The destination for history

Why did the United States allow the worst war criminal into America?


Until I began researching the story of the teenager who risked his life to bring the ‘Butcher of the Balkans′ to justice, I knew little of the atrocities committed in the Nazi puppet state of Croatia during the Second World War. I learned that I am far from alone. Most people I speak with are unaware of both the genocide in Croatia and the fact that one of its chief perpetrators lived an idyllic existence in sunny California for almost 40 years.

My own three years of research proved as perplexing as it was enlightening. As I pored over official documents and newspaper reports, I remained troubled by one question: Why was Andrija Artuković allowed to live openly as a war criminal in a country that prided itself on defeating the Nazi enemy? How could the United States, relishing its new role as the world’s leader of democracy, embrace a former enemy? While other war criminals went to great lengths to disguise their true identities, Artuković outed himself and claimed political asylum.

Far from hiding in plain sight, Artuković did not hide at all. His legal battle to stay in the US was well documented in newspaper stories, FBI and CIA files, and even the Congress of the United States. Who was he and what was unique about him?
Andrija Artuković was a senior cabinet minister in Ante Pavelić’s Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet state created in 1941. Both Pavelić and Artuković had spent most of their adult lives fighting for the dream of a Croatian homeland, first as university students and later as leaders of the Ustaša, terrorists funded by Mussolini. Within six weeks of Hitler declaring his “special joy and satisfaction” that Croatians finally had independence, he called Pavelić and Artuković to a meeting. The Croatians were pleased to report progress on the construction of concentration camps and the implementation of racial laws.

Over the next four years, Artuković played crucial roles in Pavelić’s cabinet. As Interior Minister, Artuković oversaw the construction of 26 concentration camps, including the only camps in Europe solely for children. As Justice Minister, he enforced racial laws, boasting that he solved ‘the Jewish problem′ more swiftly than Hitler. As Religion Minister, Artuković led forced conversions of Serbs in a policy expressed succinctly in ‘thirds:′ Kill one third of Croatia’s Serb population, expel one third and convert one third to Roman Catholicism. He earned the nickname ‘Butcher of the Balkans′ for his role in a reign of terror so bloodthirsty that even the Nazis were horrified. Mere months after the Ustaša gained power, the German military attaché in Zagreb, Edmund Glaise von Horstenau, warned in a telegram to the German High Command that the Ustaša ‘have gone raging mad with hatred.′

Witnesses would later testify that Artuković personally ordered specific murders. In one case, he avenged a political prisoner and in another, he ordered the roundup of villagers who were locked in a barn and incinerated. By the time the genocide ended in 1945, the death toll was in the hundreds of thousands. It is impossible to determine the exact number. But Yugoslavia claimed the Ustaša had murdered 700,000 Serbs and another 70,000 Jews and Roma.

When the war ended, Artuković and his family escaped along ratlines with the help of Krunoslav Stjepan Draganović, a Roman Catholic priest who used his connections with the Vatican to spirit Ustaša out of Europe. Draganović took the Artukovićs’ applications to the Delegate General of the Franciscans of Switzerland, who in turn presented them to the Irish immigration minister. Artuković, at the age of 45, was given a new identity as Alois Anich, passing himself off as a university professor hoping to engage in ‘philological and historical studies’ in Dublin. His 24-year-old wife, Ana, and their two daughters also took the name of Anich, with the children’s names changed from Visnja and Zorica to Katherina and Aurea. The Irish government accepted their applications and on 15 July 1947 the family arrived in Dublin. Their son, Radoslav, was born the following year and the family left promptly for America.

The Artuković family entered the United States under false names on 16 July 1948, claiming to be tourists who would leave before their six-month visa expired. But my research turned up documents that prove the family had no intention of leaving the USA. From the day they arrived, they began building a new life, confident in the support of wealthy family members, Roman Catholic communities, and politicians.

The family landed in California at a pivotal time in US history. Thanks to its contribution to the Allied victory, the US and President Harry Truman especially, basked in the new role of world leader. Truman introduced the Displaced Persons Act and the Refugee Relief Act, which brought in more than 600,000 immigrants from several European countries from 1948 to 1953.

