THE GERMAN OCCUPATION OF BELGIUM
AN ADDRESS BY HIS EMINENCE CARDINAL
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
October 14, 1919.
PRESIDENT STAPELLS, after the toast to the King had been drunk, proposed a toast to His Majesty King Albert of Belgium, and the orchestra played the Belgian National Anthem. The President then said: Your Eminence, Your Grace, my Lords and Gentlemen: Surely at this moment there is visualized to our minds a picture of great little Belgium. (Applause.) On one side of it we see devastated farms, destroyed homes, demolished buildings, and desecrated ecclesiastical edifices. On the other side we see gallant Belgian soldiers fighting shoulder to shoulder in an effort to stem the German hordes, and being driven back inch by inch because of overwhelming numbers, all the while praying "for night or Bluecher," France or Great Britain. Then we recall, surely, Punch's great cartoon-the Kaiser directing noble King Albert's attention to that picture, and with a sneer on his face saying, "Albert, you did not follow me, so you have lost all"; and King Albert, drawing himself up proudly, replying,
Cardinal Mercier well known as a scholar and leader in his Church before the War, became, on the occupation of Belgium by the German Army, one of the great world-figures of the war. His work for the suffering women and children of Belgium must ever remain an outstanding monument to his devotion and heroism. His tactful but unbending loyalty to Belgium throughout the war marked him out for periodical attacks by the German Governor of Belgium. The straightforward but exceedingly clever way in which he defended his position made a tremendous impression not only on the world at large, but also upon his enemies.
"No, not all; not my soul." (Applause.) Now, gentlemen, I am convinced that what King Albert'meant was, not his own soul, but the soul in his keeping-the soul of Belgium-and he knew that soul was to be found in the breast of the fighting men and the noble suffering women, the little crying children, and the great pious man of God who ministered to them all through their dark, dreary days of trial and tribulation. I cannot say more, gentlemen; nay, I should not say more, excepting to remark that from the bottom of our hearts we appreciate the great honor that has been conferred upon us today by having Cardinal Mercier as our guest. (Loud Applause.) We welcome him not only because he is one of the world's leading educationists, not only because he is a Cardinal of the great Roman Catholic Church, not only because he is a true Belgian patriot, but because he is a great world figure who is admired, respected, and loved by the civilized nations of the earth. (Loud Applause.) I have the privilege and honor, gentlemen, of now introducing to you His Eminence, Cardinal Mercier.
CARDINAL MERCIER was received by the audience standing and giving three cheers and a tiger, followed by loud applause. He said: Gentlemen, I thank your President for having been so kind as to invite me here to your meeting. I appreciate the honor and the joy you give me. I wanted to come to Canada, although under the burden of my age I was hesitating for a while to come over either into the States of America or here, but I was encouraged by many of your compatriots, who were so kind as to call on me at Malines. I remember this good gentleman in France, who is at my right, (Rev. Dr. Cody) who encouraged me to come. One of my objections was the burden of my years; another was that I know so little of your beautiful language, of English; and I thought if I appear there and cannot speak, or speak bad English, it will be perhaps very annoying for my audience. Still, you were so indulgent that I became a little bolder, and now I speak, and I remark that you always accept my good will and forgive the mistakes I make. (Applause.) I found, from the beginning of my meeting with your compatriots, a very sincere, spontaneous sympathy between you and us. When I was in Malines your soldiers were such gallant and beautiful boys, that I was always edified by their sincerity, by their spirit of religion, by their respect of liberty for all, and also by that combination of qualities which their fathers inherited from Anglo-Saxon traditions, combined with a great spirit of resource and initiative. I may say that in you all I see the evidence of spirit, of activeness, of freedom, of personal responsibility, that makes a man, and I greet it in you men, and in the men who through all the centuries struggled to keep and maintain our liberty, and naturally we feel in sympathy with you. (Applause.)
