Cardinal Desire Joseph Mercier (1851-1926) was occupied Belgium’s effective wartime resistance leader in the absence of the Belgian King Albert I and his government.
With the overrunning of Belgium and the exile of both the King and his government Mercier acted as the rallying point for Belgian resistance to German occupation. By the time Mercier returned from the election of the new Pope, Benedict XV, the majority of the country was in German hands.
Publishing open letters (which were subsequently picked up by Allied and neutral newspapers) Mercier criticised the German occupation force. Whereas ordinarily Mercier could have been expected to be arrested and perhaps even shot for his subversive views – regardless of his position as a cardinal – his unusually high profile, and popularity among German Catholics ensured his continuing liberty, aside from a brief period of arrest in January 1915.
Mercier exerted continuous (and ultimately successful) pressure upon the Germans to cease deporting Belgian labourers to factories in Germany, and campaigned against Germany’s incitement of Belgium’s Flemish population.
Désiré-Félicien-François-Joseph Mercier (21 November 1851 – 23 January 1926) was a Belgian cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and a noted scholar. A Thomist scholar, he had several of his works translated into other European languages. He was known for his book, Les origines de la psychologie contemporaine (1897). His scholarship gained him recognition from the Pope and he was appointed as Archbishop of Mechelen, serving from 1906 until his death, and was elevated to the cardinalate in 1907.
Mercier is noted for his staunch resistance to the German occupation of 1914–1918 during the Great War.
After the invasion, he distributed a strong pastoral letter, Patriotism and Endurance, to be read in all his churches, urging the people to keep up their spirits. He served as a model of resistance.
Désiré Mercier was born at the château du Castegier in Braine-l’Alleud, as the fifth of the seven children of Paul-Léon Mercier and his wife Anne-Marie Barbe Croquet. He entered the minor seminary at Mechelen in 1861 to prepare for the church. He attended Mechelen’s Grand Seminary from 1870 to 1874.
Mercier received the clerical tonsure in 1871, and temporarily served as dean of the seminary. He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Giacomo Cattani, the nuncio to Belgium, on 4 April 1874. Mercier continued with graduate studies, obtaining his licentiate in theology (1877) and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Louvain. He also took courses in psychology in Paris.
One of Mercier’s maternal uncles was the Reverend Fr. Adrien Croquet. In the 1860s Fr. Croquet became a missionary to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation in western Oregon near the Pacific coast, where his surname was anglicized to Crockett. In the 1870s, a Mercier cousin, Joseph Mercier, joined their uncle Fr. Croquet in Oregon. He married a woman of one of the Native American tribes resident there. Today, several thousand descendants of Joseph and his wife are members of the tribe.
In 1877 Mercier began teaching philosophy at Mechelen’s minor seminary, of which he also became spiritual director. His comprehensive knowledge of Saint Thomas Aquinas earned him the newly erected chair of Thomism at Louvain’s Catholic university in 1882.
It was in this post, which he retained until 1905, that he forged a lifelong friendship with Dom Columba Marmion, an Irish Thomist. Raised to the rank of Monsignor on 6 May 1887, Mercier founded the Higher Institute of Philosophy at the Louvain University in 1899, which was to be a beacon of Neo-Thomist philosophy.
He founded in 1894 and edited until 1906 the Revue Néoscholastique, and wrote in a scholastic manner on metaphysics, philosophy, and psychology. Several of his works were translated into English, German, Italian, Polish, and Spanish. His most important book was Les origines de la psychologie contemporaine (1897).
He received his episcopal consecration on the following 25 March from Archbishop Antonio Vico, and took as his episcopal motto: Apostolus Jesu Christi. Mercier was created Cardinal Priest of S. Pietro in Vincoli by Pope St. Pius X in the consistory of 15 April 1907.
Pope Benedict XV sent his portrait and a letter of whole-hearted support to Mercier in 1916, and at one point told him “You saved the Church!”
In his final days, Mercier was visited by King Albert and Queen Elisabeth, Lord Halifax, and family members. He entered a deep coma around 2:00 p.m. on 23 January and died an hour later, at age 74. The Cardinal was buried at St. Rumbolds Cathedral.
The Cardinal harbored great devotion to the Sacred Heart.
Mercier is known for favoring French speakers and opposing the use of Dutch (the language spoken by about 60% of the Belgian population). In a conversation with a Flemish priest, he said, “Moi je suis d’une race destinée à dominer et vous d’une race destinée a servir”(English: “I belong to a race destined to dominate and you belong to a race destined to serve”).
