Some of our readers may know of this episode, but I have to confess I had never heard of it. During World War I, a cardinal in Belgium, Désiré Mercier, became the face of Belgian national resistance to the German occupation. Apparently, Mercier was quite famous at the time; his autobiography was a best-seller in the United States. I find this episode interesting for three reasons. First, one can hardly imagine Belgian nationalism nowadays; the country is beset by centrifugal tensions that threaten to tear it apart. Second, it is somewhat unusual today to think of a Catholic cardinal as principally a nationalist leader, though of course there are exceptions. Finally, and most intriguingly, how could this man, so important a figure on the world stage in his own time, be so completely forgotten only 100 years later?
A new book from Cornell University Press addresses Cardinal Mercier and his role during World War I: Cardinal Mercier in the First World War: Belgium, Germany and the Catholic Church. The author is KU-Leuven historian Jan De Volder. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:
Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, Archbishop of Malines, was the incarnation of the Belgian resistance against the German occupation during the First World War. With his famous pastoral letter of Christmas 1914 ‘Patriotisme et Endurance’ he reached a wide audience, and gained international influence and respect.
Mercier’s distinct patriotic stance clearly determined his views of national politics, especially of the ‘Flemish question’, and his conflict with the German occupier made him a hero of the Allies. The Germans did not always know how to handle this influential man of the Church. Pope Benedict XV did not always approve of the course of action adopted by the Belgian prelate. Whereas Mercier justified the war effort as a just cause in view of the restoration of Belgium’s independence, the Pope feared that “this useless massacre” meant nothing but the “suicide of civilized Europe”.
Through a critical analysis of the policies of Cardinal Mercier and Pope Benedict XV, this book sheds revealing light on the contrasting positions of Church leaders in the face of the Great War.