Some minutes ago, at the City Hall, I recalled some testimonies of your admiration for our soldiers, and I will not repeat them here. I will say only this, that all through our fearful trials in Belgium, we knew that we might rely on you. It was for us a great military comfort to know that you were with the English, near the French, to support our great cause; and we knew what your men had done in Ypres, and in Flanders, in the first attack against the Germans. You were the first to take the offensive against them in Ypres. We knew that. We knew how many of your boys had fallen there, and now it is with respect that we worship their graves there. We have read the poem of your great poet about the fields of Flanders, and some weeks ago I. was in those regions in Ypres, Nieuport, Dixmude, all those places where your men fell. I remember that when our party were walking there, and had come to that little river which is called Yser, we went through on a little bridge two or three metres long; and as we were giving each other our impressions, I remember that we both instinctively took off our hats with a deep feeling of respect for those men who had there given their life for our cause. I thought, "Those soldiers who gave their lives, they are all saviors, and the very saviors of civilization." (Hear, hear and applause.) We can never have respect enough, gratitude enough, for those men as examples to all the world; you understood from the first moment.
This war was not parallel with the wars of history; it was a quite new form of war. The Germans were not an enemy trying to rob or to conquer a province of another enemy. No, they were men, supermen, thinking they had to have what they called tyranny of humanity; they thought they could substitute might for right; and as soon as Belgium understood, as you understood, that the conflict was between might and right, we were at once all friends, all compatriots. (Applause.) I am sure now that for the future, for many generations, we shall always have before our eyes, and our communities will have before their eyes, two banners-one which has been painted in innocent, inoffensive blood, steeped in blood which is stained with the ashes of incendiarism, which is stained with poison gases, and its name is injustice, tyranny, cruelty. The other banner, our banner, honored for respecting the liberty of all, respecting God who personifies Truth, Right, and Justice. (Loud Applause.)
Well, dear gentlemen, if you will allow me, I shall give you, as I have been asked for it, some little incidents of my personal experience in the war. (Applause.) Although I always hesitate in speaking of myself, I know you like to know something, not of what the papers have said about the exterior events, but something with regard to my own personal soul, and it is just this that I like to say to friends. (Applause.)
Well, the most sorrowful moment of my life was in Rome in the first days of September-the second of September. The second of August the invader had come into Belgium. Our King of the whole nation had opposed the German proposition of saving our wealth by sacrificing our honor, and we went against the enemy; and I might say to you that I think there was no one man in Belgium who was not at the side of our great King Albert, by the side of our government, who said: "Perhaps we may be trampled upon by your might; we are weak and you are strong; and perhaps we shall be trampled upon, but we will never yield our soul; our soul remains free, and will be free to the very end." (Applause.)
After those first weeks of resistance I had to be in Rome, and being in the Vatican I was taking a little walk in the galleries of Raphael with my good friend, Cardinal Vecco, who had been in Belgium, and who had consecrated me bishop in 1906. We were good friends, and, as he knew something of our sufferings, he tried to console me. Once, at least, at the recreation after two sessions of the Vatican for the election of the Pope, he came to me and said, "My dear friend, the news about Belgium is not good." I understood that it would be bad, and I said, "It is bad, I am sure." He said, "Oh yes, it is very bad," And he told me that the papers had a telegram saying that the university at Louvain was burned; that my cathedral in Malines and my bishop's house had been bombarded; so in one moment I saw before my eyes the finish of those things which had been most precious in my eyes. In Louvain I had spent twenty-five years as a professor, and I saw before my eyes the beautiful galleries, not only of books and the archives, but the beautiful galleries of paintings recalling the memory of generations, all the glories of Louvain University from the fifteenth century till the last days of our existence there. As I saw all those glories which for us were inspiring, which were for our youth the greatest lessons in education, all in a moment finished, I thought also about my cathedral -and my poor citizens of Malines. Still, our Lord gave me the grace not to yield to discouragement. I felt that if we relied on our Lord, such crimes could not go unpunished, and I was sure that we who are innocent could not be sacrificed for long; that we could rely on God's mercy on our side, and rely on God's justice which shall chastise the guilty; so I answered to my friend, "Well, they have destroyed all our treasures, but we shall reconstruct our Belgium"; (Hear, hear and applause.) and those who have been-in Belgium during the war may tell you that, even during German occupation, many good men, workmen, a little of what we call bourgeois, the middle class of society, themselves restored by mutual help, their houses, their homes, their stores, their families. Brussels had been spared by the foe, because the Germans thought that Brussels could be one of their beautiful cities in the future; and some of my friends, being thankful for what I had done for our people, offered me a sum of money, and I said, "Very good, we shall employ that to build, under German occupation in Brussels, a technical school for our workmen." (Hear, hear and applause.) We did so, of course, under a name covered--camouflaged. (Laughter.) Well, they built the school, giving it the name of an orphanage. (Laughter.) "Orphan" is a word the Germans approved, and so we called it an orphanage, and the day of the Armistice they put outside on the wall a beautiful inscription, "Cardinal Mercier School." (Laughter and applause.) So the Germans had the privilege of seeing a technical school also built in Belgium. The copper for the sign had been saved, because you know they robbed us of all our copper, all our brass, all our iron, but so much had been saved and saved for the moment of the armistice.
