Faith in the Foxholes: Christianity and the World Wars

If you’re a regular reader of The Anxious Bench, chances are good that you already know about Christian History Magazine. But if not, now’s the perfect time to introduce yourself to CH: its new issue features a terrific set of articles exploring how the two world wars affected Christianity.

Admittedly, I’m not an unbiased observer: I contributed an article — my first for CH — on Christian responses to National Socialism. (Researching it last fall inspired my post here on “the Bonhoeffer effect.”) I begin with Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer’s 1998 address to the German Bundestag and conclude with the sobering postwar reminiscence of a Confessing Church leader:

“I come from a people who gave the Ten Commandments to the world,” he told the legislators. “Time has come to strengthen them by three additional ones, which we ought to adopt and commit ourselves to: thou shall not be a perpetrator; thou shall not be a victim; and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.”

SA men holding German Christian propaganda during church elections in Berlin, 1933
SA men holding German Christian propaganda during church elections in Berlin, 1933 – CC BY-SA 3.0 Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia

During the 12 years of the Third Reich, Christians broke each of Bauer’s commandments. A few—both too many and not enough—sacrificed life or liberty to resist Nazi iniquity. But the vast majority of German Christians fell along that complicated spectrum between perpetrator and bystander.

…Unlike hundreds of other priests and pastors held at Dachau, Martin Niemöller survived imprisonment. While he exerted significant moral authority in post-Nazi Germany, Niemöller knew that he and the Christians had largely failed the test when faced with the crimes of the Third Reich. In his 1946 memoir, he confessed that he felt compelled to tell any Jew he met, ‘Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we can not get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people [have] sinned against thy people and against thyself.'”

As managing editor Jennifer Woodruff Tait explains in her introduction, both World War I and World War II produced a mix of “heroic, fascinating, and even troubling stories.”

Some come from those who fought bravely, and some come from those who resisted fighting at all. Some people escaped unimaginable suffering to spend the rest of their lives testifying about it. Others went to their deaths bravely and are now counted martyrs. Some even transformed wartime experiences into great art (we’ve got a surprise visit from a couple of Inklings in this issue). [Here’s my own recent post on that same subject.]

Some soldiers found God on the battlefield, and some lost faith in him there. Some on the home front supported the wars, and some opposed them. When faced with the choice between country and God, some made their choice, while others were confused as to which choice was really which.

All these stories are in this issue, and they serve as guidance to us as we face the political and social issues of our own day.

I’m just starting to dig into my paper copy of the magazine, but a few stories have already caught my eye:

Along the way you’ll meet the Japanese evangelist Mitsuo Fuchida, the Dutch rescuer Corrie Ten Boom, the American missionary John Birch, the martyred nun Edith Stein, and many other famous and forgotten Christians.

The entire issue offers a rich, rewarding read on a vitally important topic. Enjoy!

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