The Great and Holy War?


by Laurence M. Vance
The Great and Holy War?

Review of Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne, 2014), x + 438 pgs..

One would think that if there is any group of people that would be opposed to war it would be Christians. After all, they claim to worship the Prince of Peace. But such is not the case now, and such was not the case 100 years ago during the Great War that we now call World War I.


I have often pointed out how strange it is that Christians should be so accepting of war. War is the greatest suppressor of civil liberties. War is the greatest creator of widows and orphans. War is the greatest destroyer of religion, morality, and decency. War is the greatest creator of fertile ground for genocides and atrocities. War is the greatest destroyer of families and young lives. War is the greatest creator of famine, disease, and homelessness. War is the health of the state.

Just as it was easy for the state to enlist the support of Christians for the Cold and Vietnam Wars against “godless communism,” so it is easy now for the state to garner Christian support for the War on Terror against “Islamic extremists.” But World War I was a Christian slaughterhouse. It was Christian vs. Christian, Protestant vs. Protestant, Catholic vs. Catholic. And to a lesser extent, it was also Jew vs. Jew and Muslim vs. Muslim.

Although fought by nation states and empires, World War I was in a great sense a religious war. As Baylor historian Philip Jenkins explains in the introduction to his new book The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade:

The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelming Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict. Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war.

Soldiers commonly demonstrated a religious worldview and regularly referred to Christian beliefs and ideas. They resorted frequently to biblical language and to concepts of sacrifice and redemptive suffering.

The war ignited a global religious revolution. . . . The Great War drew the world’s religious map as we know it today.

Not just incidentally but repeatedly and centrally, official statements and propaganda declare that the war is being fought for god’s cause, or for his glory, and such claims pervade the media and organs of popular culture. Moreover, they identify the state and its armed forces as agents or implements of God. Advancing the nation’s cause and interests is indistinguishable from promoting and defending God’s cause or (in a Christian context) of bringing in his kingdom on earth.

We can confidently speak of a powerful and consistent strain of holy war ideology during the Great War years. All the main combatants deployed such language, particularly the monarchies with long traditions of state establishment—the Russians, Germans, British, Austro-Hungarians, and Ottoman Turks—but also those notionally secular republics: France, Italy, and the United States.

Christian leaders treated the war as a spiritual event, in which their nation was playing a messianic role in Europe and the world.

Without appreciating its religious and spiritual aspects, we cannot understand the First World War. More important, though, the world’s modern religious history makes no sense except in the context of that terrible conflict. The war created our reality.

After the introduction, The Great and Holy War contains thirteen chapters, most of which don’t necessarily have to be read in order. Each chapter is divided into short sections and ends (with the exception of chapters 3, 12, & 13) with somewhat of a one-paragraph summary/conclusion. There are a number of maps, pictures, posters, and other images that greatly enhance the book. A conclusion caps the book. There are thirty-five pages of notes and an index, but no bibliography. The widely-published Jenkins, the Distinguished Professor of History and member of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, is the well-known author of Jesus Wars, The Lost History of Christianity, and Hidden Gospels.

Although we may disagree with Jenkins’ contention that “we can in fact make a plausible case for German responsibility in starting the war,” his first chapter provides us with a brief and sobering overview of the Great War, which he subtitles “The Age of Massacre.” And indeed it was. On a single day in August of 1914, the French lost twenty-seven thousand men in battles in the Ardennes and at Charleroi. To put this in perspective, Jenkins says that “the French suffered more fatalities on the one sultry day than U.S. forces lost in the two 1945 battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa combined.” And this was over a four-month period. He also points out that the French lost on that one single day “half as many lives as the United States lost in the whole Vietnam War.” But that’s not all. During the first two months of the war, 400,000 French soldiers perished. Both sides lost two million lives by the year’s end. The United States lost 114,000 soldiers, almost all of them in 1918, but all of them unnecessarily. The Battles of Verdun and the Somme killed over a million soldiers. A million German horses died during the war. Ten million soldiers died during the war. And as Jenkins reminds us: “Figures for the dead take no account of the many millions more left maimed, blinded, or otherwise gravely wounded in body or mind.” Seven million civilians died as well, not counting the millions who died in the postwar influenza epidemic.