I show these facts to prove that, in saying, "We will reconstruct," I was the interpreter of the soul of my people. (Applause.) At this moment we are in other conditions; many of you, business men, will, I think, easily realize our condition. For four years our workmen were deprived of work; 70,000 were taken away to Germany and doomed to hard labor; if they would sign an engagement to work voluntarily for the Germans they had promise of high salaries, help afforded for their families, and full liberty; but if they refused to sign engagements, they were sent away as prisoners doomed to hard labor. After some weeks or some months a good many came back home because they were exhausted, and the Germans thought that it would be better to send them back when exhausted than to feed them when but half alive, so they preferred sending them back home quite physically exhausted. In my house in Rheims I received hundreds and hundreds of those poor workmen, and when I was shaking hands with them and asking, "Have you signed an engagement?" they would say, "Oh, no, never," and, in fact, they refused the engagement, and they accepted hard labor, rather than be forced to work for the enemy. (Hear, hear and applause.) But such a people, having resisted through four years, thought, very simply, that as soon as peace should have been signed, they would return to normal conditions of life, their family home life. But now what has happened? Agriculture is saved at this moment, and perhaps you don't know why agriculture is saved. It is saved, and we owe that to you. Your army, before returning here, left in Belgium. its horses, and we got from you Canadians a great many horses for agriculture, (Hear, hear.) and we are indebted, for the revival of agriculture, to the generosity of your government. I am sorry to report to you that our workmen are for a great part constrained to idleness, because during the war the Germans stole all the metals-iron, brass, and the engines of the manufacturers -they could use for themselves; and some weeks before leaving-before being expelled from Belgium, (Applause.) they systematically, with scientific methods, destroyed machines which they could not use for themselves. President Wilson has been there and has seen that with his own eyes, and many a one, I am sure, has been witness of that systematic and diabolical destruction of our engines.
Well, our workmen are there offering their hands, asking for work, and there are no manufactures open for giving them labor, so there has come a feeling of dissatisfaction; they are disappointed; they have dreamed of a continual picnic during peace, and now even the first conditions of normal life are not restored. Disappointment, you understand, is a very easy soil for the politicians, for the radical socialists, for Bolshevists--we have some of those-a very easy field of revolt, of excitement, and I may state that I fear more for my people at this moment than I feared ever during the war. I hope that we shall have the help of the great nations in securing machinery and the raw materials of industry, and I shall try to encourage as much as I can all to press forward the social work. We had a good organization of Christian syndicates. One of my priests had been here some years ago, Father Rittan, and you had helped him.
I shall try to encourage all social institutions, and I hope that so we shall co-operate in the reconstruction of the conditions of life in our country.
Coming back from Rome with the idea of reconstructing our Belgium, I found our people in very awful conditions-dreadful. During two months the Germans had added cruelties on cruelties. For instance, they had killed, without any appearance of reason, without any pretext of justice, they had killed fifty of our priests. In one little city where I had been once during the war, and once with King Albert, some weeks ago, to commemorate the ruin of that city, in Dinant--we had 6,000 men; 3,000 had gone away in exile, refugees in our land and in England; 3,000 remained in that little city. Of those 3,000, 650 have been killed, put to death, shot without any pretext or any reason. I have visited families for two long days, and I have gone into the homes, and nowhere could I see complete families. Everywhere the father had disappeared, the mother, the little children. Five little children, babies, aged less than two years, had been killed, shot in the arms of their mothers. One could not believe that, it is incredible, but these are facts. In Dinant, in the Ardennes and other places, they had taken our civilians as shields for their troops advancing toward the enemy, and so the poor people had been sacrificed by their cruelty.
