Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Patron Saint of Mass Destruction

You might have thought that being the commander in chief of a failing empire waging all out war, might just stop someone becoming a saint, but you’d be wrong, because the Pope has beatified – that’s the penultimate stage in the saint-making process – Karl I, the last Hapsburg emperor.

Describing Karl as a “friend of peace” the Pope commented that he had lived an “exemplary Christian life”. But this was a life lived by an autocratic ruler who permitted the use of poison gas against Italian soldiers in Slovenia in 1917 and who took his own people to the brink of starvation.

Karl took over the Hapsburg throne in 1916 and for the next two years he prosecuted total war in the Balkans and south central Europe. The disparate races that made up his increasingly bankrupt and starving empire were forced to carry on with an ever more hopeless conflict, while Karl and the politicians serving under him denied them the chance to make peace and attain their freedom. It was only with the final defeat of the Central Powers, and after the deaths of millions of his subjects, that Karl was forced to accept defeat.

Whatever your views on organised religion and Catholicism in particular, one thing is certain: beatifying Karl at this time sends the wrong signal to George W Bush and Tony Blair, both of whom have used their religious beliefs to justify their actions in going to war in Iraq. It also shows that the Vatican still has much to learn in its dealings with the modern world and the way it engages with contemporary public opinion.