World War I and the Papacy

One hundred years ago this week, Christian Europe commenced the horrific Great War that spread globally, raged from August 1914 to November 1918, and was responsible for the death of more than 15-million soldiers and civilians.

In The World Crisis, Winston Churchill’s six-volume account of the struggle, he observed that the warriors employed “Every outrage against humanity or international law.” And when it was over, “torture and cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian states had been able to deny themselves: they were of doubtful utility.”

The conflict’s catalyst? On June 28, 1914, the Roman Catholic heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, Archduke Ferdinand and his morganatic wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were gunned down in Sarajevo, Bosnia, by a Serbian terrorist, Gavrilo Princip.  The Serbian nationalist assassin, committed to liberating his Slavic people from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, believed his crime would strike a blow for freedom.

During the next month, as historian Christopher Clark puts it, European rulers “who prided themselves on their modernity and rationalism, stumbled through crisis after crisis and finally convinced themselves that war was the only answer.”

While some monarchs pleaded for peace, war plans designed years earlier were dusted off, ultimatums were delivered, and general mobilizations of armed forces commenced.

On August 3, 1914, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium.  Britain, committed to Belgium neutrality, declared war on Germany the next day.  By month’s end, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey found themselves at war with Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Serbia, and Montenegro.

One person not surprised by the events of August 1914, was the Vicar of Christ, Pope Pius X.  As early as 1912, the pontiff, distraught by European saber-rattling, told his secretary of state, Cardinal Merry del Val, “Le cose vanno male, viene il guerrone.” (“Things are going badly, the Great War is approaching.”)

In an audience with a Brazilian minister in May 1913, Pius said, “You are fortunate, sir, to be going back to your home in Brazil, you will not witness the world-wide war.”

In July 1914, Pius sent a letter to Emperor Franz Joseph pleading that he find a peaceful answer to the Serbian crisis.  When the Austrian ambassador asked the pope to bless the arms of his country, he replied:  “I do not bless arms but peace.”

      St. Pius X

Fearful war was eminent; On August 2, 1914, Pius issued, “A call to the Catholics of the whole world.”  In it, he said, “Now that almost the whole of Europe is being swept along in the maelstrom of this frightful war whose dangers, destruction and consequences nobody can contemplate without being stricken with grief and horror, We too are full of anxiety and sorrow. . . .We realize quite well what these distressful times the love of a father and the apostolic mission of the pope demand of Us.  We must lead the souls of all people to Him from Whom alone relief can be expected, to Christ, the Prince of peace, the powerful mediator between God and Man.”

The Holy Father called on Catholics, “to implore God that he may have mercy on His people by putting a speedy end to this catastrophe and by inspiring the leaders of the peoples to peaceful thoughts and actions.”

Afterwards, Pius went into seclusion and spent his time in continuous prayer.  As the guns of August began firing, he was heard saying “How glad I would have been to offer my miserable life to God, if thereby I could have prevented the slaughter of so many of my young sons.”

On August 20, at 1:15 p.m., Pope Pius died. Cardinal Merry del Val, who believed the pope died of grief, said that his death fulfilled a prophecy Pius made a year earlier at the Shrine of our Lady of Lourdes in the Vatican Gardens:  “I pity my successor.  I shall not see it, but it is only too true that the Religio depopulate [religion laid waste] is at hand.”

Giacomo della Chiesa, only named a cardinal in Pius X’s last consistory on May 25, 1914, was elected pontiff on September 3, 1914 and took the name Benedict XV.  In his first statement to the faithful, he declared he was “stricken with inexpressible horror and anguish before the monstrous spectacle of this war with its streams of Christian blood.”

Calling the war “horrible butchery,” he informed the belligerents that “The pope is not neutral, he is impartial.”  When attacked by opposing Catholic countries for not supporting their causes, he replied:  “We reprove all violations of rights, wherever committed, but to involve the papal authority in the disputes of belligerents would be neither useful nor appropriate.”

Although impartial, Benedict was not a spectator. While his plea for a Christmas truce in 1914 was ignored, his proposals for exchanging wounded prisoners of war and interned civilians – particularly women and children – were  enacted.  He created a Vatican office that worked with the International Red Cross; procured agreements that permitted religious services in POW camps and inspections by apostolic visitors.  He also contributed 82 million gold liras to support war-related relief programs.

Seeking a “stable and equitable” peace through negotiations, Benedict issued in July 1915, a plan that included planks calling for the creation of a free Poland, freedom of the Dardanelles Strait, and the establishment of an international body that would require nations to arbitrate their differences.  President Wilson would later incorporate several of the pope’s suggestions into his Fourteen Points.

The First World War was the most devastating war in the history of mankind until the Second World War.  Millions were killed or wounded in campaigns that gained, at best, a few miles of mud in No Man’s Land.

At the Battle of Verdun (February-December 1916) there were 750,000 French and German casualties.  On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the British suffered 60,000 casualties – the worst in their history.  By the end of the campaign in December 1916, wounded and dead on all sides totaled 1.1 million.  At Passchendaele, there were 244,000 British and 400,000 German casualties between July and November 1917.

              Benedict XV

Overall, 60 million troops were mobilized and when the armistice took effect on November 11, 1918, dead soldiers totaled 10 million.  The British Empire lost 1.1 million; France 1.4 million; Germany 2 million; Austria-Hungary 1.1 million; Italy 700,000; Russia 1.8 million; and the United States 114,000.  Another 21 million were wounded.

Three Christian monarchs fell: the Lutheran Kaiser Wilhelm, the Orthodox Czar Nicholas, and the Roman Catholic Emperor Charles of Austria.

Although the Church had had an official presence at the 1814 Congress of Vienna Peace Conference after the defeat of Napoleon, when the victors met at Versailles in 1919 to negotiate the peace, the Holy See was excluded.  Italy, fearing discussions of the Rome-Vatican problem, insisted the Church not be involved.

In retrospect, the pope’s exclusion from the discussion was good.  The Church had no part in the underhanded agreements that planted the seeds for the rise of Fascism and Nazism, the spread of Communism, the Great Depression, the present crisis in the Middle East, and the Second World War.

Benedict was mindful that some of the Versailles Conference agreements were seriously flawed.  In his 1920 Encyclical, Pacem Dei Munus, he remarked, “Though treaties of peace have been signed, the germ of ancient discords has not been destroyed.”

Two aspects of the treaty did please the Holy Father.  The first was the creation of an independent Catholic Poland.  The future Pius XI, Archbishop Achille Ratti, was named the first papal nuncio to the new nation.  The other was the League of Nations. Benedict publicly blessed the organization and he permitted the Catholic Union of International Studies to establish permanent relations with it.

Although the Vatican was not invited to be a member of the League, the Holy See was consulted on matters including the role of religious missions in newly established third-world territories.  Benedict also urged the League to call for an end of slavery in Africa and Muslim countries and to send aid to people in Russia suffering from famine.

After Pope Benedict XV died in January 1922, Joseph Motta, President of the Swiss Confederation, told an assembly of League of Nation delegates, “If mankind manages one day to get rid of war – and that day is perhaps as yet far distant – it will owe that priceless achievement to the principle of arbitration as proposed by Benedict XV.”

Throughout the First World War, Pope Benedict was the lone voice calling for a cessation of hostilities.  And eighty-five years later when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took the name of Benedict XVI, he rightfully referred to his predecessor of that name “the courageous prophet of peace.”

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.