The Pope's Proposals for Peace


[The Independent; August 25, 1917]

The proposals which Pope Benedict XV has submitted to all the belligerent powers as a basis for the mutual discussion of terms of peace deserve the most careful scrutiny and the most serious consideration. This not only because of the respect due him as the head of a great branch of the Christian Church, but because no serious suggestion from a responsible source for putting an end to the horrors and devastation wrought by the Great War can be dismissed lightly or cavalierly. We do not believe that the United States or any one of its allies—government or people—desires so to dismiss it. Neither Great Britain nor France nor Russia nor Belgium nor Serbia nor Italy—-to say nothing of the lesser and the more. remote belligerents of the Allied group—wanted this war, or "willed" it, to use the Kaiser's word. The United States least of all. What the real reaction of Germany—ruling class and governed people—to an actual attempt, like that of the Pope, to bring an end to the conflict at its present stage, will be we do not dare to hazard a guess. The psychology of the German mind has become increasingly difficult for us to enter into as the war has progressively revealed it. But one certainty has been stripped of veil after veil of charitable doubt as the months since August of 1914 have passed. Germany—ruling caste and, we must believe against every inclination of our heart, united people—wanted this war and willed it.

What should be the response of the Allies to the message of Benedict? What shall be the response of the United States? One and the same, is the first answer. We fight shoulder to shoulder with them for one ultimate end, one fundamental purpose. We must not separate ourselves from them in the consideration of the terms on which we shall all consent to cease to fight. United we face the Teutonic menace to civilization and humanity. United we must face it down.

But what shall that one answer be? Let us first consider what the Pope's proposals are. The complete text of his message to the belligerents is to be found printed on another page. Stripped to the bare bones, if we interpret them aright, the terms he proposes as a basis are these:

1—Mutual diminution of armament;

2—Substitution for armament of arbitration, with the imposition of penalties upon the state which should refuse either to submit a dispute to arbitration or to accept the decision;

3—Guarantee of the freedom of the seas;

4—No imposition of indemnities for the reparation of damages or the payment of war expenses";

5—Mutual restitution of all occupied territory; 6—Discussion in a spirit of conciliation of other territorial questions—such as those between Germany and France and those between Italy and Austria—taking into consideration the "aspirations of the peoples and the special interests and the general welfare of the great human society";

7—Examination, in the "same-spirit of equity and justice" of other territorial and political questions, notably those of Armenia, of the Balkan states and of Poland.

To a sudden visitor from Mars these terms might perhaps seem plausible. If he merely knew that two great groups of nations had been at war for three years, at an unbelievable cost of blood and treasure, and with no decisive result yet in sight, he might well say, as the Pope has in effect said, "Stop fighting, restore the status quo ante bellum, agree that it will not happen again, and resolve to settle the differences between you in a spirit of conciliation and justice."

But such a simple solution of the problem ignores too many elements in the situation. It tosses cavalierly into the scrap heap such hard and unescapable facts as these:

That Germany deliberately and wantonly began the war in pursuit of her own reckless ambitions;

That Germany broke her plighted word for "strategical reasons" on the insolent plea that "necessity knows no law";

That Germany has waged the war in utter disregard of every mandate of international law, every principle of humanity and justice and moral decency;

That this war is a struggle not between conflicting interests but between opposing ideals—democracy and autocracy, civilization and barbarism, consideration for the weak and exaltation of the strong, humanity and ruthlessness, light and darkness, right and wrong;

That in such a conflict with such an antagonist the way to peace cannot lead thru the paths of conciliation and sweet reasonableness, but by the hard road of submission for the aggressor and the blood guilty;

That Germany must be defeated if the world is to be safe, for Germany, under her present leadership and in her present mood, has shown herself the ruthless enemy of everything that makes for peace and security, fair play and right dealing, equity and the rights of man.

What then shall be the reply? How should we answer?

In the Yankee way, with a question. What does Germany say?

For Germany must now speak first; and for two reasons. For the first, the Allies, in justice to the great cause of civilization and humanity for which they fight, cannot even enter into a discussion of peace with Germany until that forsworn nation shall have shown, at least by implication, some recognition of her guilt, some inclination to recant. For the second, the terms of the Allies Have been known for half a year; Germany's have never even been intimated. It would be criminal folly for the Allies, before Germany had spoken, to declare their readiness to enter a peace conference with the proposals of the Pope as the basis of negotiations.

The Pope proposes the restoration of the status quo, no indemnities, disarmament, arbitration.

The Allies have proposed restitution, reparation, guarantees for the future.

Germany has proposed—nothing.

Come, what does Germany say?

Until Germany has spoken there is no ground on which peace can even be discussed.

Germany must now speak first.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury