1918, a phony end to the war
On 11 November 1918, the German plenipotentiaries signed an armistice in Rethondes with the representatives of France and Britain: this agreement, which brought an end to hostilities on the western front, was the last in a series of armistices concluded with Bulgaria (at Salonica on 29 September), the Ottoman Empire (at Mudros on 30 October) and Austria-Hungary (at Villa Giusti on 3 November). This did not mean that the global conflict was finished – the armistices opened the way for negotiating peace treaties, which were what officially brought about the end to the legal state of war in 1919-1920. Moreover, the hostilities persisted or resumed in Turkey, Russia and Poland, in places until the early 1920s. Violent unrest also affected the territories of the future Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which became Yugoslavia), while several countries were undergoing revolutions, such as Russia, Germany and Hungary.
The end to hostilities raised a number of issues relating to future peace and to reconciliation between former adversaries. But the victors wanted to crush the former central empires by means of fragmentation, to prevent them from one day taking up arms against them again, and to obtain huge reparations. Total war, which had been rampaging for three or four years depending on the country, had left its mark on spirits and opinions, leaving people hostile to any kind of compromise. It was immediately apparent that the conditions for a just peace, as championed by Benedict XV in his Note of 1 August 1917, could not be accepted. In October 1918, when Germany asked the President of the United States, Wilson, about the conditions of a possible armistice, the Pope implored the latter to receive the request with “benevolent consideration”. But little heed was paid to the papal words. The principle of participation by the Holy See in the peace conference had also been excluded since 1915 by the Allies, under pressure from Italy who wanted to avoid addressing the Roman Question.
The peace obtained by the treaties of Versailles – a Diktat to the Germans –, of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (with Austria), of Trianon (with Hungary) and of Sèvres (with Turkey) did not satisfy the Church, either. Benedict XV devoted the encyclical Pacem Dei (23 May 1920) to the subject: “If in most places peace [...] treaties [have been] signed, the germs of former enmities remain; and [...] there can be no stable peace or lasting treaties [...] unless there be a return of mutual charity to appease hate and banish enmity”. The Pope thus considered that a “comparative peace”, not a “just, honourable and lasting peace” had been concluded. In 1922, during the initial drafting of his first encyclical, subsequently modified, Pius XI also deplored “an artificial peace drawn up on paper” which “augmented [...] the spirit of rancour and vengeance”. The collapse of Catholic Austria was of some concern to the papacy, which, however, quickly forged relations with the new states created at the end of the war, attaching great importance to Poland with its Catholic majority. The League of Nations, the international organisation wanted by Wilson to prevent conflicts, was viewed with ambivalence by the Holy See, which was unable to be a member because it was not a state (the Vatican City State was not established until 1929): it approved of the objectives, but was critical of the origins, attributed as they were to Protestant and Freemason influences, and regretted that it was an initiative by the victors of the war only.
Reconciliation between the peoples was made difficult by the magnitude of the losses (10 million dead), the suffering and the destruction, including of religious buildings – the cathedral of Reims, damaged but not ruined as the propaganda claimed, being a symbol of this. Catholics on both sides largely supported the war effort in their respective countries during the conflict. It was therefore not until the mid-1920s that a process of pacifying hearts and spirits could begin. Catholics were pioneers in this, such as Marc Sangnier who organised a peace congress for young people of France and Germany in Bierville in 1926. The road to peace remained difficult and tortuous.
At the end of 1918, the developing peace was invested with political, humanitarian and spiritual expectations, also supported by the fragile, prophetic voice of the Church. Today’s commemorations continue to express the intensity of the hopes of that age.
Professor of Contemporary History
University of Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens, France)
Translated from the original text in French
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