November 27, 2006
By Matt Johnson
Patriarch Gabriel (Gavrilo, 1881-1950) is one of the most compelling figures in recent Serbian and Orthodox history, with all but a handful of Christian people aware of him, his exploits and his heroism. Intellectual, linguist and Serbian patriot, his name has been blackened in English speaking countries ever since it was decided that Serbs were no longer allies bu merely genocidal maniacs. This brief essay will deal with a few highlights of this great man and his vision.
The future patriarch’s life was little different from many churchmen of his day. He clearly had a flair for academics and theology, and, in the early part of the 20th century, received his doctorate in divinity in Athens, Greece. He, according to biographers, became attached to Hilandar monastery on Athos, and acted as the official secretary. Soon, he was elected to the historic and powerful see of Rascka.
Unfortunately, this see was wracked by turmoil during World War I. It is precisely this part of Serbia that was occupied by the Magyar forces attached to Vienna, and their hatred of Serbs and Orthodox is legendary. Many of the Orthodox people were sent to Hungary proper, to their string of concentration camps for political enemies, camps that have yet to receive any real treatment in English. The Hungarians flooded Serbia’s mines and dismantled her industries, leaving the country broke and crippled, a course which had been Vienna’s all the time.
He was soon released from captivity after the war, and, when Montenegro became reunified with Serbia, became metropolitan there, as he was a Montenegrin by birth. It was not long before is talents were recognized, and was elected Patriarch of All Serbia in 1938. Which is another way of saynig that the saintly Gabriel went from one war to another, from one concentration camp to another, for it was only a few years before the Nazis were to invade in “Operation Punishment.”
The economics of the case are simple. The royal government of Serbia knew two things about the world: first, that the German Reich had triumphed over the Great Depression, and any economy that attached herself to theirs would do well. In 1940, the percentage of exports bought by Germany topped 50%. The German economy was the strongest in Europe, and therefore, keeping close to her was very important. The other thing that bound Prince Paul to Germany was the fear of the Soviet Union. Hitler’s crimes were serious, but Stalin’s more so, and an Orthodox monarchy had much to fear from the paranoid murders and purges of Stalin. Therefore, some sort of alliance with Germany was necessary.
This, however, did not sit well with the British. Using their substantial contacts in the military, the government if Prince Paul was overthrown by Simonovic, an air force officer, with the assistance of British intelligence. Hitler’s plans to invade the USSR were temporarily thwarted in that now he would have to pacify Yugoslavia, so has to have a friendly government to his rear. Therefore, Operation Punishment was launched on Palm Sunday, 1941.
Yugoslavia was divided up between the Germans, Italians, Croats and the newly mobilized Muslims of Albania and Bosnia, soon to be absorbed into the SS. The results were simply genocidal. Among these occupiers, they exterminated about one-quarter of the Orthodox clergy. About the name percentage of monasteries were destroyed or seriously damaged. Nearly 400 clergymen of various ranks spent time in concentration camps of Croatian, German or Hungarian provenance. Out of 9 million Orthodox in the region, just over 1 million were murdered or killed in the war. War damage to the church was estimated to be about 7 billion (prewar) golden dinars. (Cf. For more information, see Paul Pavlovich’s History of the Serbian Orthodox Church, published by Serbian Heritage, an excellent book by anyone’s standards).
The synod of the Serbian Church met in July of 1941, and pledged, for the good of the church, to respect the laws of the occupiers and do what was necessary to maintain order. It was this pledge, according to Pavlovich, that permitted Tito later to accuse the church of “collaboration” with the Nazis, a claim backed up by President Truman and Gen. Eisenhower in America.
The royal government under Peter fled to London. However, the patriarch refused, demanding instead to remain with his flock even under the worst fo circumstances. The church was permitted to continue its role, at least around Belgrade, and parishes and monasteries limped along. The Orthodox Church had appealed to Rome to stop the bloody NDH genocide against Serbs, only to receive stony silence in reply. The Church of Rome was ambiguous about the NDH. Rome supported a Catholic Croatia, and to this extent supported the NDH. It is true that some of the more extreme anti-Orthodox attacks were condemned, though to no effect. The local church, however, supported the NDH (though none so much as the local Franciscan chapters), and, it should be noted here, the campaign to exterminate the Old Catholics, as well as the Serbian Orthodox. The remnants of the Old Catholic church after the war became Orthodox of the western rite, eventually becoming part of the Synod of Milan under the recently reposed Archbishop +JOVAN, where they remain today.
