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The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (received Christianity Today's Book Award of Merit for 2015)

How World War I Became a Religious Crusade

“You canʼt understand the war fully without investigating the religious dimensions of the war,” says Jonathan Ebel, associate professor of religion at the University of Illinois and author of Faith in the Fight: The American Soldier in the Great War. “I would be the first to tell you the Great War was not a war of religion, but I think a big part of peopleʼs understanding of what they were doing in the war, or why the war made sense to them, comes from religion.”

Ebel draws a line from the ‘masculine Christianity’ of the early 20th century (evangelist Billy Sundayʼs enormously popular revivals often included military recruiting tents) to the way combatants and support workers thought of the war. Soldiers scribbled lines of Scripture on their gas masks, marked their calendars with a cross for each day they survived combat, and opened the pages of the Stars and Stripes military newspaper to read poems comparing them to the heroes of the Old Testament. (See also Richard Schweitzerʼs, The Cross and the Trenches: Religious Faith and Doubt Among British and American Great War Soldiers).

Following Ebelʼs and Schweitzerʼs books comes Philip Jenkinʼs The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. Jenkins is the Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He was educated at Cambridge and has written over twenty books including The Lost History of Christianity, Jesus Wars, The Next Christendom, and won several book prizes in both the Christian and secular arena. Christianity Today gave his book five stars, calling it “A historical tour de force… We must know the past in order to understand the present. Jenkinsʼs penetrating study of World War I masterfully underscores that abstract truth.” Kirkus Reviews writes, “A painstaking, densely layered study of the many slippery uses of religion in the making of war… A work of intensely nuanced research.” And Booklist says, “An astounding chronicle of intense piety inciting acts of terrible carnage,” starred review.

INTERVIEWER OF PJ: You say that World War I was “a religious crusade.” This sounds like a scandalous idea. Can you explain what you mean?

PJ: If I myself believed that it was a crusade, that would indeed be scandalous. Actually, I am arguing that a great many people at the time saw it in those terms, which is also scandalous, in a different way. When we look at the history of that war, we have to be struck by the religious and supernatural language in which it was imagined, throughout the whole conflict, and at all levels of society. This was not just a case of statements put out by propaganda agencies trying to scare up recruits. Nor was the religious fervor confined to the opening weeks of the war, before people knew better. Throughout, and in every country, the war was presented as a holy war, a cosmic struggle. The war was fought by the worldʼs leading Christian nations, and on all sides, clergy and Christian leaders offered a steady stream of patriotic and militaristic rhetoric. Many spoke the language of holy war and crusade, of apocalypse and Armageddon.


A key question raised in Jenkinsʼ book is: Why was religion so effortlessly assimilated into the culture of militarism during the Great War?

The Europe of 1914 was very far removed from modern day secularism. A sizable majority of the combatants were from peasant or small town backgrounds, and even in the cities, churchgoing persisted at rates that today seem astonishing. Even when people rejected faith, they still came from a society that intuitively knew the Christian thought-world of sanctified sacrifice, of cosmic confrontations between good and evil. Holy War was still credible, in a way that it certainly is not for later generations of Christians.

Christendom reigned in “the three holy empires” (Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary) of the time. Throw in the British, the Americans, French Catholicism and you have “the majority of the worldʼs Christians engaged in a war that claimed more than ten million lives.” Later other nations joined in - but initially this was a monumental intra-Christendom scrap. The propaganda and the rationale for the war was framed within religious, mystical, apocalyptic, messianic, and millenarian language. “A holy war ideology became social orthodoxy,” as “a faith-based militarism” took over. “If you do not understand the messianic and apocalyptic imagery used by all sides, and how wide-ranging those images were among all classes, all groups, all nations, you cannot hope to understand the war.”

For each nation, religion and nationalism seem to work in concert and it was difficult to determine which entity was leading the charge. This contrasted with the common perception that it was simply elites using religion to advance the cause. “I was finding a very different picture, whereby the political ideology was being made by the theologians, preachers and the priests and the government was kind of going along,” said Jenkins. “So I still donʼt think itʼs absolutely coming from one side or the other, but the two are very much in dialogue.” This spiritual component went beyond what many may realize.

Both sides demonized their opponents and used the medieval imagery of knights and crusaders, believing that they were engaged in a cosmic conflict. Russians denounced Germanyʼs Kaiser Wilhelm as the Antichrist. German writers equated Britain with the great whore of Babylon described in Revelation. German Protestant ministers preached that their nation had a messianic role to play in Europe. A German pastor in Bremen likened the mood of 1914 Germany to a New Pentecost when Germany “stood together united.” When the Germans launched their last great offensive in 1918, of course it was called Operation Michael. Meanwhile, English bishops informed their countrymen that they were “Godʼs predestined instruments to save the Christian civilization of Europe.”

