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028 Désiré-Joseph Mercier and the burned incunables

Désiré-Joseph Mercier

Désiré-Joseph Mercier

Belgians suffer during the occupation

It is Sunday 3 January 1915. It is the 28th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The British draw up plans to start the attack on Constantinople via the Gallipoli peninsula in order to relieve the Russians.

The Third Army of the Turks perishes on the freezing cold front of the Caucasus.

The Russians approach the Hungarian border via the river Bukovina.

Ada Ciganlija, an island in the river Sava off Belgrade, is occupied by Austrian troops.

The French show modest successes in the Argonne and the Alsace.

The Germans repay a French attack by shelling the northern French town of Soissons with its medieval cathedral.

Lord Kitchener explains the military situation in the House of Lords.

Kaiser Wilhelm II agrees to an air raid of England on the condition that only military targets will be bombed.

The South African government announces the imprisonment of the last rebels in the Transvaal.

And the Belgian parishioners are incited to ‘patriotism and endurance’ by cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier.

The hero of the resistance in occupied Belgium was a cardinal with the splendid name Désiré-Joseph Mercier. Today the prelate lies as a recumbent effigy in stone on his tomb in the cathedral of Mechelen or Malines. On a poster from 1916 Monsignor  Mercier is still standing straight in best bib and tucker. Mercier is bound to have enjoyed this propaganda print. He assumed his role as fearless patron with fervour throughout the war.

Behind Mercier on the poster we can see the Belgians suffer. They are drawn grey and ashen. But the cardinal, clad in bright red garments, stands firmly before them. He stares ahead with a surly expression on his face. The message to those who caused all this suffering is clear. ‘Enough!’, the cardinal orders. His right hand reaches out to the poor Belgians. With his left hand Mercier clutches the bishop’s crosier as if it were a Lee Enfield. The caption on the poster reads: ‘Cardinal Mercier protects Belgium’. Well, in French of course: ‘Le cardinal Mercier protège la Belgique’.

His fame spread worldwide. Brave little Belgium had a pastor who had the guts to defy German rule. In the first week of the year 1915 the Belgian parishioners take note of a pastoral letter of their cardinal. It is entitled ‘Patriotism and Endurance’. In this letter he lashes out against the devastations the German troops have caused and against the execution of innocent citizens.

To the Belgians it is very important now to persevere in patriotism, which is a Christian virtue according to Thomas Aquinas. As a neo-Thomist cardinal Mercier takes this church father as the subject of a study which he produces in the years before the war. This makes Mercier such a prominent man that some tip him as the new pope. A few weeks after the outbreak of the war Mercier also has to make the journey to Rome to choose together with his colleagues a successor for the deceased Pope Pius X. He travels via London, where Belgian refugees cheer him passionately. It comes as no surprise, however, that in Rome the Holy See goes to another Italian.

What should the new pope, Benedict XV, do with his rebellious cardinal in Mechelen? It is of the utmost importance to the Vatican to maintain a neutral position between the warring parties. In this noble ambition there is no place for a prelate who is doing politics. German cardinal Felix von Hartmann shares this opinion. In quite a roundabout way he urges the Roman Curia to make Mercier keep a low profile.

To the annoyance of the German authorities Benedict XV prefers to pass the buck. He does not silence Mercier. In Rome, January 1916, the two have spoken with each other for over an hour. No doubt Mercier has tried to convince the Holy Father of the need to speak against the German evil. Benedict will certainly have warned the cardinal not to bring things to a head. But neither is going to change course essentially.

In his study ‘Cardinal Mercier and the Flemish Movement’ Robrecht Boudens writes: ‘Mercier has always suspected the pope of having German sympathies. What Benedict XV saw as a duty to neutrality, Mercier considered a lack of courage to advocate a just cause in a fearless manner.’

Mercier remains the necessary irritant to the Germans. How could this man ever have forgiven the Germans for the barbarism with which they had showered his Leuven, Louvain, at the end of August 1914? More than two hundred civilians killed, the old centre set fire to. The university library and nearly a thousand manuscripts, eight hundred incunables and three thousand books went up in flames. Half burned pages fluttered out of the town. It must have been a nightmare for a man of learning like cardinal Mercier, who had even founded a Higher Institute of Philosophy in Leuven.

For fear of turning him into a catholic martyr, the Germans dare not deal with him. In the first week of 1915 rumours circulated that Mercier had been arrested. King Albert, the other figure head of Belgian intransigence, already cried out against it on the other side of the front, but the rumours proved false. The Germans did, however, barge into several parsonages and they also confiscated 40,000 copies of Mercier’s pastoral letter at the printer of the archbishopric. But make the cardinal a prisoner-of-war? The Germans have not got the guts to go that far.


