Cardinal Mercier in the First World War

Belgium, Germany and the Catholic Church

Jan De Volder

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Church leaders and their contrasting opinions in the face of the Great War

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.

This publication is GPRC-labeled (Guaranteed Peer-Reviewed Content).


Belgium and the German Invasion of 1914 
Belgium, a laboratory for Catholics in a liberal democracy 
Catholic Party between conservatives and social Catholicism 
Cardinal Mercier, Belgium’s primate 
The German invasion 
A Protestant-Catholic Holy War? 
The 1914 conclave 
Pope Benedict XV and the Belgian dilemma 

Mercier’s Pastoral Letter “Patriotism and Endurance”
Cardinal Mercier and the fall of Antwerp 
The Cardinal’s choice is maturing 
Patriotism and Endurance 
Alternatives were possible 

In Conflict with the Occupier 
The German reaction 
Meanwhile in the Vatican 
The nation’s hero 

Mercier and Benedict XV 
A new crisis 
Banishment to Rome? 
Letter to the bishops of Germany and Austria 
Meeting with the pope 
Triumph in Rome 
Arm wrestling about the return 
“At our return from Rome” 

Arrests, Deportations, and State Looting 
Arrests and executions 
Dismantling of a nation 
Resistance against the deportations 
Towards a public papal condemnation? 
Vatican pressure 

The Flemish Question 
A Flemish university in Ghent 
The Belgian administration split
Roman questions regarding Mercier’s stance
Roman Realpolitik 

Holy War or Holy Peace 
A just war? 
First search for a negotiated solution 
Towards a compromise peace in 1916? 
Pope Benedict’s peace proposal 
“The bitterest hour of our life” 
The end of the war 

The Allies’ Hero of a Diminished Belgium 
Towards a solution for the Roman question? 
Belgium after the armistice 
Triumphal tour of the United States and Canada 


Annex: Patriotism and Endurance – Christmas 1914 
Index of Persons 

Format: Monograph - ebook

Size: 230 × 170 mm

264 pages

ISBN: 9789461662729

Publication: October 24, 2018

Series: KADOC-Studies on Religion, Culture and Society 23

Languages: English

Jan De Volder is a Belgian historian. Currently, he occupies the Cusanus Chair ‘Religion, Conflict and Peace’ of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Louvain (KU Leuven). He has a special interest in church and religion during World Wars I and II.
Historicus Jan De Volder publiceerde een geactualiseerde versie van zijn studie over de rol van kardinaal Désiré-Joseph Mercier (1851-1926) in de Eerste Wereldoorlog. Het boek vervolledigt ons beeld van een nu wat vergeten, destijds wereldberoemde kerkvorst, op de grens tussen politiek en religie, tussen oorlog en vrede.
Ludo Meyvis, Campuskrant, 21 november 2018