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An Easy Conscience

Aidan O’Malley

Balkan Essays, by Hubert Butler, edited by Chris Agee and Jacob Agee, The Irish Pages Press, 573 pp, £28, ISBN: 978-0993553202

On October 19th, 1955 Yugoslavia beat Ireland 4-1 at Dalymount Park in Dublin. Considering the high reputation of the Yugoslav team, the score was perhaps not as much a surprise as the fact that almost 22,000 Irish people turned up to see the match. The formidable Archbishop John Charles McQuaid had requested that the fixture be cancelled, and while numerous official figures did not dare to defy the Catholic church, a considerable number of, in particular, working class Dubliners (the attendance was slightly lower than might have been expected) seemed to have seen little wrong in maintaining a separation of church and sport. For McQuaid, Ireland should have had nothing to do with the communist country that had incarcerated Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac.

The Catholic church had generated massive popular support for this cause: more than 100,000 people had gathered in the streets of Dublin in May 1949 – the largest demonstration the city had witnessed – to protest at the treatment of Stepinac and Cardinal Mindszenty, who was imprisoned in Hungary. Stepinac’s name now has almost no popular resonance in Ireland, but it is a focal point for the ongoing tensions between Croatia and Serbia. Though he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998, Stepinac’s route to canonisation was delayed by the current pontiff in 2016 after interventions by, among others, members of the Serbian Orthodox Church. This resulted in the establishment of a joint Croatian-Serbian commission charged with re-examining aspects of his historical legacy. Stepinac plays a leading role in Hubert Butler’s Balkan Essays, and in his foreword the chief editor of this collection, Chris Agee, expressed the hope that the Vatican-appointed committee would take the contents of this volume into consideration. Whether it did or not, the commission’s final report, issued in July 2017, suggested that they had agreed to disagree, noting that “the prevalent interpretations given by, respectively, Croatian Catholics and Serbian Orthodox, still remain divergent”. (Joint Communiqué on the Mixed Commission of Croation Catholic and Serbian Orthodox experts for a joint review of the figure of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, archbishop of Zagreb, 13.07.2017. Available at: https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2017/07/13/170713a.html)

But if Butler’s essays have a direct political salience in Croatia, few people there have heard of or read him. Agee has sought to remedy this, and this collection was published simultaneously in a Croatian translation by one of the most important publishers in the country, Fraktura. However, since its publication over a year ago, Balkanski eseji has been almost entirely ignored by the mainstream Croatian media. Where it has been reviewed – in smaller online outlets and in at least one academic journal – it has been very well received and, crucially, the details informing Butler’s reading of the Stepinac case have not been disputed.

Stepinac haunts these essays, because he represented what Butler considered a fatal intertwining of religion and politics that diminishes religion and produces a noxious politics. As variants of this nexus were to be found in other countries, including Ireland, Butler’s dissections of the career of Stepinac and the myths that it generated were central to his efforts to explain and unravel this more general grievous phenomenon.

The two men’s paths crossed on a couple of memorable occasions, most notably in Lepoglava, the prison in which Stepinac was held from 1946-51. Considering that he was the most important prisoner in Yugoslavia, Butler appeared to find it remarkably easy to arrange an interview with Stepinac through his Quaker connections, as is recounted in his 1951 essay “A Visit to Lepoglava”. Butler seemed to set little store by his personal comfort, as he very rarely mentioned the conditions in which he travelled, and surveying Stepinac’s cell and adjoining chapel, he is quickly reassured by his Quaker colleagues “that as cells went, it was a good one”. Having thus summarily satisfied himself that Stepinac was not experiencing any physical hardship, Butler questions him about the forced conversion campaign pursued by the Ustaše, the Croatian Nazi puppet regime, during World War II. Once installed in power in 1941, the Ustaše “decreed that … the Orthodox Church in Croatia was to be dissolved and conversions could be made to the other three Churches, Evangelical, Moslem and Greek Catholic or Uniate”. Citing more recent international historical studies, the editors corroborate Butler’s assertion that 250,000 forcible conversions of Orthodox Serbs to Catholicism took place in 1941, and further note “that between 320,000 and 340,000 ethnic Serbs, and at least 25,000 Roma, were killed by the Ustaše … [while] 30,000 Croatian and Bosnian Jews [were] also either killed directly by the Ustaše, or deported to Nazi death camps”.