The occupation will show an ever more forbidding face. Those who would like to learn in detail how the Belgians fared under German rule, should read ‘The Great War’ by Sophie de Schaepdrijver. It is the humiliating account of the decline of a country, which in 1914 was the most densely populated in the world. Belgium counted 7.6 million inhabitants. It was the fifth economic power in the world, until the war started to degrade the population to a bunch of down and outs, that were enslaved into the bargain.

The hunger had to be fought with charity, but the Belgians had also lost their freedom. Travelling by train became too expensive and time-consuming. Letters had to be sent in open envelopes. Newspapers had discontinued, they prefered not to publish rather than publish under censorship. Automobiles, carts, carriages, bicycles, everything was requisitioned, even carrier pigeons and plough horses. The Germans put the Belgian clock an hour ahead in order to stay in line with the Heimat, and also the Deutschmark was forced upon the Belgian people. ‘The omnipresence of sentries, Passierscheine, Personalausweise and Verboten led to despair’, writes De Schaepdrijver.

But more sips has to be taken from the poisoned cup. As the war progresses and it becomes increasingly clear that Germany will not be able to finish this gigantic job, Berlin looks more and more hungrily at the Belgian flesh-pots. Hindenburg and Ludendorf agree that the Belgians will also have to contribute to the justifiable battle. After all we are talking about conquered territory.

In Brussels Governor General Moritz von Bissing witnesses the eagerness of headquarters with great disquiet. His main concern is to keep the peace among his Belgians. Unpopular measures play directly into the hands of a man like cardinal Mercier. But Von Bissing has to change his tack. Young men are carried off to German factories as workers or to the front in France or on the river Yser, to dig trenches and shelters. The recruitment often takes place in a rough way. Without being able to say goodbye to wife and children the workmen are put on the train.

At the railway station of Vorst near Brussels a note, thrown from the train, was found. It read: ‘We are all from Aalst and we are on our way to Germany. We are brave Belgians and we will not sign or work. Long live our country!’ Over 120,000 Belgians were used as forced labourers, admittedly a lot less than Hindenburg had planned. 2,614 of them did not survive. Many more returned home, but often broken for life.

The spoils of war contain more than just labourers. With great skill Belgium is looted by the German oppressor, who claims all sorts of raw materials via many regulations and decrees. From 1916 onwards the Germans also force their way into the homes of the Belgians. The army especially needs brass and wool. Whether it is a doorknob or a bedspring, nothing is safe any more. In 1918 the Germans are even keen on church organs and churchbells. Again Mercier raises his voice and this time he gets the support of his German colleague Von Hartmann. The German successfully insists that the emperor spare the Belgian places of worhship. Not much later is the armistice.


Now it is time to put the status of cardinal Mercier as a hero in a Belgian perspective, which means a Flemish-Wallonic perspective.  To the Francophones the unrelenting cardinal may be the paragon of resistance, to many Dutch speaking Belgians he is indeed the symbol of oppression. To them the cardinal is a franskiljon, who considered Flemish unsuitable for the public domain. And in the Flanders of priest and poet Guido Gezelle language is ‘all the people’.

The German oppressors cleverly played along with the disunity of the Belgian nation. Using the Flamenpolitik they tried to provoke collaboration among the Flemish, and they were frequently successful. Mercier wanted to keep Belgium unitary, with French culture as the best guarantee against German dominance. The dutchification of Ghent University for example that the Germans made possible, was a horror to him. Mercier held the opinion that Dutch was not suitable for higher education.

Likewise the cardinal incurred the hatred of the tempestuous poet Paul van Ostaijen. When Mercier visits Antwerp in 1917, Van Ostaijen is one of forty activists who have organized a counter demonstration. He is arrested and put in prison for three months. When the war has ended, he still has to serve his time. Van Ostaijen decides to take refuge in Berlin, together with his girlfriend, who combed the streets with German officers in the nightlife of Antwerp. Van Ostaijen himself is also still blamed by many for Deutschfreundlichkeit  (sympathy for the German cause).

Post-war Belgium is not the place for revolutionaries like the poet Paul van Ostaijen. The prelate Désiré-Joseph Mercier feels completely at home there. He picks up his old life again and until his death in 1926 he will especially devote himself to a reunion of his Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. These attempts are recorded as the Malines Conversations. But apparently it is too early for this oecumenism. The same goes for the Flemings and the Walloons, who will continue their troubled relationship until well after the cardinal’s demise.

There is another war poster of cardinal Mercier, one which he will have appreciated less. A French rooster is resting on his mitre, while a procession of meek priests parades past the blessing cardinal. ‘I belong to a race that is predestined to rule and you belong to a race that is predestined to serve’, says Mercier in French, followed in Dutch by the following conclusion: ‘Never has the oppression of pro-Flemish priests been so enormous as under the dictatorship of this Wallonic ruler.’

Next week: Paul-Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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