Honouring the Pope of Peace Part II

Part II of a series of articles remembering Benedict XV’s efforts to stop the catastrophe of 1914 begins with the new Pontiff’s background and the Italian experience of being lured into Britain’s Great War.

Part Two – Italy and the Great War

Giancoma Della Chiesa of Genoa became Pope Benedict XV only in September 1914. Giancoma Della Chiesa was born premature in 1854. He was small and had a limp – this led him to be called ‘il piccoletto’ the little one. Some have said that his lack of stature impeded his career.

Chiesa was taken under the wing of an aristocratic and pious Sicilian, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro. He went with Rampolla to Madrid and Rome as his understudy and gained valuable experience doing diplomatic work. In 1889 he went to Vienna to help sort out the affairs of Karl Leuger’s Christian Socialist Party.

When Leo XIII died at the age of ninety-three after a reign that lasted a quarter of a century, he did not leave an untroubled inheritance. Many cardinals wanted a shift towards the “pastoral”, a pope who was neither a “politician” nor a “diplomat”.

The high-profile candidate was instead the man who embodied the other line, that of direct continuity with Leo XIII. Rampolla, then Secretary of State was favourite. He wanted to cultivate friendship with France to protect the Vatican from the Italian State and his election was backed by most of the French cardinals. But he was opposed by Austria because of his policy in support of the aspirations of the Slavs who were causing unrest in the Balkans.. The Austrian emperor decided to make use of an ancient right of veto, granted to the great Catholic monarchies, to block the election of Rampolla.

Pius X was elected and Rampolla was given an unimportant position to keep him out of the way. He retired soon after. Chiesa, who was associated with Rampolla, was banished to Bologna by the new pope.

Chiesa was held back by his association with Rampolla and not made a Cardinal (Bologna’s bishop was usually a Cardinal). So when Pius died in 1914 Chiesa had only just been a cardinal for 3 months.

It was said that Pius X died of a broken heart at the outbreak of war. The conclave favoured Chiesa because choice was narrowed. No cardinal of a belligerent nation stood a chance. Italians who had served in belligerent capitals were also ruled out. Only an Italian or a Spaniard – neutrals – had a hope. Chiesa was felt to have the diplomatic skills necessary for a very difficult situation and he wasn’t an anti-modernist like the last pope.

Austrians would have vetoed Chiesa if Pius X had not abolished the veto in 1904 – they saw him as pro-French like his mentor, Rampolla.

The Irish Catholic continued its review of Benedict XV and World War I in its edition of April 25th  2005. This time, however, it enlisted the services of more intellectual weight in the shape of the Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Oliver Rafferty, at Maynooth.

Rafferty blames the lack of Vatican influence on the belligerents at the start of the Great War on Pius X’s (1903-14) efforts against the modernists (including Benedict) in the Church: “Part of the problem was that under Pope Pius X the political authority of the Papacy had, among non-Catholic powers, dropped to a very low ebb. This was partly as a result of the Modernist crisis, when the Vatican’s apparent rejection of attempts to reconcile Catholicism and a certain type of scientific inquiry, left many independent observers agog. The methods employed to stifle debate in the Church weakened the Church’s moral authority in a world now tearing itself apart by war. At one level, therefore the Holy See could not possibly hope to influence the activities of either the Central Powers or the Allies.”

This view is very much in conflict with what Francesco Nitti had to say about the influence of the Vatican (toward the end of Pius’s Pontificate in 1911). On the eve of the Great War the Pope, argued Nitti, was free for the first time to pursue a principled policy in line with Catholic moral doctrine. This was because the Vatican, having been reduced to a church by Italian nationalists, no longer had state interests to balance up with Catholic policy. At this very time the Papacy also was becoming more influential in Europe, because the Catholic masses were becoming more powerful as democracy developed and the power of the oligarchies declined.

One also wonders what affect the conflict between traditionalists and modernists within the Roman Church had on Britain’s decision to wage war in August 1914 – the thing that made the European war a Great War – and how a modernist in the Vatican may have persuaded Edward Grey otherwise? That is also leaving aside the anti-Catholic governments of the other main belligerents, Russia, Germany and France.

It was not the Vatican’s effect on rulers and a government that was a concern for the belligerents – it was its potential moral effect on the masses that were needed as cannon fodder in the first mass democratic war. And particularly by the Entente, whose masses, – unlike those of Germany, and Austria/Hungary – were being enlisted in a crusade inspired by propaganda of a highly moralistic kind.

