A century later, the lasting wounds of World War I

Pope Benedict XV: 'We see the absence from the relation of men of mutual love with their fellow men'

The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial in France. Those buried here died during World War I. Photo: Joel Carillet/iStock

The combatants are the greatest and wealthiest nations of the earth; what wonder, then, if, well provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised, they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror. There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly-shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain. (Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, 3)

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Photo: Ferdinand Schmutzer/Public Domain

June 28,1914

In the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. The single bullet which dealt the killing blow would cost about a dime in 1914. For that small price of investment, Europe and the world more broadly, descended into the gruesome carnage of modern industrial war. By the time a cease-fire was finally brokered on Nov. 11, 1918, 22 million soldiers and civilians would be dead.

Sept. 3, 1914

The cardinal of the Italian city of Bologna — Giacomo Paolo Giovanni Battista della Chiesa — is elected as Pope Benedict XV following the death of his predecessor, St. Pius X. War had already been raging in Europe for months. The young men of the continent were packed into trains and sent off with smiles on their faces, flowers in their hair, and conviction in their hearts that the war would be short, decisive, and glorious. By the end of October of the same year, the trench lines of France were already being dug and fortified as the war seemed less and less likely to be won in a single, sweeping battle of annihilation and dragged on into a bloody, dreadful, grudge match of attrition.

Pope Benedict XV. Photo: Public Domain

On the Feast of All Saints, Nov. 1, 1914, Benedict XV read his first encyclical, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (Appealing for Peace) to those assembled in St. Peter’s Square. In no uncertain terms, Benedict decried the slaughter which had already occurred and feared for that which was surely yet to come. The war had been ongoing for only three months, yet it was already being met with disgust by those not wrapped up in the throes of nationalist fervor or militaristic pride. In a prelude to the reams of dreary poetry which would come to typify the war in later memory, Benedict saw even in the war’s early months the devastation it would reap.

We now mark the centenary of the armistice of 1918, when the guns fell silent on a world forever changed. Yet to say that the First World War was the singular cause of the ills which followed; the rise of communism and totalitarianism, entrenched racism and corporate greed, would be to ignore that the First World War and so much of the strife which followed it was in fact symptomatic of much greater ills pervading society. The First World War was, as Benedict can be seen arguing within Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, emblematic of modernity’s woes, a sickness in the hearts of men made manifest in the slaughter of the battlefield.

Benedict and his like-minded contemporaries noted that above all else there were four serious problems in contemporary society which had put Europe on the path to war.

Thus we see the absence from the relation of men of mutual love with their fellow men; the authority of rulers is held in contempt; injustice reigns in relations between the classes of society; the striving for transient and perishable things is so keen, that men have lost sight of the other and more worthy goods they have to obtain. (Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, 5)

This quadrivium of ills led men to grow bitter toward one another, made them complacent around acts of injustice, and numb to the sufferings of others.

All of these ills are emblematic of that one sin which defines all others, the violation of Christ’s most important commandments to love the Lord Our God with all our heart, all our souls, and all our mind, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (see Mark 12:28–34).

A world lacking love

The modern world, both at the time of Benedict’s writing as well as now, seems increasingly bereft of any sense of individual charity. This is not necessarily because we have been ordered and conditioned to hate but because our original failing is to value both ourselves and our petty tribes as more important than our pursuit of the Lord’s boundless grace.

Much like today, those living in the years prior to the First World War were complacent with the way of the world, convinced that the human race was heading toward an era of peace and prosperity. There was much jubilant talk about social progress, confidence in both technology and popular determination to overcome the obstacles we face, but this optimism stemmed from an ignorance concerning the injustices which blighted our society. As Benedict noted:

Never perhaps was there more talking about the brotherhood of men than there is today. … But in reality never was there less brotherly activity amongst men than at the present moment. Race hatred has reached its climax; peoples are more divided by jealousies than by frontiers; within one and the same nation, within the same city there rages the burning envy of class against class; and amongst individuals it is self-love which is the supreme law overruling everything. (Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, 7)

Prior to the outbreak of the Great War, nationalist sentiments suffused the foreign policies of the great powers. Elevation of tribal blood, similar tongue, and geographic proximity took precedence over all other concerns. Any semblance of common Christian creed or shared humanity cannot exist when earth is supplanted by heaven and the price of soil is determined by the blood sacrificed for its possession.

Worse still was the acceptance and promulgation of a false and wicked science in the years leading up to the war. In the extra-continental empires of Britain and France, the prosperity of the home country was built on the theft of resources from the colonies. Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Serbs dueled in the Balkans with speech and saber over the fates of the Slavic peoples.

Well after the war drew to a close, humanity remained fractured into races for the sole purpose of justifying hatred, paranoia, and arrogance. From the flames of Birkenau to the fields of Rwanda, this obsession of bodily difference to the exclusion of common souls as bestowed in us all by Our Father lingers still. As the 20th century descended into decade after decade of bloodshed, Benedict saw that this skin-deep hatred would only go on to justify further atrocities.

Within nations themselves, the inequalities created by large, impersonal economies driven by exploitation of the desperate and disenfranchisement of the independent had turned citizens against one another. The wealthy grew distant from and contemptuous of those who worked only to survive; those who worked grew jealous and envious of the upper classes.

Those at the top did not reach down to the masses, and the masses reached up only to drag their superiors down with them. All of this was driven by a belief that the individual and his wants, the fleeting fancies and secret dreams held by one, was more important than the needs of the many.

In 1914, socialism was still lacking the power to sink its venomous teeth into a nation’s blood, but even before the Russian Revolution it was obvious that the class strife which haunted Europe’s cities was dangerous and could get out of control quickly if given a more prominent stage.

It is not necessary to enumerate the many consequences, not less disastrous for the individual than for the community, which follow from this class hatred. … We see hostile gatherings and tumultuous crowds, and it not unfrequently happens that weapons are used and human blood is spilled. (Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum,12)

And so, as these inequalities persisted, the desperate looked for some kind of savior to liberate them from economic bondage. This savior would, alas, seek to redeem the world through the spilling of blood.

Beginning in the husk of the former Russian Empire in 1917, the crimson shadow of revolutionary socialism at last descended upon Europe, promising bread and land but bringing only hardship and suffering. When Joseph Stalin took power in the Soviet Union in 1925, the massacres, oppression, and totalitarian streaks of the preceding years of Bolshevik power grew only more severe, millions dying only to sate the dictators megalomaniacal paranoia and feeding a death toll which soared toward into the tens of millions.

Inspired by the “success” of communism in what had once been Russia, others took up the mantle of Marx and turned their nations toward the red gospel. In China, Cambodia, and elsewhere, millions were offered up on the altar of communism as dictators hoped blood would liberate the world. According to historian R.J Rummel, the total number of deaths caused by this one ideology alone are in the vicinity of 148 million. That’s roughly half of the current population of the United States.

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. Photo: Royal Engineers No. 1 Printing Co./Public Domain

The First World War may have been terrible, but worse still was the opportunity given to the selfish to take the reins of nations and waste the lives of millions in pursuit of man’s fallible, self-centered ideas of what is right, in ignorance of the true gospel which all tyrants find inconvenient to the pursuit of wickedness. With one bullet, Gavrilo Princip gave the world license to destroy itself, to cast aside the commandments of Our Lord for the sake of personal gain and national pride.

Benedict XV and those like him knew that the war would be disastrous, but one wonders if they could see how far its repercussions would reach. On this centenary of the war which failed to end all wars, let us not only dwell on the bravery of the forlorn, but look forward to mend the scars this conflict inflicted upon the world by the assassin’s hand.

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