Death of the Pope for Peace Benedict XV.
PD Dr. Arne Karsten / History
Photo: UniService Transfer

“We will gladly sacrifice our lives for the peace of the world".

Jahr100Wissen interview with Dr Arne Karsten on the death of the Pope for Peace Benedict XV on 22 January 1922

Pope Benedict XV, who went down in history as the "Pope of Peace", died on 22 January 1922. Why was he given this title?

Karsten: Because shortly after the outbreak of war, a few days after his election, on 3 September 1914, the Pope published a letter in which he strongly advocated an end to the bloodshed. This became a leitmotif of his entire pontificate. The Vatican's peace initiative in August 1917, a mediation offer by the Pope to the powers involved in the war, although unsuccessful in the matter, became famous. With the entire array of diplomatic possibilities of the Vatican, this initiated mediation project had a very strong impact on the public image of the Pope.

Even before his ordination to the priesthood, he had earned a doctorate in law, and in 1880 he earned another doctorate in canon law. He was considered one of the leading mediators for Pope Leo XIII in the dispute between Germany and Spain over the Caroline Islands group in the Pacific. What did the Vatican have to do with that?

Karsten: That's a good question. It had nothing to do with it at all, and that made it interesting precisely as a mediator. First of all, it's about the Pope's self-image as 'padre commune', as the common father of all Catholic princes in Europe since the Reformation: the Pope as a party above the French King, the Spanish King, the Emperor in the Empire, the various Italian princes. This was the self-image of being a mediator resulting from this role in conflict situations between the European powers. There are depictions in Rome of Pope Paul III. (1534 - 1549) as mediator of the Peace of Nice between Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France. This is a very old tradition. In the concrete manifestation of the conflict between Spain and the German Empire in the 19th century, it is a constellation that is very much characterised by the fact that Otto von Bismarck wanted to improve relations with the Vatican in Germany. The moment you entrust someone with mediation, you grant them a superior role, you subordinate yourself to their judgement. Of course, this is useful for the Vatican's diplomatic prestige. Bismarck wanted to relax relations with Catholicism after the Kulturkampf years of the founding of the Reich. The conflict over the Caroline Islands was not about the existence or non-existence of the empire, Spain or the further development of world history. It was a field where the political situation between the Empire and the Vatican could be improved with little effort.

Giacomo della Chiesa was not elected Pope until the 10th ballot on 3 September 1914, by 38 votes to 18. He was considered ironic and choleric, but assertive. As a result, he was not very popular with the public. How did that manifest itself?

Karsten: He was small, he was slight and he was born with a walking disability, so he was anything but an impressive personality in outward appearance. And as is not uncommon, people who grow up with physical infirmities compensate for it in other areas. He was extraordinarily intellectual, sometimes biting, ironic and sharp-tongued, of quick comprehension and great enthusiasm for work. One of his associates from long before he was elected Pope said that Giacomo della Chiesa had four favourite words: "Quick, quick, quick and quick!" This led to a spiritual presence that was also intimidating and gave him a very different image from that of many a predecessor. Pius IX, for example, (reigned 1846 - 1878) was an extraordinarily popular Pope, very popular with the population, affable, approachable and also pleasant in appearance. Giacomo della Chiesa, on the other hand, was somewhat gnome-like, of sharp intelligence but not very popular with the people.

During World War 1, he personally tended to side with France. He undertook several unsuccessful negotiations to negotiate peace. The alliance of the United Kingdom, France and Russia, also called the Triple Entente, was rather critical of him. And Emperor Wilhelm also noted in a letter sent to him by the Pope on the occasion of his birthday, urging peace: "Sancta simplicitas! Very poor and weak for the 'Governor of Christ' on earth."  Did the Holy See sit between two stools, so to speak?

Karsten: It did in several respects. First of all, the head of Catholic Christendom had to deal with Protestant England, secular France and Greek Orthodox Russia on one side. On the other side was the German Empire with the Protestant Hohenzoller at its head. The only Catholic monarchy in Europe was still the Habsburg monarchy, and the third in the league of the Central Powers, the Ottoman Empire, was in turn as incompatible as possible with the Pope in matters of faith. Already in this role as head of Catholic Christianity, the Pope's position was difficult. In addition, there was something else. With his messages of peace, the Pope did not really make friends anywhere. We have to take into account that everywhere in Europe, among all the powers involved, the insane losses of the war in material and ideal terms had led to enormous bitterness. All had millions of dead and everywhere it was said that this war was necessary for the future of the nation, for the future of humanity, and all were fighting for the just cause. And now the Pope comes from Rome and says: This war is a 'useless bloodshed'! No one wanted to hear that and nowhere did the public want to hear that. This was met with bitterness on all sides.

After the war, he tried to improve France's anti-clerical government. The canonisation of Jeanne d`Arc in 1920 is considered a conciliatory sign in this regard. After all, he achieved diplomatic recognition of the Holy See by France and Great Britain. How did he manage that?

Karsten: That was also due to the political climate. Until 1870, the Pope was not only the head of Catholic Christianity, but also the sovereign of the Papal States. In 1870, however, this state was conquered by the newly founded Kingdom of Italy and the Pope withdrew to the Vatican. However, he did not recognise the loss of this Papal State until the conclusion of the Lateran Treaties in 1929. The Vatican's position under international law was unresolved until then. However, through the peace initiatives and humanitarian activities that the Vatican developed during the First World War, there was a general realisation that it would be helpful to put an end to this unresolved status under international law. The Vatican was involved in the care of prisoners and the exchange of wounded and even had a tracing service for war missing persons. The British were very forward-looking in their policy, sending a diplomatic representative to Rome as early as 1914 in order to have direct access to the Vatican on a diplomatic level. In 1914, 14 states were in diplomatic relations with the Vatican; by 1922, there were already 28. The papacy was increasingly seen as a moral authority and was also instrumentalised. The canonisation of a French national saint, who ended up at the stake as the victim of an episcopal inquisition trial, was also a kind of self-criticism on the part of the papal Catholics. The proceedings initiated by the French bishops at the time were revoked in their validity and a concession was made to the French national understanding here.

In his Exhortia Allorché fummo chiamati (Exhortatio in Catholic parlance stands for the exhortation to do right or the call to repentance, editor's note) of 28 July 1915, Benedict XV described the war as "horrible butchery". His doctrine of peace became an integral part of the ecclesiastical magisterium of his successors. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) finally called for bringing about a state of the world in which war would be completely prohibited. The last thing Benedict XV is reported to have said was, "We will gladly sacrifice our lives for the peace of the world." Is that the legacy to all his successors?

Karsten: It has certainly been perceived as such by all his successors. This is reflected in the behaviour of Pius XII during the Second World War, in which he tried, entirely in the footsteps of Benedict XV, to keep the papacy as a moral authority out of party disputes in order to gain room for manoeuvre on another practical level in the humanitarian field. This is also reflected in Paul VI's behaviour during the Vietnam War. And the choice of name of the penultimate pope, Joseph Ratzinger, in reference to this predecessor and his self-sacrificing activity in the service of peace, was also deliberately chosen. With Benedict XVI, he chose a name with which he saw the ideal corresponding to the work at the head of the Church realised in the best sense: the prevention of physical conflicts of interest.

Uwe Blass (conversation from 11.11.2021)

PD Dr. Arne Karsten (*1969) studied art history, history and philosophy in Göttingen, Rome and Berlin. From 2001 to 2009 he was a research assistant at the Institute for Art and Image History at Humboldt University Berlin. Since the winter semester of 2009, he has been teaching as a junior professor of modern history at Bergische Universität. He habilitated in 2016.


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