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Denial and Repression of Antisemitism

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Jovan Byford

Chapter Two. The Life of Nikolaj Velimirović and His Changing Public Image, 1945–2003

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1Nikolaj Velimirović was born on January 5, 1881 (December 23, 1880, according to the Julian calendar still used by the Serbian Orthodox Church) in the small village of Lelić, located outside the western Serbian town of Valjevo. Nikolaj was the first of nine children born to the modest and devout peasant couple Dragomir and Katarina Velimirović.

2Accounts of Velimirović’s childhood indicate that from a very early age little Nikola (who changed his name to the more archaic sounding Nikolaj after becoming a monk at the age of twenty-eight) showed “above average intellectual ability and great devotion to learning and acquiring knowledge” (Bigović, 1998, p. 27). A local priest and teacher, Mihajlo Stuparević, who took the youngster under his wing, cultivated his academic potential and encouraged him to attend school. After successfully graduating from high school in Valjevo, and having failed to join the military academy for reasons of poor health, Velimirović enrolled at the Orthodox seminary in the Serbian capital Belgrade.

3In Belgrade Velimirović enjoyed the patronage of Fr. Aleksa Ilić, a well-situated Orthodox priest, who founded and edited the religious publication Hrišćanski Vesnik (The Christian Messenger). Ilić described Nikola Velimirović as “one of the most gifted and hard working pupils at the seminary, much loved and admired by friends and the tutors alike” (A. Ilić, 1938, p. 6). Shortly after Velimirović arrived at the seminary in 1898, Ilić recruited him to join the editors of Hrišćanski Vesnik and help out with “administrative duties.” In 1902, Velimirović started to write for the journal, mainly on issues related to student life and conditions at the seminary. In the summer of that year, Hrišćanski Vesnik published Velimirović’s speech delivered at the graduation picnic, which the rector of the seminary, Steva Veselinović, described as the “best speech ever.” In the address entitled “At the top of the educational ladder—what next?” which offered the first glimpse of Velimirović’s oratorical skills for which he was later to become famous, the young theologian called for the creation of a spiritually strong and lively ecclesiastical cadre which would “lead the Church on the path of national, religious, and moral revival” (Velimirović, 1902a). In line with the non-conformist stance adopted by the editors of Hrišćanski Vesnik, this speech, as well as other texts which he published at that time, criticized the “backwardness of the system” which operated within the church hierarchy (Velimirović 1902b, p. 590), and the inability of the ecclesiastical authorities to deal with the crisis of faith in the Orthodox world.

4In the first decade of the 20th century, as part of a government-led drive to improve literacy and the general level of education in Serbia, all recent graduates were obliged to spend a period of time as school teachers, often in remote rural areas. Velimirović was sent to the small village of Dračić near Valjevo, although his mission there was brought to an abrupt end by a bout of škofule, tuberculosis of the lymph nodes in the neck, which he contracted a couple of years earlier while living in squalid conditions at the seminary. Velimirović returned to Belgrade from where he was sent to the bay of Boka Kotorska on the Montenegrin coast (which was under Austro-Hungarian administration at the time) in the hope that that milder climate and sea air would help him recover from his predicament. At the picturesque Savina Monastery where he stayed, Velimirović wrote a series of short reflections on life on the “Serbian coast,” which was published in 1904 as his first book, Souvenirs from Boka.

5After he returned from Montenegro and completed another short spell as a teacher, this time in the village of Leskovice near his native Lelić, Velimirović was awarded a scholarship to study at the Department of Old Catholic Theology at the University of Bern in Switzerland. His studies were funded by the newly crowned King Petar I Karađorđević, who was eager to invest in the education of promising young theologians and prospective Serbian Orthodox bishops. In 1908 Velimirović was awarded a doctorate in theology for the thesis entitled “Faith in the Resurrection of Christ as the Foundation of the Dogma of the Apostolic Church” (Velimirović, 1908), which he wrote and defended in German. During the stay in Switzerland, he completed a second thesis, a historical treatise on the battles between “Slavs” and Napoleon’s army in Boka Kotorska between 1806 and 1814 (Velimirović, 1910). For this work he was awarded a second doctorate from the University in Bern in 1910.

6Upon his return to Serbia in 1908, Velimirović sought to extend the state scholarship and continue his studies in England. After the Ministry of Education refused to fund this trip, he sought the help of his mentor and benefactor priest Aleksa Ilić, who agreed to loan him the money. Velimirović traveled to Britain, where he researched the philosophy of George Berkeley. In accounts of Velimirović’s life there is considerable disagreement regarding his activities in England. Some of Velimirović’s followers claim that he was based in Oxford and that he was awarded a second doctorate there, an impossibility given that apart from the honorary Doctorate of Divinity awarded exclusively to Anglican clergy, Oxford University did not award doctorates until 1917. Others claim that his work at Oxford formed the basis for a doctoral thesis which he later defended at the University of Geneva (Bigović, 1998; Janković, 2002a) or the University of Halle in Germany (Stanišić, 1977), or that he had not been at Oxford at all, but at Cambridge (Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 1971, p. 514; “Dr Nikolaj Velimirović: episkop Žički,” 1940, p. 17). This uncertainty surrounding his whereabouts in England dates back to 1909, when, shortly before he returned to Belgrade, a number of church publications reported, inaccurately, that Velimirović obtained a second doctorate (“Dva doktorata,” 1909, p. 720). An article published in the daily Večernje Novosti in 1909 mocked the exaggerations surrounding Velimirović’s educational attainment by suggesting ironically that if church publications are to be believed, Nikola Velimirović “possesses legendary capabilities and has seven doctorates, he taught at a German university, invented a perpetum mobile and has three hundred additional divine qualities and doctoral achievements” (cited in Janković, 2002b, p. 605). In any case, there is no evidence that Velimirović was ever registered at a British university or that he completed his study on Berkeley, and he certainly never published any work on the topic. It is most likely that he abandoned this project due to lack of income and returned early to Serbia (see the memoirs of Aleksa Ilić, 1938, for an account of Nikolaj’s financial troubles in England). Given that Velimirović received his second doctorate from Bern a year after returning from England, it is not impossible that this qualification came to be associated with his stay in England, although both the timeline and the discrepancy in the topic of his research (Napoleonic wars in Boka Kotorska as opposed to the philosophy of George Berkeley) suggest that such connection is unfounded.

7Following his return to Serbia in August 1909, Velimirović once again fell ill, this time with dysentery. During a six-week-long period of hospitalization he is said to have made a vow that should he survive the potentially lethal illness, he would enter a monastic order and devote his life to the church. In December 1909, at Rakovica Monastery near Belgrade, the fully recovered Nikola Velimirović was ordained as a hieromonk, and became Father Nikolaj. In taking his monastic vows, Nikolaj not only fulfilled the promise made to God from the hospital bed, but also laid the foundations for a rich and eventful episcopal career.

8Shortly after his ordainment, Nikolaj once again left Serbia. This time he was sent to a Russian Orthodox seminary in St Petersburg. However, instead of spending time at the seminary, Nikolaj traveled around Russia, visiting monasteries and other holy places and acquainting himself with Russian culture and way of life. In Russia he came across the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose philosophical writings, as we shall see, made a lasting impression on his thinking.

9In 1911, Velimirović returned to Belgrade as “one of the best educated young [Serbs] of his day” (Bigović, 1998, p. 30). He took up the position of tutor at the Orthodox Seminary in Belgrade, to which he had been appointed in absentia a year earlier. Velimirović’s biographers repeatedly emphasize that “the classroom walls [at the seminary] were too narrow” for the hardworking and ambitious young cleric (A. Radosavljević, 1986, p. 8). By the age of thirty-five, Velmirović had already written a number of books on philosophy (Njegoš’s Religion in 1911) and Orthodox spirituality (Sermons under the Mountain published in 1912 and Above Sin and Death in 1914) and had published extensively in religious magazines and theological journals. Sermons under the Mountain (a selection of sermons delivered between 1909 and 1912) is said to have been a bestseller, selling over 1800 copies in its first edition (Janković, 2003, p. 618). Also, Velimirović traveled regularly the length and breadth of Serbia and Bosnia, preaching to an increasingly enthusiastic public. His sermons were not just devoted to religious matters, but also advocated national and spiritual revival among Serbs, and promoted the idea of unity among south Slavic nations. He was especially popular in the Habsburg-occupied Bosnia, where he is said to have been influential among members of Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia), the Serbian nationalist organization whose activists assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 (Bigović, 1998; A. Radosavljević, 1986).

10The widespread respect and admiration which Velimirović commanded among the faithful in Serbia and beyond might be attributed to the fact that his broad education, oratorical skills, and personal charisma differentiated him from much of the rest of the Serbian Orthodox clergy, most of which was poorly educated and ineffectual in performing the church’s social and spiritual functions. Writing on the state of Serbian Orthodoxy in the early decades of the 20th century, Milan Jovanović-Stojimirović (2003) notes that Velimirović came to the fore at a time when most Serbian clerics—who tended to be recruited from among the poor and the uneducated—had “very few manners and little worldly experience” (p. 12). Before Velimirović, Serbia had “very few priests who meant anything in an intellectual sense” (p. 11). The prevailing view of the clerical profession at the time was that it was a hotbed of provincialism, ignorance, and corruption, a stereotype that had been immortalized in the writings of two of Serbia’s most popular comedy writers of that period, Branislav Nušić and Jovan Sterija Popović. A report on the state of the Serbian Church published in 1905 similarly concluded that “churches are empty and deserted, our clergy is way below modern educational and moral standards” (cited in Radić, 2003, p. 167). Velimirović, who belonged to the first generation of young, talented, and well-educated clerics, offered a promise of a better future for the Serbian Church and a break with the tradition of paucity of intellectual and spiritual leadership. What is more, at this early stage of his clerical career, Velimirović was widely perceived as a progressive young theologian and a liberal force within the Serbian Orthodox Church. For this reason, he appealed not just to the masses but also to the urban educated classes and the political elite which saw in him someone whose in-depth knowledge and enthusiasm for Western philosophy and theology might take the Serbian Church down a modernist path. He was believed to be an anglophile, with an affinity towards Protestantism acquired during his studies in the West. The renowned Serbian historian, literary critic, and a contemporary of Velimirović, Jovan Skerlić described the author of Njegoš’s Religion as a “free thinker, a modernist who bears a mark of liberal protestant theology” and someone who is not ready to blindly follow “the sacred dogma and established canons” of the Orthodox Church (Skerlić, 1923, pp. 11–12).

11In 1913, following the death of Bishop Domentijan of Niš during a typhoid epidemic, Velimirović was offered his first episcopal post. Much to everyone’s astonishment he declined the honor. He justified this decision on the grounds that there is an “unhealthy climate in the Church” and that he would prefer to return to England and attend to some “unfinished business” (A. Ilić, 1938, p. 12) Such a response sparked speculation that Velimirović had a “wicked passion for adventure” and was more interested in seeing the world than in pursuing the mission of the Holy Orthodox Church. Fr. Aleksa Ilić warned him that malicious rumormongers were already interpreting his actions in the light of the “old French adage ‘cherchez la femme’,” and that this could irreparably damage his career in the Church (ibid., p. 13). However, Velimirović could not be persuaded to reverse his decision. The allusion to “unfinished business” in England may have been a reference to the scholarly work on George Berkeley which Velimirović abandoned four years earlier, and which he now wanted to resume. At the same time, it is also possible that his obstinacy was fuelled by vanity for which he was becoming notorious: two years earlier, in 1911, following the death of bishop Domentijan’s predecessor Nikanor Ružičić, Nikolaj returned early from his travels in Russia, expecting to be ordained as the Bishop of Niš. However, Metropolitan of Serbia Dimitrije Pavlović had a last minute change of heart (probably on account of the candidate’s young age and lack of experience) and instated Archimandrite Domentijan, whom Velimirović was now expected to succeed (Janković, 2002a, p. 27). Velimirović’s steadfast rejection of the offer the second time round was a message to the authorities that would not be treated as second best.

12With the advent of World War I, Velimirović was sent by the Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić to England and the United States to promote the Serbian national cause. He was chosen to take part in this mission not only on account of his erudition, knowledge of the English language, and highly esteemed oratorical skills, but also because it was hoped that his reputation as an anglophile, admirer of Protestantism, and believer in ecumenical dialogue would facilitate contacts with the Anglican and Episcopalian churches in Britain and the United States. In addition, in Above Sin and Death Velimirović showed some enthusiasm for the idea of national and spiritual unity between South Slavic nations. This sentiment sat well with the Serbian government’s drive to persuade western powers, and especially Britain, that a united Yugoslavia is the best post-war geo-political solution for the region.

13In the summer of 1915, Velimirović first traveled to the United States. Together with Mihailo Pupin, professor of physics at Columbia University and Serbia’s Consul General in New York, Nikolaj lectured and preached in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, and elsewhere. His audience consisted mainly of members of the Serbian diaspora, among whom the Serbian government sought to recruit volunteers and raise funds for the war effort (Dobrijević, 1982). Velimirović made a brief second visit to the United States in December 1917 before returning once again to London where he remained until 1919.

14Supporters of Nikolaj Velimirović today frequently describe his activities in England and the United States as a “diplomatic mission” of singular importance to Serbia’s war effort. One frequently encounters the quote, attributed to an unnamed senior British military official in London, in which he supposedly tells the Serbian General Milan Milovanović that Serbia has nothing to fear with “three armies on its side: the [Serbian] army, the Allies and a third army, father Nikolaj” (e.g., Janković, 2002a, p. 133). According to another anecdote, Nikola Pašić told King Aleksandar Karađorđević that Velimirović’s activities in the United States and England “were worth to us as much as a whole division on the front line” (Janković, 2004, p. 20). And yet, even among Velimirović’s admirers there are those prepared to admit that such claims exaggerate his achievements during the war (e.g., Bigović, 1998, p. 32). In historical literature devoted to the Yugoslav diplomatic mission in Britain during World War I, Velimirović is given at best a passing mention. This is not surprising given that he was not sent to London to transform western public opinion single handed: he was a cog in a complex, and not always well oiled public relations machine comprising the Yugoslav Committee (a group of pro-Yugoslav politicians and public figures mainly from South Slavic regions of Austro-Hungary), diplomats at the Serbian Legation in London, and the Serbian Relief Fund—a medley of pro-Serbian and pro-Yugoslav British nationals led by the historian R. W. Seton-Watson. These three bodies had a common aim: to influence public opinion in Britain and persuade the relevant power structures about the desirability of the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire and the creation of a viable Yugoslav state (Stokes, 1980; Wachtel, 1998). In spite of this shared goal, divisions existed among them regarding the character of the future state and how unification should be achieved. The Serbian Relief Fund, to which Velimirović was affiliated, promoted the cult of the Serbian soldier, drew parallels between the events in Serbia in 1915 and Serbian sacrifices in Kosovo in 1389, and endorsed the view that Serbs were destined to liberate their South Slavic brethren from under the Habsburg yoke. The Yugoslav Committee, which promoted a more inclusive Yugoslav identity, looked with suspicion at such tendencies towards “Serbian Orthodox exclusivism” (Stokes, 1980, p. 55), and distanced itself from rhetoric that would make it look like the extended arm of the Serbian government.

