Of all the conflicts of the 20th century, World War II looms the largest. The horrifying death toll, the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, and the unforgettable figures of Eisenhower, Churchill, and Hitler have combined to keep the war in the popular consciousness.
Lost in the shadows is the world war that came 30 years earlier, what contemporaries called “The Great War.” Yet in a new book, “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade,” historian Philip Jenkins of Baylor University shows us that this forgotten conflict had tremendous implications for both the religious world of its own day and for our own as well. Observers wishing to understand the origins of the modern world cannot do so, he argues, without grappling with World War I’s long-range consequences.
The Great War began in August 1914 after a Serbian nationalist assassinated an Austrian archduke. The ensuing Austro-Hungarian retaliation triggered a series of European alliances that soon pitted Great Britain, France, and Russia (the Triple Entente) against Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Ottoman Empire (The Central Powers).
From 1914-1917, neither side made much progress. Especially on the western front, the two armies engaged in horrendous trench warfare, totally unfit for the age of machine guns and mustard gas. At Verdun, a “battle” that lasted 10 months, about 700,000 French and Germans perished. That engagement, however, paled in comparison to the Somme, another months-long struggle, where over a million soldiers died (and where a young British officer named J.R.R. Tolkien and an Austrian corporal named Adolph Hitler fought on opposing sides). The war did not take a decisive turn for the Entente until the entrance of the United States in April 1917. When the conflict finally ended in November of the following year, about 10 million lives in all had been lost.
War waged on such a massive scale demanded religious explanations and justifications, and indeed religious figures on both sides enlisted the Almighty in their cause. In 1915, the (Anglican) Bishop of London urged the killing of all Germans, “the good as well as the bad . . . the young as well as the old” and declared that all who died in the war (excluding the Germans) were martyrs. A Lutheran pastor in Germany addressed the war directly in spiritual language: “World War, you transfigure our nature, like the Word and the Spirit. . . . Come, Sword, you are to me the Revelation of the Spirit.”
To be sure, not all supporters of the conflict used language this extreme, but Jenkins clearly demonstrates that many of the “Christian nations” engaged in the struggle regarded it as a truly holy war.
Accounts of supernatural intervention also proliferated during the war years. Inspired by a fictional short story about 15th-century English archers coming to save their countrymen in 1914, soldiers present at the Battle of Mons soon claimed to have actually witnessed such an occurrence: the heroes of Agincourt literally coming back to life in the 20th century. Some swore they saw the archers’ arrow wounds in the bodies of dead German soldiers. A popular French legend held that dead French soldiers also rose from the dead to come to the aid of their countrymen in 1915. For all its reputation for science and rationality, Germany was not immune to such beliefs either: German mothers often sent a Schutzbrief—a divine letter of protection—with their sons in an effort to inoculate them against the enemy’s shells.
Many of those who lived through the war, then, regarded it as nothing less than a religious crusade. Perhaps even more interesting, though, are the shock waves that the conflict sent throughout the post-war religious landscape. In the Christian world, the German theologian Karl Barth reacted strongly against the combination of patriotism and Christianity he had witnessed in Germany. In his own influential work, he emphasized the transcendence of God, who could not be reduced to the patron saint of any nation-state. Although Barth’s views on Scripture would not be satisfying to evangelicals, his neo-orthodox revival blew great holes in liberal Protestantism on both sides of the Atlantic.
The war’s effects extended beyond Christendom. Traditionally, Muslims had looked to a caliph—a spiritual and temporal authority—to organize their religious and political life. A man named Abdülmecid II filled this office in the Ottoman Empire at the time of the war, but shortly after the empire’s defeat he was sent into exile and the caliphate ended. Although the succession to the office of caliph was (at least theoretically) unbroken from the time of Muhammad until Abdülmecid, the position has remained empty to the present day owing to the lack of religious and political unity in the Islamic world. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire would also have indirect ties to the rise of the fanatical Islamic sects familiar to the 21st century.
Jews, too, felt the war’s effects acutely. In the midst of the war, the British government announced its intention to set up a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which had recently been captured from the Ottomans. Although some British Jews objected on the grounds that they had no higher aim than to be good Britons, about 120,000 of their number worldwide emigrated to Palestine over the next decade or so.
In the defeated Second Reich, of course, Jews fared less well. Already during the war, Jews were blamed for undermining the German cause, and such rumors only intensified during the postwar years. In other words, Hitler did not invent anti-Semitism because he did not need to. As Jenkins puts it, “The Great War did not, inevitably, of itself, lead to the destruction of Jewish Europe. But it made that outcome possible and conceivable in a way that would have amazed all but the most extreme fringe theorists of 1914. The war changed everything.”
Overall, “The Great and Holy War” convincingly demonstrates its thesis by showing just how central religion was to the understanding of World War I and to its aftermath. Jenkins is unusual in paying attention to developments outside of the western front, and in this case his wide-ranging vision is especially helpful. His treatment of the war as a global event should appeal to readers of widely varying interests.
Books like Jenkins’s should cause Christians to think carefully about their relationship to warfare. Reflecting on how Christians in the past dealt with such problems can assist those of us in the present in living faithfully in peacetime and wartime.
Image copyright HarperOne. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Benjamin J. Wetzel is a Ph.D. Candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame. He is writing a dissertation regarding American Christians’ attitudes toward warfare from the Civil War to World War I. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.