27 June 2014

When "Christian" Europe Went to War

The photography of Walter Kleinfeldt (d.1945), discovered three years ago by his son, Volkmar.
Walter fought at the Somme at the age of 16. 
One hundred years ago today Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were both assassinated by Gavrilo Princip (1884-1918) in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914.  In just over a month, Europe was thrown into the cataclysm that was the Great War, otherwise known as the First World War. 

The centenary won’t be marked in the United States the way it throughout Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom.  (The United States didn’t enter the war until 1917.)  WWI is often in the shadow of the Second World War, both in terms of scale and significance, as least for Americans.  (There’s still no national memorial on the National Mall to honor the Americans who served and died in WWI.) And, yet, as historians look back from the present vantage point it becomes clear that WWII was in many respects an extension of WWI.  Indeed, for the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, much of the 20th century and now the 21st century has been spent addressing the residual geo-political and ideological conflicts left unresolved by the Great War.  It is striking that even now Iraq, whose borders were created by the League of Nations in 1920, is daily disintegrating into three provinces (Shia, Sunni, Kurd), to basically what the region looked like prior to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Thousands of volumes have been written on the origins of the Great War. Military and political historians are still trying to figure out how one gunshot in Sarajevo hurled Europe into the abyss—leading to 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilian deaths—devastating lands, peoples, cultures, destroying the youth of an entire generation.   In 1920 there were 525,000 war widows in Germany, 200,000 in Italy, 600,000 in France, 240,000 in Britain, and millions of orphans. It's inconceivable that so-called “civilized” nations could allow themselves to engage in this gross, collective act of self-annihilation. This is mind-blowing enough. 

What makes the war even more scandalous is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people in the nations/empires at war—Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia (and later, the United States)—were Christian.  Japan and the Ottoman Empire and India were, of course, non-Christian states; nevertheless, they were all, together, deeply influenced by centuries of Christian thought and practice, Christians now ripping themselves to shreds.  This is an aspect of the war usually overlooked by historians.  Two recent works—Jonathan H. Ebel’s Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War (Princeton University Press, 2010) and Philip Jenkins’ The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne, 2014)—are significant exceptions.

Remembering the faith dimension is critical as we begin to commemorate the First World War, especially for Christians. In many ways, World War I was, and remains, a scathing indictment of Christianity.  Or, better said, an indictment of large portions of the Church, on both sides of the conflict, with both clergy and laity who thought they were being faithful Christians, fighting to save “Christian civilization,” and slaughtering millions to do so, all in the name of God. 

How did “Christian” Europe allow this to happen? Was there something within Christianity at that time which helped fan the flames of destruction and war?  Is it still within Christianity, latent and in shadow? 


How exactly do adherents who claim to follow Jesus—the Prince of Peace, the one who said before he was arrested and eventually executed, “Peter, put away your sword” (Matthew 26:52)—become the Church militant?

For God, Country and King. This was the banner cry heard in the High Streets of Britain and in trenches of the Somme. One can read these same words today on countless war memorials all over the United Kingdom, in churches and in village squares in the most remote corners of the British Isles.  Belief in God and patriotism were inseparable. Every nation made a similar claim: God is with us. Dieu est de notre côté. Gott ist mit uns.  Churches—on all sides—supported the war. 

It’s telling that when, on the eve of war, 1 August, as a vast crowd gathered on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, people started to spontaneously sing, not Deutschland über alles (Germany over all), but the Lutheran chorale Gott, tief im Herzen (God, deep in my heart).
On Sunday, 2 August, the court chaplain conducted an open-air service in Koningplatz to celebrate the declaration of war with France. 

Then, on 4 August, Kaiser Wilhelm II (1849-1941) made a famous speech in Berlin, which was really more like a sermon. “German faith and German piety," he said, "are ultimately bound up with German civilization.”  The sermon/speech was written by the prominent Lutheran theologian and church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), a towering figure in the history of Christian thought, who left his imprint on generations of pastors and theologians in Germany, Britain, and the United States.

Across the English Channel, Arthur Winnington-Ingram (1858-1946), Bishop of London,  preached in 1915 that Britons “are banded in a great crusade” and are therefore called, “…to kill Germans; to kill them, not for the sake of killing, but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old…to kill them lest the civilization of the world be killed.”  

Similarly passionate appeals were heard from many pulpits in Europe and the United States throughout the war. Not all, certainly, but many.  

Which God or god (s) were being served by these statements, sermons, actions?

The difficult truth, as Jenkins and others make clear, is that after the war Christendom was in ruins (which was probably a good thing).  WWI spawned a religious and cultural revolution within Christianity that continues to do this day.

Religion, per se, is not the problem (although it, too, is not always innocent). The real threat surfaces when nationalism and patriotism—competing deities that have an enormous sway over our thoughts, actions, and feelings—harnesses the benevolent power of faith to serve its own ends, often with ghastly results.  Religions of compassion become grotesque. Consider the aims of the radical Islamicist group ISIS/ISIL now devastating Iraq.  

If the ghosts of Verdun and the Marne, Gallipoli and Ypres could have their say today they might warn us: Beware the bizarre alchemy of Christianity and patriotism.  The macabre marriage of nationalism and religion often yields a deadly poison. Its toxin permeated most of the 20th century and it’s still with us today.  It never ends well.