The houses burned were innumerable. When I came home after the fall of Antwerp, in October, you can understand the condition of mind and soul of our population; they were terrorized; the aim of the German was to terrorize the community. I find no explanation for their cruelties; they only had in view the terrorizing of our people, and to make more easy the annexation of the country to Germany; that was their plan. Well, I found them in that state of mind, and then the problem before my conscience was this-and it was a very critical one-I said, "Shall I resist publicly the occupying power?" Many of my friends said, "Don't do that; if you do that the cruelties will be always more and more atrocious; we are a weak people; we have to undergo the conditions of occupation; if we resist, our lot will be worse; you may not resist in public; let us wait passively with patience and confidence in our God; let us wait the moment of our liberation."
At that time, in November and December 1914, no one in the world, I believe, supposed that the war would have lasted four years. Lord Grey had said in England, if I remember well, "Three months or three years," but no one believed that it could last three years; they said three months, perhaps four or five, but not more. Well, in that state of mind my friends said, "Let us wait, let us be passively patient." From another point of view, if I were resisting I was obliged to resist not alone; I had to rely on my priests, and to ask from them the same spirit of resistance; we had to be one against the foe; and they said to me, "You may if you like offer your liberty, and perhaps more, for your flock, but have you then the right to impose upon your priests such a sacrifice of their liberty and their life for saving our cause?" Those were two questions that were for some time before my mind, and gave me a great problem to solve. For the second point, I found a reason for my answer. I- said, "Well, when war is engaged in, a general does not mind whether the lives of his soldiers are exposed or not exposed; he orders the soldiers to go, and the soldiers have to go. Well, I am a general; I am the chief of the diocese; I shall order my priests to go ahead, and they will go ahead, they will obey." (Applause.) For the first question, I said to myself, "All that I have known about the Germans proves to me that those men are cruel, strong, tyrannical, in the face of all that is weak; the German, taken as masses of men, as a machine, are terrible; but the Germans I have seen personally, I have always observed that each time I addressed them, boldly looking in their eyes, I have felt that I was stronger, although without arms, than they were. (Hear, hear and loud applause.) They had come, during the first months of the war, very often to the office of my administration to say, "You have to do that, to suppress that," and I always took an opportunity on their visit to tell them this, "I will not now discuss with you the beginning of the war; it is not for me to discuss that, whether you were right or wrong on the invasion of my country; but I take your own words. Your Chancellor said before the Reichstag that he knew that he was committing an injustice; and yourselves, when you asked to go through Belgium freely, you said you would repair the damages perpetrated by you; so you accused yourselves to have been unjust in invading our soil; you have confessed that you were unjust. Well, if it be so, if you are conscious of injustice, then during your occupation here you have to be as smooth as possible, as light as you can, to protect our poor people against the consequences of an act which you have acknowledged to be unjust. Well, you do just the contrary; you have perpetrated here cruelties and incendiaries; therefore I have to accuse you of failing in your duty as an occupying foe of my country."
Each time I was speaking so, I noticed a look that they were rather going back, bowing, and I became the accuser and they the accused, (Applause.) and my conclusion was that what they know they are, they will be, if I oppose their cruelties in public; and I decided to publish my letter, "Patriotism and Endurance" at Christmas 1914.
That letter was written a fortnight before Christmas and sent, by different ways, into Holland, to a priest who was there my delegate, and that priest was entrusted with the care to send my letter to France and to England; and so you got it in Canada and in the United States. When my letter appeared, I was sure that something threatening would happen. In fact, I gave the order to my priests, in instructions written in Latin-I suppose Von Bissing will not understand Latin, (Laughter.) and I said, "This letter I send you, of course by clandestine ways is to be read in all churches, whatever happens." All clergy were pledged to read it to the people from the pulpit in two parts. One part had to be read at the first day of the year 1915, which was a Friday, and the second part the third of January, on the Sunday. In fact, all my priests who had got in due time my letter, read the first part on the Friday.