15In the context of the mission in England, Velimirović’s role was to propagate the Serbian government’s agenda within the British ecclesiastical establishment. He formed a strong friendship with the bishop of Chichester, George Bell, and with Reverend H. J. Feyes-Clinton, who was affiliated with the Serbian Relief Fund. Velimirović was held in high esteem also by the archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, who assisted him in fundraising efforts and helped make arrangements for a group of Serbian Orthodox seminarians who escaped to England to continue their studies at British universities. Velimirović’s links with the Anglican ecclesiastical establishment provided him with access to a broader British audience. He spent a substantial proportion of his time giving lectures on Serbia, South Slavic unification, and the Orthodox Church. His lectures were published in English as pamphlets, while some were also included in three larger edited collections, The Soul of Serbia (1916a), Serbia in Light and Darkness (1916b), and The Agony of the Church (1917). These works were published or at least funded by bodies affiliated with the Church of England (such as The Faith Press or the Student Christian Movement) and usually included a preface from the likes of R. W. Seton-Watson and the archbishop of Canterbury.

16Apart from lecturing before secular audiences, at universities in Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, Birmingham, and elsewhere, Velimirović delivered sermons in Anglican churches across the country. He was generally not allowed to take part in religious service or address the audience from the pulpit, but was invited to speak (Heppell, 2001). On July 2, 1916, he accepted the invitation to address the congregation at St Margaret’s Church in Westminster, the parish church of the British Houses of Parliament. Five days later he spoke at a memorial service for fallen British and Serbian servicemen, which was led by the archbishop of Canterbury at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. This service was initially planned for 28 June, St Vitus’ Day, the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. However, given that on that same day in 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, British authorities postponed the ceremony, lest it should offend Austrian sensitivities. Nikolaj took part in the procession after the service which, as one connoisseur of ecclesiastical protocol commented at the time, was the highest honor ever bestowed upon a foreign religious dignitary in St Paul’s Cathedral in London (cited in Heppell, 2001, p. 7).

17Velimirović’s sermons in Britain were very well received. According to eyewitnesses and reports mainly in Church of England publications, eager crowds gathered readily to hear him speak. This is unsurprising, given that by 1916 the whole country was witnessing a wave of pro-Serbian euphoria. Cries of “To hell with Serbia!” with which the newspaper John Bull greeted the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, gave way to a very different sentiment. In June 1916 British schools commemorated “Kossovo Day” in support of Serbia, in The Daily News the British writer G. K. Chesterton hailed Serbia as the “eldest brother of the Alliance,” Prime Minister Lloyd George praised the “dignity” and “valor” of the small Balkan nation, while the Daily Express hailed it as the “shining tower of the east” (cited in Klimon, 1994). In such a context, Velimirović’s exotic charm and personal charisma undoubtedly appealed to the British audience and made him a welcome guest in the salons of London’s high society. In the 1930s Rebecca West described Velimirović as “the most remarkable man she had ever met,” “a supreme magician,” and someone who gave the impression that he could speak to “gods and men and beasts” (West 1994, p. 720). It is not unlikely that Velimirović made a similar impression on his hosts during the war. However, contrary to claims made by his followers, Velimirović’s “popularity” reflected, rather than initiated, the shift in British public opinion around that time. What is more, in terms of public appeal, Nikolaj was outshined by the famous Croatian sculptor and member of the Yugoslav Committee Ivan Meštrović, whose work still adorns the halls of the Tate Gallery in London. Meštrović was promoted during the war as the “national artist of Yugoslavia” and hailed as a symbol of the “civilizing capacities of the [South Slavic] race” (Wachtel, 1998, p. 64). An exhibition of Meštrović’s sculptures in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1915 was offered to the British public as proof that there was more to the South Slavs than the military reputation of the “Serbian soldier” (ibid.).

18After the war, Velimirović’s friends among the Anglican clergy (above all, Rev. H. J. Feyes-Clinton) wanted him to receive some form of formal recognition for his work on improving Orthodox-Anglican relations (Heppell, 2001). Velimirović was put forward for an honorary Lambeth Doctorate of Divinity, awarded by the archbishop of Canterbury, but was found to be ineligible on the grounds that he was not a British subject. Subsequent attempts to award him some form of honorary degree at Oxford also failed. The patronizing tone with which the Canon of Westminster, William Hartley Carnegie, responded to such a request reveals that in spite of all his efforts, Velimirović had still been unable to break the social barriers that guarded the British establishment from intruders and to soften the colonial attitude which the country’s intelligentsia adopted towards those it saw as coming from “the Orient.” Canon Carnegie wrote the following:

The honour sought is a very considerable one, not to be lightly accorded. We know and appreciate Fr. Nikolai’s merits and powers, but he still has to “make good” in the English academic world. Moreover, a consideration not to be overlooked, one has to be a little careful in one’s dealings with these Orientals. They are, all of them, I find, a little apt to get above themselves, and to make larger claims for recognition than Englishmen of similar status would think of making… This is a lesson that Fr. Velimirović has not yet fully learnt, as Frere is just learning to his cost… (cited in Heppell, 2001, p. 14)

19Velimirović left Britain without an honorary doctorate, although on St George’s Day (23 April) in 1919 the archbishop of Canterbury awarded him a specially designed pectoral cross and chain, a symbol of personal friendship, shared commitment to ecumenical unity and common faith in Lord Jesus Christ.

20Velimirović’s writings in the English language published during his time in Britain do not occupy a prominent place in his opus. They are rarely flagged either by admirers or by critics as particularly noteworthy. And yet, these essays contain within them themes which continued to occupy Velimirović’s thinking in subsequent years. Pieces such as “The Soul of Serbia,” “Serbia’s Place in Human History,” or “Serbia’s Tragedy” were mainly patriotic treatises in which Serbs are promoted as, on the one hand a “silent, melancholic and discreet” people who “[do] not impose [themselves] on anyone” and on the other hand as an uncompromising and heroic nation dedicated to the principle that “slavery is uglier than death” (e.g., Velimirović, 1916a, pp. 91–92). Both of these themes aimed to counter the stereotype common in the West after the Sarajevo assassination that Serbs were perennial troublemakers. In his patriotic speeches Velimirović also advanced what he later referred to as the “Kosovo creed”: the claim that “beautiful” death, such as that achieved by the Serbian heroes at the battle of Kosovo in 1389, is “the very aim of life” (ibid., p. 24) and that the whole of Serbian “national philosophy is founded on the conception of suffering” (p. 94). This message was meant to create in the audience the feelings of sympathy and admiration, especially because in 1914, just like in 1389, Serbia supposedly “fought and died for Christianity and Civilization” (Velimirović’s letter to Seton-Watson, cited in Trgovčević, 2003, p. 230).

21In other speeches and essays attention often shifted away from Serbia towards “Jugoslavia.” In “Religion and Nationality in Serbia,” which was published both as a pamphlet (1915) and as part of the edited volume The Soul of Serbia (1916a), Velimirović expresses a strong pro-Yugoslav sentiment. He suggests that “Jugoslavs—Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes” are “one and the same nation in language, in blood, in destiny, and in their aspirations” (Velimirović, 1916a, p. 56). This stance was based above all on a Slavophile sentiment, which in this incarnation had strong regional and religious components. In Velimirović’s speeches, the state for which he campaigned was one of Christian South Slav people, whose unity lay not just in “blood,” language, or political interest, but also in Christ (see Trgovčević, 2003; also Velimirović, 1914). He did not present confessional divisions and schisms of the past as insurmountable obstacles on the road to unification: Southern Slavs “have risen superior to all divergencies [sic] of creed between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, and have held fast only to that which unites, not to that which divides in religion” (Velimirović, 1916a, p. 57). Among Yugoslav nations “Orthodoxy and Catholicism were subordinate to the one name—Christianity, and contrasted under this single name with the cruel and bloodthirsty Islam” (ibid., p. 58). In particular, Velimirović praised the work of the Catholic bishop of Đakovo, Josip Juraj Strossmayer (1815–1905), as one of the pioneers of the Yugoslav idea and keen advocate of interfaith dialogue between Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the region. “Religion and nationality in Serbia” was specifically written in Strossmayer’s memory on the centenary of his birth.

22Significantly, however, the enthusiasm for Yugoslavia as a league of equal nations and faiths which Velimirović professed in his speeches reflected his role as the representative of the Serbian state, rather than his genuine political orientation. Behind the enthusiastic conciliatory rhetoric lay a profound suspicion towards Catholicism which he regarded as “the most conservative among western denominations” (see Bigović, 1998, p. 35). In public, Velimirović readily advocated the signing of a Concordat with the Vatican as a mark of Serbia’s broadmindedness and tolerance. Also, he proclaimed that in Yugoslavia, once it was created, the Serbian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches would be on equal footing, with comparable rights and privileges (e.g., Velimirović, 1916a, pp. 70–71). In conversations with his associates, however, he endorsed the opposite view. He called for complete severance of ties with the Vatican and the creation of a national (Yugoslav) Catholic Church. Similarly, he maintained that following unification, Orthodox Christianity should not forfeit the status of state religion which it previously occupied in the Kingdom of Serbia (memoirs of Dr. Bogumil Bošnjak, cited in Janković, 2002a, p. 39). In other words, Velimirović’s approach to the Yugoslav question bore all the hallmarks of “Serbian Orthodox exclusivism,” which non-Serbian exponents of the Yugoslav idea feared at the time, and which subsequently plagued interethnic relations in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

23A further interesting aspect of Velimirović’s writing in the English language is the reference, in some his speeches and sermons, to the concept of “All-man” (Svečovek) which is sometimes referred to in English also as the “Omni-human.” The idea of the “All-man” (which made an appearance in Velimirović’s earlier work, including Sermons under the Mount) received the most detailed elaboration in one of his best-known books, Words on the All-Man, published in Serbia in 1920. Given that Velimirović wrote this book during his stay in Britain, it is not surprising that the “All-man” appears also in speeches delivered at the time.

24The concept of “svečovek” or “svečoveštvo” (all-humanity) was borrowed from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who mentions it (vsechelovek in Russian) in his famous “Pushkin speech” delivered in 1880. For Dostoyevsky, “vsechelovek” denotes the pan-humanist ideal of “final brotherly communion of all nations in accordance with the law of the gospel of Christ.” In Velimirović’s work, “svečoveštvo” is similarly conceived as an ethical ideal of universal humanism and unity in spirit achieved through faith in Jesus Christ. It is based on two basic Christian principles: “first—freedom, the second—love” and is the “only salutary philosophy for the soul and body of humankind. It will draw man nearer to man, nation to nation, state to state, one kingdom of God upon the earth” (Velimirović, 1916a, p. 36). Christianity’s principal mission in this world is therefore to transform the human race into “All-men,” thereby achieving unity of humanity in God. And yet, in spite of the pan-humanist overtones visible in their writing on the “All-man,” both Dostoyevsky and Velimirović perceived “all-humanity” as an expression of the values of the Orthodox East. Dostoyevsky’s “vsechelovek” represents an ideal emanating specifically from the “spirit of Russian nationality” and the “Russian soul” (Dostoyevsky, 1960). For Velimirović, “All-man” is the Slavic and Orthodox antidote to the selfish Nietzschean, Germanic, and pagan “superman.” Velimirović first elaborated the opposition between Orthodox pan-humanism and Western secular individualism in the essay “Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky” (1912), where he suggested that the two figures represent “two irreconcilable worlds. They personify Judea and Rome, Christianity and paganism, the people and the despot, faith and atheism, hope and despair, Christ and antichrist” (Velimirović, 1912, p. 4). In “Serbia’s place in human history,” written in 1915, Nikolaj interpreted World War I in terms of this fundamental opposition: “Kaiser William” stood for the Nietzschean spirit, one whose aim was not just the creation of the “superman,” but also of a “super-state” intent on destroying smaller nations. Within the same analogy, Orthodox Serbs were seen as “upholding” and symbolizing the noble Christian philosophy of the “All-man.” Significantly, however, in Velimirović’s view, although “All-man” is essentially a “Slavonic philosophy” epitomized by Orthodox nations, it is not exclusively so: its spirit has also been “carved in the ethical consciousness of European mankind” through the works of Hugo, Dickens, and Shakespeare (Velimirović, 1916a, p. 34).

25The opposition between Dostoyevskyan “All-man” and Nietzschean “superman” as ultimate expressions of the tension between Eastern (Christian) and Western (secular) world-views is significant because this dichotomy would eventually become a central theme in Velimirović’s writing. Already at this stage, Velimirović’s stance towards the West was ambivalent: the admiration for its philosophical and cultural achievements of the past coexisted with the fear that individualism and materialism were driving the Western civilization away from God. Velimirović believed that religion is the fabric of society: the Church imbues the state with a “soul” and it constitutes a “spiritual medium” through which the “national ideal” can be expressed (Velimirović, 1916a, p. 56). The achievement of the pan-humanist ideal of “svečoveštvo” required for this particular view of church–state relations to become a universal principle, and yet he saw no evidence of it in the increasingly secular Western societies. In the 1920s and the 1930s Velimirović’s ambivalence towards and growing disenchantment with the West became radicalized, setting him on the path of controversy which plagues his memory to the present day.

26In May 1919, following his return from England, Nikolaj Velimirović was ordained as bishop in the ancient diocese of Žiča. This was a time of great change for the Serbian Orthodox Church. When the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was created in 1918, the Orthodox Church on its territory found itself divided into six separate church organizations. Five dioceses of the former Kingdom of Serbia were under the jurisdiction of the autocephalous Serbian Metropolitanate. Seven Orthodox dioceses in Vojvodina, Croatia, and Slavonia comprised the Karlovac Metropolitanate, which was also autocephalous, as was the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral with three dioceses. Four dioceses in Bosnia and Herzegovina and two in Dalmatia were affiliated to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, while the status of the Orthodox Church in Macedonia (previously also under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate) remained unresolved in the aftermath of the departure of Bulgarian and Greek bishops during the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 (Gligorijević, 1997). In May 1919, following a series of discussions among representatives of the six regional church organizations, and with full support from Regent Aleksandar Karađorđević, the Archiereic Assembly of the Serbian Church consisting of all Orthodox bishops from the territory of the new state proclaimed the “spiritual, moral, and administrative unity of Serbian Orthodox regions” and announced unification. The administrative control of the Church was placed in the hands of the Central Archiereic Council, which was based in Belgrade and consisted of five bishops under the chairmanship of the Metropolitan of Montenegro, Mitrofan Ban. Almost a year later, in March 1920, following the resolution of a dispute concerning the jurisdiction over Macedonian dioceses, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized “the United Serbian Orthodox Church of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes” as a single autocephalous church (Gligorijević, 1997). Shortly afterwards its status was raised to that of a patriarchate, and in August 1920, Metropolitan of Serbia Dimitrije Pavlović was elected the patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the first since 1766 when the patriarchate of Peć, where the Serbian church had been based since medieval times, was abolished by Ottoman rulers.

