Primary Documents - Cardinal Mercier on Germany's Policy of Deporting Belgians to Germany, 29 November 1916

Cardinal Desire Mercier Reproduced below is the text of a letter sent by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Malines, Cardinal Desire Mercier, on 29 November 1916.  This letter comprised a reply to a letter sent by the German Military Governor of Belgium, Ferdinand von Bissing, six days earlier.

Mercier's correspondence with von Bissing was in relation to the current German policy in occupied Belgium of deporting unemployed Belgian men to Germany to provide what was in essence forced labour.  Mercier protested not only against the policy as it stood, but also against the reality that employed Belgian men were also selected for deportation - in short, that the deportation selection process was essentially random.

This was just one of a series of written protests Cardinal Mercier instigated from occupied Belgium.  They secured widespread distribution and its author gained international renown; it was this celebrity which prevented the German authorities in Belgium from suppressing the Cardinal's activities.

Click here to read Mercier's earlier public announcement on the subject.

Reply of Cardinal Mercier to Governor von Bissing Regarding Deportation of Belgian Citizens to Germany

November 29, 1916
To the Governor General,


The letter which your Excellency did me the honour to write to me, under date of November 23rd, is a disappointment to me.

In various circles, which I had reason to believe were correctly informed, it was said, your Excellency, that you had felt it your duty to protest to the highest authorities of the empire against the measures which you were constrained to apply in Belgium.

I counted on at least a delay in the application of these measures, while they were being submitted to fresh examination, and also on some relaxation of the rigour with which they are applied.

And now, your Excellency, without replying one word to any of the arguments by which I established the illegal and anti-social character of the condemnation of the Belgian working classes to forced labour and to deportation, you confine yourself to repeating, in your telegram of November 23rd, the very text of your letter of October 26th.

These two letters are, really, identical in matter and almost in word.

On the other hand, the recruiting of the so-called unemployed continues, generally without any regard for the observations of the local authorities.  Several reports which I have in hand prove that the clergy are brutally thrust aside, burgomasters and town councillors reduced to silence; the recruiters then find themselves face to face with unknown men, among whom they arbitrarily make their choice.

There are abundant examples to prove this statement.  I will give two recent ones, chosen from a quantity of others which I hold at the disposal of your Excellency.

On November 21st recruiting began in the commune of Kersbeek-Miscom.  From the 1,325 inhabitants of this commune the recruiters took away altogether, without any distinction of social position or profession, farmers' sons, men who were supporting aged and infirm parents, fathers of families who left wives and families in misery, each of them as necessary to his family as its daily bread.  Two families found themselves deprived each of four sons at once.

Among ninety-four deportees there were only two unemployed.

In the region of Aerschot recruiting began on November 23rd; at Rillaer, at Gebrede, at Rotselaer, young men, supporting their widowed mothers; farmers at the head of large families (one of these, who is over 50 years of age, has ten children working on the land), who possess cattle and have never touched a penny of public money, were taken away by force in spite of all their protestations.  In the little commune of Rillaer they actually took twenty-five boys of 17.

Your Excellency wished that the communal councils should become the accomplices of this odious recruiting.  By their legal situation and by reason of conscience, they could not do so.  But they could have advised the recruiters and are entitled to do so.

The priests, who know the working people better than any one else, might have been of the utmost assistance to the recruiters.  Why is their help refused?

At the end of your letter, your Excellency, you remind me that men belonging to liberal professions are not interfered with.  If only the unemployed were removed I could understand this exception.  But if all able-bodied men continue to be enrolled indiscriminately the exception is unjustifiable.

It would be iniquitous to make the whole weight of the deportations fall upon the working classes.  The middle classes must have their part in the sacrifice, however cruel it may be, and just because it is cruel, that the occupying power imposes on the nation.

A great many members of my clergy have asked me to beg for them a place in the van of the persecuted.  I register their offer and submit it to you with pride.

I would wish to believe that the authorities of the empire have not said their last word.  They will think of our undeserved sorrows, of the reprobation of the civilized world, of the judgment of history, and of the chastisement of God.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

The USA suffered 57,476 fatal army casualties during the war.

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