Butler was appalled not just by the horrific dimensions of this genocide and conversion campaign but also by the lack of attention, and sheer denial, with which it was treated after the war as it threatened to complicate the evolving geopolitical landscape. Moreover, he was clearly shocked that a Christian church could be complicit in such a course of action, and wanted to understand the Catholic church’s knowledge of, or involvement in, this campaign. Unsurprisingly, Stepinac was entirely unforthcoming, and rebuffed Butler’s queries in Lepoglava with a frosty self-righteousness: “The archbishop gave the stock reply he had so often given at his trial …: ‘Notre conscience est tranquille.’

Butler was spurred to delve into this tragedy after he came into possession of a volume published in Zagreb in 1946, the title of which he translates into English as “Documents about the anti-national activities and crimes of a part of the Catholic clergy”. This contained copies of witness statements and letters from prominent persons in the church and the Ustaše, and “about 500 newspaper extracts” published in Croatia during the war, which outlined the extent of the forced conversion campaign and the church’s reactions to it. While he could not verify the witness statements and letters, he went to Zagreb University library to check out the newspaper cuttings, and found that “all the references [had been] correctly quoted”. Some of the key extracts were from Catholic organs, and it was beyond question that the church was well aware of the campaign and that church elements enthusiastically supported it. In particular, Butler cites in several of these essays excerpts from a laudatory ode of twenty-two stanzas composed by an Archbishop Šarić to “Our golden leader”, Ante Pavelić, the head of the Ustaše, who, in Butler’s words, “was, next to Himmler and Streicher, perhaps the vilest of the war criminals”.

Stepinac was of a different hue: such enthusiastic outpourings were not his style. Nor was he convinced about the forced conversion campaign. Butler’s understanding of his attitudes relies on a couple of key documents: a “circular” he wrote to the faithful in April 1941 and a letter to Pavelić on November 20th, 1941, both of which are helpfully reproduced in this collection. The circular recommended unequivocal support for the new fascist regime, precisely because Stepinac did not doubt that it would promote Catholicism: “Knowing as we do the men who today guide the destinies of the Croatian people we are deeply convinced that our work will meet with full understanding and help.” The Ustaše “have brought our people in reach of an ideal long dreamed of and desired”, a unification of blood, soil and religion: “These are hours in which no longer does the tongue speak but the blood with its mysterious attachment to the soil, in which we saw the light of God and with the people from whom we are sprung.”

A much more circumspect note is struck in his letter to Pavelić from later in that same year, when the scope and conduct of the forced conversion campaign had become apparent. This is a carefully worded but unambiguous protest against the manner in which the campaign was being run. Citing letters sent to him from four bishops in different parts of the country, Stepinac details some of the harrowing barbarities that have been committed in the name of the conversion project. He quotes extensively, for instance, from the bishop of Mostar’s account: “Terrible things have resulted … People were captured like wild beasts. They were killed and murdered and thrown living into ravines. Women and mothers with children, grown-up daughters, boys and girls, have been flung into pits.” These statements, however, lay the blame for the atrocities at the feet of rogue elements within the Ustaše, with Stepinac expressing the belief that Pavelić would be as appalled as he is at the horrors that are being committed in the name of his regime and campaign. Perhaps treading carefully around the leader, this letter does not call for the campaign to be entirely abandoned; rather, it should be reorganised: the brutality should be expunged, and it should be led by the church. Stepinac enclosed a resolution passed by the Croatian Bishops’ Conference that reasserted the claim that “all questions touching on the conversion of the Orthodox to the Catholic Faith falls exclusively within the competence of the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy”. The church, it goes on to state, only recognises conversions achieved “without any constraint” and, in order to achieve this, it “will organise courses for those priests who are accomplishing conversions from the Orthodox to the Catholic Church”. If this letter proved to Butler that Stepinac genuinely abhorred the violence that attended the campaign, it also debunked the postwar claims of Stepinac’s Catholic supporters that he always opposed it; indeed, the letter raised uncomfortable questions about the limits of Stepinac’s protest. In short, in it and the circular, “the diplomat is … more evident … than the saint”, as Butler noted in an unpublished letter to the editor of The Standard (1947/48), the leading Catholic newspaper in Ireland which had been attacking Butler’s Stepinac disclosures.