27One of the reasons why the (re-)unification of the Serbian Orthodox Church was conducted with such urgency is that many in Serbia, including the Regent Aleksandar Karađorđević, felt that in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes ought to become the new hub of the Orthodox world. To fulfill this new ambition, state authorities invited the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile (which had been based in Constantinople) to set up its headquarters in Serbia (first in Sremski Karlovci, 1921–1938, and later in Belgrade, 1938–1944; see Jovanović, 2005). Also the Czech Orthodox Church, founded by a group of reformist Czech Catholics, was established in the 1920s with the help of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and was placed under the jurisdiction of the Serbian patriarch (Radić, 1997).

28Nikolaj Velimirović played an important role in the Church’s activities on the international stage, which meant that he was frequently absent from his diocese at Žiča. He traveled to England, the United States, Russia, and Greece, establishing links between the newly united Serbian Church and religious communities abroad. And then, less than eighteen months after he took over the position at Žiča, Patriarch Dimitrije made the decision to transfer him to Ohrid, one of the dioceses in the territory claimed during the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913. At the time, this small, isolated, and neglected diocese based in the city of Ohrid, on the shores of the beautiful lake of the same name, had only around thirty parishes under its administration and not a particularly active religious life. Ohrid seemed like a strange destination for someone with Velimirović’s educational background and public profile, and the precise reasons why he was transferred there remain unknown. Some authors have suggested that Velimirović requested to be placed at Ohrid (e.g., P. Ilić, 2006), although his correspondence with Bishop George Bell indicates that he was initially unhappy there, and shocked by the “extreme poverty and primitive lifestyle” which dominated his new surroundings (Heppell, 2001, p. 19). What is more, within a year of his instatement at Ohrid, Nikolaj offered his resignation, which was rejected by the synod of the Serbian Church. He remained at Ohrid until 1936, when he was reinstated as the bishop of Žiča, a title which he retained until his death in 1956.

29Before taking up his duties at the new diocese at Ohrid, Velimirović traveled once again to America where he was instructed to investigate the “moral and spiritual” situation within the local Serbian Orthodox parishes (which had hitherto been under the administration of the Russian Orthodox Church), and prepare the grounds for the creation of the American–Canadian diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church (Đikanović, 2006; Dobrijević, 1982). This trip preceded his appointment in the spring of 1922 as the administrator of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America, a role which he performed simultaneously with duties at Ohrid. There is evidence which suggests that Nikolaj was very keen to be transferred to the United States permanently to take over the administration of the church there. However, by the end of 1923 he was relieved of all duties in North America, and the administrator’s role was transferred to his assistant Archimandrite Mardarije Uskoković, who subsequently became the first bishop of the American–Canadian diocese. Velimirović had to wait until 1946 before taking permanent residence in the United States, in circumstances that he could not have foreseen in 1923.

30In the early 1920s, Velimirović also became involved with Bogomoljački pokret, or the Devotionalist movement, a network of Orthodox Christian evangelists who became a focal point of his interest in the 1920s and 30s (Subotić, 1996; Vojinović, 1971). The Devotionalist movement emerged in the mid-19th century in Vojvodina, which was under Austro-Hungarian rule at the time. It consisted of informal groups or “brotherhoods” of pious young men and women who, as well as attending Orthodox Christian services on a regular basis, also congregated in homes for “prayer meetings”—during which they read passages from the New Testament—and organized regular pilgrimages to Vojlovica Monastery near the town of Pančevo (Vojinović, 1971, p. 346). These groups were strictly Serbian Orthodox, although their habits and rituals (including public readings from the scripture, something rarely practiced by Orthodox Christians) are believed to have been influenced by Baptist communities, which had a strong following among the local Hungarian population. After 1870, Devotionalist “brotherhoods” emerged also in south-eastern Serbia, although it remains unclear whether they were inspired by their counterparts in the north, or whether they developed spontaneously. By early 20th century the movement was fairly widespread, and the presence of groups of Devotionalists among conscripts in Serbian army camps during World War I was sufficiently noticeable to attract the attention of military authorities (Vojinović, 1971).

31Many in the Serbian Orthodox Church, both among bishops and at grassroots levels, expressed suspicion towards the Devotionalists. Their practices seemed alien, even a bit “Catholic,” and their piety was judged to be excessive (see Bremer, 1997). Parish priests, unused to any form of religious austerity, were unsettled by the presence, among their flock, of lay man and women who referred to each other as “brother” or “sister,” and whose routine involved twice-daily prayers, regular church attendance and communion, fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, and frequent and elaborate confessions. What is more, by holding informal religious services in their homes, the Devotionalists appeared to be distancing themselves from the official Church, provoking fear that they might even turn into a “sect.” In order to prevent this, in its dealings with the movement, the Serbian Orthodox Church adopted a stance which Bishop of Bačka Irinej Ćirić described in 1931 as one of “benevolent neutrality” (cited in Vojinović, 1971, p. 356). “Neutrality” implied that the Devotionalists were tolerated, occasionally encouraged, but without ever being recognized as an official movement within the Church.

32The first formal contact between Velimirović and the Devotionalists was established in July 1920, during the First Assembly of Devotionalist Brotherhoods held near the town of Velika Plana. Velimirović attended this event in an official capacity, as the delegate of Patriarch Dimitrije. Unlike many of his fellow bishops, Nikolaj looked upon the movement with sympathies. Not only was he impressed by the genuine piety shown by the Devotionalists, but he also shared with them a sense of frustration at the inability of the Serbian Orthodox clergy to provide adequate spiritual and moral guidance to the faithful. In 1921, Velimirović published the article “Don’t reject them—a note to the clergy,” in which he defended the movement from critics (Velimirović, 1921). Devotionalists instantly recognized in him a powerful guardian and spiritual leader and chose him for their patron. The synod approved of Velimirović’s involvement with the Devotionalists (it appointed him a permanent “delegate” to the movement), in the hope that patronage from a senior official of the Church would bring them closer to the mainstream of Serbian Orthodox Christian culture.

33Under Velimirović’s guidance, the Devotionalists went from strength to strength. A governing council known as the Central Office was elected and placed in charge of coordinating the activities of brotherhoods. The centralization resulted also in a name change, as the Devotionalists were given a more formal sounding title: Narodna hrišćanska zajednica (National Christian Association). Serbian expatriates in the United States donated a printing press, which allowed the Devotionalists to publish hundreds of pamphlets and to start their own journal Hrišćanska Zajednica (The Christian Community), renamed Misionar (The Missionary) in 1936. In 1924, the movement formed the Missionary Order, consisting of lay preachers and “promoters of Orthodoxy” whose role was to propagate the Orthodox faith among the people. The Missionary Order proved divisive, as lay preachers were accused of being disrespectful towards the clergy and of ignoring the jurisdiction and “canonical privileges” of parish priests. And yet, the Church continued to maintain a neutral stance towards the movement as a whole, if for no other reason than because Devotionalists constituted a rich source from which the Church recruited monks and nuns for its depleted monasteries. The overall success of the Devotionalists and their unwavering dedication to the evangelical mission impressed even visitors from abroad. In 1931, Donald A. Lowrie, an official of the YMCA who campaigned on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile, wrote in one of his reports from Belgrade that the Devotionalists represent a welcome sign of “fresh life” in the Serbian Orthodox Church (cited in Latourette, 1973, p. 527).

34The reason why the involvement with the Devotionalists constitutes an important episode in Velimirović’s life is that it is often linked to the dramatic personal transformation which he is said to have undergone in the early 1920s (e.g., Jerotić, 2000; A. Radosavljević, 1986; Stanišić, 1977). Within a few years of his arrival at Ohrid, Velimirović, who had been known for his tidy hair, silk cassocks, and confidence that bordered on arrogance, became a recluse, ascetic, and conservative figure. In Reflections on Good and Evil, published in 1923, Velimirović provided an account of this transformation, describing it as a form of spiritual homecoming. He wrote that “we are sometimes drawn to and seduced by the great waters of this sensual world. And just as water from a spring is never as sweet as when we return to it burdened with disappointment, with throats sore from the salty and bitter waters we had to drink; so the Christian faith is never as dear to us as when we return to it from afar, as penitents, ashamed and disappointed…” (cited in Bigović, 1998, pp. 39–40).

35Velimirović’s return to the “spring” of authentic Christian faith provoked a change in the style and the focus of his writing. The somewhat pretentious tone of his earlier philosophical work (Words on the All-man were intended as a “response” to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) gave way to simpler literary forms, mainly poems, homilies, pastoral letters, and instructional pieces on Orthodox Christian way of life (e.g., Velimirović, 1925, 1932). Prayers by the Lake (1922), the first book which Velimirović wrote at Ohrid, was a collection of religious poetry. Ohrid Prologue (1928a), one of his best known works, provided an accessible introduction, in encyclopedic form, to the lives of saints and the main events in the Church calendar. Between 1932 and 1934, Velimirović published thirty-eight pamphlets containing over three hundred “missionary letters,” written as a fictional correspondence with members of the public, in which he offered simple guidance on a range of practical issues from how to raise children to how to deal with crisis of faith (Velimirović, 2005). These and other similar writings aimed at a wider readership had a clear missionary and evangelical purpose not apparent in Velimirović’s earlier scholarly work.

36Velimirović’s followers today view this unexpected change of style and direction as an unequivocally positive development, which enabled their hero to emerge as the true representative of Serbian Orthodox religious spirit. In 1986, Archimandrite Artemije Radosavljević described the transition as follows:

In this second period of his life, Nikolaj shunned all things foreign and rejected all forms of western superficiality. He became graced by the warm currents of Orthodoxy. He was enchanted and thrilled by the beautiful and salvationist image of Christ and inspired by the religious work of St Sava. Fame became unimportant to him. Compliments bored him. He rejected the excessively refined literary expression, and discarded earthly wisdom as a symptom of spiritual misery and desolation. However, the bishop did not become “vulgar.” Rather, he became more spiritual and uncomplicated. Christ’s words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” became everything to him. (A. Radosavljević, 1986, p. 14)

37Radosavljević (1986) sees this transformation as the moment when “Nikolaj the genius became Nikolaj the Saint” (p. 14). Similarly, Radovan Bigović (1998) describes Velimirović’s new direction—which confirmed him as “an apostle and Christ’s poet”—as marking a “Copernican turn” within Serbian religious thought (p. 380). It enabled Serbian Orthodox theology—which until then was a formal “religious and ethical system,” a “doctrine” devoid of a visible spiritual dimension—to become truly “Christocentric” and representative of “a concrete life with Christ and in Christ” (pp. 25–26). On the other hand, for Velimirović’s critics, the Ohrid period marks the bishop’s demise as a religious thinker. In 1931, literary critic Milan Bogdanović noted that Velimirović had strayed off the progressive route and described his writing at that time as “nothing but aphoristic paraphrasing of the strictest canonical dogma” by a conservative who “glorifies the church as an institution, openly championing the Orthodox ceremonial” (Bogdanović, 1931, p. 78). More recently, Mirko Đorđević (1996) concluded that Velimirović’s post-Ohrid writing brought nothing new to theology, but merely reproduced, and applied to the Serbian cultural context, the ideas of Russian slavophile thinkers, such as Dostoyevsky, Leontiyev, and Homyakov.

38It is noteworthy that in the writing of Velimirović’s followers, it is not just his “return” to Orthodoxy which is cited as the significant legacy of the conversion at Ohrid. More often than not, authors also emphasize what it is that Velimirović was returning from. Radosavljević noted, in the earlier quotation, that Velimirović’s passage from “genius” to “Saint” involved the abandonment of the youthful attraction to “western superficiality.” For Bishop Amfilohije Radović, Ohrid ended Velimirović’s “enchantment with Europe, and the great ideas born in Europe.” Velimirović started to “go deeper” in his theological and evangelical explorations only after he “experienced the tragedy of European thought, European culture, European civilization” (A. Radović, 1991, p. 41; see also A. Radović, 2003, p. 508). In other words, Velimirović’s ascent as an “apostle” of the Orthodox faith is seen as causally linked to a shift in his stance away from Europe and its culture.

39Indeed, by the mid-1920s, the admiration for Western Europe and the sympathies for the ecumenical movement which Velimirović harbored in his youth (and towards which he was becoming increasingly skeptical around the time of World War I) all but disappeared from his worldview. In some ways, Velimirović “gave up” on the West, which he believed has discarded God for the secular values of the French revolution. He abandoned hope that a new Christian civilization could be built on the pan-humanist principles which preoccupied him a decade earlier. In 1926 for instance, he bitterly criticized the formation of the League of Nations not because he disagreed with its agenda, but because he believed that a new world order built on secular, rather than on explicitly Christian values is destined to fail (Velimirović, 1926).

40And yet, the thorough disenchantment with the West did not bring about a withdrawal into the sheltered and comforting world of his newly found spiritual enlightenment at Ohrid. The metaphorical “great waters of this sensual world” which Velimirović claimed to have “left behind” became an obsession. In “Godless Europe,” which provoked such “disappointment,” he saw a menacing deluge threatening to engulf the Orthodox world. Nietzsche (whom he had already identified in 1912 as the symbol of “atheism,” “despair,” and the “antichrist”) was joined by Charles Darwin and Karl Marx to form the “three ghosts of European civilization” (Velimirović, 1940). Individualism, equality, religious tolerance, democracy, science, and other products of modernity and enlightenment which he associated with the godless spirit of Europe became an anathema to him, prompting a declaration of “an uncompromising war” against “all forms of culture, materialist science, atheistic philosophies, godless politics and various forms of pseudo-religiosity” (Bigović, 1998, p. 26). Also, Velimirović became disillusioned with Yugoslavia. The country which he once hoped would be built on Christian principles became in his eyes a structure erected “on the foundations of the metaphysics of Protestantism, French Enlightenment philosophy, English political economy, liberal thinking and utilitarian ethics,” all of which he vehemently opposed (Bigović, 1998, p. 25).

41Anti-westernism apparent in Velimirović’s writing, which culminated in the 1930s, went hand in hand with a new and more “parochial” approach to the Christian mission. The realization that in Western Europe “Christianity is on its deathbed, destroyed and betrayed by Christians themselves” led him to become an “Orthodox Serbian patriot” (Jerotić, 2000, pp. 238–239). The pan-humanist ideal of the “All-man” retreated before an increasingly xenophobic strand of Serbian religious nationalism and populism (M. Đorđević, 1996; Popov, 1993). Velimirović came to regard the Serbs (exemplified by the pious Devotionalists) as a unique cultural, civilizational, and national entity, and the embodiment of the authentic Orthodox Christian spirit. In the essay “Above East and West” he went as far as to suggest that “Christian Serbia alone can fulfill the apostolic task to bring the [Far] East to Christ, and lead the West to repentance” (Velimirović, 1977, p. 807). The belief in the messianic role of the Serbs reflected the older slavophile tenet that the Orthodox East holds the key to the West’s spiritual salvation, but in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, in the bishop’s writing this ideological motif acquired a more restricted interpretation and became confined to the Serbs and the Balkans. Velimirović believed that geographically Serbia stands between the East and the West, but that spiritually it is above such divisions, and closest to God.