Why should we support the troops? The government’s that send them to fight senseless wars don’t support them otherwise they wouldn’t send them in the first place. Soldiers are merely expendable pawns. As Jenkins says: “Nations were planning, calmly and rationally, on sacrificing multiple millions of their own people.” Attrition was the name of the game. Jenkins’ quote of France’s Marshal Joseph Joffre sums up the battle plan of each side in the Great War: “We shall kill more of the enemy than he can kill of us.”

There are so many themes of note in The Great and Holy War that I must limit this review to just mentioning a few of them.

Each side in the Great War undertook massive propaganda campaigns to demonize the other in order to convince neutral nations of the justice of their causes. A nation’s enemies were framed as evil, satanic, ungodly, and the Antichrist, or at least anti-Christian. The concepts of martyrdom and redemptive sacrifice pervaded wartime language. Christian soldiers became “identified with Christ himself, suffering torments for the salvation of the world.” One pastor declared that “a man may give his life for humanity in a bloody trench as truly as upon a bloody cross.” This was a precursor to the modern blasphemy heard today in some American churches that as Christ died for our sins so soldiers die for our freedoms.

Both sides tried to starve each other. Atrocities were committed by both sides, as if the war itself was not one big atrocity. The Allies were more successful—the starvation blockade against Germany was not ended until months after the 1918 Armistice.

The war turned some Christians into “vocal, even fanatical, advocates” of their nation’s war effort. American Congregationalist minister Newell Dwight Hillis advocated the extermination of the German race. The Anglican bishop of London, Arthur F. Winnington-Ingram, preached that Germans should be killed “to save the world.” American Methodist minister George W. Downs said that he would have driven his bayonet “into the throat or the eye or the stomach of the Huns without the slightest hesitation.” Enthusiasm for war “transcended denominational labels.” German Catholic bishop Michael von Faulhaber was so enthusiastic “in his support for the country’s armies that in 1916 he was awarded the Iron Cross.”

The lack of separation between church and state resulted in “churches acting as agencies of their respective states.” Arguments relating to national interest, honor, and self-defense were presented in “highly religious forms.” And, “when religious leaders had a primary identification with a state—as most did—they not only abandoned words of peace and reconciliation but advocated strident doctrines of holy war and crusade, directed against fellow Christians.” Although Christians lived in two kingdoms—earthly and heavenly—“each had its own moral codes.” It was thought that the absolute demands of New Testament ethics were impossible to apply to the state. This meant that “even a nation made up almost entirely of devout Christians could never act politically according to strict Christian moral teachings.”

Because almost the whole of Africa was controlled by Europeans in 1914, “millions of ordinary Africans were drawn into the service of one of the various colonial powers, whether British, French, German, or Belgian.” The harsh treatment accorded the natives in the Belgian-controlled Congo was known at the time. Yet, one of the reasons that Britain was supposed to have entered the war was to protect Belgium. And in the United States, Americans were told by the government to “Remember Belgium” and buy war bonds.

Many Muslims, which made up a third of Britain’s Indian army, “were nervous about the prospect of being shipped to a battlefront where they could find themselves killing fellow Muslims.” Jenkins comments that “the war created the Islamic World as we know it today.” With the Ottoman Empire gone, “the resulting postwar search for new sources of authority led to the creation or revival of virtually all the Islamic movements that we know in the modern world.” The carving up of the Middle East by the victorious Allies still has repercussions today.

Although Jews suffered immeasurably during the Holocaust of World War II, they had no problem fighting on both sides during World War I. Writes Jenkins: “In their hundreds of thousands, Jews served in the respective armed forces, chiefly because every combatant power imposed compulsory military service. Perhaps half a million Jews served in Russian uniforms, a hundred thousand in Germany, and forty thousand in Britain.” Jews “were also prominent in the war leadership of the combatant nations.” The chemist Fritz Haber in Germany “devoted himself to pioneering modern techniques of chemical warfare in the German cause.”

One of the most important questions asked in The Great and Holy War relates to something that happened in Berlin in 1921. An Armenian killed Talaat Pasha, the reputed mastermind of the Armenian genocide that took place during the war. Jenkins relates that “Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin was fascinated by the trial” and wondered why “did courts try a man for a single murder while no institutions existed to punish the murderers of millions?” The answer was succinctly given by Voltaire many years before the question was asked: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

Jenkins mentions that during the Great War there was never a shortage of “young men cut off in the prime of life.” That is truly the legacy of the war.