The Vatican had immense potential moral force in this situation so the Entente set about narrowing the parameters within which the Pope operated so that the Holy See possessed as little real power or influence on the masses as possible.

The allies still expected the new Pope, Benedict XV, to become an ardent partisan and join in their crusade against Germany by issuing propaganda on their behalf. But the Pope declined to join their crusade.

In June 1915 a French journalist was granted an interview with Pope Benedict. This was subsequently published in the French paper La Liberte (and was reproduced in the Catholic Bulletin April 1930). This interview seemed to be largely concerned with attempting to get the Vatican to enter the politics of condemnation – against the German/Austrian side, alone, of course. It was felt that the Papacy should enlist its services as a propaganda organ of the allies in the crusade of good against evil.

The Vatican subsequently disputed some of the recording detail of the interview with the journalist, Monsieur Latapie, and declined to do interviews after. But the content is illustrative of the allied design on the Papacy and Benedict’s resistance to it:

Benedict: “In the beginning of my Pontificate, I addressed to the whole world a letter in favour of peace, in which I earnestly begged and exhorted those ruling the destinies of nations to make up their differences and turn their energies to the welfare of mankind. I proposed a truce for Christmas Day; I laboured to effect an exchange of prisoners… I reproved injustice of every sort, but I added that it would be neither useful nor prudent to mix up the Pontifical authority in disputes with the belligerents.

Latapie: “But it is a matter of crimes, not of disputes.”

Benedict: “Would you have me denounce every individual crime that is committed? Every one of your charges calls forth a counter-charge from the Germans. One cannot set up a permanent criminal court here, nor even hold an investigation, under the circumstances…”

Latapie: “But does not all the world know that numerous Belgian and French priests were made hostages and shot?”

Benedict: “I have had from the Austrian bishops a statement to the effect that the Russian army also had made Catholic priests hostages, and on one occasion had compelled 1,500 Jews to form a living wall between themselves and the enemy’s fire. The… Italian army has already taken eighteen Austrian priests as hostages…”

Latapie: “But the burning of Louvain? And the bombardment of Rheims?”

Benedict: “The Germans reply that their troops had been first fired on, and they declare that there was an observation post on the turrets of the cathedral in Rheims…”

Latapie:  “But the Lusitania? Here we have innocent victims not belligerents?”

Benedict: “But do you think that a (British – P.W.) blockade closing round two Empires and condemning millions of innocent human beings to starvation is inspired by very humane feelings?…”

Latapie:  “Holy Father, we were painfully impressed in France when we learned that the Holy See was endeavouring to keep Italy neutral. Did this not amount to promoting the designs of German neutrality?”

Benedict: “I decidedly admit we were neutralists… We desired peace… because we wish peace to reign among men… we wished to spare this country, which we love, the sufferings of war… Finally, we do not wish to conceal the fact that we are mindful of the interests of the Holy See. War imperils those interests…”

Latapie:  “Is the Pope not free? In virtue of the Law of Guarantees, can he not freely exercise his mission?”

Benedict: “… We hear a bell of but one tone. Our relations with the enemy nations of Italy have been practically suppressed. Their accredited representatives have had to leave Italy. We have confidence in the present government but we dread to see ourselves exposed to the uncertainties of Italian politics. Rome is a hotbed of perpetual ferment. Do you imagine it would be absurd to fear that revolution may have its day? How will they behave in case of victory? … Do you now understand we were opposed with all our might to the ending of Italian neutrality?”

The British and French wanted the Pope to aid their secular crusade by condemning particular, i.e. German, wrongs in his capacity as supreme judge in matters of morals. But in the days before the “ war for small nations” when small nations had had their day and the love of them was not a concern, as at the time of the war on the Boer Republics, the Vatican’s condemnations would surely not have been welcomed.

This secular crusade for good against evil depended much on propaganda being believed by neutral nations. But the Pope, the supreme arbiter in the world over issues of good and evil, at least as far as the Catholic democracies were concerned, did not give his imprimatur to the crusade of good over evil and characterised the war as one, instead, of evil versus evil. So the moral standing of the crusade, which was everything to a crusade that sought to enlist a sceptical world in its ranks, was incomplete. The Italian masses were therefore unavailable as cannon fodder.

To counteract the moral authority of the Papacy on the Catholic masses the Entente by-passed the Italian democracy, to make secret deals amongst the oligarchic elite, and set peaceful Italy into turmoil, undermining the Pope’s freedom of action.

