BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Religious dimensions of the Great War
, April 11, 2015
THE GREAT AND HOLY WAR:
How World War I Became a Religious Crusade
by Philip Jenkins
(New York: HarperOne)
Hardcover: 448 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
The Methodist church which I attended as a child had an honour board on its wall inscribed with the names of local men from the congregation who had died in World War I, under the heading “For God, King and Country”.
Even today, Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, built originally to commemorate the state of Victoria’s World War I dead, and copied from pre-Christian Greek structures, has at its heart a stone engraved with the words “Greater love hath no man”, from John 15:13 (KJV).
Links between World War I and religion are difficult to avoid.
A century after the war’s commencement, the popular understanding of these connections, often encountered in the media, can be boiled down to the three following propositions.
First, each participating nation expected a short conflict which, with divine approval, it would fight and win.
Hence the spectacle of German soldiers with Gott mit uns (“God with us”) on their belt-buckles, and British soldiers whose national anthem was God Save The King, shooting and bayoneting one another.
What ensued was an unprecedented war of attrition, in which 10 million combatants and seven million civilians died, and millions more were left mutilated and disabled, or rendered susceptible through malnutrition to the lethal influenza epidemic which swept the world 1918-19.
Secondly, as a result of these horrors, there was a reaction of revulsion and cynicism against organised Christianity, against the state churches which had elevated nationalism to the status of a dogma, and had used their clergy as padres to encourage ordinary soldiers to throw away their lives for what now seemed a pointless struggle.
Historian Philip Jenkins sums up this attitude as: “The conflict was, so to speak, a war about nothing … an exercise in futility and an object lesson in the virtues of pacifism” (though he personally rejects the moral equivalence position, believing that Germany’s attitudes and actions, before and after 1914, were patently more culpable than those of their opponents).
This disillusionment accelerated the process of secularisation in the West, which had begun in the 18th century with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
Thirdly, the optimistic liberalism which had dominated 19th-century theology was forced to reconsider the discarded doctrine of the Fall, in light of the savagery with which the most civilised (or at least, industrially advanced) countries in the world, had perpetrated slaughter against one another on an industrial scale.
Well, “up to a point, Lord Copper…”.
Now, it is undoubtedly true that the war was thought of in religious terms by both sides.
Jenkins writes: “Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war.”
For the purposes of propaganda — an expression which in this context must not be understood as synonymous with insincerity — it was a holy war; a clarion call to Christian manhood; a crusade against demonic enemies (the Antichrist?); a national implementation of God’s clearly revealed will; a millenarian struggle (Armageddon?); a justification for murderous spiritual hatred; a call to martyrdom and redemptive sacrifice; a defence undertaken by Christian civilisation against barbarism, savagery and anarchy.
American evangelist Billy Sunday helpfully simplified it as “Germany against America, Hell against Heaven”.
It is also true that post-World War I theologians engaged in some radical rethinking.
Jenkins explains: “[Karl] Barth … urged Christians to accept separation from the world’s values, rejecting the unquestioning demands of modernity and the calls of state worship”, and warned that the “world … could, with all the best intentions, never rise unassisted beyond its sins and failures”.
Jenkins also quotes Paul Tillich, who won the Iron Cross as a frontline army chaplain, and who wrote that, “the World War in my own experience was the catastrophe of idealistic thinking”, and called for theology to “do justice to this experience of the abyss of our existence”.
At the same time, it is important to realise that World War I did not inspire an immediate and widespread disgust with, and rejection of Christianity, as is sometimes suggested.
A century since World War I, secularisation is dominant in Europe and some other Western countries; but it did not happen overnight as a direct result of the Great War, and it is by no means a present global phenomenon.
I remember laughing out loud on hearing Phillip Adams, Australia’s best-known atheist broadcaster, claim that the rest of the world is astonished by the United States’ religiosity, surely a classic case of trying to make the tail wag the dog
Philip Jenkins, who made his academic reputation as an authority on global Christianity, knows better.
Pace Adams, it is the secular, non-American West which is the anomaly.
The rest of the world is as religious as ever, and some aspects of this religiosity, such as the explosive growth of Pentecostalism, the expansion of Third World Christianity, and the emergence of fundamentalist Islamism, can be traced back to the period 1914-18.
At the time, as Jenkins reminds us, ordinary soldiers in the trenches, in their private diaries, used patriotic and religious language unselfconsciously to describe their experiences and their reactions to them.
Even those who were not regular church-goers used expressions, metaphors and quotes from hymns, liturgies, prayer-books and Bibles.
There is little evidence of the anti-religious scepticism and disillusionment which, according to later commentators, they should have been feeling.
According to Jenkins, “the war did not kill religion”; “churches not only kept their political power in many nations but, at least in the short term, some actually enhanced their standing … clergy retained their prestige, and many won high praise for their wartime role as chaplains”.
He goes on: “The institutional strength of the churches was based on the continuing loyalty of ordinary believers, which at least at first seems to have been little affected by the war…. Levels of belief and practice remained historically high through the 1920s.”
Having said that, it must also be admitted that much popular (and some official!) piety at the time, whether in a Roman Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox context, was questionable by the historic, credal criteria of orthodoxy.
For example, not only was there a tendency to suggest that those who fell in battle were automatically guaranteed a home in Heaven, but soldiers’ deaths were sometimes treated as comparable in value to Christ’s.
Some of the piety was morally as well as doctrinally dubious.
In his autobiography, Goodbye To All That, Robert Graves describes the queues of British soldiers which formed outside the military brothels at the rumour of a major impending battle in which many of them could be expected to die.
Most would have had some sort of religious background, and most would have claimed a denominational affiliation; but, when it came to the crunch, they were less interested in seeing the chaplain and preparing spiritually to enter eternity, than in the prospect of dying as virgins.
Other versions of this popular piety fell under Jenkins’s rubric of the “magical … esoteric, occult, mystical, or merely superstitious”.
They are suggestive of 21st-century Christians in the West who combine their faith with New Agery, or in Africa who combine theirs with witchcraft.
Battlefield crises produced reports of angelic archers helping the British, or regiments of slain poilus rising from the dead to help their French comrades.
The use of rituals, spells, omens and talismans (pocket Bibles, relics, rosaries, holy medals, rings, amulets, crucifixes, written incantations) to ensure survival was widespread, on the part of both soldiers and their loved ones.
Wounded troops brought in from No Man’s Land claimed to have heard voices and seen visions while awaiting rescue.
On the home front, according to Jenkins, “clergy expressed alarm at the growing rash of prophecies, chain letters, omens … card-reading”, while “spiritualism and mediumship found a vast new popularity”, with spiritualists claiming that “families could protect soldiers in the field by meditation and the projection of positive energies”.
There were also attempts by families to communicate with dead soldiers by means of séances.
This review has dealt with the Christian and Western aspects of Jenkins’s survey of World War I and religion, but his book deals with much, much more.
For example, Islam and the Middle East were radically affected by the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the end of the caliphate, and the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a separate nation — with repercussions which we encounter daily in the media.
Other topics include the 1915 Armenian genocide, which we are mourning this year; the effects of World War I on Jews, anti-Semitism and the origins of Israel; the religious aspects of the events of 1916 in Ireland; and the emergence of African Independent Churches (AICs) in colonial Africa.
He even deals with the religious dimensions of the World War I roots of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
It is all relevant to our contemporary situation, and it is all eminently readable.
We are going to continue to hear a great deal about World War I over the next few years, and Jenkins introduces us to a whole facet of the subject which might otherwise be neglected.
Bill James is a writer from Melbourne.