42The belief in the spiritual superiority of Serbs in relation to other Slavs reflected also the conviction that “Svetosavlje”—the uniquely Serbian brand of Christianity derived from the teachings of the medieval Serbian saint Sava—contains within it the blueprint for a truly Christian society (see van Dartel, 1984). In Velimirović’s interpretation of Serbia’s national history (which was reflected also in the writing of a number of his contemporaries and followers, most notably theologians Justin Popović and Dimitrije Najdanović), St Sava was not just the founder of the autocephalous Serbian Orthodox Church, but also the father of the Serbian nation and the embodiment of the medieval Serbian Christian state. Consequently, Velimirović interpreted the legacy of the first Serbian archbishop as constituting more than just a Christian doctrine: it represents also the foundation of a unique “evangelical nationalism” and a specific theory of government. In the writing of Velimirović and other nationalist theologians in the 1930s, “Svetosavlje” was elevated to the status of a unifying principle that seamlessly binds together the church, the nation, and the state into an “organic,” “undividable” whole. It obliterates the division between the sacred and the secular, and in doing so it paves the way for a society entirely devoted to God’s work (Bremer, 1997; M. Đorđević, 2003). The ultimate expression of “Svetosavlje” is what Velimirović referred to as “Teodulija,” a society in which God is the raison d’etre of “the Church, the state, the schools and all national institutions,” where “every dwelling is a monastery” and life is governed by four simple principles: “faith, honesty, obedience, and fortitude” (Velimirović, 2003). Velimirović believed that the medieval Serbian kingdom was a “Teodulija” and that Serbs, because of their innate ties “in blood and spirit” with St Sava, have the capacity to recreate it in the 20th century as the perfect antithesis to the Godless, modern, secular European state. Serbs were thus elevated to the status of “God’s chosen people, a new Israel after the Jews, new chosen people in this world” (Jerotić, 2000, p. 241). What is more, in Velimirović’s writing the importance which Christianity traditionally attributes to the notions of individual righteousness and personal salvation disappeared before the belief in collective salvation of Christian nations (Janić, 1994; Jerotić, 2000). For Velimirović, it is Serbia’s history of collective suffering and martyrdom for Christ (whether in Kosovo in 1389, or during World War I) and the aspirations towards “Teodulija” that will earn the whole of the Serbian nation a place in heaven. This notion of collective salvation gave meaning to the idea of “Heavenly Serbia”—a space in Heaven reserved for the Serbian people—which Velimirović’s followers revived so effectively in the 1980s and 1990s.

43By the end of the 1930s, the view of the Serbian people as the symbol of the authentic, Christian view of the world attained disturbing racist overtones. In 1939, in the speech “Whose are you, little Serbian people,” delivered at the ceremony commemorating the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, Velimirović spoke of Serbs as “God’s children and people of the Aryan race, who have been granted the honorable role of being the main pillar of Christianity in the world” (Velimirović, 2001, p. 40). He asserted that “we are Aryan by blood, Slavs by surname, Serbs by name, Christians in heart and spirit’” (ibid.).

44As much as Velimirović believed in the chosenness of the Serbs and their messianic mission in this world, he at the same time despaired over their apparent feebleness before the temptations of modern, secular, European culture. The attitude towards his people fluctuated between adoration and revulsion: the more he idealized their spiritual potential, the less he could forgive the weaknesses that they exhibited. More importantly, the failure of the ambition to create a land founded on the principles of “organic, evangelical nationalism” was explained away by reference to a vast international conspiracy against his nation and its religion. In some sense, the appearance of conspiracy theory in Velimirović’s writing is unsurprising, not just because in the 1920s and 1930s there were plenty of conspiracy theories around from which to draw inspiration (including those propagated by the reactionary Russian immigration which settled in Serbia after 1917, see Timotijević, forthcoming) but because, as Karl Popper (1972) noted, such explanations are characteristic of those worldviews or ideologies which are concerned with the implementation of fundamental truth, or with the creation of “heaven on earth.” The unavoidable failure of projects such as “Teodulija” can only be explained by reference to an evil force which has a “vested interest in thwarting this illustrious endeavour” (Popper, 1972). Importantly for the present discussion, the conspiracy theory which Velimirović propagated saw at the hub of the alleged anti-Serbian and anti-Orthodox plot the same secret force which dominated conspiratorial thinking in early 20th century, namely the Jews (see Cohn, 1957). The broader anti-western and anti-modernist perspective which dominated Velimirović’s thinking in the late 1920s and the 1930s became infused with anti-Jewish slurs, which consisted of a blend of Christian antisemitism and Jewish conspiracy theory typical of the era in which he lived and worked.

45The first instance of antisemitism in Velimirović’s writing can be found in the sermon “A Story about the wolf and the lamb,” which he delivered during a trip to the United States in the autumn of 1927. In January 1928, several mainstream Serbian newspapers (including Politika and Vreme) published extracts from this sermon, while the official publication of the diocese of Žiča, Pregled crkve eparhije žičke (Review of the diocese of Žiča) published it in its entirety. In his take on the well known Christian parable about the wolf and the lamb, Velimirović referred to “Jewish leaders in Jerusalem” at the time of the crucifixion as “wolves,” whose thirst for blood of the Lamb of God was motivated by their “god-hating nationalism.” He explicitly stated that the deicidal actions of Caiaphas were not attributable to “individual depravity,” but that, in plotting to kill Christ, he and other Jewish leaders “represented the Semitic race” and acted “in the interest of their nation” (Velimirović, 1928b, pp. 6–9). What is significant, however, is that the parable was not just a regurgitation of the old Christian deicide accusation against Jews. The motif of Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion also informed Velimirović’s perspective on contemporary political reality. Caiaphas, along with Herod and Pontius Pilate, was put forward as the embodiment of the anti-Christian, deicidal “spirit” which endures to the present day. Velimirović warned his audience that the world will eventually have to chose between the spirit of Christ and that of his murderers, and that should they opt for the latter (including the spirit of Caiaphas, or rather of “Judaism”), the outcome will be war, death, and destruction. This sermon provoked a bitter reaction from the Belgrade Rabbi Dr. Isak Alkalaj, who saw in Velimirović’s words a reiteration of the medieval blood libel against the Jews, and a potential incitement to violence against the followers of Mosaic faith in Serbia (Alkalaj, 1928, p. 3). Velimirović responded to the rabbi’s protest, but without recanting the claims that crucifixion was a manifestation of an enduring anti-Christian tendency among the Jewish “race” and that the spirit of Judaism remains a threat to the future of humanity (Velimirović, 1928c, see also Chapter 5, below).

46A similar portrayal of Judaism as an inherently anti-Christian and dangerous creed is to be found in a speech which Velimirović delivered in 1936, shortly after he once again took over the diocese of Žiča. In this speech, delivered before an audience which included the Yugoslav prime minister Milan Stojadinović, Nikolaj explicitly warned that among the “dangers that loom over our internal and external lives” are not just the “clericalism” of the Catholic Church—a topic salient in Velimirović’s mind at the time given his opposition to the planned Concordat between Yugoslavia and the Vatican, see below—but also “the bloody Jewish Judaism, because Jews are working slyly and cleverly on the destruction of faith—faith in real God” (“Zapisnik XVII redovne skupštine sveštenstva eparhije žičke oržane na dan 16/3 jula u manastiru žiči,” 1936, p. 23; see Velimirović, 1940 for similar claims). In the same issue of Pregled crkve eparhije žičke in which this speech was reported, another contributor, evidently inspired by the “words of the bishop of Žiča, Dr. Nikolaj,” elaborated further on the danger posed by “Jewish Judaism.” He described Jews as “ideologues of freemasonry,” “servants of Satan” who “rule with money,” “control the media,” and use “socialism to destroy Christianity and Christian culture.” Like much of conspiratorial literature of that era, the author of this text identified freemasonry, capitalism, and socialism as “three heads of a hydra” that is “world Jewry” (Pašić, 1936, pp. 3–6).

47It appears, therefore, that for Velimirović and a sizable number of his followers, behind modernity and secular European values which were an anathema to them at the time, laid a Satanic, Jewish conspiracy dating back to the crucifixion. In Velimirović’s subsequent writing, Jews reappear, time and time again as a satanic people who tried and murdered Christ “inspired by the stinking breath of Satan.” In his most controversial work, Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window, written in 1944, Velimirović writes that Jews

[s]howed themselves to be worse enemies of God than the godless Pilate, because in the fury of their malice, they uttered those terrible words: Let his blood be on us and on our children! So innocent blood became the whip that drove them like cattle through the centuries, from land to land, like fire that burns their repository of schemes against Christ. Because that is what their father, the Devil teaches them; the Devil taught them how to stand against the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The Devil taught them through the centuries how to fight against the sons of Christ, against the children of Light, against the followers of the Gospel and eternal life. (Velimirović, 1998; p. 193)

48The same murderous and Satanic “spirit” is manifested in the secular values of contemporary, Godless Europe:

Europe knows nothing other than what Jews serve up as knowledge. It believes nothing other than what Jews order it to believe. It knows the value of nothing until Jews impose their own measure of values […] all modern ideas including democracy, and strikes, and socialism, and atheism, and religious tolerance, and pacifism, and global revolution, and capitalism, and communism are the inventions of Jews, or rather their father, the Devil. (Velimirović, 1998, p.194)

49Similarly, in the book Indian Letters, which Velimirović wrote sometime between July 1941 and December 1942, there is an allegorical story in which “Satan” is portrayed as an evil Jewish woman, “Rebeka Natan,” a seductress and leader of a communist uprising. Velimirović describes Rebeka Natan, “whose name reveals her stock,” as a member of “all destructive and secret associations plotting against Christianity, religion, and the state.” She is a “mistress of disguise,” an illusionist and hypnotist who “weaves a web of deceit” around the Earth. She is the “moving force” behind world affairs: she provokes assassinations, revolutions, and disorder wherever she appears (Velimirović, 2000). In other words, a Jewish woman is offered as the embodiment of what Velimirović saw as the destructive, immoral, anti-religious, and revolutionary aspects of European culture and civilization.

50In the context of the Serbian Orthodox Christian culture of the 1920s and 1930s, the presence of conspiratorial antisemitism in Velimirović’s writing should not be viewed as an isolated incident. The antisemitic dimension of his Manichean perspective on the contemporary historical moment was a reflection of a broader milieu in which this now discredited tradition of political explanation was becoming regarded as increasingly acceptable. In the early 1920s, antisemitic interpretations of the revolutionary changes in Russia (namely the assumption that behind the Bolshevik revolution lay a sinister plot by international Jewry), which the Russian political immigration promoted at the time throughout Europe and the United States (see Poliakov, 1987), did not bypass elements within the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile, which had its headquarters in Serbia (Timotijević, forthcoming). The links between the expatriate Russian clergy and the Serbian Orthodox Church enabled such ideas to penetrate Serbian religious publications, where anti-Jewish themes of this kind have hitherto been uncommon. As early as in 1923, Pregled crkve eparhije žičke serialized over the period of three months the article “Russian Golgotha,” penned by the former Russian army chaplain, Priest Mihailo Spiridonovich Peleh. In the article, Lenin and Trotsky were described as “servants of western Jewish capital” engaged in “devil’s work” against Orthodox Russia, and followers of an evil Jewish plan concocted in 1897, the aim of which was “the destruction of Christianity in the whole world” and the creation of “Satan’s kingdom” (Peleh, 1923). In subsequent years, the theme of Jewish conspiracy gradually gained momentum of its own. The Jewish origins of communism remained a dominant theme, although other more generalized claims about the pervasive and decisive role of Jews in history and world politics were also to be found in Church publications. In 1927, the voice of the Devotionalist movement, Hrišćanska zajednica, featured extracts from Henry Ford’s The International Jew, in which communism and freemasonry were identified as two “darlings of the Jew” (“Neprijatelji Hrišćanstva po Henriu Fordu,” 1927, p. 7). A year earlier, the same journal published extracts from Protocols of the Elders of Zion (“Krvave Osnove ili Protokoli sionskih mudraca,” 1926) and the 19th century German pamphlet Religious Teaching of the Talmud, or the Mirror of Kike Honesty, which was first translated into Serbian in 1882 by the well-known publicist Vasa Pelagić (“Verozakonsko učenje Talmuda ili ogledalo čivutskog poštenja,” 1926). The latter two texts appeared also in Pregled crkve eparhije žičke (see Timotijević, forthcoming). Extracts from the Protocols were printed in these journals eight years before the first full Serbian translation of this book was published (and subsequently banned by the authorities), which suggests that the reactionary, nationalist stream within the Church played an important role in introducing the Serbian public to antisemitic conspiracy theory. Also, the Devotionalists often defined their struggle for the hearts and minds of the Serbian people in explicitly antisemitic terms, as a war against Jewish power. Their battle against the influence of smaller religious communities in Serbia (above all, the Adventist Church), whom they saw as promoting heresy, was defined as resistance against “the fruit of Judeo–masonry within Christianity” (cited in Subotić, 1996, p. 40).

51As was already noted in the Introduction, antisemitism in Velimirović’s writing is the major controversy of his life, one that in recent decades dominated the argumentative context surrounding his remembrance. However, the negative stance towards Jews is by no means the only contentious aspect of the bishop’s biography which casts a shadow on his legacy. In the attempt to undermine Velimirović’s credibility, detractors after the war regularly cited three further issues: a medal which he received from Hitler in 1934, an affirmative reference to the German Fuhrer which can be found in one of his speeches, and his association with Dimitrije Ljotić, a Nazi collaborator and the leader of the fascist movement Zbor (Rally).

52In 1934, Nazi Germany awarded the bishop of Ohrid a civilian medal for his contribution to the restoration, in 1926, of a World War I German military cemetery in the Macedonian town of Bitolj. As Velimirović’s supporters rightly point out, the medal does not in itself demonstrate an ideological or political affiliation between the bishop and the Nazis. After all, it was awarded for an “honorable” deed and an act of Christian charity which Velimirović undertook eight years before the Nazi state came into being (e.g., Jevtić, 1986a). However, in the attempt to play down the significance of this potentially compromising episode, supporters have also suggested that Velimirović was profoundly embarrassed by this decoration and that he never showed it to anybody (Skrobonja, 2002). What this version of events overlooks, however, is that Velimirović received the medal at a high-profile ceremony at the German Embassy in Belgrade, which was attended by representatives of the Yugoslav government and the Patriarch Varnava Rosić. What is more, a speech which Velimirović delivered shortly after receiving the award suggests that, at the time, he did not feel that the attention conferred upon him by Hitler was anything to be particularly “embarrassed” about. In the spring of 1935, during a manifestation entitled “Orthodox Week,” Velimirović gave a lecture on the “nationalism of St Sava.” This speech, which was meant to be just another homage to St Sava, became one of his most regrettable public appearances. At the very end of the speech, in which he lamented Europe’s “rejection of Christ” in the name of “progress” and glorified the idea of “evangelical nationalism,” Velimirović’s uttered the following words:

One must commend the current German Leader, who, as a simple craftsman and a common man, realized that nationalism without faith is an anomaly, a cold and insecure mechanism. In the 20th century he arrived at the idea first introduced by St Sava, and although a layman, he took upon himself that most important of all missions, one that is only worthy of a saint, a genius, a hero. (Velimirović, 1935, p. 28)

53After World War II, Velimirović tried to defend this speech, suggesting that rather than praising Hitler for his endeavor to form a national German church and create a faith-based nationalist creed, he was in fact criticizing the “German Leader” for apparently taking upon himself a task worthy only of a saint (Velimirović, 1983, p. 704). And yet, both the precise wording of the speech and the context in which Hitler was mentioned (as a positive development in otherwise godless Europe) suggest that Velimirović may in fact have been seduced, at least momentarily, by the Nazi political project. Given the timing of Velimirović’s lecture, the reference to the “current German Leader” may also have been a subtle sign of gratitude for the honor bestowed upon him by Hitler a few months earlier (Tomanić, 2001).