The British naval attack on the Dardanelles in early 1915 had a dual purpose. It was meant as an assault on the Ottoman Turks and as a demonstration of ‘shock and awe’ that would impress and persuade Italy into the war.

By attacking the Dardanelles England was sending out a signal to those who were keeping out of the war that it was intent on a reordering of the Middle East and the Balkan regions when it had won the war. And it would be rewarding its friends with the scraps of victory at the expense of its enemies, and the neutrals, when it got round to distributing the spoils. (Dr. E.J. Dillon’s columns from Italy for the Daily Telegraph during 1914-5 reveal British strategy implicitly.)

It was one of the fundamentals of pre-war British foreign policy, after its re-orientation toward regarding Germany rather than France as enemy no. 1, to detach Italy from the Triple Alliance, so that Germany could be isolated and encircled. Italy had been a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria since 1882. It had joined Germany to gain Bismarck’s protection against France and had achieved much of its political stability and economic development in alliance with Germany prior to 1914. But when war broke out Italy decided not to fight alongside its allies, because through a clause in the Triple Alliance she was not required to do so if Great Britain was in the field against them. Italy had also made a secret agreement with France in 1902 to the effect that it would enter no war against France.

But Italian neutrality was not enough for England. From the start of the war Britain set to work to entice the Italians into the ranks of the Entente and against their former allies so that Germany and Austria could be encircled.

It was in the British interest to expand and escalate the war it had entered into to destroy Germany as much as possible just as it was in the interests of Germany to keep it limited to as few belligerents as possible, and let peaceful nations be. In this sense the Papacy appeared to be pro-German since it desired to limit the effects of the war and bring it to a fast and peaceful resolution.

England had to apply its entire military, propagandist, financial and diplomatic resources to get Italy into the war, as it was generally believed by the majority of Italians that nothing good would come of participation in the slaughter. But Britain had control of the Press Agencies, which determined what appeared in the Italian newspapers. And vast amounts were spent in this matter.

E.J.Dillon described very well, from the British perspective, the situation in Italy in his 1916 book Ourselves And Germany: “At first all Italy was opposed to belligerency. Deliberate reason, irrational prejudice, religious sentiment, political calculation, economic interests and military considerations all tended to confirm the population in its resolve to keep out of the sanguinary struggle. The Vatican, its organs and agents, brought all their resources to bear upon devout Catholics, whose name is legion and whose immediate aim was the maintenance of peace with the Central empires.” (Ourselves And Germany, pp. 190-1.)

The lever used by the allies to bring Italy into the war was the “irredenta”. Some Italian nationalists were in favour of joining the war on the side of France and England in order that “Italia irredenta” would be redeemed. The “irredenta,” or unredeemed, was the territory between the Northern boundary of Italy and the Alps, including the Trentino and Tyrol regions, and a stretch of land between Eastern shore of the Adriatic and the mountains behind it, now part of the Croatian State, known as Dalmatia. Mazzini had defined these territories as Italian, although they lay outside of the frontiers of the Italian State formed in 1870. They had remained part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when the Italian State was formed and were composed of a mixed nationality. Italian was the language of the majority, but the regions also included large numbers of Germans and Croatians. The Irredentist view was that the incorporation of these regions within the Italian State would complete the Risorgimento. Prior to the war, the Italian desire to redeem the “irredenta” seemed to have declined and Italians had put their minds to other matters. But there was still a strong irredentist undercurrent in Italy and the Entente applied their efforts into encouraging it as a means to lever Italy into the war on their side.

The major centre of opposition to Italian participation in the war was, as Dillon noted, the Vatican. Benedict XV, who had become Pope at the start of the war, had declared for neutrality and this was very important because it effectively countered, from the highest authority, the Nationalists’ Catholic moral propaganda in favour of “Catholic Belgium” to get Italy to join the war.

The Vatican had been in conflict with the Italian State since its foundation. In 1870 Italian nationalists availed of the Pope’s loss of French protection – when Napoleon III withdrew his army to attack Prussia – and occupied the Papal States. The Laws of the Guarantee of 1871 imposed on the Pope the rights of a sovereign without territory, declaring the Papal residences the property of the Italian State. In response to the ending of the Vatican’s independence Pius IX and his successors refused to go outside the Vatican (until Mussolini settled the conflict in1929 by accepting Pius XI as sovereign of his own state and territory) and forbade Catholics to take part in elections to the Italian legislature.