Pro-war religious imagery (like an alternative depiction of the Emmaus Road story in which two gun-laden soldiers spy a cross in the distance made out of the criss-crossed clouds left by artillery fire while Jesus reveals himself to them) seeped into the public consciousness. With startling literalism, visual representations in all the main participant nations placed Christ himself on the battle lines, whether in films, posters, or postcards. Jesus blessed German soldiers going into battle; Jesus comforted the dying victims of German atrocities; Jesus personally led a reluctant Kaiser to confront the consequences of his evil policies. Apart from the obvious spiritual figures — Christ and the Virgin — most combatant nations used an iconography in which their cause was portrayed by that old Crusader icon Saint George, and their enemies as the Dragon. Death in such a righteous cosmic war was a form of sacrifice or martyrdom, elevating the dead soldier to saintly status.

In every country, mainstream media stories offered a constant diet of vision and miracle, angels and apocalypse. The French widely circulated a story about fallen soldiers who arose from the dead — “Debout les Morts!” — to help defend a living comrade from German attack. Soldiers on both sides reported angels and saints appearing in the midst of battle to help their side. British soldiers claimed that during one battle the ghosts of Medieval English long bowmen fired arrows into German ranks; at certain times Russian, German and French soldiers claimed to see the Virgin Mary above their trenches. The Germans often saw the archangel Michael, while the English saw St. George, and the French Joan of Arc. Peasant girls in Portugal famously saw a vision of Mary at F├ítima in 1917, but both Russian and French soldiers also saw visions of the Virgin during the war.

“I could almost rewrite my book in terms of angels,” Jenkins said, citing one of the most frequently used — and believed in — images of the war. The most famous example are the so-called “Angel of Mons” — ghost soldiers from the 15th-century Battle of Agincourt led by St. George who supposedly appeared on the the British lines in France. But the ghost soldiers were the post-Mons invention of Welsh poet Arthur Machen. Yet when he pointed out they were a fiction, people accused him of suppressing the truth. “You donʼt get anything like that in World War II,” Jenkins said of the belief in angels on the battlefield. “In World War II, there were hundreds of depictions of angels, but they were all in films and books that were clearly fantasy and fiction. But the angel stories in World War I were taken seriously.”

For the Allies, religious and apocalyptic hopes crested in 1917 and 1918 with the great symbolic victories in the Middle East, the most striking being the British capture of Jerusalem from the Turks, and the decisive British victory at — honestly — Megiddo, the site of Armageddon.

Also, far from being imposed from above — from central state propaganda offices — such stories usually arose from the grass roots, often from soldiers themselves. Governments actually spent a good deal of time trying to suppress such tales of crusades and miracles, for fear of their effect on national morale. Yes, ordinary British and Americans might freely describe their war in the Middle East as a holy Crusade, guided by God. But the British government invoked its ferocious powers of censorship to suppress any such language in the media, for fear of offending the empireʼs many millions of Muslim subjects. Whatever governments wanted, Holy War visions kept breaking through.

Christian theologians — of all denominations — appeared to regard the promotion of the war as their sacred duty. Their appeal for sacrifice and martyrdom was communicated in a language that makes some contemporary jihadists appear moderate by comparison. In 1915, Arthur F Winnington-Ingram, the Anglican bishop of London, declared that it was the nationʼs duty to mobilise for “a holy war.” In one of his sermons he urged British soldiers to “kill Germans — do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends… As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity, I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr.”

British clerics did not have a monopoly on crusading zeal: theologians on all sides of the war voiced similar sentiments. The representation of this conflict as a holy war was widely promoted by Christian religious leaders. Moreover, the identification of the war with a religious duty was also evident among Muslim and Jewish leaders. Just as “islamists” denounce their enemies as infidels and heretics, so Christians coped with killing fellow Christians by claiming that they werenʼt “proper Christians.” All sides rushed to condemn enemy nations as ungodly and to “proclaim fellow believers as de facto infidels.” Christian leaders gave an absolute religious underpinning to warfare. Preachers asserted that Jesus would have taken up a bayonet. In 1916, a group of 60 leading U.S. clergymen issued a rebuke to Woodrow Wilson for pursuing peace negotiations instead of leading the nation into the European conflict. Among the signers were the famous liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, the flamboyant evangelist Billy Sunday and the restrained president of Princeton University, John Grier Hibben. These Protestants warned their president that a just God, “who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death… above the holy claims of righteousness and justice and freedom and mercy and truth.” Of course the Quakers and Mennonites decried the war, and Pope Benedict XV lamented “the suicide of civilized Europe,” but such anti-war sentiments were rare compared with the pro-war, crusading, and apocalyptic sentiments.

