A Misguided History Lesson from a Fundamentalist Christian Pastor

In a strange sort of anti-war, “Don’t be friends with other nations” sermon, Pastor Steven Anderson explained the history of World War I in a way that was supposed to show how the number of allied countries on both sides made things even worse (and, therefore, the U.S. should not make promises to defend its allies even if invaded).

What’s striking about the short sermon isn’t the rhetoric, but the mishandling of the WWI facts.

@VeritasKnight on Twitter was kind enough to listen to the sermon clip and provide analysis on where Anderson got things wrong. Turns out there’s a lot of misinformation, so I’ll just quote Anderson, then quote @VeritasKnight.

Anderson: “So you have these two little tiny nations — Are you listening? Here’s your history lesson — Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Now does anybody think those are two major world superpowers? Austria-Hungary and Serbia? No. These are two small nations.”

Anderson constantly refers to Austria-Hungary incorrectly. First, he calls Austria-Hungary “tiny.” Austria-Hungary was a major player in the world. Perhaps he looked at today’s map, but in 1914 this was the map of Europe.

He later compares Austria-Hungary to Germany in a negative way. Austria-Hungary was actually larger in terms of area (676,615 km2 compared to 540,857 km2). And while Germany’s population was larger (approximately 65,000,000) Austria-Hungary still had an empire containing 53,000,000 people. Austria-Hungary was considered a European power on par with Germany in many aspects. While the First World War would expose many weaknesses of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when it began its fight with Serbia, it was considered a major nation — in modern terms, it would be somewhere around an India or a Brazil — a regional if not a global power (in a world where global powers were nowhere near as powerful as they are today).

Anderson: “[Those two countries] had a dispute because the guy who was supposed to ascend the throne of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Serbian group. So the Serbian group assassinated the Hungarian.”

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was Austrian, not Hungarian. He was assassinated not by a “Serbian” group but by a young extremist Serb named Gavrilo Princip. Princip was linked to several extremist groups. Austria-Hungary’s insistence on linking Princip to the genuine powers-that-be in Serbia is still debated to this day, though most scholars think he had, at best, a tenuous link to the Serbian military through the secretive society The Black Hand. Regardless, it is unlikely that Serbia was trying to orchestrate the assassination.

Anderson: “So, basically, the Austrio-Hungarians, they made all these demands on the Serbians: Give us all this land, give us all this money, you know, to make up for the fact that you killed our guy.”

Austria-Hungary’s demands of Serbia following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand were tenfold — none of which included land concessions, though it was, of course, designed to humble, humiliate, and lead to war.

Anderson: “So you just have a battle between two tiny countries! But here’s the problem: Serbia was allied with Russia — huge country. Germany is allied with Austria — huge country. Right? So now, if there’s a beef between Serbia and Austria, well, guess what? Now, it’s gonna be between Russia and Germany, which are two major powers.”

The pre-First World War alliance system is significantly more complex than stated by Anderson. The world was divided into two major camps: the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) and the Triple Entente (France, Russia, and the United Kingdom). Russia had agreements of protection with Serbia that engaged the alliance systems; Germany, the UK, and France were all party to a treaty that protected Belgium’s neutrality. The alliance system didn’t entirely work, mind you — England refused to declare war immediately on Germany and Austria-Hungary, and Italy didn’t join at all (choosing in 1915 to join the Entente Powers, rather than the Central Powers). England’s use of the 1839 Treaty of London was considered a way to try to end the war by warning Germany that their battle plan would cause greater, wider war. This warning did not work.

Anderson: “But not only that, Russia is allied with France. So Germany says, well, if we back up Austria against Serbia, then Russia’s gonna get involved. And then Germany says, well, if we’re gonna fight against Russia, then France is gonna get involved. So then the Germans said, well, here’s what we’re gonna do: Since France is way more dangerous than Russia, we just need to attack France.”

Anderson declared that Germany was more afraid of France, which is why they attacked through Belgium, making it sound like this was an off-the-cuff decision. In fact, Germany had been preparing this attack (the Schlieffen Plan) since their previous war with France, in 1870. During that war, the Prussians attacked exactly as one might expect — straight toward Paris. The need to do things differently is part of the deception of war. When Paris allied with Moscow, the need became even more intense to defeat France quickly. The Schlieffen Plan was intended to knock France out of any future war so that Germany could handle Russia one-on-one, Russia being considered the greater, harder-to-defeat threat.

Germany, in other words, knew for 40 years that they’d be confronted with a two-front war and made a plan to deal with it. Once war with Russia was ascertained, an invasion of France was assumed — and enacted.

Anderson: “… but here’s the problem. When you go through Belgium, England has a treaty with Belgium, that if anybody goes through Belgium, we’re gonna defend you. So it all starts by Germany going into France through Belgium. Now England’s involved. Russia’s involved. France. I mean, the biggest powers in the world! And then they have allies all over the world! And then Turkey’s involved. And then pretty soon it’s a World War.”

The next thoughts tossed out involved the addition of two of the three further powers to the war that occurred after the initial commencement of hostilities. Unlike the beginning stages, the way that the Ottoman Empire (not Turkey) and the United States entered World War I were not through activation of the various alliance systems. In fact, the USA had desperately avoided European entanglements for over 140 years, following the advice of George Washington, while the Ottoman Empire was hated by pretty much every other European country after hundreds of years of opposition.

The Ottomans were enticed to enter the war by Germany, though the British and French had been their more recent allies in the Crimean War. The Ottoman Empire was considered “the Sick Man of Europe” at the time and England and France wanted out. Germany used the tried, tested and true method of getting a country into the war by promising them war concessions (the same way the Allies got Italy on their side).

The suggestion that it was a series of alliances that caused World War I to be a “World War” needs to be addressed, too. What really happened was fighting between the various colonies of the European powers. British dominions (Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand) sent soldiers to Europe, while fighting occurred in German overseas territories in Asia and Africa. Unlike World War II, however, World War I was primarily fought in Europe and the Middle East — the home territories of most belligerent nations.

Anderson: “Eventually, even at the very end, in the final year, got the United States involved, in 1918.”

The USA, of course, did not enter because of enticements. The USA’s policy of neutrality was violated by the Germans several times, primarily when they sank the Lusitania and when they resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917. The USA declared war in 1917, not 1918 as Anderson said. Germany’s infamous Zimmerman Telegram was also intercepted by the USA — Germany attempting to get Mexico to declare war on the USA. This allowed public pressure in America to turn from neutrality to anti-German, and Congress declared war.

All this misinformation, courtesy of a man who promotes homeschooling. For shame…

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • ivan_e

    What’s the eighth commandment according to his faith? Something about honesty? Huh. Figures.

    • Spuddie

      I am charitable enough to chalking it up to ignorance + reliance on fictional political tropes which went out of style by 1940.

      Just to Godwin it a bit, he takes the same stance as the German-American bund, Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy did prior to the lend lease act.

  • Rain

    Was there ever a fundamentalist that never got anything completely wrong? I’m kidding of course.

    • Itarion

      Weelll…. This one told me yesterday that it gets bright in the morning.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        Presumably he said this on an overcast day.

        • Artor

          North of the Arctic circle too. Happy equinox everyone!

  • Tony Jiang

    the ottoman empire IS Turkey, infact on many maps in the early 20th century it was called the turkish empire

    • Spuddie

      Hence the nickname for ottoman soldiers of “Johnny Turk” by the British.

    • Erp

      Nation-state versus People. The Ottoman empire was far more extensive than modern Turkey as it included most of the Middle East and at one time Egypt, Greece, etc.. It was ruled by Turks (people who spoke Turkish) hence Turkish empire but recognized that they were ruling other peoples. Post WW1 Turkey is much smaller and the rulers consider that almost all the people within its borders to be Turks (not actually true).

    • thebigJ_A

      The Ottoman Empire most emphatically was NOT Turkey.

      It encompassed the lands that are now Turkey, along with many others, to be sure, but that’s not the same thing.

      “Turks” were (are) a people. The Ottomans never called their empire Turkey; Mustafa Kemal borrowed the term “Turkey’ from the Europeans when building his nation-state (“nation” being the important word, it’s not a synonym for “country”, in fact. Look up nationalism).
      The Ottoman Empire was multi-national and dynastic. Literally it was the empire ruled by the descendants of Osman, the Ottomans.

      Within that empire there were all sorts of nations. It just so happened the dynasty and dominant ethnic group/nation were Turkic, and Europeans of the day (or this one mapmaker, at least) wrote ‘Turkish Empire’ (not the same, even there, as Turkey, mind, but rather ‘Empire ruled by Turks’). It just so happened that ethnic group managed to attain and retain its independence after the empire collapsed. This new nation-state, this new state based upon a dominant ethnic group, was and is Turkey.

      • Tony Jiang

        it WAS Turkey, just look at the maps of those days and how the ottomans refered to themselves! they called themselves the turkish empire!

        • Spuddie

          The name for the Anatolian region as Turkey dates back to the 14th century. His argument is akin to saying great Britain was not the British empire or Japan was not the East Asia Co-prosperity sphere. The name of the motherland is the shorthand for the empire it spawns.

  • WillBell

    I’ll point out that the reason the various nations got involved was not because of alliances but was because they thought it would serve their interests. If the alliances being different or staying neutral would have better served the interests of the European nations from their perspectives it would have been so.

  • Mick

    Pastor Steven Anderson says, Today the United States has treaties like that with over a hundred nations…If there’s any battle anywhere in the world, we’re gonna get involved.