Pius X relaxed the non expedit decree which forbade Catholics from voting and being candidates in Italian elections.In the years leading up to the Great War a kind of functional compromise had been worked out which produced a patriotic clergy and a national Catholicism with Catholics participating in national politics as Italians. And Italy’s decision to remain neutral at the start of the war undoubtedly brought Church and State closer together. Giolitti, the pre-war Italian Prime Minister, had remarked that the Roman Question was dead.

In 1915, with the war not progressing as well as the Liberal Imperialists imagined it would, it was decided to step up efforts to throw the Italian democracy into the melting pot to aid the British interest.

Dillon described the important obstacle the Vatican presented to the British design in his 1915 book, From The Triple To The Quadruple Alliance: “On the outbreak of the war the Allied Powers were practically unrepresented at the Vatican. The Belgian Minister, a venerable old man whose diplomatic career was drawing to a close, wielded no influence there. Russia’s representative, M. Nelidoff, was tolerated, but in his quality of schismatic and spokesman of a nation of proselytizing schematics whose aim is supposed to be the crushing out of Catholicism in the Tsardom, his voice carried no weight. Great Britain as a Protestant State and France as an anti-Catholic Republic, were without envoys. The Teutons on the contrary, were in force… Moreover the great power in Europe which identifies itself with Catholicism is the Hapsburg Monarchy. Within the boundaries of this State the Church and its institutions have free scope for their activity and are efficiently protected by the strong arm of secular power. And so long as Austria endures, the Church may continue to thrive and dream of better things in retrospect and prospect, but with the disappearance of the Hapsburg Monarchy from the rank of the Great Powers, the last stronghold of Catholicism among European States will have passed into the hands of an enemy.”   (pp.187-8.)

Sir Henry Howard, from the old English gentry Catholic family, arrived in Rome in January 1915 as Envoy Extraordinary of the British Embassy (temporary) to mount a diplomatic assault at the Vatican. But at the same time, Britain played a double game.

Benedict found his freedom of action drastically curtailed as British pressure grew on the Italian Government. The Italians intrigued hard to prevent the Vatican from getting any increase in international prestige and profile from the start of the war. They also continuously opposed Benedict’s humanitarian gestures – such as donations of relief to suffering civilians on both sides and the organisation of prisoner releases – putting practical difficulties in the way of many of his initiatives.

The Pope became very much a prisoner within the Vatican’s walls and at the mercy of Italy’s anti-clerical and Masonic politicians. The Italian High Command and censorship office broke all the, primitive, Vatican codes and intercepted its telegraph traffic. The security of the Vatican’s diplomatic mail was constantly violated. The Italian police effectively spied on the Pope and Curia without hindrance. At one point it was suggested the Pope move to Spain as fears for his safety grew but Benedict resisted such a suggestion.

Benedict’s strenuous efforts to keep Italy from joining the war were thwarted in April 1915 when a secret agreement was concluded between Britain, France and Russia, as part of the bribe to get Italy to join “the war for small nations”.

Under this treaty Italy was to have Trentino, Istria, Dalmatia, and some islands off Greece to make the Adriatic an Italian waterway. It also was to receive colonies in Asia and Africa and fifty million pounds to fight the war. Under the Secret Treaties Russia was to get the Straits, Constantinople, and adjacent districts. France was to get Alsace-Lorraine and the left bank of the Rhine. Britain was to be rewarded by the destruction of the German navy, merchant marine, and its small colonies. Altogether, the Allies were to destroy the “economic power of Germany.”

The fifteenth article of the treaty provided that these three powers “will support Italy in opposing any and every diplomatic step on the part of the representatives of the Holy See for the conclusion of peace or in regard to questions arising out of the present war”.

The Treaty, known as the Treaty of London, was kept secret until the Bolsheviks took power in Russia and released the suppressed Secret Treaties of the Allies. These proved that the Entente propaganda about the aims of their war – “the war for small nations” – was no more valid than their assertions about the events of the summer of 1914.

The Treaty of London made sure that Britain and its allies would not only share the spoils but also dictate a moral judgement over the vanquished at the end of the war. The Vatican would not have a voice or influence on the type of Europe set up upon an Entente victory. There would be no moral restraint on the victors on what they would do to Germany, Austria/Hungary and Turkey.

Oddly enough Catholic Ireland, although not party to the secret deal, helped bring it about.

There was awareness within the Irish Party leadership that Catholic Ireland held a uniquely pivotal position in the British plan to entice Italy into the war. Redmondite Ireland went along with the British policy and aided it to secure Home Rule at the end of the war.

