreigner to detect.

But, in addition to these, there are about 500 newspaper extracts, some photographed, some merely quoted. They are all dated. It seemed quite a difficult thing to fake so many newspapers that had circulated five years before, because as well as the immense labour of editing and printing, it would be necessary to suppress all the genuine copies. Most of the papers were church papers and must have reached Italy, with which Croatia was, at that time, closely associated and possibly even the Vatican. The task of substituting the counterfeit for the genuine would be an impossible one. Therefore, I felt, even before I went to Zagreb, that either a transparent hoax has been perpetrated or the extracts were genuine. . . .[16]


Now we can see the chronology. During the war he reads that a great crime had befallen the much-loved country where he had lived for three years and where he still had many close friends. Somehow he obtains the postwar book of evidence for that crime, though it is not distributed outside Yugoslavia, and reads it in the original. The tale told seems incredible. Is it really to be believed? He must go back and see for himself.




By the late forties the trial and imprisonment of Stepinac in Tito’s Yugoslavia had become one of those tremendous political issues that is quickly forgotten by later generations. The question of the role of the Archbishop during the Quisling regime had fallen foul of the hardening dichotomies of the Cold War. The forcible conversion campaign was barely known outside Yugoslavia, and along with Cardinal Mindszenty in Hungary, Stepinac had shape-shifted into an imprisoned martyr of the struggle between Christianity and Communism. In his 1948 essay “Ireland and Croatia,” Butler remarks:


Few events in Europe excited such widespread interest in Ireland as the trial of Archbishop Stepinac and the struggle between the Catholic Church in Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav Government. It was as though after six years of discreet silence, we had at last found a subject about which we could safely vent our repressed indignation. Croatia is a remote, little-known part of Europe, and this made it very strange that our press, which had been silent when one country after another had been overrun by Germany, should suddenly pass resolutions in the strongest and boldest language….[17]


On the first of May,1949, for instance, over 150,000 people gathered in the center of Dublin to protest the treatment of the two prelates. This was the perfervid background that would later decant into the Nuncio incident.

After his return from Zagreb, Butler gave a talk on Radio Éirann about postwar Yugoslavia that embroiled him in attacks from several correspondents in the Irish Catholic weekly The Standard, who criticized him for “whitewashing” the treatment of the Catholic Church by Tito. In the broadcast, Butler had, in fact, mentioned neither the Communist attack on the Church nor the forced conversion campaign for, he says, “I could not refer to the Communist persecution of religion without mentioning the more terrible Catholic persecution which had preceded it, so I thought silence was best.”[18] Butler himself gives a barbed précis, in the first paragraphs of “The Sub-prefect Should Have Held His Tongue” (1956), of the evolution of the controversy that began to engage him in the letters columns after his return from Zagreb.

In retrospect, what is so striking when one sees the texts of these first attacks on Butler — besides the unpleasantness of the authoritarian tone — is the degree to which he had already, through his Irish newspaper letters before the 1947 visit to Zagreb, become associated with the Stepinac issue. A subsequent editorial in The Standard, devoted entirely to Butler, proceeds thus: “We remember every detail of Mr. Butler’s record: his several attempts to depict Archbishop Stepinac as a ‘traitor’, a ‘collaborator with the enemy’ and the driving force behind the ‘forced conversions. . . .’”[19] It goes on to elaborate the charge sheet for another twenty-one paragraphs. In a secularizing Ireland, we are beginning to forget the degree to which the monolithic political Christianity of both traditions was an organized power across the island. Indeed, it was precisely “militant and political Christianity,”[20] as he puts it, that had led to the ethical breakdown revealed in the Zagreb files, and he was now getting a small personal taste of one of its essential flavors.

A fuse had been lit that would smoulder on until its final flare-up in the so-called “Insult to the Nuncio.” At the end of a Dublin meeting of the Foreign Affairs Association in 1952, following a lecture on religious persecution in Tito’s Yugoslavia, Butler tried to raise the issue of the wartime persecution of the Orthodox. Unknown to him, Ireland’s Papal Nuncio was in the audience and, on hearing Butler’s opening, walked out. The “slight” had been unintentional, but the point here is to grasp the charged atmosphere of the meeting. The lecturer was none other than the editor who had published the diatribe against Butler in The Standard, and there was an attempt by the Chairman to foreclose discussion after the lecture, possibly in anticipation of an intervention by Butler. And after “the Insult” reached the papers and was transmogrified into a furor, there would have been no shortage of people in the press and public life well-aware of Butler’s refusal to hold his tongue — and happy for the pretext to give the Kilkenny gadfly a hammering.