During the lead up to World War I, the Book of Revelation was being quoted, the Second Coming seemed imminent, the Kaiser was seen as the anti-Christ, fundamentalism, Pentecostalists, Jehovahʼs Witnesses, Theosophy, Schofieldʼs dispensationalism and the World Missionary Conference were all emerging. Only by looking at the overwhelming weight of religious and supernatural imagery in the warʼs visual heritage do we get a sense of just how prevalent these other-worldly ideas were, and how archaic. Itʼs an odd juxtaposition, of highly medieval depictions of angels and apocalyptic horsemen, visions of Christ and the Virgin, images of ghosts and prophets — and all in a highly modern world of machine guns, tanks and gas warfare. That disjunction of medieval and modern is shocking. Christians then, like Islamists today, portrayed their soldiers as warriors from a romanticized past, with a special taste for the Middle Ages. Both shared a common symbolism of sword and shield. Both saw heroic death as a form of martyrdom, in which the shedding of blood washed away the sins of life and offered immediate entry to paradise.

During the First World War, right across the world, theology and militarism combined to ensure that whole populations believed that they were engaged in a struggle of cosmic significance, of good against evil. Nowhere was this blending of religion and militarism stronger than in Germany. German churches saw themselves as the apex of Christian civilization and believed that, given the sudden and near-miraculous quality of its creation and rise to glory among the old nations, the German Reich was being used by God to fulfill His purposes on earth. Religious leaders promoted the idea that Germany was a holy nation engaged in a cosmic struggle for civilization against the forces of barbarism. German soldiers marched off to war wearing belt-buckles with the words “Gott mit Uns” (God with Us) inscribed on them.

Numerous church leaders also embraced the war as an instrument of religious revival. Instead, soldiers and chaplains who tried to force religion on their comrades often faced ostracism. The war did not lead to a religious revival on the home front either, despite the comfort that many civilians drew from believing that the men in the army were religious and that the dead had had their souls saved. As Vera Brittain, whose own religious beliefs waxed and waned over time, noted, “Surely there must be somewhere in which… the hearts broken by War may be healed. It is all so hopeless otherwise.”

However, all this fire and brimstone came at an enormous cost to the churches concerned. By enthusiastically endorsing the most destructive and costly war the world had ever seen Europeʼs established religions had sown the seeds of their own destruction. For every soldier whose life was saved by a Bible that stopped a bullet there were several more who saw the war as evidence that no just and caring God could allow such suffering to continue. By mixing-up Christianity with war and patriotism they had created a toxic “moral disorientation” that would undermine the power and influence of organised religion in the years ahead. According to Jenkins the Great War “destroyed a global religious order that had prevailed for the previous half millennium and dominated much of the globe” and “drew the worldʼs religious map as we know it today.”

Partisans on both sides of WW I didnʼt hesitate to invoke eternal salvation in the cause of international warfare. A long time after the event, most soldiers believed in what they were doing and used religious terms such as “sacrifice,” “redemptive suffering” and “bringing Godʼs kingdom on earth.” The Machine Gun Corpsʼ memorial erected in 1925, quotes from the Old Testament; “Saul hath slain his thousands! But David hath slain his tens of thousands.” Governments and military and church leaders resorted to religious language and appealed to well entrenched religious beliefs to fire patriotic sentiment and make sense of indiscriminate slaughter. Religion provided men with a set of responses to help them rationalize their suffering, their guilt, and their acts of slaughter.

Harry Patch, the last British veteran of the struggle, was most affected by the carnage: “It wasnʼt a case of seeing them with a nice bullet hole in their tunic, far from it.” They were blown to pieces. In the words of a French Jesuit who served as an army sergeant at Verdun, “To die from a bullet seems to be nothing; parts of our being remain intact; but to be dismembered, torn to pieces, reduced to pulp, this is a fear that flesh cannot support and which is fundamentally the great suffering of the bombardment.” British veteran Henry Allingham recalled spending a night in a shell hole: “It stank. So did I when I fell into it. Arms and legs, dead rats, dead everything. Rotten flesh. Human guts. I couldnʼt get a bath for three or four months afterwards.” The only thing conceivably worse than the smell was the eardrum-shattering noise of battle. At Passchendaele, the only analogy Patch could find for the artillery fire was “non-stop claps of thunder. It took your breath away. The noise was ferocious. You couldnʼt hear the man next to you speaking.” Passchendaele was mispronounced as Passion Dale with echoes of crucifixion.