54Velimirović’s followers today have been eager to point out that the praise for Hitler occurred in the mid-1930s, when the murderous nature of the Nazi regime was not yet fully apparent, and at a time when other notable personalities in Europe and beyond harbored similar illusions about the Fuhrer’s place in history. For this reason, they suggest, the worst thing that Velimirović can be accused of is a lack of political judgment and foresight. This assessment of the speech is not without foundation, given that the allusion to the Fuhrer in the 1935 lecture was the only occasion where Velimirović publicly paid tribute to Hitler in this way. What is more, by the late 1930s, Velimirović adopted a more critical stance towards the Third Reich. In April 1939 he wrote in Žički Blagovesnik:

In the West there is a dream about a great western empire. About the great Reich. The first was founded by Napoleon. It lasted 8 years, and then it fell […] the Second Reich was founded half a century after the fall of the first. The Second Reich was founded by Prussia, Austria, and Italy, in the hope that they would come out of World War I with the basis of a new empire called “Mittel Europa.” Fortunately this idea remained—Utopia. The First Reich provoked a world war and those who caused it were destroyed. The Second Reich provoked a world war and those who caused it were destroyed. The Third Reich will also end in a world war, and its fate can be gleaned from the fate of the first two… (Velimirović, 1939)

55Over the following year, the same journal, whose editorial policy was under Velimirović’s influence, published a series of articles in which Nazism was described as a “Satanic evil” (cited in Timotijević, forthcoming). Also, in 1940, Mihailo Konstantinović, a minister in the government of Dragiša Cvetković, noted in his diary that during a meeting with Velimirović in Kraljevo, the bishop “spoke against Hitler, the ‘Viennese decorator,’ and his brutal politics. He spoke resolutely against ‘emperor’ Hitler… against Hitlerism” (Konstantinović, 1998, p. 200). And yet, even if Velimirović’s ill-advised comments in the 1935 speech are seen as a sign of political naivety, rather than an indication of definitive political allegiances, it appears that the bishop’s stance towards Hitler remained in some respects ambivalent. In the years subsequent to the controversial speech, even at the time when Velimirović was becoming more critical of the Nazis, Hitler’s failure to give German nationalism a sound Christian underpinning continued to be regarded in ecclesiastical circles close to the bishop of Žiča as a regrettable development and a lost opportunity. In 1939, only two months before Velimirović prophesized the destruction of the Third Reich, an editorial published in Žički Blagovesnik protested against the arrest by the Nazis of a German Protestant pastor, but at the same time bemoaned the fact that “the leader of the German people did not succeed in his attempt to unite German religious communities into a single national church” (“Hrabri pastor,” 1939, p. 57). Also, although today Velimirović’s speech on the “Nationalism of St Sava” seems uniquely misguided, comparably flattering evaluations of the Fuhrer could be heard from other Church dignitaries in Serbia at that time, who saw in Hitler a barrier against communist expansion. In 1937, Patriarch Varnava Rosić gave an interview to a German newspaper in which he defended Hitler from accusations of imperialism, portraying him as a warrior against Bolshevism, and a savior of Slavs (cited in M. Đorđević, 2003, p. 21).

56A few months before Velimirović delivered his controversial speech on the “nationalism of St Sava,” Dimitrije Ljotić, a politician from the town of Smederevo and former minister in the government of Petar Živković, founded a political movement called Zbor (Rally). Although Zbor was a profoundly unpopular organization in Serbia—it had fewer than ten thousand active members and in two parliamentary elections, in 1935 and 1938, it won 0.84% and 1% of the votes respectively—it made a mark in history as Serbia’s only notable pre-war fascist organization. What is more, following the German invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941, its leader, Dimitrije Ljotić, became the eminence grise of the collaborationist establishment, which was composed almost entirely of current or former members of Zbor. At the same time, the organization’s grassroots members formed the mainstay of the Serbian Volunteer Corps (Srpski Dobrovoljački Korpus, SDK), Serbia’s most zealous collaborationist paramilitary organization, which fought alongside the German army against Partisan and Chetnik insurgents (Martić, 1980; Stefanović, 1984).

57Before the war, Dimitrije Ljotić, who was deeply religious and well connected within the Serbian Orthodox Church (he was the representative of the Braničevo diocese at the Patriarchical Council of the Serbian Orthodox Church), maintained close links with Nikolaj Velimirović and the Devotionalists. This was reflected in one of Ljotić’s nicknames, which was “Mita Bogomoljac” or “Devotionalist Mita.” There is strong evidence to suggest that Velimirović approved of Zbor and encouraged his followers to join this organization. His disciple, the theologian Dimitrije Najdanović states in his autobiography that he joined Zbor in 1936 on the instruction of his mentor (Najdanović, 2001, p. 108). Najdanović eventually became one of Zbor’s main ideologues, and a senior official in the Ministry of Education in the collaborationist government of Milan Nedić (1941–1944). Priest Aleksa Todorović, one of the leaders of the Devotionalists and for a while editor of their publication Hrišćanska Zajednica, was also closely affiliated with Zbor. After Ljotić formed the Volunteer Corps in 1941, Todorović was instated as their chaplain and spiritual guide. The significant overlap between the membership of Zbor and that of the Devotionalists has led to suggestions that from 1935 onwards, members of Zbor gradually infiltrated the Devotionalists and became the “backbone” of the movement (Subotić, 1996, p. 195), while according to others, it was the Devotionalists who collectively joined Ljotić’s organization in the late 1930s (Stefanović, 1984). In a signed statement which he gave to the Yugoslav security services shortly after the end of World War II, Patriarch Gavrilo Dožić—head of the Serbian Orthodox Church between 1938 and 1950—went as far as to suggest that Ljotić was “brought up and encouraged” by Velimirović, whose ambition was to use Zbor to draw the Serbian Orthodox Church into the sphere of politics (cited in P. Ilić, 2006, p. 100).

58In the autumn of 1940, when Yugoslav authorities outlawed Zbor, incarcerated a number of its prominent members (including Dimitrije Najdanović), and issued an arrest warrant for Ljotić (who went into hiding), Velimirović was one of a very few public figures in Serbia who protested on their behalf. He wrote a letter to the Serbian prime minister Dragiša Cvetković, in which he demanded Najdanović’s release, and praised Ljotić’s “faith in God” and his “good character” (cited in Janković, 2003, p. 217). Also, although the relations between the two figures soured during the Nazi occupation (mainly because Velimirović did not share Ljotić’s collaborationist zeal), Velimirović delivered a eulogy at Ljotić’s funeral in Slovenia in April 1945, in which he spoke of the deceased—by that time an undisputed Nazi collaborator—as “a politician bearing a cross,” and an “ideologue of religious nationalism” whose importance “transcends the boundaries of Serbian politics” (Velimirović, 2001, p. 58).

59The lasting affinity between Ljotić and Velimirović can be attributed to the fact that Zbor’s political program was influenced by Velimirović’s perspective on “evangelical nationalism” and his views on history, politics, and society. Ljotić, just like Velimirović, advocated the abandonment of individualism and parliamentary democracy, and believed that the Serbian nation must return to its religious and cultural traditions. Also, Ljotić shared with Velimirović the belief in a sinister anti-Serbian conspiracy. He alleged that behind the world’s problems lies the “Great Director” (as in theatre director), a “collective personality” which consists of “a people without land, language, a stable religion, a people without roots, the Jews” (Ljotić, 1940a, pp. 9–11). Jews were portrayed in Zbor’s propaganda as the force behind liberal democracy, Freemasonry, and communism, and therefore as the movement’s (and by extension the nation’s) principal enemy. Ljotić saw “liquidating the influence of Masons, Jews, and every other spiritual progeny of Jews” as the only way of saving Yugoslavia from the threat of war (Ljotić, 1940b).

60In spite of the evident similarities between Velimirović’s and Ljotić’s political outlooks, an important difference persisted throughout the late 1930s and 1940s. Whereas Velimirović was becoming increasingly critical of Hitler’s imperialism, Ljotić remained an unrepentant admirer of Nazi ideology in which he saw a welcome form of resistance against Bolshevism and global Jewish control. And yet, Velimirović never publicly denounced the leader of Zbor for his pro-Nazi stance, and their difference of opinion did not prevent him from speaking at Ljotić’s funeral in Slovenia in 1945. Even after the war, Velimirović maintained that in the 1930s, he and Ljotić pursued a common ideological agenda. In an interview to a Serbian newspaper published in the United States in the 1950s, he stated that in his overall Serbian Christian nationalist project, Ljotić—his “pupil and faithful follower in Christ”—was “passing the incense burner” (cited in Popov, 1993).

61In the latter part of the 1930s, at the time when his views were becoming radicalized and the involvement with Zbor intensified, Velimirović came into open conflict with the Yugoslav government and found himself increasingly isolated within the ecclesiastical establishment in Serbia. In 1936 he took a leading role in the fight against the signing of the Concordat between Yugoslavia and the Vatican, which many in Serbia saw as a threat to the primacy of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (see Mišović, 1983; Radić, 2002a). The opposition to the Concordat amounted, in Velimirović’s view, to “defending his people” from the proselytizing ambitions of the “heretical bishop of Rome” (letter to the synod dated June 16, 1938, cited in Janković 2003, p. 246). In July 1937, the “Concordat crisis” reached its climax. A standoff between armed gendarmes and a street procession led by the bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church (in which Velimirović did not partake) ended in a riot. On the same day the synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church announced that Serbian parliamentarians who offer their support to the Concordat would be excommunicated from the Church. Shortly afterwards Patriarch Varnava Rosić suddenly died, which led to rumors (which persist to the present day) that he had been poisoned because of his opposition to the foreign policy of the Prime Minister Milan Stojadinović. In the end, in response to public pressure, the government took the Concordat off the agenda. Following the election of Gavrilo Dožić as the new patriarch, relations between state authorities and the Serbian Orthodox Church were restored. Velimirović, however, offended by attacks on him in government controlled press during the crisis, opposed any reconciliation between the Church and the state. He even proposed that the Church should demand the resignation of the Prime Minister Milan Stojadinović. After this directly political initiative was rejected by the other bishops, Velimirović embarked on a protest. For almost three years he boycotted the sessions of the Synod and the Assembly of Bishops, and refused all contact with state officials in his diocese. Only in 1940, after a meeting at Kalenić Monastery in central Serbia, Velimirović made peace with Patriarch Gavrilo Dožić and resumed normal relations with other bishops and with secular authorities.

62After World War II, Yugoslav authorities frequently accused Velimirović of “Nazi collaboration,” mainly on account of his pre-war association with Dimitrije Ljotić and his speech at the latter’s funeral in 1945. And yet Velimirović’s actions before and during World War II appear to go against these grave accusations. Velimirović’s whereabouts during the war will be examined in more detail in the next chapter, as they are closely linked to the process of his rehabilitation, so only the essential facts will be provided here. In March 1941, together with a number of prominent members of the Serbian Orthodox Church (including Patriarch Gavrilo Dožić), Bishop Nikolaj came out in support of the putsch which deposed the Yugoslav regent Pavle Karađorđević and annulled the treaty between Yugoslavia and the Axis Forces which the regent signed a few days earlier. The putsch, which attracted considerable public support in Serbia, provoked the invasion of Yugoslavia by Nazi Germany ten days later. The famous patriotic speech in favor of the putsch, which Serbian Patriarch Gavrilo Dožić read out on national radio shortly after the fall of Pavle Karađorđević, is widely believed to have been written, or at least inspired by Nikolaj Velimirović (Jevtić, 1988; A. Radosavljević, 2003).

63In April 1941, only eleven days after the surprise bombing raid on Belgrade on Easter Sunday (April 6), Nazi Germany completed its invasion of Yugoslavia. The ensuing partition of the country left a large part of Serbia under direct occupation by Nazi Germany. One of the first steps undertaken by German authorities in Belgrade was to isolate influential public figures whom they believed might become a source of instability in the country. Because of their support for the coup of March 1941, both Velimirović and Patriarch Gavrilo Dožić were treated with suspicion. There are indications that before the war, German authorities considered Velimirović—as a committed nationalist and anticommunist—a potential candidate for collaboration. In January 1969 Politika’s Bonn correspondent reported on a trial, which took place in Germany at the time, in which Eugen Gerstenmaier, the former head of the German Evangelical Church’s Office for External Relations (Kirchlichen Aussenamt) testified how Velimirović was Germany’s favorite candidate to take over leadership of the Serbian Orthodox Church following the German occupation of Serbia (“Kako je Gerstenmajer vrbovao Nikolaja Žičkog,” 1969, p. 4). However, after the events of March 1941 Velimirović was identified as “pro-British” and, therefore, as a potential threat to Germany’s interests. And yet, in contrast to Patriarch Gavrilo Dožić, who was immediately arrested by the Nazis and incarcerated in the Gestapo prison in Belgrade, Velimirović remained at liberty, possibly because Ljotić and other collaborators managed to convince the Germans that he might yet be persuaded to offer support to the puppet “Commissars’ Administration” led at that time by two notorious Nazi sympathizers, Milan Aćimović and Dragi Jovanović (P. Ilić, 2006).

64Velimirović was eventually arrested in July 1941 on suspicion of links with the Chetnik insurgents who fought against the German troops at the time. However, he was promptly released, on condition that he would suspend his activities as the bishop of Žiča and remain under German surveillance at Ljubostinja Monastery (P. Ilić, 2006). The decision to let Velimirović go was at least partly influenced by the fact that his associates showed the interrogating officer the medal which he received from Hitler seven years earlier, as well as by a series of letters which Dimitrije Ljotić sent to German officials in the spring and summer of 1941, in which he informed them that the bishop had “praised Hitler” before the war and should therefore not be regarded as an enemy of the Reich (cited in Subotić, 2004, pp. 442–446). At Ljubostinja, Velimirović was frequently visited by German officials and representatives of the collaborationist administration who wanted him to denounce the partisan insurgency in Serbia. Although Velimirović delivered a number of anti-communist speeches at the time, he nonetheless refused to sign any form of written proclamation to that effect (P. Ilić, 2006; Radić, 2002a). In December 1942, after a search of Ljubostinja Monastery uncovered an illegal radio transmitter, Velimirović was arrested for a second time and transferred to another monastery, in Vojlovica near Belgrade. He was kept there, together with Serbian patriarch Gavrilo Dožić, under house arrest for eighteen months. Both Velimirović and Dožić resisted further pressure to collaborate with the Germans and refused to partake in the planned pro-German “government of national salvation” with which Nazis intended to replace the quisling administration of General Milan Nedić (Džomić, 2003; J. Radosavljević, 2003).

