September 21

This Day in History

World War I

Sep 21, 1917:

Central Powers respond to Papal Peace Note

On this day in 1917, Austria-Hungary and Germany make separate replies to the proposal issued by Pope Benedict XV at the beginning of the previous month calling for an immediate armistice between the Allied and Central Powers in World War I.

Since being named to the papacy in early September 1914, Benedict had been a consistent advocate for peace. His idea for a general Christmas truce had been dismissed by the leadership of the warring powers—though spontaneous breaks in fighting and celebrations of the holiday, initiated by the soldiers themselves, had in fact occurred in many areas along the lines on Christmas Day 1914. Even after Italy entered the war on the Allied side, declaring war on Austria-Hungary in May 1915, the Vatican continued its efforts to promote peace. In a seven-point peace proposal issued on August 1, 1917, and addressed to "the heads of the belligerent peoples," Pope Benedict called for the cessation of hostilities, general reduction of armaments, freedom of the seas and international arbitration of any territorial questions among the warring nations.

Unfortunately for Benedict, none of the belligerent nations were inclined to accept a peace along the lines that he had suggested. In fact, Germany and the Allies both saw the Vatican as prejudiced toward the other, and neither was at that point prepared to accept anything less than a complete victory. According to one Allied leader, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, German intransigence had made peace along the lines suggested by the pope—a return to the status quo, in Wilson’s eyes—utterly impossible. The object of the war, Wilson stated in his reply to the Vatican on August 27, 1917, was now to "deliver the free peoples of the world from the menace and the actual power of a vast military establishment controlled by an irresponsible Government."

The one exception to the general rejection of the Papal Peace Note of August 1917 was Austria-Hungary, who issued its own reply on September 21, concluding that: "Guided by a spirit of moderation and consideration, we see in the proposals of your Holiness a suitable basis for initiating negotiations with a view to preparing a peace, just to all and lasting, and we earnestly hope our present enemies may be animated by the same ideals." That same day, however, Austria’s more powerful ally, Germany, expressed its own inability to accept peace based on Benedict’s terms. Even after an armistice ended the war on November 11, 1918, the Vatican found itself on the outside, as its requests to be included in the peace negotiations were denied and it was excluded from the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles in 1919

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