Primary Documents - Cardinal Mercier on Germany's Policy of Deporting Belgians to Germany, 7 November 1916

Cardinal Desire Mercier Reproduced below is the text of an announcement made by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Malines, Cardinal Desire Mercier, on 7 November 1916.  Intended for the governments of neutral countries - and in particular the U.S.A. - Cardinal Mercier drew attention to the current German policy in occupied Belgium of deporting unemployed Belgian men to Germany to provide what was in essence forced labour.

Mercier recounted numerous occasions upon which the German military authorities had assured him - verbally and in writing - that such deportations would never occur in Belgium; in consequence he protested that such a policy should now have been officially adopted.

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 Governor von Bissing's response to Mercier's demands.

Cardinal Desire Mercier on Germany's Policy of Deporting Belgian Citizens to Germany

Malines, November 7, 1916

Every day the military authorities deport from Belgium into Germany thousands of inoffensive citizens to oblige them there to perform forced labour.

As early as October 19th we sent to the Governor General a protest, a copy of which was handed to the representatives of the Holy See, of Spain, the United States, and Holland, in Brussels, but the Governor General replied to it that nothing could be done.

At the time of our protest the orders of the occupying power threatened only the unemployed; today every able-bodied man is carried off, pell-mell, assembled in freight cars, and carried off to unknown parts, like a herd of slaves.

The enemy proceeds by regions.  Vague rumours had come to our ears that arrests had been made in Tournau, Ghent, and Alost, but we were not aware of the conditions under which they had been made.

Between October 24th and November 2nd deportations took place in the region of Mons, Quievrain, Saint Guislain, Jemappes, in bunches of 800 to 1,200 men a day.  The next and the following days they were extended to the Arrondissement of Nivelles.

Here is a specimen of the announcement concerning the proceedings:

By order of the Kreischef every male person over 17 years old shall present himself, Place Saint Paul, in Nivelles, on November 8, 1916, at 8 o'clock (Belgian time), 9 o'clock (Central time), bringing with him his identification card and eventually his card from the Meldeamt.

Only small hand baggage is permitted.

Those not presenting themselves will be forcibly deported into Germany, and will besides be liable to a heavy fine and to long imprisonment.

Ecclesiastics, physicians, lawyers, and teachers are exempt from this order.

The Mayors will be held responsible for the proper execution of this order, which must be brought immediately to the knowledge of the inhabitants.

Between the announcement and the deportation there is an interval of only twenty-four hours.

Under pretext of public works to be performed on Belgian soil, the occupying power had attempted to obtain from the communities the lists of working men out of work.  Most of the communities proudly refused.

Three decrees from the General Government prepared the way for the execution which is in force today.

Under date of August 15, 1915, a first decree imposes, under penalty of imprisonment and fine, forced work on the idle, but adds that the work is to be executed in Belgium, and that non-compliance will be adjudged by Belgian tribunals.

A second decree, dated May 2, 1916, reserves the right of the German authorities to supply work to the idle, and threatens a fine of three years' imprisonment and 20,000 marks imposable on anybody executing or ordering to be executed work not approved of by the General Government.

Under the same decree, the right to judge infractions which had remained with the Belgian tribunals passed from the Belgian to the German tribunals.

A third decree, dated May 13, 1916, "authorizes the governors, the military commanders, and the chiefs of arrondissements to order that the unemployed be conducted by force to the places where they must work."  This was already forcible working, although in Belgium.

Now it is no longer a question of forcible working in Belgium, but in Germany, and for the benefit of the Germans.

To give an appearance of plausibility to these violent measures, the occupying power insisted in the German press, both in Germany and Belgium, on these two pretexts: the unemployed constitute a danger to public order and a burden on official benevolence.

To this we replied in a letter addressed to the Governor General and to the head of the Political Department on October 16th, as follows:

"You are well aware that public order is in no wise threatened and that all influences, moral and civil, would support you spontaneously were it in danger.

The unemployed are not a burden on official benevolence; it is not from your funds that they receive assistance."

In his reply the Governor General no longer urges these two first considerations but he alleges that "doles to the unemployed, from whatever source they may come at present, must finally be a charge upon our finances, and that it is the duty of a good administrator to lighten such charges"; he adds that "prolonged unemployment would cause our workmen to lose their technical proficiency, and that in the time of peace to come they would be useless to industry."

True, there were other ways in which our finances might have been protected.  We might have been spared those war levies which have now reached the sum of one billion francs, and are still mounting up at the rate of forty millions a month; we might have been spared those requisitions in kind, which amount to several thousands of millions, and are exhausting us.

There are other ways of providing for the maintenance of professional skill among our workpeople, such as leaving to Belgian industry its machinery and accessories, its raw materials, and its manufactured goods, which have passed from Belgium into Germany.  And it is neither to the quarries nor to the lime kilns to which the Germans themselves declare our specialists will go to complete their professional education.