    But what sort of involvement do the treaties require?

    In 1951 Australia, New Zealand, and the USA signed the ANZUS treaty. All three countries agreed that an attack on any one of them would endanger the safety of the other two. The key section read:

    The Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific.

    So technically, if Australia or New Zealand had been attacked, the US President could have fulfilled all of his obligations with a single telephone call to the Prime Minister expressing sympathy for his plight. No other action would have been required.

    I imagine that many of the current treaties have similar loopholes. If the USA wants a fight they’ll go for it, but if it doesn’t want to fight, a sympathetic phone call will be enough to fulfill all contractual obligations.

    • Itarion

      And if not a just a sympathetic phone call, then a phone call and a squadron of 5 fighter jets, say, for especially extraordinary cases. Nothing much, really.

      The point is that none of the global powers want to get directly involved in an extended war with another global power. Mostly because a war in which all military resources are used would actually make a significant portion of the earth uninhabitable for multiple lifetimes. Like the Tsar Bomba, tested by the USSR, which was explosive one the order of volcanic eruptions. The central fireball alone was multiple kilometers across, with the blastwave extending into the hundreds of kilometers. Combined with radioactivity from fission reactions – minimized in the test bomb – and you’ve got a lot of the earth’s surface useless. A full conflict consisting of firepower alone will last only as long as the initial missile volleys.

    • David McNerney

      More importantly, when has the United States ever got involved in a war because of a treaty.

      I’m open to correction of this but I can’t think of a contrary example. Every conflict that I am aware of that the US was ever involved in, they entered either by choice to maintain a sphere of influence (e.g. Vietnam, Iraq) or because of a direct attack by a foreign aggressor (e.g. WW2).

      Treaties don’t make anyone go to war. Even in the WWI case the treaties were the equivalent of ‘WMDs 40 minutes from London’ – every country wanted to go to war, they just needed a ‘justification’ to sell it to their people.

  • pete084

    Could I just point out that it isn’t England that went to war, it was the United Kingdom.

    It’s like saying that Texas went to war in 1917, and not the United States of America.

    • http://logofveritas.blogspot.com/ VeritasTruthseeker

      Yeah, true story. And it still is the United Kingdom (with slightly less Ireland). I used England too in my response, but I guess that bothers me less for whatever reason. Probably pisses off the Scots out there.

    • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

      For those who are interested, CGPGrey has a great video clarifying the differences between England, the United Kingdom, and Great Britain:

      http://youtu.be/rNu8XDBSn10

  • Theory_of_I

    Any preacher who commits to presenting only proven facts also commits occupational suicide.

  • mikespeir

    I worry that guys like this are going to put stand-up comedians out of work.

  • the moother

    If we expected Christians to have any kind of affinity for the truth, they’d be atheists soon enough.

  • Latraviata

    Perhaps his views and ‘knowledge’ are coloured by the fact that his wife is German/Hungarian??

    • Artor

      I don’t expect that she knows jack shit about history either.

  • Jaded

    He would utterly fail any examination on WWI.
    Seriously, my sixteen year old self would have schooled him on the origins of WWI.

    • mywall

      My 16 year old self would too. My current self however, not so much. Stories of politicians being scumbags only last so long in my memory since there’s so many of them.

  • islandbrewer

    Thanks, VeritasKnight.

    I sometimes have to think that these people, much like the trolls in the posts, try the text version of a Gish gallop. They overwhelm us with such a tremendous volume of nonsense that address them in any sort of manner requires either a long tedious point by point fisking or you’ll get a response of “You never answered X!”

    And then it still doesn’t stop the deluge.

    • http://logofveritas.blogspot.com/ VeritasTruthseeker

      Thing is that there was enough correctness in what ol’ Anderson said that he did some research. He just…didn’t read past the first paragraph on the wiki page. Saw enough to support his point and away he went, filling in the gaps with nothingness.

      Austria-Hungary was tiny. Heh.

      • Artor

        A friend of mine scored a bunch of old maps from a school sale. They show Europe at various stages from 1570 to post-WWII. It’s amazing to see some of those little postage-stamp countries occupying half the map at various times. Yeah, Austria-Hungary, c.1914 was fucking HUGE!

  • Spuddie

    This makes me want to watch the series Anzacs all over again. Maybe follow it up with Blackadder Goes Fourth

  • QuestioningKat

    I predict future news of this guy being “aligned” with another man. Sorry, I just get that impression from him. Another Fundie ready to fall.

  • Amor DeCosmos

    Does Anderson know he has such a fanbase here at FA? I wish he would drop by to visit. Surely a Man of God isn’t afraid of engaging in dialog with some godless heathens.

    • Artor

      If I recall, he either doesn’t allow, or selectively moderates comments on his own page. You know how cockroaches like the light, right?

