In 1920, one of America’s best-selling books was Cardinal Mercier’s Own Story. The title needed no further explanation, as the Cardinal was, in his day, one of the world’s most famous individuals, and the best-known Catholic cleric. His War Utterances had appeared in print in 1917, and several other biographies appeared in English alone. As a symbol of indomitable freedom, his reputation was comparable to that of Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama in later years.
It is astonishing, then, that he has dropped so entirely from American memory, and specifically from the popular Catholic mind. If the Church ever chose a patron saint for human rights, then Désiré Mercier would be an obvious candidate.
Post-First World War politics go a long way to understanding the later neglect of Cardinal Mercier. In his time, he was celebrated for his courageous protests against the monstrous crimes and barbarities that the German occupiers visited upon his homeland of Belgium. For many years after the war, though, elite public opinion in the West became very cynical about the claims made about such atrocities, dismissing the so-called “Rape of Belgium” as meaningless propaganda.
Without those bogus atrocities, why should anyone care about Mercier?
The problem was that the wartime claims had a very solid core of truth. Contrary to later attempts at debunking, German behavior in Belgium really had been abominable, and actually looked much like later Nazi savagery. At the height of their invasion in August and September of 1914, German forces slaughtered six thousand civilians in Belgium and northern France, most (falsely) on the suspicion of being snipers or saboteurs. The German army earned worldwide condemnation by sacking the historic Catholic city of Louvain. They torched the library and its collection of rare books and manuscripts, as soldiers carried out random mass shootings.
During their occupation, the Germans treated Belgians as serfs. In 1916, they deported seven hundred thousand civilians to work in their farms and factories, transporting many in cattle trucks. Much like Poland in 1940, Belgium looked like a country destined to be removed from the map. Foreshadowing other later tyrannies, the Germans built a lethal electric fence along the Dutch border, an early prototype of the Berlin Wall. This Wire of Death killed some thousands of Belgians who attempted to escape.
Belgian national survival depended on the heroic Désiré Mercier, Archbishop of Mechelen and (since 1906) a Cardinal. At Christmas 1914, he issued a Pastoral Letter detailing the horrors of the German onslaught and calling for resistance, patriotism, and endurance. Remarkably, given the circumstances, he made no concessions whatever to German censors, no euphemisms or circumlocutions. As the mails were tightly controlled, copies of the letter were circulated by hand, and given to priests to be read in their churches. Many of those priests suffered imprisonment, while Mercier himself was placed under house arrest.
Mercier again resisted the Germans during the deportation crisis of 1916. He forced the Germans to declare that they would enforce no such policy, and when they broke their word, he used the church’s unofficial intelligence system to publicize how the campaign was working. He then led the bishops in a stark condemnation of “European slavery.” He concluded one appeal, “May human conscience triumph over all sophisms and remain steadfastly faithful to the great precept of St. Ambrose: Honor above everything! Nihil praeferendum honestati!” Smuggled out of the country, Mercier’s appeals became famous worldwide, and inspired sympathetic mass rallies and demonstrations, including in the then-neutral United States.
Brilliantly, given German propaganda claims about their superior Kultur, Mercier presented the Belgian cause as that of civilization, in the face of German barbarism. He urged imperial German authorities to pay attention to “the reprobation of the civilized world, of the judgment of history, and of the chastisement of God.” Germany, we note, is not included in the civilized world. A 1917 French book collected the statements of “Cardinal Mercier Against the Barbarians.”
In assessing Mercier’s work, we have to avoid the curse of hindsight, which tells us that Belgium’s ordeal would end quite rapidly with German collapse in 1918. The Cardinal, we now know, only had to hold on for a limited time before help arrived. That point, though, was certainly not evident in 1916. At that dark moment, German victory seemed probable, and with it, the absorption of an ethnically cleansed Belgium into an expanded Reich. If his ecclesiastical status gave him some immunity against the random murder that befell many of his priests, Mercier faced the likelihood that he would die in a German camp or prison. He wrote and spoke in the constant knowledge that he was courting martyrdom.
Ironically, it was a German occupier who offered the best summary of his role. As defeated German forces prepared to withdraw from Belgium in 1918, an imperial representative addressed him as “the incarnation of Occupied Belgium, and her venerated Pastor, to whom she hearkens."
It would be good to think that the evils against which Mercier struggled are no longer relevant in the modern world. Of course, they still are, which is why now, more than ever, we need to celebrate his name and his example.
Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.