Two large, intermeshed, issues lie at the heart of Butler’s unveiling of this dismal episode in European history: the status of minorities and the pernicious phenomenon of the “Organisation Man”. The forced conversion campaign dramatically and brutally foregrounded the perilous position of minorities in a nation, a concern that lies at the heart of Butler’s writings on Ireland. For him, the most important way of gauging the health of a nation is to examine how it treats its minorities. And what he believed most endangered them was what happened when forms of abstract thinking took hold. Butler was an Irish Protestant nationalist, who espoused throughout his work a form of nationalism founded on the local bedrock of neighbourliness – of people living in the same area working together for the good of that place. For Butler, it was when nationalism went beyond the local that it became as much a blight as imperialism – when the idea that one’s links, by reason of race or religion, with unknown people elsewhere are more important and all-engulfing than one’s lived local reality.

He offers Maria Pasquinelli as a case study of the degenerating pull of an abstract, ethnic nationalism. She was an Italian fascist who shot a British general in 1947 in the course of her rather lonely irredentist campaign to reclaim parts of Croatia for Italy, which, in Butler’s diagnosis, caused her to lose sight both of herself and of her Croatian neighbours: “While [she] remained on the level of comradeship, she was capable and kind; it was when she tried to see herself as Istria, Italy, Western Civilisation, that she felt a challenge to which there was no response on the level of ordinary social intercourse.” In other words, her neighbours became first and foremost a conception: they were Slavs and, as such, inherently inferior. This runs contrary to Butler’s fundamental belief that “there is no such thing as a pure national culture”, and clearly one of the reasons Butler was drawn to Yugoslavia is because it was a hybrid zone that brought together the Latin, Slav and Muslim worlds.

Such hybridity, he felt, was better nurtured in smaller nations, where the pull of abstract thinking was more easily combated. Moreover, “in small countries, where anonymity is difficult, the Organisation Man”, who Butler saw as the incarnation of abstract thinking, “cannot operate freely”. Butler ponders this in an essay on Eichmann that sits at something of an odd angle to the other pieces in this collection as it is not directly concerned with the Balkans. However, this piece develops Butler’s conception of the “Organisation Man”, which he believes provides the most appropriate framework for categorising Stepinac. This variation on Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”, which Agee parses as “the gentility of evil”, is how Butler ultimately answers the question that he posed in the same unpublished letter to the editor of The Standard: “How could he [Stepinac] have seen God’s Handiwork in Pavelitch’s advent in the Nazi train?” While Butler declares on several occasions that Stepinac was a brave man who firmly believed that he was pursuing a justifiable path, he nonetheless struggles to muster much sympathy for him because, at bottom, “his guiding principle was loyalty to the established authority and its armies”. But in this region and in this period, political authority changed hands dramatically, and Stepinac’s rigid form of allegiance led him, in Butler’s eyes, to treason. As he regularly recounts, he first arrived in Zagreb in 1934 on the day that news came through that the Yugoslav king, Alexander, a Serb, had been assassinated in Marseille by Croatian separatists. Shortly afterwards Butler had his initial, distant encounter with Stepinac, when he saw him standing beside the dead king’s bier in Zagreb, where it stopped on its way back to Belgrade. Some years later though, Stepinac “reappeared before his countrymen as Archbishop at the right hand of his king’s assassin”, Pavelić. If it is perhaps unfair of Butler to suggest that this was of a piece with his earlier experiences as a soldier in the chaos of World War I, when Stepinac ended up fighting both for the Hungarian army and, subsequently, for the “Yugoslav Legion … against the Austro-Hungarians”, it is nonetheless the case that, as he avers, Stepinac’s career “is a wonderful illustration of the twists and turns which an ambitious, rather conventionally minded Croat has had to make in recent years if he is to keep pace with history”.