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    It’s true that one of fundamentalists’ chief hobbies is rewriting history, to be whatever they wish it to be at the moment in order to appear to support whatever it is they’re trying to say. One of their chief heroes right now is David Barton, whom they hail as a historian, even though he is NOT a historian at all, but is instead a demonstrable liar. Heck, Sarah Palin even rewrote Paul Revere’s ride in order to turn him into a champion of the NRA, including anachronistically putting NRA talking points in his mouth.

    That said, in this specific case, Anderson’s errors are something I can see virtually ANY American saying, without regard to his/her religion. I’ve found that the way in which the history of World War I is taught, is rather poor. I know I’d been misinformed about it until I reached college and learned about it in greater depth (especially when I took an advanced course in the history of the Hapsburg empire).

    The cold fact is that “social studies” subjects generally get short shrift in US schools, and it’s been going on for a long time. And it’s only getting worse, with increased concentration on language and STEM subjects. (Which I’m not really complaining about even if it seems I am; there’ve been deficiencies there, too, which had to be addressed. I just wonder if we aren’t cutting off our kids’ noses to spite their faces by moving the bar a little further than it needs to go.)

    • Artor

      I had thought I was fairly well-informed about history, but I didn’t know much of the detail in this post. Thank you again Hemant; you are more informative than High School. Sorry, I know that’s not a high bar, but it’s true.

  • DelAnaya

    It IS fun to watch these fringe lunatics, but are they really worth the time? They certainly don’t represent a large population and there might be other more influential lunatics to waste our time on?

    This nut is just an independent business man who runs a store front church in Mesa, Arizona. He call himself a Baptist, but he’s not affiliated with any Baptist organization. His business model is selling bible garbage to the gullible.

    It’s tempting to try to answer his stupidity on line, but there are so many of these little ankle-biting street preachers. I’m not sure they have much real effect.

    • Artor

      It’s tempting to think of guys like Anderson as fringe, and sure, he’s definitely over-the-top in his delivery, but I’ve known more than a few Xians in my time that thought just like this, believed anything their pastor told them, and knew barely a word of what was actually written in their own Bibles, let alone in any science or history text.
      I actually had a conversation with a co-worker once, who was surprised to hear that the Middle Ages really happened. She’d thought that castles and knights and, well, history, was all made-up fantasy from romance novels.
      In another case, a “friend” tried explaining to a room full of college graduates, that there was an atmospheric reservoir of water that made it possible to rain 40 days & nights, etc. He’d heard it from his pastor! It’s in the Bible! True story! He later admitted that he’d never read the Bible himself, and had been homeschooled since he was 10.
      If ignorance like this is allowed to go unridiculed, the low-information among us will continue to think that such views are equally valid opinions in the face of factual reality. This is a bad thing for all of us, and I commend Hemant for bringing Anderson to light, and making sure that anyone searching for him on the internet can see what an idiot he is.
      Plus, it’s fun to watch willfully stupid people make fools of themselves. I love the smell of schadenfreude in the morning!

  • Warren McIntosh

    Err, sorry guys, for an audience of non-specalists, it’s a materially accurate summary. Feel free to make as much fun of the crazies as you like, but calling them out unfairly makes you look lazy and a bit stupid. Sorry.

    • thebigJ_A

      Er, sorry, the corrections are accurate. The pastor’s summary was nonsense.
      Unless “for an audience of non-specialists” means “I can say things that aren’t true”. :/
      Information is easy to get at these days. Just look up any of the points Anderson was corrected on. The churchman was wrong on all of them.

      • Kiwi_Dave

        One correction – the explanation of the alliance system – is not so much a correction as an elaboration which does not contradict the pastor’s statement. Since this is a short sermon rather than a history lesson, I’d make some allowance for over-simplification.

        • thebigJ_A

          It’s an over-simplification used to draw the wrong conclusions. (And the correction does contradict it, though not as strongly as some of the others).

          It’s not quite correct, either, even in it’s simplicity. Turkey came in later, the alliance system had nothing to do with it. Italy came in later, on the opposite side as the alliance it as originally on. And the United States was most certainly *not* pulled in by alliance ties, which is the pastor’s entire argument.

      • Warren McIntosh

        Yes, the commentary is accurate, and I am well aware of the facts, thank you. However, do try comparing the level of detail in one against the other. If you were at a dinner party with friends who have no historical background, and were asked to summarise how the first world war got going in a couple of paragraphs, your answer wouldn’t be materially different (maybe a word or two about German militarisim) from the good pastor’s.

        • thebigJ_A

          Of course it would be materially different. I wouldn’t fill my explanation with things that aren’t true.

          There’s a difference between a summary and a lie (or mistake, if you’re feeling generous).

  • Bdole

    You’re obsessed.


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