PICTURING THE GREAT WAR: A WORLD ON THE CROSS

In my book The Great and Holy War, I write at some length about the propaganda imagery of the war, and how thoroughly it drew on Christian imagery, especially Christ himself, and the Crucifixion.

Posters and cartoons depicted whole nations as the victims of crucifixion. Usually they were depicted in the form of women, and commonly nude.

One of the war’s most influential propaganda images concerned the Canadian soldier crucified by the Germans in 1915. (Long thought to be a silly myth, the story turns out to be true).

The more I explore the war’s visual heritage, though, the more such images I find, on all sides, and in a bewildering range of causes.

Commonly, the message was the same. If our enemies (whoever they are) claim to be Christian, why do they assume the role of Christ’s persecutors and executioners? Does this not utterly undermine their Christian status?

The Left and anti-war movements made much use of these themes. Lynching, for instance, was portrayed as crucifixion:

In 1916, Boardman Robinson’s cartoon “The Deserter” showed a war-resisting Christ facing a military firing squad:

Such an array of pictures reminds us forcefully of just how thoroughly immersed Western societies at that time in Christian rhetoric, and imagery.

Finally, here is Georg Grosz’ image from 1924.

  • Paul Frantizek

    Great post. Propaganda posters fascinate me.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The following is going to be controversial but is stated without any anti-Christian agenda (I am a professed Christian). Christianity began as a propaganda movement of the Roman Empire against the Jewish Zealots as described by Josephus, a former Jewish general paid by the Roman Empire as a propagandist with his book The Jewish War. The Romans needed a counter religion to Judaism because they could conquer nearly every city-state except Jerusalem due to its strong fundamentalist religion and terrorist retaliations. They found such a counter religion in Christianity.

    All of society, but especially wars, are held together by moral legitimizations as pointed out by the sociologist Max Weber. Christian symbols, songs, and dogma have been used for contradictory purposes for centuries: to legitimize both slavery and the abolition of slavery for example. Or for the Civil Rights Movement and for the Klu Klux Klan.

    As a proponent of mature Christianity I believe it important to face the origins of Christianity and not some Sunday School version of Christianity. But all world religions likely have similar origins, Protestantism being a major counter counter movement within religion but still used by the Nazis to legitimize Jewish genocide. While I don’t believe Pacifism is the only Christian option as there are some things worth fighting wars for (such as fighting Nazism or Islamicism [not Islam per se]), nonetheless the misappropriation of Christian symbols for holy wars is something Christians should deplore.

    Recently, the Evangelical Left in the U.S. has tried to appropriate the heroism of Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his resistance to Nazism during WWII by saying he was “gay”; a highly dubious claim. Conversely, such misappropriations of the biographies of certain Christian martyrs for politically correct causes can be used by the political Right as well. The point is to see that Christianity and Christian biographies can be misappropriated for causes either way. That is why Christianity should learn to resist social movements whether of the Right of Left.

    Islamicism (not Islam) is presently wiping out any Christian symbols and shrines in Iraq and pillaging Christians and driving them into exile in the name of Allah. Christians should deplore such actions and legitimize those forces that would oppose such religious genocide.

    • Andrew Dowling

      “Christianity began as a propaganda movement of the Roman Empire against
      the Jewish Zealots as described by Josephus, a former Jewish general
      paid by the Roman Empire as a propagandist with his book The Jewish War.”

      Wayne, this timeline makes zero sense. The Zealots were crushed centuries before Constantine “converted” to Christianity.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        True. What I meant to say was Jewish zealotry. Read Jospehus but with the knowledge that he was paid by the Flavians to write his histories. Want to search for more flies in the argument or do you want to discuss the topic?

        • philipjenkins

          Does it affect your argument that

          1. The Romans obliterated the Jewish rebellion in 70 AD when they conquered Jerusalem, and they utterly crushed an attempted follow up in the 130s, when they expelled Jews from Palestine.

          However,

          2. They continued persecuting Christians right up into the early fourth century.

          Also, Josephus says virtually nothing about the Christians. If he actually did ever have a clause about Jesus, it was short and dismissive, and seemingly pretty hostile.