Stepinac, Butler concludes, was an Organisation Man whose overriding concern was for the institutions of his church, which he believed found their fullest articulation under “the principle of a state-controlled Church”. An Organisation Man sees the world in terms of a strictly conservative hierarchy, insisting on her/his place in it while deferring to those in superior positions. It is a worldview that thrives on, and generates, an overwhelming sense of respectability, and this attitude was incompatible with Butler’s vision of, and anxiety about, the role of religion in society. In Butler’s eyes, religion must stand somewhat athwart the compromises of the mundane if it is to provide the ethical framework for society. Once it becomes a constitutive part of the politics of a society, religion forsakes this function: rather than describing a place of truth-telling, it becomes nothing more than a tawdry symbol of decorousness. Butler not only loathes this degeneration of religion, but also sees this dynamic as inherently dangerous, and several of the essays here work to trace, in different contexts, “the correlation of respectability and crime”.

The durability of the cloak of respectability is eloquently testified to in “The Artukovitch File”. Here Butler attempts to retrace the steps in Ireland of Andrija Artuković, the Ustaše’s minister of the interior who was “dedicated to the extermination not of Jews alone, but also of his fellow-Christians, the Serbian Orthodox”. Facilitated by the Franciscan ratlines, he escaped first to Austria and Switzerland and then on to Dublin, where he spent a year in middle class Rathgar (1947-48), before leaving for the USA. Butler searched out those who might have had contact with him in Ireland, and when he placed the facts of Artuković’s war crimes to his former landlady, she refused to believe them, as the man she knew had been the soul of respectability – a man who cared for his family and was a daily communicant. Communism was clearly not respectable, and the middle-class  Irish who encountered Artuković generally assumed that he was fleeing the sort of communist persecution they had heard of from their priests and politicians.

As is well known, Butler breached this etiquette when he attempted to raise a question about the forced conversion campaign in response to a lecture at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Association in Dublin in 1952. The papal nuncio left the proceedings, and official Ireland interpreted this bit of ecclesiastical theatrics as a reaction to Butler insulting him. For a period, Butler was news, and he had to endure some nasty calumnies. While Sean O’Faolain, Peadar O’Donnell and The Bell supported him, he was ostracised by many respectable elements of Irish society. What particularly hurt a man who placed his faith in the local was having to resign from the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, which he had worked to resuscitate. In 2000 Butler received an official posthumous apology for these actions from the mayor of Kilkenny, Paul Cuddihy, who unreservedly acknowledged that “[w]e were wrong and he was right”. Not only does this indicate the liberalisation of Irish attitudes, a process that was aided by Butler’s steadfast insistence on the rights of minorities when such views were not getting much of an airing in the country, but this apology was also offered in the aftermath of the wars that had wracked Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and which had brought to blinding light some of the issues Butler had described many years before.

These wars, which broke out around the time of Butler’s death in 1991, exposed to international attention the unscrupulous and deadly political exploitation of the uneasy cohabitation of different religions in this region. However, in Ireland and elsewhere, this horrific period was, to a large extent, bracketed off as a historical anomaly that might be understood in terms of the stereotype of inherent Balkan volatility. If he appears at times to flirt with aspects of this stereotype, Butler ultimately dismantles it by consistently insisting on the fact that the people he encountered in Yugoslavia were very similar to inhabitants of other countries, including Ireland. They just happened to find themselves living in an area characterised by a remarkable number of active political fault lines. Having inherited a very mixed set of religious, political, social and cultural norms and modes of identification from the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, Yugoslavia was subsequently a crucial and bloody theatre of engagement in World War II. In the aftermath of the war, it was again in the front line as Europe settled into its Cold War configuration, being both communist and, after Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, outside the Cominform and, later, the Warsaw Pact. Neither East nor West, it was looked on with considerable suspicion by both sides, as is well documented in Butler’s series of articles for The Irish Times in 1951, “In Europe’s Debatable Lands”, written in the aftermath of his trip to Yugoslavia as part of an international group that investigated, and dismissed, the Cominform claims that the country “was making warlike preparations against her neighbours and had handed over bases to Britain and USA”.