The author sees a religious influence in the ethnic cleansing and massacre that accompanied the war, including the Armenian Genocide and the anti-Jewish massacres on the Eastern Front. Those claimed many more lives that Verdun and the Somme combined. Anti-Semitism grew across the continent. So did Hasidism and Kabbalism. Geoffrey Wheatcroft remarked, “The First World War changed everything: without it, there would have been no Russian Revolution, no Third Reich, almost certainly no Jewish state.”

Men from different backgrounds intermingled and adopted the beliefs of others, so Protestants found Catholic shrines and calvaries helpful. Many soldiers saw Roman Catholicism serving the spiritual needs of British soldiers better than Anglicanism. First, most Roman Catholic chaplains ignored the British Armyʼs ban on chaplains going into the trenches because of the Catholic Churchʼs need to administer sacraments, most notably Extreme Unction. As a result, Roman Catholic chaplains shared the soldiersʼ experience of war through direct participation. Anglican chaplains, most of whom were uncomfortable with the class chasm that separated them from British soldiers, were less likely to be seen at the front. Second, Catholicismʼs emphasis on suffering and sacrifice fit the battlefield experience of most men better than did Anglicanism.

Other soldiers believed in fate, some used numerology to calculate the end of the war. Some carried talismans to ward off danger, saw ghosts — such as dead comrades still fighting with them — while others held séances.

As the war got worse, 40% of French soldiers refused orders and many Germans deserted. The legendary statement by Martin Luther, “Here I stand. I can do no other” was co-opted by those generals who wanted to see the war through.

The Great War transformed Christianʼs beliefs, particularly their belief in how the church was related to the state. If the war led some believers to support toxic regimes, it also drove others to oppose repression and militarism and develop a sweeping critique of the churchesʼ alliance with secular states. Although initially confined to academic circles, those ideas gradually became popularized — so commonplace and familiar, in fact, that it almost seems difficult to believe that churches could ever have held any other positions.

Sixty-eight percent of all Christians lived in Europe at the beginning of the war. Today the number of Christians living in Europe as a percentage of population can be counted in the single digits in most European countries.

After the Church was discredited, its millenarian myths got taken up by Naziism and Communism. In Germany and Russia, secular messianic prophets advocating radical ideologies benefited from the realization that Germany had lost a holy war. Meanwhile, mainstream Christian orthodoxy lost out to Spiritualism, new cults and fundamentalist Christianity. Pentecostalism grew as mainstream Catholic and Protestant churches waned. Beyond Europe and North America, the war marked the beginning of radical new forms of religion.

Orthodox Christianity nearly became extinct during the Soviet era in Russia which began with the success of the communist revolution during the last year of WW I when all the heavily Christian nations west of Russia were busy fighting each other.

Numerous Christian communities in the Middle East continue to be threatened with extinction, a process that began with the Armenian genocide of 1915.

On the other hand, Christianity in Africa has experienced explosive growth in recent decades, and if current trends continue Africa will have more Christians than any other continent by 2030, a success story that Jenkins traces to the disruptions of WW I.

For Muslims the war was traumatic in that they saw the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of the caliphate in Istanbul, loosing the Islamic extremism that continues until today.

And of course for Jews WW I was a breathtaking game changer as the Balfour Declaration of 1917 paved the way for the creation of the modern State of Israel.


For Further Reading…


Speaking of seeing ANGELS on the battlefield note that following the second invasion of Iraq by the U.S., and the pushback by Islamic radicals, W. Andrew Terrill, professor at the Army War Collegeʼs strategic studies institute — and the top expert on Iraq there — said in 2004: “I donʼt think that you can kill the insurgency… Most Iraqis consider us occupiers, not liberators.” He describes the religious imagery common in Fallujah and the Sunni triangle: “Thereʼs talk of angels and the Prophet Mohammed coming down from heaven to lead the fighting, talk of martyrs whose bodies are glowing and emanating wonderful scents.”

SOURCE: Far graver than Vietnam by Sidney Blumenthal, The Guardian, Thursday 16 September 2004, and Salon.

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