Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, the highest Catholic authority in Belgium, had to leave the country in the midst of a German invasion to attend the funeral of Pope Pius X and the election of Benedict XV. Upon his return via neutral Holland, Mercier immediately began to condemn German atrocities in Belgian towns and villages, call attention to the victims of German deportation, and shine a light on the deliberate and unprovoked burning of Louvain.
Mercier is arrested today by German occupation authorities for encouraging resistance in his Pastoral Letter to the People of Belgium. The story does not break until the 7th, when the Times frames the story as a potential violation of papal neutrality, thus underlining the British government’s casus belli in Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality. The Vatican is unable to officially confirm the story, or the report that numerous priests have been arrested for reading Mercier’s Pastoral Letter to their congregations. The Germans hotly deny the entire story.
In February, former United States Congressman Charles F. Scott of Kansas, who is in Belgium supervising relief work, meets with Mercier and conveys some explanation to the world. “It is true no manacles were used to restrain me, but I was to have performed a service at Antwerp and was not permitted to go there. For three days I was restrained in my palace,” Mercier says. Speaking for himself, Scott adds: “The Cardinal obviously enjoys the dilemma in which he has placed the Germans.”
Indeed, Mercier has found a rhetorical sweet-spot. Calling on the Belgians to regard patriotism as a Christian duty, Mercier’s Pastoral Letter begins with a lengthy, glowing invocation of the sacrifices made by the nation’s dogged defenders.
My dearest Brethren, I desire to utter, in your name and my own, the gratitude of those whose age, vocation, and social conditions cause them to benefit by the heroism of others, without bearing it in any active part.
When, immediately on my return from Rome, I went to Havre to greet our Belgian, French, and English wounded; when, later, at Malines, at Louvain, at Antwerp, it was given to me to take the hands of those brave men who carried a bullet in their flesh, a wound on their forehead, because they had arched to the attack of the enemy, or borne the shock of his onslaught, it was a word of gratitude to them that rose to my lips. “O Valiant friends,” I said, “it was for me, that you risked your lives and are now in pain. I am moved to tell you of my respect, of my thankfulness, to assure you that the whole nation knows how much she is in debt to you.”
For in truth our soldiers are our saviors.
[…] The foremost duty of of every Belgian citizen at this hour is gratitude to the army.
If any man had rescued you from a shipwreck or from a fire, you would assuredly hold yourselves bound to him by a debt of everlasting thankfulness. But it is not one man, it is two hundred and fifty thousand men who fought, who suffered, who fell for you so that you might be free, so that Belgium might keep her independence, her dynasty, her patriotic unity; so that after the vicissitudes of battle, she might rise nobler, purer, more erect, and more glorious than before.
Pray daily, by Brethren, for these two hundred and fifty thousand, and for their leaders to victory; pray for our brothers in arms; pray for the fallen; pray for those who are still engaged; pray for the recruits who are making ready for the fight to come.
Cleverly, Mercier’s Pastoral Letter extends this definition of Christian duty to every soldier who serves honorably in any army, even the occupying one. There is no anger or jingoism in his words. Rather than try to spark a protest or uprising, Mercier offers a model of nonviolent resistance in which victory is a state of mind. Instead of fighting the oppressor, Catholic Belgians are commanded to obey him — but only as an impermanent presence. They owe their oppressor nothing.
I do not require of you to renounce any of your national desires. On the contrary, I hold it as part of the obligations of my episcopal office to instruct you as to your duty in face of the Power that has invaded our soil and now occupies the greater part of our country. The authority of that Power is no lawful authority. Therefore in soul and conscience you owe it neither respect, nor attachment, nor obedience.
The sole lawful authority in Belgium is that of our King, of our Government, of the elected representatives of the nation. This authority alone has a right to our affection, our submission.
Thus, the invader’s acts of public administration have in themselves no authority, but legitimate authority has tacitly ratified such of those acts as affect the general interest, and this ratification, and this only, gives them juridic value.
Occupied provinces are not conquered provinces. Belgium is no more a German province than Galicia is a Russian province. Nevertheless the occupied portion of of our country is in a position it is compelled to endure. The greater part of our towns, having surrendered to the enemy on conditions, are bound to observe these conditions. From the outset of military operations the civil authorities of the country urged upon all private persons the necessity of abstention from hostile acts against the enemy’s army. That instruction remains in force. It is our army, and our army solely, in league with the valiant troops of our Allies, that has the honor and the duty of national defense. Let us entrust the army with our final deliverance.
In truth, German objections to Mercier’s Letter have little to do with fear of an uprising. The political right is ascendant in Potsdam, and as a result of their influence the Kaiser’s government has already decided to keep some or all of Belgium forever as a new part of Germany. And why not? In Galicia, Grand Duke Nicholas has prioritized the Russification of a conquered Hapsburg province over the provision of guns and ammunition to his army. Britain, France, and Japan have already begun to swallow conquered German colonies. In their own eyes, Germany is behaving no worse than any of the allies, and it is affecting policy in the occupied territory.
Yet because the Kaiser has refused responsibility for feeding Belgians, Mercier is correct that they owe their oppressor nothing. Thus he has indeed placed the German emperor in quite a public relations dilemma. The message has already been heard by the Belgian people, who then took home thousands of copies. Thanks to a ham-handed house arrest, a worldwide audience soon reads Mercier’s epistle, deepening the Kaiser’s public relations crisis.
Meanwhile, the allies seem to be advancing. The world is also hearing of a Turkish army’s destruction in the Caucasus, Russian raids into Hungary, German setbacks in Poland, and a slow advance along the Western Front. There is a general air of optimism, and the big money has bet that Germany and Austria cannot win the war. So the new year begins with an air of optimism and deceptive sensation of progress, for the worst acts of war have yet to begin, while the Central Powers are yet strong, and will not submit to the imbalance of the British blockade.
Today, Sir Edward Grey sends a cable to Petrograd reassuring the Tsar’s government of His Majesty’s intentions to attack Turkey in the new year. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill telegrams Vice-Admiral Sackville Carden to inquire on the feasibility of forcing the Dardanelles Strait by naval power alone. Carden’s reply is that a large force will be needed to sustain a long campaign of blood and tears.