This Day In History: September 3

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On September 3, 1914, barely a month after the outbreak of World War I, Giacomo della Chiesa is elected to the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming Pope Benedict XV.

An aristocratic native of Genoa, Italy, who had served as a cardinal since the previous May, Benedict succeeded Pius X, who died on August 20, 1914. He was elected by a constituency made up of cardinals from countries on both sides of the battle lines, because he professed strict neutrality in the conflict. Calling the Great War “the suicide of Europe,” Benedict became an insistent voice for peace from the beginning of his reign, though his calls were roundly ignored by the belligerent powers.

After proposing the idea of a general Christmas truce in 1914 without success—although some pauses in the fighting did occur spontaneously in various places along the Western Front that Christmas, initiated by the soldiers—Benedict began to lose influence even within Italy as that nation readied itself to join the war effort. In the months preceding Italy’s declaration of war on Austria-Hungary in May 1915, Benedict’s steady urging for peace was seen as interfering with the national will to fight. In the Treaty of London, which set the conditions for Italy’s participation in the war, the Allies agreed with Italy that any peace overtures from the Vatican to the Central Powers should be ignored.

On August 1, 1917, Benedict issued a seven-point peace proposal addressed to “the heads of the belligerent peoples.” In it, he expressed the need for a cessation of hostilities, general reduction of armaments, freedom of the seas and international arbitration of any territorial questions among the warring nations. The proposal was widely rejected by all the warring powers, which were by this point dedicated to an absolute victory and would not consider compromise. To make matters worse, both sides saw the Vatican as prejudiced in favor of the other and refused to accept the pope’s terms. This situation continued in the immediate post-armistice period, when despite its entreaties to be involved in the determination of the peace settlement, Benedict’s Vatican was excluded from the Paris Peace Conference, held at Versailles in 1919.

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