Across eastern Europe, as states and societes collapsed under the
pressures of war [WWII], ethnic and religious conflict surfaced out of
deep historical conflicts...
The greatest ethnic slaughter
took place as
Yugoslavia was carved up after the German
invasion in April 1941. The creation of a separate Croatia under nominal
Italian supervision but controlled by the fascist, Catholic, extremist
Ustasha movement was the catalyst for the tragedy...
Now, historic Croatia was expanded
to include Bosnia-Herzegovina and other teritorries, and the Ustasha were
left by the Italians to govern a population of nearly 7 million people,
of whom about half were Croats, just over 2 million were Serbs, about 750,000
were Muslims, and small numbers were Protestants and Jews. The Protestants
and Muslims were tolerated and the Jews treated as in Germany. The Minister
of Education, Mile Budak, made clear the Ustasha aims: "Our
new Croatia will get rid of all Serbs in our midst in order to become one
hundred percent Catholic within ten years."
He spoke of killing a third of the Serbs, converting a third, and expelling
the remainder. The leader of the Ustasha, Ante Pavelic, said, "A
good Ustasha is one who can use his knife to cut a child from the womb
of its mother."
Prosecution of the Orthodox Serbs began with the banning
of the use of the Cyrilic script and the closure of Orthodox schools and
was followed by forcible conversion to Catholicism and indiscreminate slaughter.
About 300,000 Serbs were "converted,"
but by the end of the summer of 1941 [after less than six months of Ustashi
government] about 350,000 Serbs had been killed and by May 1943 this total
had risen to over 500,000. Thousands were kept in prison camps where
the conditions were so appaling they horrified even the German officials
in the area. At Zemun [suburb of Belgrade, but under Ustasha control] camp
about 50,000 out of a total population of about 70,000 died within a few
weeks of the camp's being established. Orthodox priests were tortured and
killed, normally by having their throats cut, and their bodies were then
exhibited in local butcher shops. The actions of the Ustasha were strongly
supported by the local Catholic hierarchy. Cardinal Stepinac, the head
of the Catholic church in Croatia, rejoiced over this "progress of
Christianity." Franciscan priests led the killing of the Serbs and
even ran two of the worst prison camps, Jasenovac and Alipashin Most. Pope
Pius XII received Ante Pavelic at the Vatican with the honors due a head
of state and called him "a much maligned man." The Vatikan retained
a close relationship with the Ustasha until the end of the war, and after.