          In short, I honestly do not understand what you are talking about? Far from finding flies, I don’t even find an argument.

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            Good question.
            You are right, Josephus’ book The Jewish War (with the Romans) only focuses on the Jews. But that book was written as paid propaganda by the Flavians (Titus and Vespasian) to portray Jews as baby eating zealots. Josephus lived in Rome with Vespasian and Titus.

            The Roman Commune Asia was a Roman organization that was given the task of the social control of religions (much as the current Chinese government has announced they will devise a Chinese Theology of Christianity). Much of Christianity was appropriated by the Romans, in my view, as a counter religion to Judaism as a new religion that promoted “turning the other cheek” and “rendering unto Caesar” taxes. I have no axe to grind with Christianity – I’m a Christian who believes in the Apostle’s Creed and says the Lord’s Prayer and attends church. The unintended consequence of this “elective affinity” as Max Weber might call it, was that Christianity spread wildly and eventually became the religion of the Empire under Constantine. History is quirky and often accidental.

            To me this does not undermine Christianity but humanizes its roots. Christianity is a man-made religion but it points to “the Holy.” Christianity eventually became a world religion from which sprang the emphasis on the individual rather than caste, clan, tribe or sect, and Capitalism which has raised the modern world out of poverty.

            I would suggest reading a book I don’t entirely agree with: Caesar’s Messiah by Joseph Atwill where his independent scholarship delves into this topic. The book is heretical but its scholarship has no agenda. Unfortunately, the book will lead many Christians to abandon or doubt their faith – but to me it has made faith stronger and more mature by seeing its human and historical origins.

            Answer: It doesn’t change my argument that many Christian documents began as war propaganda.

            Thank you Prof. Jenkins for your question.

          • philipjenkins

            I don’t believe any serious academic has bothered to respond to CAESARS MESSIAH, but there is an acute review at
            http://caesarsmessiahdebunked.com/
            It begins thus:
            “Caesar’s Messiah was a book published by a dot com businessman
            named Joseph Atwill in 2005. Last year, he released a documentary based
            on the book and everyone is talking about it all of a sudden, because
            Atwill put out the world’s most misleading press release for his film
            screening in London. Richard Dawkins then retweeted the press release,
            even though he said he didn’t endorse the theory, and now this
            eight-year-old theory is news again. Thank you, Richard Dawkins.”

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            Dr. Jenkins
            I bought the book to refute it. I would suggest you read the book rather than the reviews. I am not an apologist or endorser of the book. Unfortunately, there are so many books with similar titles with shoddy research meant to capture a readership of conspiracy nuts or angry atheists. This isn’t one of them. I have 3 masters degrees, one in sociology of religion and found the hypothesis was supported; although I would not share any anti-Christian views of those who might embrace the book. Suggest you read some of my Amazon.com reviews of sociologist Peter Berger’s books that might enhance my credibility. I also have many of your books and articles in my library. I don’t read shoddy works. I also write for a think tank on California water and energy issues.

            It is a pleasure to dialogue with you.

            Highest regards.

          • philipjenkins

            I admire your willingness to read off-base books critically with a view to debating them, and I mean that without any irony. Most academics run into a trap with such books: by ignoring them and not reading them, they leave themselves exposed to charges of an elite conspiracy to suppress some inconvenient truth. The problem is of course that time is such a limited and precious commodity.

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            Prof. Jenkins
            I assure you it is not an off-based book but it has been embraced by a lot of people who might fall into that category. The author is a computer genius who was trained in a Catholic Seminary earlier in his life. The only reason I left a comment was not to do as most bloggers do to argue with an author but to bring to your attention a book that supports its thesis that the Christian Gospels were at minimum appropriated for war propaganda and at maximum maybe more than that. The book oozes with rationality not conjecture or conspiracy theory of Gnosticism. The author has a particular gift of hermeneutic interpretation. The author says nothing that is hostile to Christianity and remains value free in his analysis. I write many reviews of books I disagree with especially on topics related to water and energy policy as I am a policy analyst on that topic for two think tanks. I actually don’t like reading only books I agree with. What made to send you a comment is reading your book The Lost History of Christianity. That is what the Atwill book is about.

            Again, highest regards.


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