Having laid general charges against Stepinac, Butler zeros in on the precise nature of his collaboration with a prosecutor’s eye for the damning detail. If the several dozen passages assessing Stepinac are extracted and conflated, the result is an extraordinary tour de force, notable for its subtlety on three counts: the marshalling of primary sources; the parsing of coded meanings; the fair-mindedness of his moral delineation.

But one text above all stands out as Butler’s summary of the Stepinac file. It is the uncollected preamble to a long document that Butler had found and translated himself. The preamble and the entire document of November 1941, which he titles “An Unpublished Letter from Archbishop Stepinac to Pavelitch,” appeared in three installments in The Church of Ireland Gazette in December-January1950-51.

The letter is a personal communication that accompanied a formal resolution from the Croatian bishops. In it, Stepinac protests against the barbarities of the conversion campaign; his letter also contains extracts from memoranda of protest from four other bishops. “When I was in Zagreb,” Butler tells us, “I discovered that one of the most important of all the documents had never been published in Yugoslavia, let alone translated into English.”[21]

For those familiar with the case mounted in defense of Stepinac, this is the key document, for extracts of the accompanying resolution would later often be used to absolve Stepinac of any responsibility for the conversion campaign. Here is part of Butler’s preamble, republished for the first time since 1950, in which he dismantles that defense:


When I was in Zagreb this September [1950] I secured through the Ministry of Justice some documents relating to the Stepinac trial. Most of them were already familiar to me, but the letter which I have translated below (though not the resolution that accompanied it) was new to me. Though it is of great importance, neither the enemies or champions of Mgr Stepinac have made use of it. The letter is not helpful either for the Communist prosecution or Catholic defence. It reveals a confused human situation, where angels and devils are not easily identified.

The gigantic massacre of 1941, which was linked with Pavelitch’s conversion campaign, has often been declared, particularly in Ireland, to be a fabrication of Chetniks or Communists or the Orthodox Church. Mgr Stepinac’s letter, once and for all, establishes its actuality. In a more peaceful age, it would have been a great historical landmark, for the dead outnumbered the total of the victims of the massacre of the Albigeneses, the Waldenses, and of St Bartholomew’s Eve. . . .

The Archbishop’s letter reveals the regret and revulsion which the violent methods used by Pavelitch’s missionaries inspired in the Catholic hierarchy. The formal resolution, which was passed in conclave in November, 1941, was an attempt to bring the conversion campaign under the control of the Church, and to check the rule of violence. The attempt was belated since the fury had spent itself by July, 1941, three months earlier.

If we exclude Archbishop Sharitch [of Bosnia], the author of the celebrated odes to Pavelitch and the fervent advocate of all his designs, the letters of Mgr Stepinac and the four bishops, whom he quotes, are moderate and humane. Why was the hierarchy so utterly impotent to check this inroad of fanatical barbarians into the purely ecclesiastical domain of conversion? I think the answer can be seen by a close examination of the letters [of the four bishops]. Pity for the heretic had always to be qualified, and was sometimes neutralized, by zeal for the extension of the Catholic Church. Never once did they say, ‘Let there be an end to conversions! There can be no talk of free will and voluntary change of faith in a land invaded by two armies and ravaged by civil war!’ Their concern is all for the right ordering of things…. A great opportunity had come to them. They must use it wisely, and not barbarously, for the saving of souls, but use it they must. . . .[22]


In the following letter, with its composite quotes, there are many passages in which the Bishops reveal the ambiguity at the heart of their thinking, including one (made famous by the title of one of Butler’s greatest essays) about the protest against the massacres voiced by a Muslim Sub-Prefect in Mostar who, nonetheless, according to the Bishop of Mostar, “as a state employee should have held his tongue.” Throughout, the ecclesiastical have-your-cake-and-eat-it, the careful eye on the future, are unmistakable.

But Butler, in the scrapbook where he kept much of his published Yugoslav writing, highlights in pencil just one passage in the unpublished letter. It is the following, also from the memorandum of the Bishop of Mostar (again, because quoted, given Church imprimatur by Stepinac): “Every single person will condemn this irresponsible activity, but in the present circumstances we are letting slip excellent opportunities which we could use for the good of Croatia and the Holy Catholic cause. From a minority we might become a majority in Bosnia and Herzegovina. . . .”[23]  (Bosnia had been awarded to Croatia by the Nazis. Strangely, if everybody condemned the violence, why was it happening? Double-speak here? Pious connivance? In the present circumstances . . . .)

