On the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War
The longed-for end of the First World War, which cost the lives of an estimated 17 million soldiers and civilians and caused major suffering throughout Europe and the rest of the world, had finally arrived. But the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles brought only a fragile peace. Pope Benedict XV warned in 1920 that “the germs of former enmities remain” and “latent hostility and enmity [...] among the nations” could continue (encyclical Pacem, Dei Munus Pulcherrimum). They had not succeeded in establishing a stable international order in Europe, and a little over twenty years later, the world found itself facing the next catastrophe.
It was only after the Second World War, against a background of two wars, that it was possible to banish war in most areas of Europe. A genuine peace dawned and the nations of Europe, whose soldiers had previously faced one another across the trenches, grew ever closer into a mutual economic and cultural area. The idea of European integration as a peace project was born: former arch-enemies become close friends, as expressed in the exchange programmes and mutual agreements between Germany and France, and Germany and Poland.
This peace, which has now lasted for decades, is often taken for granted by us, although numerous wars and conflicts rage even now throughout the world. There are ever fewer people still alive who experienced the last war in central Europe for themselves and can testify to the pain and suffering caused by armed conflict – suffering that far outstiprs more or less all today’s problems and causes of discontent. Remembrance of the end of the War warns us not to be lulled into a false sense of security, not to play down the effects of armed conflict and to ensure that peace is always accorded the high value it deserves. It is for precisely these reasons that we should conduct our current debates with careful thought and consideration. While modernisation processes such as digitisation and globalisation put pressure on people to change, and can thereby generate fear, a general loss of trust in the democratic institutions seems to be spreading; nationalism and populism are flaring up once again, the enthusiasm for the European project is waning, the language used is becoming coarser, many are being dulled. In many aspects of today’s climate, peace is under threat once again today.
We thus need to constantly ensure that we achieve peace and preserve it; we need to stand up against exaggerated nationalism. This requires new thinking about what constitutes Europe and the European common good. It is only by prioritising the good of society as a whole over particular and special interests, by strengthening social solidarity, and by ensuring human dignity, justice and prosperity, that we can reinforce and maintain peace and security in the long term. Other major challenges such as climate change, migration and trade issues can also only be tackled with mutual cooperation.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the Catholic Church often intervened for peace and understanding. Today, too, the Church is faced on a daily basis with the task and opportunity of participating in the peace project of Europe and peace in the world. This not only means campaigning for peace, but also preparing concrete ways for peace to exist. In times characterised by fear and despair, it is the task of the Church to move forward with optimism and hope, and to speak up for peace and justice.
Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck
Bishop of Essen and Military Bishop Vice-President of COMECE
Translated from the original text in German