The naked truth is that every deported workman is another soldier for the German army.  He will take the place of a German workman, who will be made into a soldier.  Thus the situation which we denounce to the civilized world may be reduced to these terms: Four hundred thousand workmen have been thrown out of work by no fault of their own, and largely on account of the regime of the occupation.

Sons, husbands, and fathers of families, they bear their unhappy lot without murmuring, respectful of public order; national solidarity provides their most pressing wants; by dint of unselfish thrift and self-denial they escape extreme destitution, and they await with dignity and in a mutual affection which our national sorrows have intensified, the end of our common ordeal.

Groups of soldiers introduced themselves forcibly in the homes of these people, tearing the young people out of the arms of their parents, the husband from his wife, the father from his children; at the point of the bayonet they block the entrances to the homes, preventing wives and mothers from rushing out to say a last farewell to them; they align the captives in groups of forty or fifty and push them forcibly into freight cars; the locomotive is under steam, and as soon as a trainload is ready, an officer gives the signal and they depart.

Thus are another thousand Belgians reduced to slavery, without previous trial, condemned to the penalty which comes next in cruelty to the death penalty - deportation.  They do not know how long their exile is going to last, neither do they know where they are going.  All they know is that their work will benefit the enemy.  Several of them have been brought to sign - by coercion or by threats - an engagement which their oppressors dare to call "voluntary."

While they certainly take the unemployed, they also take a large number in the proportion of one-quarter for the Arrondissement of Mons - of men who were never out of work and who belong to diversified professions - butchers, bakers, tailors, brewery workers, electricians, farmers; they even take the youngest men, college and university students, or young men from other high schools.

This in spite of the fact that two high authorities of the German Empire had formally guaranteed the liberty of our compatriots.

The day after the capitulation of Antwerp the frightened populace asked itself what would become of the Belgians of military age or those which would arrive at that age before the end of the siege.  Baron von Huene, Military Governor of Antwerp, authorized me to reassure in his name the frightened parents.

However, as rumours were running that in Antwerp, Liege, Namur, and Charleroi young men had been seized and forcibly carried off to Germany, I asked Governor von Huene to confirm to me in writing the verbal guarantees which he had given me.

He replied that the rumours pertaining to deportations were without foundation, and he gave me without hesitancy the written declaration which was read on Sunday, October 18, 1914, in all the parochial churches of the Arrondissement of Antwerp: "Young men need have no fear of being carried off to Germany, either for enrolment in the army or for forcible employment."

Immediately after the arrival of Baron von der Goltz in the capacity of Governor General at Brussels, I went to ask him to ratify the guarantees given by Governor von Huene to the Province of Antwerp extending them to the whole country without any time limit.

The Governor General retained my petition in order to consider it at his leisure.  The following day he was good enough to come in person to Malines to express his approval and in the presence of two aides de camp and of my private secretary to confirm the promise that the liberty of the Belgian citizens would be respected.

In my letter of October 16th last to Baron von Bissing after reminding him of the undertaking given by his predecessor, I concluded: "Your Excellency will understand how painful would be the burden of responsibility that I have incurred toward families if the confidence they placed in you through me and at my earnest entreaty should be so lamentably disappointed."

The Governor General replied: "The employment of the Belgian unemployed in Germany, which has only been initiated after two years of war, differs essentially from the captivity of men fit for military service.  Moreover, the measure is not related to the conduct of the war, properly speaking, but it is determined by social and economic causes."

As if the word of an honest man were terminable at the end of a year or two!  As if the declaration confirmed in 1914 did not explicitly exclude both military operations and forced labour!  As if, in fine, every Belgian workman who takes the place of a German workman did not enable the latter to fill a gap in the German army!

We, the shepherds of these sheep who are torn from us by brutal force, full of anguish at the thought of the moral and religious isolation in which they are about to languish, impotent witnesses of the grief and terror in the numerous homes shattered or threatened, appeal to all souls, believers or unbelievers, in allied countries, in neutral countries, and even in enemy countries, who have a respect for human dignity.

When Cardinal Lavigerie embarked on his anti-slavery campaign, Pope Leo XIII, as he blessed his mission, remarked: "Opinion is more than ever the queen of the world.  It is on this you must work.  You will only conquer by means of opinion."

May Divine Providence deign to inspire all who have any authority, all who are masters of speech and pen, to rally around our humble Belgian flag for the abolition of European slavery.

May human conscience triumph over all sophisms and remain steadfastly faithful to the great precept of St. Ambrose:  Honour above everything!  Nihil praeferendum honestati!

In the name of the Belgian Bishops,

D. J. (Cardinal) MERCIER,
Archbishop of Malines

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

Britain introduced conscription for the first time on 2 February 1916.

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