On Saturday morning, at six o'clock in the morning, in the darkness of the day, three officers came in motor cars to my bishop's house. I was preparing to say mass. They called me. I came downstairs and I met the officers, and one of them asked me, in the name of the General Governor, Von Bissing, why I had written that letter. I answered, because I thought that I had to write it as a bishop for illuminating the conscience of my people, to tell them what is their duty in the present condition of occupation. "It is a political letter;" he answered "you excite the people to revolution against the occupying foe." I said, "No, I do not preach revolution; I preach liberty." "Well, you have written this phrase,"-and then he remembered the phrase where I said to my people, "My dear brethren, you. have to respect the exterior regulation of public order, but in your conscience you have neither to give respect nor obedience nor esteem to the occupying foe. You have to keep your esteem or respect or love for our King Albert, and for our government elected by the people." (Laughter.) He said, "Well, those words excite the people." I said, "No; we have a French proverb which says, 'If you take two lines from an author you may have the means of hanging him;' but you must take that phrase in the whole context; and the whole texture of my letter, as a whole, is to fortify my people, consoling, but not exciting to revolution." He said, "Well, all that does not satisfy us; you have to come to Brussels, to the General Governor." I said, "Very well. When?" "Well, we don't know now; you will know that afterwards by telephone." I said, "All right; still I have an objection; I am free today, Saturday; I shall be free on Monday if you like; but tomorrow, Sunday, I am not free, I have to go to Antwerp for a religious function." He answered, "You have not to choose your day; you must be at our disposal as we like." I said, "Tomorrow I am not free, and I shall not come tomorrow." (Laughter.) He went back, and being in Brussels, as I knew afterwards, he was embarrassed what to do (Laughter.) and he went to the Ministry of Spain in Brussels, Marco Delabar, and Spain being neutral he could have an interview with the Minister of Spain in Brussels. I learned afterwards what he said there in the interview. He said, "Well, what shall we do with that man there?" (Laughter.) Delabar said, "Well, pay attention; if the Crown Prince would make an offence here to anvone of your men, what would you do?" "Well, we should send him to the Kaiser, to his father." "All right; a Cardinal is of the family of the Pope; he belongs to the Holy See as one of the members of the Holy See; if Cardinal Mercier has done something wrong, offending, you send him to Rome." (Laughter.)
The poor man, more and more embarrassed, as I knew afterwards, then telegraphed to Berlin to know what to do. I do not know what was the answer of Berlin, but what I know is this, that we were gaining time so; and the embarrassment of the Germans was increasing more and more. My letter sent to France and England, some days before was known there, and when they heard-I don't know by what way-that the Germans were threatening my person, there was great excitement in England and France. The echo of that excitement came to Brussels, to the General Governor, and they waited more and more, (Laughter.) so that on the Monday morning I received a new officer, very gentlemanly, very polite, who came to Malines with two motor cars and soldiers. They were, with their arms, immediately to call at my house, for fear I should perhaps run away, and he came with a letter from Von Bissing-three great pages in folio, written in German characters-and he said, "Cardinal, I am despatched from the Governor-General, and you have to give an answer to the questions written here." I said, "All right." I looked at the paper and said, "But the text of the letter is written in German letters; I do not easily read that; will you be so kind to write it in other letters, -in Latin letters?" (Laughter.) I gave him a chair and pen and ink-"Sit down here." (Laughter.) That took one hour and a half. He wrote very clearly, very distinctly. I said, "No, I have to read it over myself, and I shall give you my answer tomorrow." "Oh, no, no, no, you have to answer immediately to that." I said,
"But the Governor has had three days,--Saturday, Sunday, and Monday morning-for preparing his letter, and is asking from me an answer in two minutes. Impossible. Leave me your text in my hands; I shall answer at my leisure, and you will get the answer to all the points you require." He said, "No, no, I cannot leave your house before I have an answer." "As you like, but I take my time for writing my answer." And he remained at my house from ten o'clock in the morning till four o'clock in the afternoon. I have to take my leisure. I took my time, and I insisted to have him go back home and come this night, "with a new motor car, if you like." "No, I may not leave your room." I think they were sure I had the mind to run away. Motor cars were in the court of my house, and I remember a little detail; once I had to go from one side of my house to the other side, from the left to the right, the officers went the other side. I had to give instructions to my general vicar, and I went from one side to the other. Well, when I was passing from one side to the other, the soldiers sprang out of the motor car, took their arms, just as if a rabbit was running. (Laughter.)