65In September 1944, as German troops began to loose ground in the war against the partisans and the Red Army, Velimirović and Dožić were transferred to Germany, via Budapest and Vienna. Eventually, they ended up at the notorious concentration camp at Dachau where they were held as “honorary prisoners” (Ehrenhafling) for just over two months. The reason behind Velimirović’s and Dožić’s release in November 1944 remains a matter of controversy, although historical evidence strongly suggests that their freedom was part of a deal struck between Serbian collaborators and the German envoy in the Balkans, Hermann Neubacher (P. Ilić, 2006; see also B. Kostić, 1991; Parežanin, 1971; Petranović, 1983).

66Upon their release from Dachau, Velimirović and Gavrilo Dožić were sent, under German escort, to recuperate at the Bavarian lake resort Schliersee (P. Ilić, 2006), before being transferred to Vienna, where they remained until March 1945. From Vienna they traveled to Slovenia, where Ljotić and other Serbian nationalist warlords were fighting Slovenian partisans under the command of the notorious SS official Odilo Globocnik, and were preparing a final mass offensive against Tito’s army. During the stay in Slovenia, Velimirović gave his blessing to Ljotić’s volunteers, as well to other collaborators, such as the Chetniks of Momčilo Đujić and Dobroslav Jevđević (B. Kostić, 1991; Parežanin, 1971).

67Velimirović left Slovenia after Ljotić’s death in a car crash in April 1945. A year later he emigrated to the United States, where he hoped to become actively engaged with local dissident emigre organizations in a propaganda campaign against the communist authorities in Yugoslavia. He believed that he would serve his country better from abroad, in accordance with the old proverb that he often quoted at the time, namely that “if a house is burning, the best way to put out the fire is from the outside.” However, disenchanted with the divisions within the Serbian diaspora in North America and aware of his diminishing influence in the homeland, Velimirović soon withdrew form public life and retreated to the Russian St Tikhon’s Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. There he taught at the local seminary and lived a solitary existence until his death on March 18, 1956, at the age of 76. An official report sent to the patriarchate in Belgrade shortly after Velimirović’s death stated that he died of heart failure during the night, with a rosary still in his hands (cited in Janković, 2003, p. 484). His death did not attract much publicity in Belgrade, for reasons which will become apparent shortly, although in his eulogy to Velimirović, the Anglican bishop of Chichester, George Bell, mentioned that, when the news of his death reached Belgrade, church bells in the city tolled simultaneously in his honor (cited in Heppell, 2001, p. 87).

68Following a dispute within the Serbian community in the United States about where Velimirović should be buried, it was decided that his remains would be interred in the gardens of the Serbian St Sava Monastery in Libertyville, Illinois, a monastery which he helped to build in the 1920s. Before the funeral, Velimirović’s body was displayed in the Serbian Orthodox churches in New York, Chicago, and Lackawanna (New York state) where it was worshiped by local faithful. He was buried on March 27, 1956, in the presence of forty-two Serbian priests and prominent members of the Serbian diaspora. As we will see in the next chapter, the serene surroundings of St Sava Monastery, which became a place of pilgrimage for the Serbian diaspora in the United States and the occasional visitor from Serbia, proved to be only a temporary resting place. In May 1991, among considerable pomp and ceremony, Velimirović’s remains were brought back to Serbia and laid to rest in a chapel in his native village of Lelić.

Denigration and marginalization: Velimirović’s status in post-war Yugoslavia

69Within the Serbian Orthodox Church today, the time under communist rule is often portrayed as one of great misery and oppression. Priest Savo Jović, author of the book bearing the indicative title Incarcerated Church (2002) describes the period as one of “greatest suffering” (p. 44), stating that “never in peacetime were we [the Church] persecuted, arrested, and murdered as frequently as between 1945 and 1985” (p. 11). Communist Yugoslavia was, according to this author, built on the “blood of Orthodox clergy,” which it sought to destroy with “mallet, knife, red hot iron, saw, rocks, and firearms.” In the hands of “Satanic killers,” Serbian priests, “shepherds of Christ’s flock” and “Christ bearers,” were elevated to “Golgothic heights” of martyrdom (p. 12). Priest Velibor Džomić, author of the five-volume work The Suffering of the Serbian Church under Communism stated recently that the fate of the Church under Tito “is more moving, more painful, and more terrifying and tragic” than that endured under Turkish yoke (2005, p. 46). On a previous occasion, he too drew a direct parallel between “crucified Christ” and the “crucified people” under communism, namely “Serbs and their Serbian Orthodox Church” (Džomić, 2000). In most instances, the alleged murderous actions of Yugoslav communists are attributed to militant secularism of the Yugoslav state and its “godless ideology” concocted by the “disturbed psyche of Soviet revolutionaries” (Đurić, 2002, p. 8).

70These and similar dramatic portrayals of what are said to have been “the most painful and the bloodiest pages in the history of the Serbian people” (Džomić, 2005, p. 46) in fact conceal a more complicated story of church–state relations in post-Word War II Yugoslavia, which were marked by a mixture of pragmatism, mutual suspicion, and political gamesmanship. While the Yugoslav constitution guaranteed the freedom of religious belief and allowed the churches the freedom to regulate matters of faith, secular authorities in socialist Yugoslavia sought to exclude churches from public life and confine religion to the domain of the private. For the Serbian Orthodox Church, life under communist rule was a lengthy exercise in damage limitation. Its stance towards the authorities was driven by the quest for the right balance between cooperation and resistance, all with the aim of keeping afloat an institution decimated by war and demoralized by the loss of privileges which it enjoyed in the past.

71From the early days of the Partisan uprising, the firm anti-religious stance which the Communist Party of Yugoslavia adopted before the war, gave way to a more pragmatic and liberal approach to religion. In order to make their movement acceptable to the rural population steeped in religious traditions, the Partisans promoted the fundamental right to religious belief and preached tolerance and interfaith understanding. In line with this more inclusive stance, Partisan units had “referents for religious affairs,” who catered for the spiritual needs of the fighters, while clergy who joined the movement were promoted into army chaplains who performed christenings and burials, and held religious services in liberated territories. Chaplains wore on their uniforms a badge bearing a curious combination of a cross superimposed over the usual red star (Alexander, 1979). The accommodating stance of the authorities towards religion was apparent also in the fact that in 1944, a liturgy was held in Belgrade for the fallen Yugoslav and Russian soldiers who perished during the liberation of the city. At the liturgy, Dr. Ivan Ribar, the President of Antifascist Council of the National Liberation of Yugoslavia (the temporary ruling body of the emerging socialist federation), and a number of other high-ranking state officials received communion and kissed the cross (Lilly, 1991). In the postwar years, the state controlled press regularly acknowledged the principal Christian holidays, such as Christmas or Easter, although in a way that advanced the cause of the regime. The Easter edition of Politika in 1945 stated for instance that Tito was “sent by God” and that the liberation from Nazism represented a form of resurrection (cited in Lilly, 1991). Furthermore, a directive issued by the authorities after the liberation promoted the annual celebration of St Sava’s Day, which included a reception in the building of the state assembly attended by Tito and other government officials (Radić, 2002a). This tolerant stance towards religion, which emphasized the equality of nations and faiths, was consistent with the rhetoric of “brotherhood and unity” on which the new multi-ethnic state was being founded. In line with this drive towards reconciliation among Yugoslav nations, state authorities annulled all acts of forceful religious conversion to Catholicism of the Serbian Orthodox population in Croatia and Bosnia which was carried out by the Ustasha during the war, a move that received support from the leadership of the Orthodox Church (Alexander, 1979).

72The liberal approach to religion by Yugoslav authorities at the early stage of post-war consolidation of power was motivated also by fear that radical measures against religious organizations might turn them into centers of opposition activism. Furthermore, Tito was trying to build a reputation for Yugoslavia as a tolerant and progressive state, an image that would have been undermined by rumors of religious oppression. The aim of the authorities was therefore to tolerate religion, while gradually driving the church away from public life and keeping as much of it as possible under state control (Radić, 2002a). As Tito acknowledged in a speech delivered in 1947, religion cannot be “eliminated by decree,” but it can be put “in the service of the people” and turned into a contributor to the building of socialist society (Lilly, 1991, p. 180). Placing the church “in the service of the people” was a euphemism for marginalization and the demand for unquestioned compliance.

73In the eyes of the Yugoslav authorities, the Churches were unquestionably a latent source of instability. This was not just because their dogma threatened to the materialist and secular philosophy promoted by the ideologues of the League of Communists, but also because in multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Yugoslavia national and religious boundaries often ran along the same lines. Confessional divisions (especially between Serbs and Croats as the two largest ethnic groups) were seen as a potential obstacle to a unified Yugoslav identity. Hence, religious communities were treated as a potential hotbed of nationalism and chauvinism. The Serbian Orthodox Church was viewed with particular suspicion, mainly because it traditionally defines itself as more than a religious institution: it is also the “authorised interpreter” for the Serbian national interests, a “symbol of the venerated traditions, the embodiment of a past both glorious and painful” (Pavlowitch, 1988, p. 96). Given that Serbian hegemonism and “Greater Serbian nationalism” were perceived as the greatest threat to “brotherhood and unity” among Yugoslav nations, the Serbian Orthodox Church was treated as an especially seditious organization, in whose activity it would be the hardest to differentiate religion from what was known at the time as the “misuse of the church for political purposes” (Radić, 2002a).

74The attempts to sideline religious institutions in Yugoslavia inevitably provoked resistance from within the churches, to which the authorities responded with uncompromising determination. As Stevan Pavlowitch (1988) put it, “it was necessary to make [the churches] harmless before they could be tolerated, and since their hierarchies did not want to understand that they had to change their ways, they would be made to understand—by obstruction, by attacks, by trials, by imprisonment” (p. 102). Overall, the Serbian Orthodox church adopted a more compromising stance towards the new authorities, compared to the Catholic Church, which bore the brunt of state oppression (Lilly, 1991; Pavlowitch, 1988). While the patriarchate in Belgrade frequently protested against government measures (see Živojinović, 1998), instances of public defiance were sporadic and localized, and in most instances swiftly quashed by the authorities. Nevertheless, the clergy was regularly subjected to intimidation and harassment by local party officials, especially in rural areas. Although persecution of the clergy was not a deliberate state policy towards the Church, the authorities for the most part turned a blind eye to these incidents, which was in itself a source of encouragement to eager local apparatchiks (Ramet, 2002).

75The first step towards the weakening of the Serbian Orthodox Church was taken during the war, in 1942, when the state-sponsored Union of Associations of Orthodox Priests of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was founded. The Union (which began to operate in earnest in 1949) consisted of Orthodox clergy sympathetic to the new regime, and was formally the successor to the Association of Orthodox Clergy, which existed in Serbia since 1889. Before World War II, the Association had a long history of conflict with Church hierarchy, mainly over the rights of the junior clergy to form a professional organization that was not directly accountable to the Synod and the Assembly of Bishops. By reviving an association with a history of dissidence, and by strengthening its influence through state sponsorship, the authorities endeavored to set up a parallel source of authority within the Church and in doing so create internal divisions.

76The most effective way in which the state endeavored to weaken the church’s influence was by removing its economic base. Land reform and the nationalization of church-owned property resulted in churches loosing eighty-five per cent of their assets (Lilly, 1991). What is more, land previously owned by the church was given to poor peasantry, which drove a wedge between the church and its flock, who suddenly became competitors over land and real estate. As a consequence of these reforms, the Serbian Orthodox Church became increasingly dependant for its existence on state subsidies, which were discretional and had to be negotiated every year. State donations depended on the regime’s good will and the assessment of the churches’ contribution to the building of “socialist society.”

77The state also tried to minimize the presence of the Church in public life. Constitutional measures introduced in 1946, which heralded the arrival of a truly secular state, stripped the churches of their jurisdiction over the registration of births, deaths, and marriages. Religious instruction was gradually phased out from school curricula. Litije, religious street processions, which were common before the war and which were often the central events in the religious life of parish communities, were outlawed. The Church was excluded even from the celebrations of supposedly “religious” holidays (such as St Sava’s Day) as the organization was placed in the hands of local party organizations (Lilly, 1991; Radić, 2002a). All of these measures meant that by 1980s the socialist Yugoslavia brought up a whole generation of citizens for whom religion was not a significant part of everyday life (Ramet, 2002).

78Most importantly for the present discussion, another means by which the authorities sought to undermine the influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church was by drawing the public’s attention to those segments of the clergy whose wartime record was compromised by the involvement with Nazi collaborators, or who emigrated to the West after the war. Selected representatives of the higher echelons of the Orthodox Clergy against whom the authorities felt that they could build a case were subjected to an orchestrated campaign of vilification, all with the aim of popularizing the image of the Church as an inherently backward-looking institution, “whose gospel was the dispensation of depraved reactionaries” (Ramet, 2002, p. 100). Because of his public image and widespread popularity before the war, Nikolaj Velimirović was instantly placed at the top of the list of “traitors”: his citizenship was revoked, his name was included on an unofficial list of authors whose work could not be openly published, and his reputation was subjected to public disparagement.

79In order to increase the effectiveness of such campaigns, especially in the early days, while Velimirović was still alive, the criticism of the reactionary clergy was presented as coming not from the secular authorities, but from the Church itself. The campaign against Velimirović was fronted by the Union of Associations of Orthodox Priests, whose statute specifically stated, as one of the organization’s main tasks, “leading the Battle [sic] against the Church’s most reactionary bishops” (Radić, 2002a, p. 321). The Union’s fortnightly publication, Vesnik, provided the medium through which this “battle” was waged.

80On the pages of Vesnik Velimirović, along with two other exiled bishops, Dionisije Milivojević and Irinej Đorđević, was routinely dismissed as a “clerical-nationalist,” a “traitor,” and an “enemy of the socialist revolution.” In the early stages of post-war transition, the bishop’s biggest fault in the eyes of the authorities and numerous critics from within the ruling establishment was not the association with Zbor in the 1930s, or his activities in Slovenia in the spring of 1945, or even his antisemitism. Rather, Nikolaj was criticized above all for emigrating to the United States and for siding with the “imperialists.” At the first convention of the Union of Associations of Orthodox Priests held in 1949, the delegates issued a statement proclaiming that “we condemn and distance ourselves from the workings of Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović […] who, after the liberation of our country remained in the camp of the imperialist countries, and together with the imperialists is plotting new slavery for our people, and is sowing lies, darkness, and ignorance” (“Osnovan je savez udruženja pravoslavnog sveštenstva FNRJ,” 1949, p. 1). Velimirović and other exiled bishops were branded “deserters, traitors of their country and their church, and mercenaries of foreign capital.” Velimirović, who was still officially the bishop of Žiča, was singled out as a “servant of American imperialism,” an “enemy of all the values of the fight for national liberation of the Yugoslav nations,” and “a warmonger and an inciter of unrest in our country” (“Sa skupštine sveštenstva NR Srbije,” 1949). He was dismissed as a “cancerous wound on the body of our Serbian Orthodox Church” (Jelić, 1950, p. 2) and conspirator “against the interests of his country” (Đorđević, 1950, p. 2). He was accused of “placing our faith in the service of imperialism” and “serving the dollar, rather than God and his people” (Ž. Kostić, 1949, p. 3). Only occasionally were readers reminded of the deeper origins of the bishop’s credentials as a “traitor,” when Velimirović’s association with nationalists during World War II was mentioned in passing: “In the war we had four bishops who were traitors, of which three are today in the U.S.: Nikolaj Velimirović, Irinej Đorđević, and Dionisije Milivojević. A sad state of affairs, brothers. Three bishops who can’t return to their land because of their treason” (J. Radović, 1950, p. 9). In another editorial in the same publication, Velimirović was dismissed as “lackey of the Germans” (“Kome ne ide u račun da Srpska pravoslavna crkva nađe svoj pravi put,” 1950, p. 4).