Mercier recognized the mathematical talent of Georges Lemaître as a young seminarian, and urged him to study Einstein‘s theories of relativity. Lemaître became an early expert in general relativity as it applied to cosmological questions. He went on to propose an expanding model of the universe, based on both Einstein’s and de Sitter‘s models. Abbé Georges Lemaître developed his Primeval Atom hypothesis, together with researchers of the University of Louvain, and Gamow, Alpher and Herman into the better known Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.
In 1914 the German army attempted a surprise invasion of France by invading neutral Belgium. Mercier had to leave his see on 20 August of that same year to attend the funeral of the late Pius X, and participate in the following conclave to elect a new pope.
Returning from the conclave Mercier passed through the Port of Le Havre, where he visited wounded Belgian, French and British troops. Once back in his archdiocese, he found the Mechelen Cathedral to have been partially destroyed. In the Imperial German atrocities that ensued in the Rape of Belgium, thirteen of the priests in Mercier’s diocese were killed, not to mention many civilians, by Christmas 1914.
Mercier distributed a pastoral letter, Patriotism and Endurance, to be read aloud in all Belgian churches in January 1915. The pastoral letterhad to be distributed by hand as the Germans had cut off the postal service. Mercier’s passionate, unflinching words were taken to heart by the suffering Belgians. He embodied Belgian resistance to the occupying power. He sometimes became a focus of Allied propaganda during the War. He was kept under house arrest by the Germans, and many priests who had read the letter aloud in public were arrested as well.
The Germans governed the occupied areas of Belgium (over 95% of the country) while a small area around Ypres remained under Belgian control. An occupation authority, known as the General Government, was given control over the majority of the territory although the two provinces of East and West Flanders were given separate status as a war zone under the direct control of the German army. Elsewhere martial law prevailed. For the majority of the occupation, the German military governor was Moritz von Bissing (1914–17). Beneath the governor was network of regional and local German kommandanturen and each locality was under the ultimate control of a German officer.
Many civilians fled the war zones to safer parts of Belgium. Many refugees from all over the country went to the Netherlands (which was neutral) and about 300,000 to France. Over 200,000 went to Britain, where they resettled in London and found war jobs. The British and French governments set up the War Refugees Committee (WRC) and the Secours National, to provide relief and support; there were an additional 1,500 local WRC committees in Britain. The high visibility of the refugees underscored the role of Belgium in the minds of the French and British. In the spring of 1915, German authorities started construction on the Wire of Death, a lethal electric fence along the Belgian-Dutch border which would claim the lives of between 2,000 to 3,000 Belgian refugees trying to escape the occupied country.
On the advice of the Belgian government in exile, civil servants remained in their posts for the duration of the conflict, carrying out the day-to-day functions of government. All political activity was suspended and Parliament shut down. While farmers and coal miners kept up their routines, many larger businesses largely shut down, as did the universities. The Germans helped set up the first solely Dutch-speaking university in Ghent. The Germans sent in managers to operate factories that were underperforming. Lack of effort was a form of passive resistance; Kossmann says that for many Belgians the war years were “a long and extremely dull vacation.” Belgian workers were conscripted into forced labour projects; by 1918, the Germans had deported 120,000 Belgian workers to Germany.
The German army was outraged at how Belgium had frustrated the Schlieffen Plan to capture Paris. From top to bottom there was a firm belief that the Belgians had unleashed illegal saboteurs (called “Francs-tireurs“) and that civilians had tortured and maltreated German soldiers. The response was a series of multiple large-scale attacks on civilians and the destruction of historic buildings and cultural centers. The German army executed between 5,500 and 6,500 French and Belgian civilians between August and November 1914, usually in near-random large-scale shootings of civilians ordered by junior German officers. Individuals suspected of partisan activities were summarily shot. Historians researching German Army records have discovered 101 “major” incidents—where ten or more civilians were killed—with a total of 4,421 executed. Historians have also discovered 383 “minor” incidents that led to the deaths of another 1,100 Belgians. Almost all were claimed by Germany to be responses to guerrilla attacks. In addition some high profile Belgian figures, including politician Adolphe Maxand historian Henri Pirenne, were imprisoned in Germany as hostages.
The German position was that widespread sabotage and guerrilla activities by Belgian civilians were wholly illegal and deserved immediate harsh collective punishment. Recent research that systematically studied German Army sources has demonstrated that they in fact encountered no irregular forces in Belgium during the first two and a half months of the invasion. The Germans were responding instead to a phantom fear they had unconsciously created themselves.