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. (Read more.)