So I read my letter very tranquilly, and wrote the reply, which I gave to the German Governor, and at night he went home. During the Saturday morning all the motor cars of ,the German foe in Belgium were in movement; they went through all the parish churches of my diocese, day and night, till the Sunday morning. They interviewed the priests, the servants, the sacristan of the churches, to get the letters which had been sent to be read on the Sunday morning. Many of our priests had foreseen inquiries, and they had taken a copy of my letter in their own writing, and when the soldiers came to require the letter some gave the letter very politely, "Here it is," and on Sunday morning they read to the people from the text written by their own hand. (Laughter.) Many others simply refused and said, "No, you cannot get the letter, the Cardinal has imposed upon us to read it, he is our chief, our authority, and as you soldiers acknowledge your military authority, we acknowledge our ecclesiastical, so you will not get that." Many were put in prison or fined for having refused the letters, but the fact was that on Sunday morning, in all the churches in my diocese without exception, the second part of my letter was read (Applause.) and the soldiers knew. It was a providential fact that all the soldiers knew that there was inquiry about the letter of the Cardinal of Malines, and they were all very curious to know what it was, and many of the soldiers, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, went to the parish churches to hear the letter, and a great many heard the letter, and so they could give some details to their families and friends in Germany.
Well, after that letter, of course, during three following days we had many conflicts with Germany, but my experience has been this, that at that moment of open resistance, still with respect to the exterior regulation and order of police, I respected the police, but nothing more; from the moment that I had defined before my people the Christian doctrine on authority, and when they had understood that an invader is not an authority -is a might, but not an authority-that the only moral authority was that of the King for temporal things, and that of the Bishop for spiritual matters-when they had made that clear before their conscience, and when the Germans had left me free, from that moment I said, morally speaking, we are the conquerors, we are superior to them, they are defeated, and now we may expect, with confidence in God, confidence in our moral strength, entire and final liberation from oppression, and a final triumph to our common cause. (Loud applause and cheers.)
THE PRESIDENT: The thanks of the Club for this interesting and eloquent address will be tendered to Cardinal Mercier by the Hon. Dr. Cody.
HON. DR. CODY: On behalf of the members of the Empire Club I would present to His Eminence our keen appreciation of the great honor he has done to our country, our city, and our club in giving us the favor of his presence. (Hear, hear and applause.) He has thrilled our hearts as we have listened to his words. We have felt that one of the great figures in the world's history has been describing to us some of the great events of history which he has been instrumental in bringing to pass. (Hear, hear, and applause.) We recognize in him the embodiment of that spirit that bade defiance to German might, and won the victory for the right. (Applause.) We recognize in him the embodiment of human endurance, the embodiment of noblest courage, the embodiment of simple piety, the embodiment of the shepherd's spirit, and the embodiment of that spiritual strength that believed that in due time God would give the victory to the right and the truth, and that God would strike down the oppressor beneath the feet of man. (Loud applause.) We greet him today as Canadians, and feel proud that we had any share in ministering to the relief of his suffering fellow-countrymen. In him we salute the soul of Belgium. (Hear, hear.) We salute him as scholar, professor, philosopher, prelate, statesman, patriot, and Christian. (Applause.) The motto, I believe, on his Eminence's coat-ofarms is-"Apostolus Jesu Christi" "An Apostle of Jesus Christ" "One sent by Jesus Christ"-and surely a man who in himself has embodied high patriotism, supreme courage, gentleness and tenderness to those in affliction, is a veritable messenger of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We greet him and welcome him, and in him again salute the embodiment of all those moral and spiritual forces that at last, under the blessing of God, gave us the victory. The motto of his country= Union is Strength-is a motto that we shall remember, and that we shall try to practise the world over; for he is not only a great theologian, a great churchman, but a great citizen of the world, and embodies in himself this motto of his country as applied to the whole round world-that it is the union of diverse national elements in common service that will make and bring lasting strength to the world. Vive la Belgique! Vive Mercier! (Loud Applause.)