81The likely reason why criticisms of Velimirović in the late 1940s and the early 1950s focused on his status as a dissident and a stooge of imperialist powers—rather than as a fascist or Nazi collaborator—is that the emphasis on the bishop’s current “sins” was more in line with the overall ideological context defined by the emerging Cold War divisions. Also, at the time, both secular and ecclesiastical authorities hailed Patriarch Gavrilo Dožić—who returned to Serbia in 1946 and remained head of the Church until 1950—as the wartime hero of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In 1946 the publication Glasnik Srpske Pavoslavne Crkve portrayed Patriarch Gavrilo as the organizer of protests that followed the coup in 1941, the champion of anti-German resistance, and a victim of Nazi persecution. The issue of the same periodical published on the occasion of the patriarch’s death in 1950 made identical claims about Dožić’s patriotic credentials. Given that Dožić and Velimirović spent much of World War II (between 1942 and 1945) in each other’s company, interned in Vojlovica Monastery, in Dachau, or with Ljotić in Slovenia, references, in a negative context, to Velimirović’s activity during World War II inevitably would have undermined Patriarch Gavrilo’s emerging credibility as a patriot. In fact, in accounts of Dožić’s life in ecclesiastical press in the 1940s and 1950s, Velimirović’s companionship during the war is hardly ever mentioned. His name is routinely omitted from accounts of the patriarch’s patriotism and incarceration by the Nazis. Thus, the narrative of the bishop’s “treachery” was formulated in a way that emphasized, as much as possible, the differences between him and Dožić, while carefully omitting the commonalities. According to Radmila Radić (2002a), one of the reasons why Tito invited the patriarch to return to Serbia in the first place, was because he anticipated that the homecoming of a Church leader with strong anti-fascist and patriotic credentials, and his reinstatement as the leader of the Church could be used to further marginalize and undermine the reactionary Serbian clergy whom Dožić left behind in the West (Radić, 2002a). The emphasis on the contrast between Velimirović and Dožić initiated at that time persisted until the 1980s. In one article published in the daily Večernje Novosti, the “traitor” Velimirović was denounced through comparison with “the illustrious figure of Patriarch Gavrilo,” claiming that the two individuals were ‘”antipodes” (P. Simić, 1986b, p. 8).

82With the passage of time, and especially after Velimirović’s death in 1956, the forceful public campaign against him in the regime-controlled media gave way to a different strategy, that of marginalization. Apart from periodical instances of public criticism which are examined below, Velimirović was by and large confined to oblivion. His contribution to theology was ignored and his work was excluded from the teaching programs at Orthodox seminaries. His legacy was kept alive surreptitiously among only a small circle of admirers on the fringes of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who were gathered around Velimirović’s former associate and disciple, the dissident monk Father Justin Popović. Velimirović’s supporters in the church, apart from Justin Popović, included four of Justin’s disciples: Atanasije Jevtić, Artemije Radosavljevic, Amfilohije Radović, and Irinej Bulović, as well as Velimirović’s nephew, Jovan Velimirović, who was bishop of Šabac and Valjevo between 1960 and 1989 (Tomanić, 2001). Also, Velimirović had considerable support among the nationalist organizations in the diaspora, both in Western Europe and the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s the Munich-based publishing companies Iskra and Svečanik, run by Velimirović’s disciples Dimitrije Najdanović and Aleksa Todorović and by the historian Đoko Slijepčević, occasionally published Velimirović’s work. Back in Serbia, however, except amongst his fan base on the margins of the Serbian Church, Velimirović was for the most part forgotten by the largely secularized Yugoslav public. Post-war generations knew little about Velimirović’s life or his religious philosophy, other than what was said about him in the sporadic attacks in the national media.

83The 1960s in Yugoslavia was a period of relative liberalization of church–state relations. In 1958 the League of Communists of Yugoslavia adopted a new program which took a more liberal stance towards the public presence of religious communities, as long as it remained under close scrutiny of the regime-controlled Socialist Alliance of Working People of Yugoslavia. Churches were given greater freedom to (re)build temples and monasteries, the number of religious publications increased (the first issue of Pravoslavlje was published in 1967), as did the number of educational institutions, such as seminaries and theological schools. The rapprochement between the Serbian Church and the state was facilitated by the election, in 1958, of the moderate Bishop German Đorić (who succeeded Velimirović as the bishop of Žiča in 1956) as the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Patriarch German, who is today often criticized within the church for his proximity to the authorities, took a pragmatic stance in his dealings with the state, realizing that public endorsement of Tito’s domestic and foreign political agenda resulted in more generous state subsidies and greater freedom for the institution which he headed (Perica, 2002; Ramet, 2002).

84By the end of the 1960s, however, secular authorities in Yugoslavia were somewhat taken aback by a number of unwelcome consequences of its more liberal stance towards religious life. Ecclesiastical establishments in Yugoslavia showed a surprising eagerness to test the boundaries of “religious freedom” and the readiness of the League of Communists to tolerate challenges to its authority (Radić, 2002a). A government report issued in 1969 stated that the desire by the state to avoid “anti-religious and anti-church campaigns” was being brought into question by the tendencies within the churches towards “nationalism and chauvinism.” Stricter boundaries needed to be set between “strictly religious and therefore legal, and political, that is illegal, activity of the churches” (cited in Perica, 2002, p. 36). In Serbia in the late 1960s and the 1970s, the Church’s “political ambitions,” which the state feared, manifested themselves most evidently in the rising concerns about the state of the Serbian population in Kosovo, in the aftermath of the nationalist mobilization among the province’s Albanian population. By 1968, the Church protested regularly at what it saw as the failure of the federal authorities to deal with the emerging crisis, while Pravoslavlje occasionally published reports of intimidation and violence against clergy and the Orthodox faithful in Kosovo. In May 1968, senior Orthodox clergy, led by Patriarch German, defied a longstanding ban on all forms of public processions of a religious nature and carried, through the streets of the capital, the relics of the medieval emperor Dušan, the founder of the first Serbian patriarchate in the Kosovo town of Peć. Emperor Dušan was hailed as “defender of Orthodox faith and our national identity,” and his body symbolized the Serbian Orthodox Church’s claim over the province of Kosovo which it saw as the spiritual cradle of the Serbian nation. The Church’s actions were quickly condemned by the authorities as a “nationalistic provocation” and a threat to the idea of “brotherhood and unity” (see Perica, 2002).

85The relations between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the state deteriorated in the aftermath of these events, although never to the point that would necessitate the reintroduction of repressive measures that marked the late 1940s and the early 1950s. This was mainly because the Serbian Orthodox Church was aware of its financial dependence on government donations, but also because, as an institution which traditionally maintained strong links with the state, opposition was not its natural stance vis-à-vis secular authorities (Radić, 2002a). Nonetheless, in the early 1970s, state authorities saw the Serbian Church as the hub of nationalist opposition, which led to a renewal of verbal attacks on what were seen as reactionary trends within the Serbian Church (Pavlowitch, 1988). Censors became increasingly attentive to the goings on in religious publications and reacted more forcefully to the slightest “nationalist provocation,” mainly through public condemnation, although on two occasions between 1971 and 1973, issues of Pravoslavlje were banned for allegedly inciting “ethnic and religious hatred” (see Perica, 2002).

86The campaign against Nikolaj Velimirović in state controlled media during this period was inherently tied up with the broader context of the strained relations between the Serbian Church and the state. Attacks on the former Bishop of Žiča tended to occur in response to attempts by the nationalist elements within the church to bring the maligned bishop back into the public domain, or violate the informal but nonetheless strict ban on the promotion his work. These “provocations,” most of which occurred around the time of the 1968 crisis, were in some sense a mark of the Church’s newly discovered assertiveness and deliberate (although arguably counterproductive) attempts to test the patience of communist censors.

87In June 1968, Pravoslavlje printed extracts from Velimirović’s controversial 1939 speech, “Whose are you, little Serbian people,” in which Serbs are referred to as “a people of Aryan race.” The publication of this speech, which was originally delivered as part of the commemorations of the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, reflected the Church’s increasing preoccupation at the time with events in the province, and its desire to popularize the battle of 1389 as a seminal event in Serbian national history. Within a matter of days, editors of the regime controlled daily Politika reacted. In the publication of the extracts from the controversial essay they saw an expression of “political ambitions of the highest circles of the Serbian Orthodox Church” who remain “prisoners of the idea of Greater Serbia” and who continue to play with the “fire of nationalism” (“Čiji si ti mali srpski narode?,” 1968, p. 7). The article in Politika went on to remind the public that the author of the controversial text was a “pre-war nationalist mystic, post-war political emigrant, and the unwavering enemy of socialist Yugoslavia,” whose writing consists of a mixture of “medieval mysticism, chauvinistic exaltation, and racist, or rather fascist, intolerance” (ibid.). Velimirović was dismissed as the sympathizer of Ljotić, a “protege of Milan Nedić,” and the propagator of the “idea of Greater Serbia among the most aggressive emigre groups in America.” In subsequent weeks, Politika published two further articles on Velimirović, in which it drew attention to the praise of Hitler in the 1935 speech and the affirmative references to the Chetnik leader Draža Mihailović, which appear in some of Velimirović’s post-war writings. His “emigre activity in the post-war period” was flagged as directed at the “unification of all reactionary refugee communities for the purpose of inciting enemy activity against Yugoslavia” (“Ipak, ton i gest šovinistički,” 1968; “Šta je u emigraciji govorio i radio Episkop Nikolaj,” 1968). Thus, once again Velimirović’s controversial biography proved a useful tool to draw the public’s attention to the Serbian Church’s inherently nationalistic and reactionary tendencies.

88In 1969, another article in Pravoslavlje, penned by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Milisav Protić, referred to Velimirović’s uncontroversial work Njegoš’s Religion as a “work of genius.” The Sunday edition of the daily Večernje Novosti promptly published an article in which Velimirović was portrayed as an advocate of “Serbian hegemonism, racism, and anti-communism,” and Pravoslavlje dismissed as a journal prone to anti-socialist and nationalist outbursts (Glišić, 1969, p. 6). Three years later, a text published in the weekly magazine NIN, which—just like the 1968 campaign in Politika—explicitly targeted what it saw as the continuing nationalistic and counterrevolutionary tendencies within the Serbian Orthodox Church, singled out Nikolaj Velimirović, the “fascist and until his dying day sworn enemy of this society,” as the embodiment of the unwelcome developments in Serbia’s largest religious institution (Miletić, 1972).

89The controversy surrounding Nikolaj Velimirović was revived in 1976, when a group of Orthodox clerics, including Nikolaj’s nephew and bishop of Šabac and Valjevo, Jovan Velimirović, organized a memorial sermon in the village of Lelić to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Velimirović’s death. This event was attended among others by Father Justin Popović, the dissident monk and disciple of Velimirović, who spent much of his post-war existence in isolation in Ćelije Monastery, near Valjevo. Ever since the early 1960s Popović had been organizing, at Ćelije, regular semi-clandestine annual commemorative services devoted to his mentor, which were attended by a clique of Velimirović’s admirers in the Church. However, the 1976 memorial, which endeavored to take this commemorative ritual out of Ćelije and into a more public domain of the village church in Lelić, provoked a critical commentary in the Sunday edition of the daily Večernje Novosti (Đonović, 1976). The main object of criticism was Justin Popović, whom the authorities regarded as a troublesome nationalist dissident. In his sermon Popović hailed Velimirović as an “apostle” and a “martyr,” dismissed the “suicidal culture of modern Europe,” and alluded to contemporary (Yugoslav) society as “sinful” and “rotten.” In the article in Večernje Novosti, the criticism of Popović’s nationalism soon turned to a denouncement of his mentor. The former bishop of Žiča was dismissed for offering his blessing to collaborators in Slovenia, an indictment which was illustrated with a photo taken in 1945, which shows Velimirović in the company of the Chetnik commander Priest Momčilo Đujić. In addition to his alleged collaborationist links, Velimirović was said also to be “propagating a fratricidal crusade against his own people, thus placing himself among the conspirators against his native land, all to the benefit of some foreign intelligence agencies” (ibid.).

90In the aftermath of Tito’s death in 1980, the ruling League of Communists of Yugoslavia feared a nationalist revival in the country, and were concerned that ecclesiastical establishments (Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim) might become the main source of nationalist opposition and therefore a threat to the ideology of “brotherhood and unity,” which formed the hub of socialist Yugoslavia’s symbolic order (see Pavlowitch, 1988). These fears were most apparent in Bosnia, because of its multiethnic and multi-confessional composition. In July 1981, Branko Mikulić, Bosnia’s representative in the Central Committee of Yugoslavia’s League of Communists, delivered a speech dismissing emerging “clerical-nationalist” tendencies within the three largest religious communities in Bosnia. When referring to the Serbian Orthodox Church, Mikulić singled out the attempts by the clergy in the diocese of Zvornik and Tuzla to recreate the Devotionalist movement, a development which he saw as nationalist and “counter-revolutionary” (“Slobodom ponosni-jedinstvom snažni,” 1981). Shortly afterwards, the Sarajevo daily Oslobođenje elaborated on the themes touched upon in Mikulić’s speech and went as far as to accuse the reformed Devotionalists of pursuing the “ideology of the war criminal, the bishop of Žiča, Nikola [sic] Velimirović,” whose “career as a war criminal offers sufficient insight into the potential effects of this new movement among the Orthodox faithful, and the aims of the clerical nationalists among them” (Jakšić, 1981, p. 3). Unsurprisingly, Velimirović emerged as the embodiment of the Orthodox Church’s emerging nationalist aspirations. Later that month, Oslobođenje featured a four-part article, entitled “Attempted abuse of Orthodoxy,” which included further critique of the former bishop of Žiča (Kozar, 1981).

91The concerns among the ruling establishment about the emergence of “clerical nationalism” within the Church were fuelled in part by the increased readiness of the representatives of the country’s ecclesiastical institutions to respond to criticism and engage in a public debate with secular authorities. In August 1981, Pravoslavlje published the article “Who benefits from a level playing field?” by the then little known Orthodox monk Atanasije Jevtić. This article was a direct response to Mikulić’s speech and the subsequent comments in Oslobođenje (Jevtić, 1981). Jevtić, who later became a principal protagonist of Velimirović’s rehabilitation and remains one of his most vocal admirers in Serbia, objected to the allusion, apparent in the criticism of his bishop’s legacy, that his wartime record was comparable to that of Alozije Stepinac, the Croatian Catholic archbishop who was closely affiliated with the leadership of the pro-Nazi Independent State of Croatia, and who was imprisoned by Tito’s government after the war. More importantly, Jevtić’s article constituted a direct challenge to the dominant and regime-enforced representation of Velimirović as a “Nazi collaborator” and sympathizer of Ljotić, and in that sense is widely regarded as the first significant step in the campaign for the reevaluation of the bishop’s legacy (Bigović, 1998).

