As a volunteer here at PAHRC for the summer, I’ve been cataloging the pamphlet collection. One of the first pamphlets I dealt with immediately caught my attention. Entitled “An Appeal to Truth”, it was written in 1915 by Cardinal Mercier, who was then serving as the Archbishop of Malines (Mechelen) in Belgium. Directed towards the archbishops of Germany, Bavaria, and Austria-Hungary, Mercier wrote about supposed war-time offenses committed during Germany’s occupation of Belgium during World War I.
Cardinal Mercier attempted to dispel various nasty rumors that Germans were directing at Belgian citizens as well as make public Belgium’s victims of abuse.
Cardinal Mercier was particularly agitated over the German government's accusations that Belgians were committing crimes against occupying German soldiers. Mercier claimed that these accusations, which were addressed in the German government’s 1915 publication, entitled The White Book, were completely untrue and fabricated.
The German government claimed that Belgians, including young girls, were murdering and torturing wounded German soldiers, The Cardinal stated, “Hardly had the German armies trodden the soil of our country, when the rumour spread among you that our civilians were taking part in military operations; that the women of Vise and of Liege were gouging out the eyes of your soldiers…” (2)
The Cardinal denied these allegations and instead offered his own; he argued that Germans soldiers had committed unspeakable acts against entire villages in Belgium, and that not even priests or nuns were safe from them:
“Fifty innocent priests and thousands of innocent Catholics were put to death; hundreds of others, whose lives have been saved by circumstances independent of the will of their persecutors, were in danger of death; thousands of innocent persons, with no previous trial, were imprisoned; many of them underwent months of detention, and, when they were released, the most minute questioning, to which they were submitted, revealed no guilt in any of them.” (9)
At the pamphlet’s core was Cardinal Mercier’s attempt to convince German bishops to agree to a fair tribunal. He sought a public forum in which the Archbishops of Belgium would be given a chance to refute the German charges and present evidence accordingly. Additionally, he sought revenge for the murdered and harassed Belgian citizens.
It seems to me that, in an effort to appear even-handed, Cardinal Mercier added “If, in formulating these denunciations, we are calumniating the German army, or, if the military authority had just reasons for commanding or permitting those acts which we call criminal, it is to the honour and the national interest of Germany to confute us.” (9) Additionally, this statement places the German Bishops in a precarious position because if they do not accept the public trial then it could be argued that they did not rise to defend the honor of Germany and its soldiers. The Cardinal maintained that on several occasions Germans ignored their cries for justice. He stated:
“On August 18th, 1914, the Bishop of Liege wrote to Commandant Bayer, Governor of the town of Liege: - ‘Several villages have been destroyed one after the other; important people, among them some priests, have been shot; others have been arrested, and all have protested their innocence…’ No reply was received to this letter.” (4)
Cardinal Mercier argued that the Germans had conducted their own investigation into the matters without including any cross-examination. He cited a German inspection of Louvain from 1914 as an example of the one-sided nature of these inquiries. Cardinal Mercier stated that when German authorities spoke to witnesses, “Sometimes it was in the presence of a representative of local authority, who was ignorant of the German language, and so was obliged to accept and to sign on trust the official reports.” He claimed that this evidence was unacceptable, the argument one-sided, and that it was unfair for them to take the argument to the Pope without giving the Belgian’s a chance to voice their issues. (6-7)
Mercier entreated German bishops to agree to a fair tribunal in which both sides would be given equitable opportunity to present their case. He used priestly solidarity to back his request, “Is it not upon us, the pastors of our people, that the duty lies of helping to get rid of these bad feelings, and of reestablishing on its foundations of justice, to-day so shaken, the union in love of all the children of the great Catholic family?” (12)
Unfortunately, I have been unable to ascertain if the German bishops agreed to a tribunal or even responded to this public letter. However, while looking for other materials in PAHRC’s pamphlet collection relating to German atrocities committed in Belgium during the Great War, I found a pamphlet written by J. Esslemont Adams and Leon Mirman entitled “Their Crimes.” The pamphlet, published in 1917, discussed crimes against Belgian and French citizens during the German occupation. They state “Germany has been martyrizing Belgium. She has from that moment onwards turned the land into a prison: the frontiers are armed against Belgians like a battle front...” (60)
Adams and Mirman’s arguments seem to back Cardinal Mercier’s allegations, even going so far as to cite the Cardinal’s letter to Governor General von Bissing (the German Governor General of Belgium during the occupation). The passage stated the crimes against both French and Belgian women and children, “Sometimes the attacks were individual and sometimes committed by bodies of men, e.g., at Melen-Labouxhe, Margaret W. was violated by twenty German soldiers, and then shot by the side of her father and mother. They did not even respect nuns.” (32)
What I took away from reading these pamphlets is the suffering occupied territories encounter during times of war. The authors of these publications wanted to increase public awareness in an effort to demand retribution for victims and to form a sense of national solidarity for the war effort. I will endeavor to search for some of the answers that these two sources leave me with. For now, they have imparted a vivid picture of the intensity and insanity that accompanies war.