Over the past couple of years, I have been working on a book about the religious aspects of the First World War, to be published in this centennial year of 2014. It will appear this coming May, as The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne). It’s an ambitious work, which seeks to be global in its coverage – I draw heavily on original sources from all the major countries involved, especially Germany and France. I range widely in the types of evidence I use, with lots of visual materials, and delving deeply into the films of the period. I’d like here to explain where the idea came from, and how it developed.
I take the common view held by the vast majority of even well-informed people, and turn that view on its head. Most people see the First World War as the conflict that destroyed faith, a massive betrayal of idealism, which created the Lost Generation. In this view, religion was the window dressing that sent millions of young men off to get slaughtered: see for instance All Quiet on the Western Front, or British war poets like Wilfrid Owen.
To the contrary, I show that religion shaped the war at every stage, that it largely explains why people went to fight and stayed fighting, and that spiritual issues and concerns remained critically important throughout.
My core thesis is that, without appreciating its religious and spiritual aspects, we cannot understand the First World War. More important, the world’s modern religious history makes no sense except in the context of that terrible conflict. The war created our reality.
Throughout, and in every combatant country, the war was presented as a holy war, a cosmic struggle. In its causation, the war originated as a clash of apocalyptic and messianic visions between the two countries in which such ideas were most advanced, namely Germany and Russia. The war was fought by the world’s leading Christian nations, and on all sides, clergy and Christian leaders offered a steady stream of patriotic and militaristic rhetoric.
Many even spoke the language of holy war and crusade, of apocalypse and Armageddon. Not in medieval or Reformation times, but in the age of aircraft and machine guns, the majority of the world’s Christians were engaged in a religiously- defined struggle that claimed more than ten million lives.
Remarkably too, it was a war of angels! Throughout, and in every country, the war was utterly suffused with supernatural themes and visions, best epitomized by repeated tales of angels. Contrary to myth, these legends were not incidental pieces of media hype, they emerged from the grass roots, and they were very widely believed.
It was also a war of Armageddon.
The outcome of the war cannot be understood without the constant diet of apocalyptic dreams and visions that reached a height in 1917. Among other things, this would be essential to Jewish history, in justifying the Balfour Declaration and the return to Zion. 1917-18 involved such seemingly cosmic events as the Christian reconquest of Jerusalem, the Russian Revolution, and a quite literal battle of Armageddon – the British victory at Megiddo. Apocalyptic fears and expectations reached fever pitch.
Christians then, like Islamists today, portrayed their soldiers in the guise of 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.
We have no problem granting the title of “crusade” to the medieval Christian movements to reconquer Palestine, because that was the ideological framework that contemporaries used to justify their cause. Why, then, should we deny holy war status to the conflict of 1914-18?
But if we assume it was a holy war, what are the consequences? The only thing worse than losing an ultimate cosmic war is winning it, yet finding the world is still a dangerous and nasty place. These disappointed hopes and moral compromises shaped the politics, culture and religion of the rest of the century. That holy war culture gave rise to totalitarianism, Soviet Communism and Nazism. Without understanding the religious mood of the war years, we can’t understand the key events of later twentieth century history.
The apocalyptic crusade that was World War One shapes all the world’s great religions as we know them through the twentieth century, and up to today – Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
For Christians, this era invents modern theology, and Christian thinkers are still exploring the consequences. The Verdun generation cast a shadow for decades afterwards – Tillich, De Lubac, and that great neutral, Karl Barth.
The era is no less critical to modern Jewish history. Without that war, there would have been no Holocaust, no state of Israel, and no modern Judaism.
The war era also defines modern Islamic history. Without it, there would be no Islamist radicals, no Islamic reform movements, and no modern Islam. The last ninety years of Islamic politics have basically involved attempts to reverse the decision of 1918, and the loss of the Caliphate.
The war is critical to modern views of religions and violence. When we discuss ideas of jihad, we need to remember that nothing in modern Islamic theories of violence was alien in the slightest to Christians a century ago. Just a hundred years ago, Christian leaders and states were acting and speaking like the most extreme jihadis today, and that’s surely shocking.
Obviously what I say here is only a brief sketch, and the arguments are fleshed out in my (lengthy!) book.