92One significant feature of the representations of Nikolaj Velimirović in the state controlled media up until the mid-1980s is the relative absence of references to the bishop’s antisemitism. Most of the criticism between 1960 and 1985 focused on his associations with “enemies of the revolution” and the controversial speeches in 1935 and 1939 neither of which was antisemitic. The main reason behind the absence of references to antisemitism was that up until the mid-1980s, Velimirović’s notoriously anti-Jewish writings were not particularly well-known either to admirers or to critics. The controversy surrounding Velimirović’s “Story about the wolf and the lamb” seems to have been forgotten, as were antisemitic articles published before the war in church publications. The most controversial work, Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window, which as was quoted from earlier, was written during World War II and was unknown until the mid-1980s, when the bishop of Western Europe, Lavrentije Trifunović published it in Germany, as part of Velimirović’s collected works. In fact, the appearance of the first edition of Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window in 1985 in many ways transformed the argumentative context surrounding the remembrance of Nikolaj Velimirović. This previously unknown work placed antisemitism at the centre of the controversy surrounding the bishop’s legacy and credibility.

93The first criticism of the Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window, and by extension of Velimirović’s antisemitism, appeared in the Croatian magazine Danas in the article entitled “What is going on within the Serbian Orthodox Church?” (Ivanković, 1986). Shortly afterwards, another wave of attack on Velimirović appeared in the Belgrade daily Večernje Novosti (P. Simić, 1986a, 1986b, 1986c, 1986d). Criticism in the state controlled press now focused on the most controversial sections of Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window, which were quoted verbatim. The article in Danas began with the paragraph from the book in which Velimirović refers to Europe as knowing only that which “Jews serve up as knowledge.” In antisemitism, critics saw “the thread that binds together all the elements of [Velimirović’s] fascist ideology” (P. Simić, 1986a, p. 8). The stance on Jews was interpreted as a blemish on Velimirović’s legacy that reinforces the claims about his “treachery” and “pro-Nazism.” Velimirović became representative of “classic fascistoid anticommunism and antisemitism” (P. Simić, 1986a, p. 8), a “virulent antisemite,” even “the darkest individual in the history of Serbian people” (P. Simić, 1986c, p. 8). Articles in Danas and Večernje Novosti provoked a series of responses from Atanasije Jevtić on the pages of Pravoslavlje (Jevtić, 1986a, 1986b, 1986c, 1986d), marking the beginning of “memory wars” over the bishop’s reputation.

94The attacks on Velimirović in 1986 were published as part of broader drive against the “misuse of religion” for political purposes, which the authorities initiated in the mid-1980s (Pavlowitch, 1988). This move coincided with a more permissive overall stance towards religion. For instance, in the early 1980s the Serbian Orthodox Church was allowed to resume after almost 50 years the building of the large Cathedral of St Sava in central Belgrade and erect a new building for the Theological Faculty in Belgrade (Ramet, 2002). However, the efforts of the authorities to strike the balance between on the one hand the affirmative stance towards religion beliefs and legitimate spiritual needs of the faithful, and on the other hand the critique of the political endeavors of the nationalist clergy, proved increasingly difficult. Just like in the late 1960s, the gradual worsening of the ethnic relations in Kosovo meant that the resurgent Serbian Orthodox Church came forward as the principal articulator of “nationalist interests,” and became the hub of nationalist opposition. This time around, however, the overall context was different. The iron curtain was hanging by a thread and the ruling elite’s grip on power was gradually loosening. What is more, ethnic divisions within the Yugoslav federation were beginning to show, and the state built on the principles of “brotherhood and unity” was clearly tearing at the seams. Nationalist revival in Serbia seemed unstoppable, and the nationalists in the Church were eager to ensure that it was given a pronounced “Orthodox” dimension. This naturally called for the return, into the public domain, of the high priest of Serbian religious nationalism, the “Serbian apostle” Nikolaj Velimirović. As Archimandrite Jovan Radosavljević explained in a book first published in 1991, Velimirović was never just a notable theologian. He was also “the spiritual and national leader, and the true father of his nation” (J. Radosavljević, 2003, p. 116).

95The start of the campaign for Velimirović’s rehabilitation coincided therefore not only with the nationalist revival in Serbia, but also with the publication of the Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window, which propelled antisemitism into the centre of the debate surrounding his life’s work. For this reason, bringing Velimirović into the public domain required for this controversy to be addressed and his moral accountability managed. The dynamics of remembering and forgetting through which this was accomplished are the main topic of subsequent chapters.

Apotheosis and widespread admiration: Velimirović’s status today

96The condemnations of Velimirović in the mainstream press during the Tito era, and his marginal status in Serbian society after World War II, stand in stark contrast to the bishop’s reputation in present-day Serbian society. Today, Velimirović is widely regarded as the most respected Serbian religious figure since the medieval Serbian St Sava. In religious circles, Velimirović is routinely compared, in terms of importance, to St John the Baptist and St John Chrysostom. Reference to Nikolaj as “the thirteenth apostle, the fifth evangelist, doubtlessly the greatest Serb since St Sava,” attributed to his disciple Father Justin Popović, is routinely quoted and repeated in church literature. Bishop Amfilohije Radović recently referred to Velimirović as a “prophet and missionary of the rarest kind” (cited in Kuburović, 2003, p. 21). Bishop of Šabac and Valjevo, Lavrentije Trifunović, called him “the greatest Serbian son, cleric, and thinker after St Sava” whose work is a “spiritual skyscraper, a mountain of natural wealth yet to be discovered and explored” (Trifunović, 2002, p. vii).

97Significantly, Velimirović’s popularity in Serbia today extends beyond the circles of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Multiple editions of Velimirović’s books, including the controversial titles, such as Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window or the essay “Nationalism of St Sava,” are widely available in Serbia’s bookshops. Deacon Ljubomir Ranković, editor of Glas Crkve, a publishing house which has been publishing Velimirović’s work since the early 1990s (and which today is only one of many publishers that have titles by Velimirović in their catalogue) claims to have sold over a million copies of his books over the years. Although this figure is likely to be an exaggeration, Velimirović is without a doubt the bestselling Serbian author of the past two decades. Velimirović’s influence has even penetrated the traditionally cosmopolitan and progressive elements of Serbian culture, such as rock ‘n’ roll music. In 2001 the compilation album containing rock ‘n’ roll renditions of Velimirović’s religious poetry, performed by some of Serbia’s leading rock bands, was released by a state-owned record company, in collaboration with the Serbian Orthodox Church (Pesme Iznad Istoka i Zapada, PGP-RTS, 2001)

98The regard for Velimirović extends also to members of the Serbian political establishment. In 2001, Vladan Batić who was at that time Serbia’s Justice Minister and leader of the Christian Democratic Party of Serbia, asserted that Bishop Nikolaj was an indisputable moral and intellectual authority for Orthodox Serbs. His party’s website included whole sections devoted to Velimirović’s work. In the election campaign of 2000, material distributed even by the pro-western, liberal political party G17+ included an affirmative reference to “Bishop Nikolaj” (“Znaci zla kao simboli vremena,” 2002). In January 2003 a favorable stance towards Velimirović was expressed on a popular television chat show by the historian Dušan Bataković, advisor to the current Serbian president Boris Tadić and member of the Serbian delegation at the negotiations on the future status of Kosovo (“Utisak Nedelje,” Studio B, January 5, 2003). More importantly, in an open letter to the symposium on Velimirović held at Žiča Monastery in April 2003, the leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia and current Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica referred to Velimirović as “our guide,” “who is and forever will be among us,” and cited the bishop’s “real patriotism” as a suitable blueprint for the emerging post-Milošević version of Serbian nationalism (cited in Jevtić, 2003, pp. 321–322; see also “Rodoljublje nije mržnja,” 2003, p. 3). During the election campaign in December 2003, speeches delivered by Koštunica at public rallies held throughout Serbia were interspersed with quotes from Velimirović’s writings. Koštunica’s admiration of Velimirović appears to be shared by Vojislav Šešelj, leader of the nationalist Radical Party and an indicted war criminal currently on trial in The Hague. In August 2003, Šešelj’s wife, Jadranka, told the tabloid Kurir that her husband spends his prison days acquainting himself with the Statute of the Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and reading the collected works of Nikolaj Velimirović (“Šešelju prija Hag,” 2003).

99The widespread endorsement of Nikolaj Velimirović among the political elite is seldom counterbalanced by critical voices from among the liberal circles of the country’s political establishment. It is as if there is widespread recognition among political parties in Serbia that criticizing Velimirović is politically damaging, in that it alienates the Serbian Church, an organization that stands firmly among the top three most influential institutions in the country. Criticisms of Velimirović are thus confined to the liberal media (Danas, Vreme, Republika, Radio B-92), a relatively small circle of Serbian liberal intelligentsia (Nebojša Popov, Mirko Đorđević, Radmila Radić, Olivera Milosavljević, Filip David, and Ivan Čolović), representatives of the Jewish community (Aca Singer and Aleksandar Lebl) and a number of civil rights organizations, the most outspoken being the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.

100In the 1990s, Velimirović’s writing had also captured the imagination of representatives of another influential mainstream institution in Serbian society, namely the military (see Byford, 2002; HCHRS, 2003a). This popularity reached a climax at the time of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, when Velimirović’s work became regarded by the ideologues of the Serbian Armed Forces as the bible of antiwesternism and nationalist self-aggrandizement (see Byford 2006). At the time, Velimirović’s remembrance became a symbolic space, where different anti-western political options in Serbia, including those espoused by the Army and the Church, could converge. In the autumn of 1999, Serbia’s main military journal, Vojno Delo, published the article “Philosophical thought of Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović on war and Europe,” in which Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window was introduced as the bishop’s “most important work on Europe.” Velimirović’s dictum that the Soviet Union is “Kyke Russia,” which appears in his work Serbian People as a Theodule (2003), was cited without any critical reflection (M. Milošević, 1999, pp. 180–183). The influence of Velimirović’s writing within the Army continued even after the fall of Milošević. In 2001, at the time when Serbia’s new government sought to repair its ties with the West, Vojno-izdavački zavod, the Serbian military’s official publishing house, published two books written or edited by officers of the Army’s Morale and Propaganda Corps—Army and Faith (Grozdić and Marković, 2001) and Orthodoxy and War (Grozdić, 2001)—in which Velimirović’s writings on the dangers posed by the west’s continued “spiritual imperialism” are the most frequently cited works. The overtly anti-western collection of essays, Army and Faith, even contains contributions from several controversial right-wing antisemites, including Nebojša Krstić, a controversial young theologian and founder of the right-wing, nationalist, and antisemitic organization Obraz (see Byford, 2002) and the discredited priest Žarko Gavrilović. In 2001, the army magazine Vojska, which was distributed freely to all military personnel, published a series of articles on Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović, in which the readers were presented with a favorable interpretation of the bishop’s views on the army, war and the west. These articles, which were part of a campaign aimed at the “spiritual revival” of the armed forces, were written by the aforementioned Nebojša Krstić (“Sveti Vladika Nikolaj Velimirović,” February 15, 2001 – March 22, 2001). Furthermore, in March 2002, one of the central commemorative events marking the third anniversary of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was the unveiling of a statue of Nikolaj Velimirović at Soko Monastery, near the town of Šabac. Serbian Patriarch Pavle and the then head of the Yugoslav Army, General Nebojša Pavković, were the highest dignitaries present at the event. The mnemonic link between the remembrance of Nikolaj Velimirović and that of the NATO bombing, which was established on this occasion, confirmed the bishop’s continuing status in Serbian nationalist rhetoric as the symbol of anti-westernism. Even today, when the Serbian army is preparing to join NATO, and when anti-westernist rhetoric is gradually being banished from military publications, Velimirović remains a relevant authority for the Army. In 2006, the new military magazine Odbrana (Defence), which replaced Vojska in 2005 as part of the drive to modernize all aspects of the military and give the Serbian armed forces a more liberal and progressive public image, carried an affirmative portrait of Velimirović. In the article bearing the indicative title “The blameless martyr,” the magazine commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Velimirović’s death, without reflecting on any of the controversies surrounding his writing. What is more, it informed the reader that the “author of probably the prettiest verses in the history of religious poetry,” the “successful preacher, philosopher, and prophet” also “rose up against westernism and western intelligentsia” (K. Milošević, 2006, p. 75).

101Velimirović’s popularity in Serbia reached its climax in May 2003, when the Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church voted unanimously to canonize him, and include his name as the seventy-seventh entry in the roll call of Serbian national saints (see Chapter 6). Velimirović became entrenched in the Orthodox ceremonial, with prayers and hymns being written in his celebration. Icons with Velimirović’s image have become a regular sight in churches, in the homes of the faithful, or even in taxis, where they are sometimes prominently displayed on the dashboard. The canonization has also sparked a noticeable merchandising industry: key rings, postcards, credit-card size laminated icons, and other memorabilia can now be bought in shops owned by the Church cooperative. In recent years, the Church has invested considerable funds, mainly obtained from private and corporate donations, on modernizing various shrines devoted to Velimirović. A chapel with an adjacent museum dedicated to Velimirović has been restored in his native village of Lelić. Soko Monastery, which houses the bishop’s statue, also includes a large commemorative complex including several churches, large living quarters for up to 150 pilgrims, a library, a car park, and a spacious garden containing a mill and two fountains with water from a nearby mountain spring. On the grounds of the monastery, one can also find a gold-plated cross twelve meters in height. The route that leads from the monastery to this unusual shrine is lined with ten chapels, each devoted to one of the Ten Commandments. Finally, in the centre of the town of Kraljevo is the Orthodox Spiritual Centre Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović. The centre is located in the house where Velimirović resided while bishop of Žiča in the 1930s. It includes a room that has been converted into a chapel, dedicated to the “Holy Bishop Nikolaj.” Kept at the chapel is a piece of Velimirović’s holy remains: a finger, said to be from his right hand. This unusual relic is located behind the altar, in a small wooden box lined with cotton wool, and is worshipped by visitors to this institution.

102It is difficult to determine the extent to which the proliferation of memorial artifacts and monuments devoted to Nikolaj Velimirović in recent years, and especially since his canonization, is the cause or the consequence of the bishop’s wider popularity. Either way, there is no doubt that the Serbian Orthodox Church is determined to preserve the memory of the bishop as a holy man and Serbia’s most important religious figure since the medieval St Sava. This determination is not surprising, given that Velimirović owes his current status to the success of almost twenty years of commemorative work by the Serbian Church that brought to an end forty years of marginalization and deprecation. The chapters that follow will endeavor to examine the ideological and discursive dynamic of remembering and forgetting that made the rehabilitation possible. In doing so, they will attempt to chart the posthumous passage of Nikolaj Velimirović from “traitor” to “Saint.”

© Central European University Press, 2008

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