In comparison, Ireland’s twentieth century experience was a lot less complicated, and caution must be exercised when bringing these two contexts into dialogue. Butler’s insistence on reading Ireland in light of the histories of the so-called succession states like Yugoslavia that emerged from the Habsburg empire after World War I promotes a valuable broadening of perspective that has, to this day, found limited academic articulation. However, his comparative undertaking does strike some dubious notes. For example, Butler’s assertion made in a few of these essays that Croatians were wont to see themselves in the 1930s as “the Ulster of Yugoslavia” is problematic. This analogy was drawn up by one of his friends in Zagreb, who explained it to Butler in these terms: “You had a sophisticated rather bourgeois minority in the north, frightened of being absorbed by a majority in the south, whom they regarded as primitive, and full of peasant superstitions, without industry or education.” Butler never offers any fuller development of this rather crass stereotype, despite the fact that this seemingly improbable conjunction contains the seeds of a more suggestive and fruitful field of inquiry: an exploration of the problematic relationships Croatians and Ulster unionists have had with their imperial centres. In brief, the suspicion of London politicians and sense of siege that unionists have felt down the years would be recognised by Croatians: led by Ban Josip Jelačić, Croatian forces went to Hungary to help quell the 1848 rebellion for the Austrians, who “rewarded” them by subsequently handing control of Croatia over to the Hungarians. Jelačić’s actions would also earn Croatians a dismissive rebuke in Arthur Griffith’s The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel for Ireland (1904), one of the key texts of Irish nationalism, which evinced no empathy for the positions of Croatia and Serbia under the Habsburgs.

Of course, Butler was not only writing for an Irish audience and these essays were originally issued in a wide array of different publications. It is also unlikely that there were too many readers of The Church of Ireland Gazette who were also subscribers to Peace News, or who were present at Butler’s submissions to the War Resisters International meetings in the late 1940s. As a result, when these pieces are collected in one volume there is quite a bit of repetition, particularly as the story of the forced conversion campaign is central to many of the ethical demonstrations that Butler formulates. So, while reiteration of this and other events somewhat grates, it is nonetheless difficult to imagine how the editors might have intervened to reduce this repetition without fatally disrupting the current propelling these pieces.

In reproducing these essays in full and showing how, in the words of Agee, “the Croatian genocide is firmly at the centre of his corpus; not so much a limb as a backbone”, the editors have undoubtedly done admirable service for future scholarship on Butler. There has been an unfortunate trend in commentaries on Butler to offer a very partial version of his work. Nowhere is this more evident than in most extended reading of his life and oeuvre, Robert Tobin’s 2012 The Minority Voice: Hubert Butler and Southern Irish Protestantism, 1900–1991, which frames almost every aspect of his life as an expression of his Anglo-Irish, Protestant background. In this study, Butler’s Balkan experiences are not so much investigated as offered as expressions of a Protestant cosmopolitanism, which is contrasted with a perceived Catholic predilection for fascism. These Balkan Essays should help prevent the recurrence of such a limited rendering of Butler; as he regularly notes, while his focus was on the calamitous intertwining of the Catholic church and the Ustaše in Croatia, Protestant churches behaved as badly and collaborated with fascists in other contexts. To be sure, throughout his life he offered an invaluable ethical defence of the rights of Protestants in the Republic of Ireland, but this did not stop him from conjecturing, for instance, that should the Nazis have ever invaded Ireland, the sense of respectability and drive towards order that he saw defining the “Anglo-Irish Herrenvolk of Ulster and the Dublin suburbs” would have rendered them “accomplices in establishing the German hegemony”.

As this indicates, Butler sought to confound “the assumption that we write for those who agree with us only”, and hopefully this volume will not only ease him out of Irish pigeonholes but will also expose his work to questioning and probing analyses from scholars of Croatian and Yugoslav history. He clearly wanted his essays to provoke and unsettle; as he put it, “too high a price can be paid for tranquillity. If you suppress a fact because it is awkward, you will next be asked to contradict it.” In the world of Trump and Brexit, where blatant lying and denial of facts have been accepted in many respectable quarters as constituting what passes for politics, to say nothing of the vampiric revival of other dismal political and social discourses, such as the ethno-nationalism that prevails in the ex-Yugoslav region, Butler’s steady incisions through cant in his search for uncomfortable truths offer examples that call out to be emulated.


Aidan O’Malley teaches at the University of Rijeka in Croatia.



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