Friday 19 January 2018

Unveiling iron in soul of Croatia

Being trounced by the Croats on the pitch reminds John-Paul McCarthy of an Irishman's portrait of a Balkan Nazi

Watching the Boys in Green being dismantled by Croatia in Poznan last week, I thought of a lurid old joke.

Two travellers are driving east of the Rhine.

Having crossed some unmarked border they find the road signs increasingly hard to decipher.

Persevering, they come to a sign that announces the imminence of an especially incomprehensible village.

The passenger squints at the road sign, turns to his comrade and suggests they reverse course pronto.

The driver concurs, muttering "something really awful always seems to have happened in the Forties in places that have three zs and four ks in their names".

I confess to a similar sense of anxiety when confronted by large, menacing Croat midfielders with names like Mandzukic, (sounds like a rocket launcher), Rakitic (a new tranquiliser?) and Srna (the Bulgarian Nama?).

You may be thinking, dear reader, that these feelings were the inevitable result of mixing national dejection with alcohol, but you'd be wrong.

Truth be told, Croatia has never been an especially uplifting topic for Irishmen.

One of my favourite versions of the Irish literary gotcha is Hubert Butler's devastating portrait of a mass-murdering Croatian Nazi named Artukovitch who fled to Ireland in 1947.

(This portrait was included in his book of essays, Grandmother and Wolfe Tone, with an influential foreword by Eoghan Harris comparing Butler to Raymond Chandler.)

Here, Butler described how Artukovitch played a central role in the attempted destruction of Croatia's 30,000 Jews, and in the vast campaign to forcibly convert nearly two-and-a-half million Orthodox Christians to Catholicism.

Under Robert Jackson's rules at Nuremberg, execution was a foregone conclusion if arrested.

And so, he fled to Ireland with the help of the Franciscan Order in Rome, dividing his time between Rathgar in Dublin and Galway before using Irish papers to get an American visa.

He took the name Brother Ivanditch while with the Galway Franciscans.

They liked him there, though one brother remembered their Croatian friend being a bit odd and given to saying things like "the only hope for us was a third world war immediately".

That brother told Butler that there was a milk strike on in Galway during Artukovitch's stay, and "he could not understand why we did not settle it straight away by shooting the milkmen. And we should invade the six counties and settle that matter too immediately".

That dark Croatian cloud hung over Butler for years.

For a spell in the Fifties he had few allies in his scrutiny of the nexus between Irish Catholicism and Croatian fascism.

He gagged when the then agriculture minister, James Dillon, told a group of law students that they should model themselves on Croatian patriots like Pavelitch (Artukovitch's prime minister and Croatia's version of Himmler) and priests like Mgr Stepinac who interpreted the gospel to mandate the setting up of something called the "Commission of Five for the Conversion of the Orthodox" in November 1941.

Butler was isolated for asking hard questions about one of the biggest problems of the 20th Century, namely the invertebrate response of important parts of European Catholicism when menaced by fascism in the Thirties.

Historians still scratch their heads and ask how the hell Rome was so intimidated by a failed Austrian painter who did more damage to Catholicism than Luther and the French Jacobins combined.

Fear and weakness of individual German bishops is one answer, one that must be balanced against the example of pilgrims like the Catholic priest Dompropst Bernard Lichtenberg of Berlin, the hero of Hannah Arendt's book on the Eichmann trial who demanded he be allowed to join the Jews on their journey to the East and who died en route to a concentration camp.

Butler wanted to talk about something more profound though than local collapse, namely the way Nazism and Catholicism intersected morally in the Balkans.

Irish nationalism didn't like this or the way the Allied cause tended to divert attention from Irish grievances.

Even so determined a foe of Irish self-pity as Sean Lemass was not immune.

His sister, Peggy Lemass O'Brien, wrote a letter to The Irish Times in 1983 quoting something she claimed her brother said on his last day as Taoiseach in 1966.

She claimed he said "the Irish people should never forget that it was more humane to be murdered in the gas chambers than to be dragged to death by a Black and Tan tender or to die of starvation in a land of plenty or to be butchered by Cromwell".

This is the tone of voice Butler had to fight.

Something of his humanism and sense of solidarity came through though in last week's speech by the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, pardoning those Irish soldiers who deserted to join the Allies.

Shatter's determination to kick the Peggy Lemass generation in the teeth was heartening.

Just the kind of toughness that sank our boys in Poznan.

Which is why I prefer tennis.

Sunday Independent

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