With that, the ethical imagination rests its case.




There is a final twist to the Stepinac file. The most astonishing of all, perhaps: Butler’s visit, during the 1950 trip, to the imprisoned Archbishop himself, recounted in a single brief essay, “A Visit to Lepoglava.” If one is not already familiar with the Balkan writings, it is easy to miss the drama of the encounter. In this exemplary moment of the ethical imagination in the 20th Century, the writer confronts the object of his writing. Butler and his Quaker companions have only a few minutes to ask the essential questions in French:


I said I had read a letter he had written to Pavelitch … protesting against the barbarity with which the conversion campaign had been conducted and that I had never doubted his dislike of cruelty. But why, when he wished to regulate this campaign, had he chosen as one of his collaborators Mgr Shimrak…. Mgr Shimrak’s enthusiasm for the disgraceful conversion campaign had been well known and publicly expressed. I had myself looked up his published address in his diocesan magazine Krizhevtsi…. 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): Notre conscience est tranquille.[24]


It is an extraordinary moment in the literature of actuality, reminiscent of Chekhov’s trip to the penal camp of Sakhalin.

The encounter at Lepoglava gives us a further insight into Butler’s persistence in truth-telling that would culminate in the “Nuncio incident” two years later. What was a spat in Ireland, or even his removal from the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, which he had revived, compared to the events he was publicizing?


I was denounced by special meetings of the Kilkenny Corporation and Kilkenny County Council, and the chain of events began which drew me from all this pleasant constructive planning for the revival of archaeology. I in “The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue,” [and] Paul Blanshard in THE IRISH AND CATHOLIC POWER, have told only a very little of it and later on I want to describe all that happened afterwards, a sequel of which I am proud enough, because I have stood by what I believed and hit back at those, who damaged me only a little, but damaged truth a great deal….[25]


That controversy, we can now see, was an exemplary moment in the history of the public intellectual in modern Ireland; one where Butler exemplifies, in the life of the parish as well as the nation, the independent spirit whom Chekhov extols. In the Nuncio controversy, life and work fuse in a moment of ethical courage.




However remote the events in Quisling Croatia may now seem to the Westerner, their influence is still very much alive in the Balkans. The Croatian crusade is deeply connected to its recent Serb döppelganger at Vukovar, Sarajevo, Srbrenica, Kosova, and the rest. What might be called a peregrination of trauma has occurred: the victim become the victimizer; the shame of defeat, the shamelessness of victory; the evil suffered, the evil done. It is a pattern we know well in Ireland. How can we expect better things in a renewed Serbia, if Stepinac is still revered in Croatia, even by the intelligentsia, to say nothing of the Church, as saintly and patriotic?

Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, an effigy of Stepinac, resembling nothing so much as the embalmed Lenin, sits in a glass case on the altar of Zagreb Cathedral. In 1998 the Pope initiated the process of his canonization. Shortly afterwards, in Italy, a small and respected religious press published a book about the conversion campaign entitled THE GENOCIDE ARCHBISHOP.[26] The struggle between hagiography and historiography, “of utmost importance to all thinking Christians,” is still engaged. It would appear that the Stepinac file, which Hubert Butler did so much to keep open in the West, cannot soon be closed.






©Chris Agee. This essay was read at the Centenary Celebration of Hubert Butler,

October 20-22, 2000, Kilkenny, Ireland





[1] Butler Papers (unpublished letter)


[3] Ted Hughes, WINTER POLLEN (London:Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 31

[4] Joseph Brodsky, “Appendix,” IN THE LAND OF NOD, p. 268

[5] IN THE LAND OF NOD, p. 137

[6] Ibid., p. 166


[8] IN THE LAND OF NOD, pp. 106-7. The essay was published first, posthumously, in this volume.


[10] Ibid., p. 285

[11] Ibid., p. 284


[13] Butler Papers (unpublished address)


[15] The Irish Times, 16 October 1946

[16] Butler Papers (Yugoslav documents)

[17] IN THE LAND OF NOD, p. 90


[19] The Standard, 10 October 1947

[20] IN THE LAND OF NOD, p. 133

[21] Butler Papers (unpublished essay)

[22] The Church of Ireland Gazette, 22 December 1950

[23] Ibid., 5 January 1951

[24] IN THE LAND OF NOD, p. 136

[25] Butler Papers (diary)

[26] Marco Aurelio Rivelli, THE GENOCIDE ARCHBISHOP. Milan: Kaos, 1998






Books by Hubert Butler:


