Monsignor Rittig Revisited

The Zagreb newspaper Večernji list has published an interview of the writer and religion scholar Margareta Matijevic who has recently written a book about the Yugoslav priest and  politician Svetozar Rittig. From what I can gather from the computerized translation of the article and his Wikipedia entry Rittig was an intellectual priest who tried to hold together a link between the Roman Catholic church in Croatia and the Western Democracies, on the one hand, and the anticlerical Partisans and their Communist political successors, on the other. He was also befriended by Waugh during the latter’s participation in Randolph Churchill’s mission in Topusko. Rittig had joined the Partisans after the fall of Italy, having earlier been banned from Croatia by the Fascist Ustashe puppet regime. The newspaper’s report of the interview begins by mentioning Rittig’s link to Waugh, because a quote from Waugh’s diary contributes to the book’s title:

While in Topusko as a member of the British military mission at the Croatian General Staff, Waugh often hung out with with Rittig and, as a Catholic, attended Rittig’s Mass. In his diary entries, the English intelligence officer and well-known writer called Rittig a valuable link “between partisans and decency”; as Margareta Matijevic explains in the introduction to her book, Waugh was “thinking by ‘decency’ of civil society and the standards of Western democracies”. Hence the title of her book “Between Partisans and Decency”, with the subtitle “Life and Age of Svetozar Rittig (1873-1961)” [“Između partizana i pristojnosti: Život i doba Svetozara Rittiga (1873.– 1961.)”]. This was  published late last year by the publishing house Pleiades and the Croatian Institute of History […]

Waugh mentions his meetings with Rittig several times. Here’s the complete quote of the diary entry (1 October 1944) upon which the book’s title is based:

We had Monsignor Rittig to luncheon today. His story is less gallant than I thought. He originally took refuge from the Ustashe among the Italians, and only went to the Partisans when Italy fell. But he is treated with great honour by the Partisans, says Mass with great reverence and is a valuable link between them and decency.

When Waugh met with Rittig later at the parish house, accompanied by Stephen Clissold, he asked him several questions about the Partisan policy toward the church and, at first, found his answers unsatisfactory:

…I began to think the Monsignor put politics, or, as he would call it, patriotism, above his religion. Then I asked him about the religious practices of the Partisan soldiers. He began to praise their sobriety, purity, courage. I said, Is it better to be a courageous heathen or a cowardly Christian? At that he quite changed, chucked the patriotic line, quoted the 9th beatitude and remarked that it was St Raphael’s Day and that we must all be like St Raphael, and humanely said that it was the priest’s duty to stay with his people no matter how hard it was, and that we had the assurance that evil would not prevail over good. I left him with the assurance that he was a sincere priest…(24 October 1944)

Waugh essentially repeated this conclusion about Monsignor Rittig in his May 1945 report to the government entitled “Church and State in Yugoslavia”, although he noted that his personal opinion was not universally held.

The interview of Matijevic goes on for several pages, in the course of which it appears that, after Yugoslavia fell apart, the new government in independent Croatia wanted to have no more to do with Rittig or his legacy. This was apparently in reaction to his poistion in the Communist regime.  They even went so far as to remove his name from an academic institute in Zagreb dedicated to the study of Old Church Slavonic which he had founded and to which he donated his library. The purpose of the book is to encourage Croatians to reconsider their position. The book is available at this link.

The Croatian passages have been translated by Google with some edits.

UPDATE (20 May 2020): Waugh Society Member and frequent contributor Milena Borden sent the following comment on the interview and book discussed in the above posting:

“Waugh’s name makes a good headline in one of the leading newspapers in Croatia with Margareta Matijević’s discussing Evelyn Waugh’s opinion about Svetozar Rittig’s role in the Second World War.

But it is inaccurate and misleading to say that Waugh thought Rittig an intellectual link between the Tito’s partisans and the idea of civil society, and Western democracy. In his report “Church and State in Liberated Croatia” (Part VI) submitted to the Foreign Office 4th April 1945, Waugh writes about the conversations he had with Rittig about the politics of the church during the advancement of communist rule in Croatia: “The writer of this report spoke to Mgr. Ritoig [sic] on many occasions; Mgr. Ritoig … praised the moral virtues of the partisans and expressed the belief that they would be won back to Christianity under a liberal democratic regime. It was the opinion of the writer that Mgr. Ritoig was a devout and honest man…” Waugh’s assessment of his human character can hardly be extended to the historical social science concept of civil society or to its usage in contemporary political science.

As far as the “Western democracy” is concerned, there is plenty of direct evidence that Waugh rather believed in the idea of the Western civilization with Roman Catholicism being its only and central pillar. What Matijević could have explained is why Waugh as a radical Catholic and anti-communist was not insensitive to Rittig’s personal good faith in religious and political tolerance.”



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