In the spring of 1949, Andrija Artuković applied to have his family declared Displaced Persons. ‘I am stateless,’ he declared. In his interview with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he maintained he was a political refugee forced to use a false name to get out of Europe. Artuković made much of his strong Catholic faith and his opposition, as a Catholic, to communism. The immigration officer quickly realized that Artuković had served a prominent role in ‘one of the Axis-dominated governments set up after the Germans overran the area.′ He rejected his application and turned the file over to the FBI on 3 May 1949.

As I examined the file, which would eventually grow to two volumes and more than 1,000 pages, I wondered why the immigration officer’s rejection did not spell the end for Artuković’s stay in the US. If his past had been considered a secret, there could be no doubt about his activities after the FBI investigated on 31 January 1951. The FBI cited government sources and informants’ reports to detail allegations and evidence, including the suspicion that Artuković ‘was deeply involved in the Marseilles assassination′ of King Alexander I in 1934, for which he was arrested and later released. The FBI report also noted Artuković was one of Pavelić’s ‘most active collaborators in the work of terrorism organized by Italy against Yugoslavia.′ Another government informant stated Artuković had been ‘head of the Croatian gestapo.′

The significance of another detail in that first FBI report eluded me at first. It was a character reference provided by the former secretary to Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac of Zagreb. The former secretary, Reverend Stephen Lacković, had also immigrated to the US and was a parish priest near Buffalo, New York. Lacković attested to his personal knowledge of Artuković and of his record of being ‘very active in carrying out the wishes of Archbishop Stepinac.′

Lacković and Artuković recognized the impact of dropping Stepinac’s name. The political clout of Catholics around the world had been galvanized by Stepinac’s arrest and imprisonment in Yugoslavia on charges that he actively supported the Ustaša genoocide. Stepinac became a cause celebre, living proof of how atheist communists would persecute Catholics.

To this day, Stepinac’s role in Croatia during the Pavelić regime remains controversial. But when Artuković cited his support in 1951, it sent a powerful signal he was one ‘of the good guys,′ fighting on the right side against the Red Menace.
This theme would play out for the next four decades, starting with Artuković’s arrest on murder charges 8 May 1951, two years after the FBI began investigating him. A photo in a Los Angeles newspaper showed a smiling Artuković being led away in handcuffs, his broad grin ridiculing the charges against him.

The public would seemingly come to agree, informed by newspaper coverage that ranged from advocacy, to bland acceptance, to outage. Advocacy came mostly from the Catholic press, which once claimed Artuković was ‘as innocent as a newborn babe.′ On the other end of the spectrum, economist Milton Friedman in his syndicated column referred to Artuković as the ‘Heinrich Himmler of Croatia.′ A local journalist welcomed into the Artuković home admitted his attempt to reconcile conflicting narratives ‘was like trying to put together the pieces of a shattered chandelier.′ When Yugoslavia demanded Artuković’s extradition to stand trial, Artuković hired some of the most expensive lawyers in Washington. Their legal wrangling revolved around a law preventing the US from extraditing a person who could be persecuted for ‘political′ crimes.

In the Cold War era, this proved to be Artuković’s trump card. His portrayal as a fighter against communism played out favourably in the press, with the public, and even with some politicians. His powerful supporters included legislators who used their positions to protect him. Over the course of Artuković’s life in California, his congressmen in both Washington and Sacramento introduced eight private members’ bills to keep him in the country. One such politician was federal Republican Representative James Utt, a virulent anti-communist. He developed a habit of introducing private members’ bills supporting Artuković, usually just before the session ended. If the bill was before the House, Artuković was safe to remain in the country.

During my research, I interviewed historians to answer the question of why Artuković was allowed to live openly and freely, despite garnering thousands of newspaper stories that made it clear he was a war criminal. The answer turned out to be quite simple: It was the Cold War. The United States, the American public and the Roman Catholic church all believed that communism was the greater enemy. And since Americans had never been involved in significant combat in Croatia during the Second War, they couldn’t see why they should care.

But after the Cold War ended, attitudes shifted. The law was changed. And in February 1986, Artuković was extradited to Yugoslavia to stand trial. He was convicted of ordering four massacres and sentenced to death. However, because of frail health, he was spared the firing squad. He died at the age of 88 in a Zagreb prison hospital on 18 January 1988.

By Judy Piercey

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