The Serbian clergy under the occupation were divided in their loyalties. It is clear that the upper clergy supported the royal government in exile, and they were militarily supported in this by Colonel, soon promoted to General, Draza Mihailovic, leader of the largest of the cetnik units during the guerrilla war against Nazi occupation. The lower clergy either supported the royals, or the smaller nationalist groups, either cetnik or fascist, operating around Serbia. A tiny handful supported Tito and the partisans, for at least they were unified, while the Serbian nationalists were not.
The Nazis, for their part, had several motivations in their occupation of Yugoslavia. The military high command (many of whom were not ideological Nazis) merely wanted a pacified Yugoslavia to be kept under control so Stalin could be defeated. This is why this same high command clearly exposed and condemned the excesses of the NDH in that it was counterproductive for a peaceful and pliant Yugoslavia. Other were motivated by the racial theories of Heinrich Himmler, where the Slavs were merely a half-Mongol slave race, merely to serve the needs of a Greater Germany after the war. Others were interested in the mobilization of pro-Nazi elements in the Balkans, such as the Croats and Muslims of Bosnia, as well as the Albanians.
During this time, Patriarch Gabriel, as reported in official Reich documents, was the head of the anti- Nazi movement in Serbia, symbolically, at least, as he was in prison at a monastery in Montenegro. His person was considered the true symbol of anti-German resistance, and, as such, he was blamed by the Germans for the resistance of the cetniks. The full report on Gabriel is found under the heading of a Dr. Gerstenmeier, dated September 14, 1941, and was sent to von Ribbentrop’s foreign ministry. This piece of evidence proves, from the German point of view, that it was the patriarch, rather than the royal government in exile, that was the spur to resistance. It is also worth noting that it was this report where many of the crimes of the Croat Catholics were detailed and officially logged into the records of the German foreign ministry. This report too, permitted the German high command to demand that the atrocities be alleviated so as not to hinder the war effort against Stalin.
In 1968, Austrian author Werner Brockdorff wrote a book on the anti-Nazi resistance in Yugoslavia called Collaboration or Resistance. It in, he repeats the claims set forth in the foreign ministry report concerning the central role of the imprisoned Patriarch, and claims that once the NDH tool over the Serbian churches in Croatia, they demanded they convert, and several priests who resisted were “tortured to death.” It is significant that Brockdorff makes it clear that the NDH also believed the patriarch to be the center of resistance against he Nazi’s for the very first thing the Croat fascists did was demand that no Serbian Orthodox clergyman have any contact with the Patriarch. In other words, he was truly a threat.
Well known Serbian writer Vojislav Dosenovic writes:
A few weeks later, Patriarch Gavrilo was taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans. He was brought to Sarajevo to stand trial before a military tribunal for alleged “war crimes.” The patriarch’s personal secretary, who was also imprisoned, reported later that the patriarch continued to maintain his dignity, fully consistent with his character. The secretary reports that the patriarch often gave his accusers the opposite of what they wanted and that he often remained silent, even when he was physically assaulted in the courtroom. After using every cruel trick imaginable, the accusers realized that they had failed miserably in their attempt to force the patriarch to acquiesce in their demands. The Germans confined the patriarch to the Vojlovica monastery.
In September 1944, the Gestapo arrived at Vojlovica. They transported the patriarch and the well-known Bishop Nikolai to the concentration camp at Dachau, where they remained until the end of the war. Certainly, no head of the church of any other country, nor other bishop of Nikolai’s renown, was imprisoned at Dachau.
Soon, as a result of his role of resister, the Patriarch Gabriel, along with St. Nikolai Velimilovic, were sent to Dachau, so as to isolate them from the Serbian population and its clergy. Dachau was described by Himmler himself as “a camp for political criminals.” Which, therefore, makes some sense out of why the Serbian resisters were sent there. Dachau was not a death camp, per se, but a forced labor camp where about 30,000 died of malnutrition or disease. It also was the prison camp where “religious” criminals, wither Orthodox from Serbia and Romania, as well as Catholics from Poland, were interred, and forced into labor service for the Reich. In fact, there was a separate barracks for “religious criminals.” Medical experiments, as well as an SS medical school, were carried out there.
After 1945, the patriarch was clearly dying of stress. His own letters clearly speak to this, both as to his experience, as also to the new Tito government, that was executing, in an irony beyond words, Serbian resistance fighters as “pro-Nazi.” After traveling Europe for some time after the war, in returning to Yugoslavia, the patriarch reposed on May 7, 1950.
Just prior to his death, writing to his friend, Bishop Dionysii in Canada, he says, concerning he Tito government:
From our unfortunate fatherland we hear nothing good, and that which one hears more clearly is that our people find themselves in a hell, such an one unknown in our history. Only the mercy of God can deliver us from this hopeless situation into which we have been mercilessly thrown.
And it is precisely this hell, extended from World War I, to World War II and to the Tito regime, that makes him a true passion bearer and resistance fighter.