Redmondite Ireland helped in the creation of a climate in Europe within which it was almost impossible to allow the continued existence of neutrals, actively assisting in Italy’s enticement by sending a strong delegation to Paris to put on a show of Catholic solidarity as the Italian government signed up to the crusade. It did this to communicate the impression to Catholic Italy on the eve of its announcement of hostilities that the Freemasonry government in France, that had once boasted it would “put out the lights of heaven,” had now returned to the old faith with France’s participation in the blood-sacrifice at the front.

Our current historians, who rant against the bloodshed of the Easter Rising, have no problem with Ireland helping to extend and escalate the war and encourage Italy’s participation in it. Italy lost 500,000 men and 1,000,000 wounded as a result of joining the crusade against Germany and Austria/Hungary. And its political system was broken up into its elementals as a result – and the result was Mussolini.

The English historian and propagandist, R.W.Seton-Watson in his 1938 book, Britain And The Dictators, described the relationship between the Treaty of London, the Great War, Versailles, and the post-war Fascist takeover by Mussolini. His account is keen to dismiss the Italian rights to the spoils of war promised by England:

“This Treaty was of capital importance for the whole future settlement: for on the one hand it violated those rights and interests of small nations to which the Allied Statesmen had paid repeated and emphatic lip-service, while on the other hand it tied their hands towards Italy, and when in due course events made exact fulfillment impossible, gave her an obvious grievance and a strong legal case… No one, indeed, could read the text of the Treaty without realising that it was quite irreconcilable with the public definition of peace terms issued by the Allies in answer to President Wilson’s inquiries in December 1916. At the same time it is important to note that the real motive force of Italy’s entry into the war was not the tortuous diplomacy of Sonnino… but the spontaneous outburst of popular feeling in Italy, voiced by three such different figures as D’Annunzio, Bissolati and Mussolini (who had shaken off his Socialist and Syndicate antecedents and was making of the Popolo d’Italia the organ of ultra-radical opinion). But this made it all the more deplorable that, behind the back of opinion in all countries, a discreditable bargain should have been concluded which was never legally annulled, and which, at a moment when national hysteria and territorial greed were throwing their shadow over the high professions of idealism at the Peace Congress, could be represented as Italy’s hardly earned reward and just rights, of which unscrupulous allies were seeking to rob her…

On a pure basis of nationality and self-determination, Italy had no case whatever against either Jugoslavia or Greece: and the Treaty of London was in many respects the most immediately Imperialistic of the whole bunch of secret conventions. But for this the allies were equally, if not more, to blame: they had undertaken commitments which could not be reconciled with their public pledges… Thus the Italian people emerged from the Great War in a mood of cynical disillusionment and scarcely less exhausted than the beaten foe.

There can be no doubt that Italy’s discomfiture in the field of foreign policy increased the neurasthenia from which the masses were suffering, as the result of so gigantic an effort… Parliamentary Government never recovered from the fatal eclipse of May 1915, when war was forced upon the Government at the insistence of ‘the street’ (la Piazza), in the teeth of a strong majority among the Deputies. Mussolini denounced Parliament as ‘the bubonic plague which is poisoning the nation’s blood, and needs to be extirpated’, now set himself to organise a movement in every village and at every street corner that would meet violence with violence, a revolt from the Left by a revolution from the Right – this a revolution based upon rigid discipline and upon the assumption that Democracy and Liberalism are played out and must be replaced by some new and more abiding political force…

If from the very first Mussolini insisted on the revolutionary character of his movement, he really secured power at the supreme crisis by a process not altogether dissimilar from that which brought Italy into the war in 1915. (pp. 147-57.)

The way in which Italy went to war in May 1915 had the effect of seriously undermining constitutional politics in the country. Parliament was proved not to be sovereign since the will of the people was taken to be the popular expression on the streets. It was a precedent that was to be taken up again in Mussolini’s march on Rome and coming to power in 1922. As Sir Charles Petrie commented in his Lords Of The Inland Sea, it “proved to be the beginning of the end of the Liberal regime in Italy… Parliament was not necessarily synonymous with Italy” (p.19)

The enticement of Italy into the war, aided by Redmondite Ireland, coupled with the Treaty of London and its subversion by England after the war was over, had disastrous political effects in Italy – and ultimately for Europe, and the British Empire.

The only person who does not bear responsibility for the state of post-war Europe and its descent into another catastrophic conflict was Benedict XV who struggled vainly against Britain to prevent the chain of events that occurred from happening. (To be continued)

Originally published in The Irish Political Review October 2005