Wellbrook Press, 1972

_________, ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1985

_________, THE CHILDREN OF DRANCY. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1988

_________, GRANDMOTHER AND WOLFE TONE. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1990


London: Viking Press, 1990

_________, L’ENVAHISSEUR EST VENU EN PANTOUFLES.  tr. Phillipe Blanchard.

Pref. Joesph Brodsky. Paris Anatolia Editions, 1994

_________, IN THE LAND OF NOD. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1996

_________, INDEPENDENT SPIRIT. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996

Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard. Tr. Hubert Butler. Intro. Tyrone Guthrie. London:

H.F.W. Dane & Sons Ltd; Boston.: Baker’s Plays

Leonid Leonov, THE THIEF. Tr. Hubert Butler. London: Martin Warburg, 1931. New York: Vintage, 1960


Relevant books:

Paul Blanshard, THE IRISH AND CATHOLIC POWER. An American Interpretation. Foreword,

H. Montgomery Hyde. London: Derek Verschoyle, 1954

Curzio Malaparte, KAPUTT. Tr. from the Italian by Cesare Foligno. New York: Dutton, 1946.

Anthony Henry O’Brian, Count of Thomond, ARCHBISHOP STEPINAC: THE MAN AND HIS CASE.

Westminster: The Newman Bookshop, 1947

Richard Pattee, THE CASE OF CARDINAL ALOYSIUS STEPINAC. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1953

Marco Aurelio Rivelli, L’ARCIVESCOVO DEL GENOCIDIO: Monsignor Stepinac, il Vaticano, e la

dittatura ustascia in Croazia, 1941-1945. Milan: Kaos Edizioni, 1998.

Andrée Sheehy Skeffington, SKEFF: THE LIFE OF OWEN SHEEHY SKEFFINGTON 1909-1970. Dublin:

The Lilliput Press, 1991

Sudjic, Milivoj J. YUGOSLAVIA IN ARMS. (“Europe under the Nazis” series) London: Lindsay

Drummond, Ltd., 1942

Various, MARTYRDOM OF THE SERBS (Persecutions of the Serbian Orthodox Church and Massacre of the

Serbian People) (Documents and reports of the United Nations and of eyewitnesses) The Serbian

Eastern Orthodox Diocese for The United States of American and Canada, 1943.




Hubert Butler, “The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue,” this issue

Chris Agee, “The Balkan Butler,” this issue

Hubert Butler, “The Artukovitch FileArchipelago, Vol. 1, No. 2

Richard Jones, “An Appreciation of Hubert Butler,” Archipelago, Vol. 1, No. 2

A selection of papers read at the Centenary of Hubert Butler (October 20-22, 2000), Kilkenny 

The Bosnian Institute, London, directed by Quintin Hoare

The Clero-Fascist Studies Project: Christianity, Fascism and Genocide in the 20th Century 

“This site is a production of the Clero-Fascist Studies Project, an on-going research and public information project exploring the convergence between certain strains of Christianity and fascism in the 20th century. In part, this project is a response to attempts by some of the parties responsible to cover up, erase, or cleanse their history. Our goal is the preservation, not the purification of history.”

Archbishop Stepinac’s Reply at the Trial 

The Case of Archbishop Stepinac” 

“This document assembling facts in the case of Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac of Yugoslavia has been prepared because the arrest and trial of the Archbishop are still being used in the United States in a campaign of misrepresentation against the Federal Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia. This campaign, accusing Yugoslavia of religious persecution -- which does not exist in my country and which is specifically outlawed by the Constitution -- has gone to considerable lengths. Petitions for which thousands of names have been obtained have been submitted to the White House and to the Department of State.

“Resolutions have been introduced in the Congress. In the face of such organized and continuing attacks I have felt compelled, in justice to the government and people of Yugoslavia, to make this material available in English. It shows that Archbishop Stepinac was tried and convicted solely because of the crimes in which he engaged against his own nation -- the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, later the Federal Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia -- and against his own countrymen.

“Americans who may have been misinformed on the point should know also that millions of patriotic citizens of Yugoslavia are Catholics, enjoying full freedom of worship today under constitutional guarantees. Having firsthand knowledge of the role played by Archbishop Stepinac during the war, they do not identify their religion with the secular political course in support of Hitler and Mussolini which he chose to follow.

“Sava N. Kosanovic, Ambassador of the Federal Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia.

“Washington, 1947”

Kaos Editions 

The Lilliput Press 

The Irish Times


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