Jesuit Journals and the First World War: On nationalism and dialogue

Issue 1810

4 October 2018

In Lourdes, in July 1914, German and French Catholics, each in their own language, peacefully prayed together. “Two weeks later, the war in Europe broke out, and the pilgrims of Lourdes, having gone home, clashed against one another, under the shadow of their own flags. Those who yesterday greeted each other as brothers and sisters, now were fighting as enemies.”[1] For the Catholics on each front, the outbreak of the First World War was not seen as the latest consequence of a decades-old rupture; rather, it was felt as the painful destruction of an international solidarity. And Fr. Jules Lebreton, of the French Jesuit journal, Études, who authored the lines quoted above, asked himself how to confront this experience. According to him, neither desperation about the unity and understanding among peoples nor desertion were valid responses. As for all of the writers of the journal, for him, fighting for France did not mean only defending the homeland, but also defending religion and Christian civilization.

His reflection, however, goes beyond the war: how could an eventual reconciliation come about after the traumas of war, without putting justice and injustice on the same level or without, for the sake of convenience, equally dividing responsibility between the parties? One must start with the cross of Christ, which teaches us to look the worst crimes in the eyes, to call injustice what it is without, however, allowing ourselves to be sucked into the vortex of hatred.

This also regards treating the enemy with equity. Germany is not just the Germany of Luther and Bismarck. “A wall of iron and fire” now divides us; “we cannot make ourselves understood by the Catholics on the other side of the Rhine, and we know that a large part of them do not have any possibility to know the truth about the war, its causes and the way in which it is being fought.”[2] But one day, continues Fr. Lebreton, the Catholics in Germany will rediscover their union with those in France and Belgium. On that day, they will appreciate all the more the fact that we have resisted the aggression which came from their country. “Then, as we did last July, we can see each other at Lourdes, at the feet of our common Mother, adoring together the same God, in the communion of the same Eucharist!”

This was the dilemma faced by the majority of the authors of both Stimmen der Zeit, on the German side, and of Études, on the French side. On the one hand, an uncritical identification with the “just cause” of their respective fatherlands; on the other hand, they made an effort to be just toward the enemy and the future prospective of a possible reconciliation when the war was over.

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