An Interview with Philip Jenkins on The Great and Holy War

An Interview with Philip Jenkins on The Great and Holy War April 29, 2014

My Baylor colleague and fellow Anxious Bench blogger Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Co-Director of the Program on Historical Studies of Religion at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of many books, including The Lost History of Christianity, Jesus Wars, and The Next Christendom. He has published articles and op-ed pieces in The Wall Street Journal, New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. His latest book is The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, which we recently discussed. 

TK: You say that World War I must be understood as a religious conflict, one that many participants saw as a “holy war.” Why is this essential to understanding WWI?

PJ: I think it’s multiply important, not least for why understanding the different alliances went to war. At the highest levels of the respective regimes, both Germany and Russia were deeply motivated by national visions that were messianic and millenarian, and framed in thoroughly Christian terms. Each nation saw itself as playing a predestined role that was divinely inspired, and those self-concepts contributed mightily to the outbreak of war. Religious visions also helped explain why people remained at war through the hellish conditions. We also have to understand the highly supernatural world in which all participants found themselves, and not just at the level of elite propaganda. The language of crusade and holy war must be taken very seriously – on all sides. When they entered the war in 1917, Americans, interestingly, were among the most passionate in presenting the war in crusading terms.

Also, the sense of having failed in a holy war enterprise goes far to explaining the secularized millenarianism that prevailed throughout the 1920s and 1930s, in the totalitarian movements. As in 1914, Germany and Russia were the storm centers.

TK: WWI is often remembered for unprecedented, but often pointless carnage, especially in the notorious experiences of trench warfare. Does the religious cast of the war help to explain the nature and extent of its violence?

PJ: The violence and destruction were in large measure the consequence of recent technological developments, and the state of military tactics at the time. By the way, trench warfare in itself is not necessarily disastrous, and trenches were a major form of protection in plenty of other wars, including the American Civil War. But the particular form that such tactics took in that war made it uniquely deadly.

I would see a religious influence in some of the examples of ethnic cleansing and massacre that accompanied in the war, including the Armenian Genocide and the anti-Jewish massacres on the Eastern Front. Those incidents alone claimed many more lives that Verdun and the Somme combined.

Incidentally, I do challenge the idea of “pointless” carnage. Some battles in the war were far bloodier than they need have been, and military incompetence was widespread. The First Day of the Somme was a perfect example. But I would stress the main Allied goal of the war, of preventing a ruthless German hegemony over the whole of Europe, which in the imperial context of the time meant over most of the world. From 1914, the Germans could only be defeated by wearing down and penetrating their very strong fortifications in France and Belgium, and the Western Allies took some time to find the military means to accomplish that. It was a war of attrition, but so (for instance) was the Battle of Normandy in 1944, which actually cost casualties at a greater rate than did most of the famous battles of the First World War. And ultimately, the Western Allies of 1944 broke through German lines and ended the stalemate, just as they ultimately did in 1918.

But pointless? No more than World War II.

TK: Your book features dozens of striking visual illustrations from the 1910s. Some display evocative and disturbing religious images, some grisly violence, and some have both. Why was it important for you to include this visual dynamic?

PJ: Only by looking at the overwhelming weight of religious and supernatural imagery in the war’s visual heritage do we get a sense of just how prevalent these otherworldly ideas were, and how archaic. It’s an odd juxtaposition, of highly medieval depictions of angels and apocalyptic horsemen, visions of Christ and the Virgin, images of ghosts and prophets – and all in a highly modern world of machine guns, tanks and gas warfare. That disjunction of medieval and modern is shocking, and brings home the central points I am trying to make.

Pictures of various kinds give us the best ways we are ever likely to find of entering into the imagination of people in a bygone historical era.

Particularly valuable, of course, are the motion pictures, which were just entering their golden age in 1914. Many of the major productions of the era dealt with war themes, and in very religious/apocalyptic terms – INTOLERANCE, THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE, CIVILIZATION… The fact that people watched these films in their millions means that they recognized in them the beliefs and value systems that had motivated them to fight in the war.

TK: Many writers have seen WWI as the beginning of widespread western skepticism about faith, and an important milestone in the secularization of the West. But you say that the war could just as easily be seen as the beginning of “divine reassertion.” Why?

PJ: I could answer this question at book length, and indeed I have done just that!

First, we have to look at the wider world beyond Europe and North America, where the war marked the beginning of radical new forms of religion – for African Christians, for example, for Muslims in the Middle East or South Asia, for Jews.

But even in the West, there really is little evidence of a great disenchantment with religion, apart from some elite writers of the Lost Generation. Neither Europe nor America secularized to any degree before the 1950s, even such countries as the Netherlands, and church attendance rates boomed through the 1920s. In fact, churches and clergy gained status from the war, from the courage of military chaplains, and from their role in the whole post-war effort to commemorate the dead. For every one contemporary individual who complains about the war destroying faith, we find dozens converting to more stringent or demanding forms of faith in a quest to make sense of the recent carnage.

Some scholars have spoken of a re-enchantment following 1918, not a disenchantment. Old forms of faith perished in the war, but assuredly not faith itself.

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