The Great and Holy War is not just a book for Christians. It doesn’t matter what your religion is or whether you have any at all. The religious aspects of World War I are unmistakable and essential for understanding the war. Philip Jenkins has written one of the most informative and important books about the Great War. If you read nothing else about World War I in this centennial year, read The Great and Holy War. Coupled with Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers on the origins of the war, and both supplemented by anything Paul Gottfried has written on World War I, you will get quite an education.

2 thoughts on “The Great and Holy War?

  1. Many (not all) of the top theologians of the official German Lutheran Church had rejected “crude” (i.e. traditional) Christianity long before the First World War.- see Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this.

    Bonhoeffer in his time in the United States viewed (with horror) the same “Progressive” or “modernist” theology that had undermined the German Church (and undermined it long before the Nazis) – but he also came upon massive resistance to it from Churches in the United States that still really believed in Christian principles (this is why Bonhoeffer became an American agent – not because he did not see that evil was present in the United States, of course it was present, but that he also understood their was massive resistance to evil in the United States whereas in Germany resistance to evil had collapsed due to generations of false “education”).

    Bonhoeffer was not a traitor to Germany – he was loyal to what was best in German culture and learning, what had been betrayed by fashionable doctrines.

    The German “philosophical” theologians believed they had to reject traditional Christianity for various reasons. NOT biological evolution, James McCosh, Noah Porter and others had shown there was no real problem there – but historicist ideas of “evolution” in moral principles.

    The historical stages morality of Hegel is (in its essence) as anti Christian as the ethnic morality of Herder (personally a kindly man) and List (not a kindly man).

    Such things as the German Declaration of War upon France in 1914 (a pack of lies – that even has the French bombing Bavaria) would be forbidden by Christian principles – so something had to give. And what broke was Christian principles.

    It must be stressed that this is more than “just” soldiers doing terrible things in war (towards civilians and so on) – terrible things have always happened in war (war is terrible).

    What was different was a theological attitude in Germany that terrible things (such as lies and murder) were not terrible – if the state ordered them (for the state was the source of morality “the divine on Earth”).

    This heresy (for it is heresy – from a mainstream Christian perspective) was at the heart of the new “theology ” in Germany, long BEFORE the Nazis and their “League of German Christians” (“Christians” who rejected all the basic doctrines of Christianity) was not the only heresy.

    The denial (de facto – not official) that God is an individual PERSON (not a “force” or “the universe” or, least of all, “the community”) is also at the heart of this heresy – as is the denial that each human being will come before God (after death) for judgement, To be judged for our CHOICE to do wrong.

    It is a central principle of Christianity that right and wrong (good and evil) are universal – not dependent on geography or “historical stage” or “race”. Just as it is a central principle of Christianity that choice is NOT an “illusion” (who is having this illusion if the human “I” does not really exist?) – that we really can do other than we do.

    German philosophy (or leading parts of it) rejected these principles – it was (under its “Christian” mask) a revolt against Christianity, but the revolt was NOT confined to Germany.

    For example, the American President (Woodrow Wilson) showed signs of all the theological and philosophical (and political) decay that had infested Germany. Woodrow Wilson had eagerly lapped up what he had been taught In Johns Hopkins University, perhaps because – if nothing is objectively and universally wrong, then the treatment of blacks where he came from could not be objectively wrong (because nothing is).

    The very principles (quite rightly) rejected by the President of France in his reply to the German Declaration of War in 1914 (pointing out, quite correctly, that the lies of the German Declaration of War showed that the fight was now NOT just between France and Germany – but was a fight to maintain the “universal principles of reason, the universal principles of justice” themselves against false German political theory, philosophy and theology) were also present in the Allies.

    Not just in the United States (not formally an Ally till 1917) but in Britain and France also the false doctrines spread by many (NOT all) German “intellectuals” had been taken up (as their own) by many local “intellectuals” (including political leaders).

    This meant that defeating Germany (whether in the First World War or the Second World War – essentially a continuation of the same struggle) was only part of the fight.

    The fight also includes the moral struggle in education and practical affairs (in every country) – and (most importantly of all) the struggle between good and evil in each individual human soul. How we must choose to support what is good within us, against what is bad within us.

  2. By the way – the personal rule of King Leopold in the Congo had been ended (by the Belgium government) years before the First World War.

    They had been shamed by the reports of the horrors.

    There seems to be a systematic effort by the Sean Gabb (by the stuff he publishes on this site) to undermine the British position regarding the First World War – and the Second World War and the Cold War. This effort (at promoting anti British propaganda) is rather at odds with his pose of being a patriot (the “Right Club” in the 1930s – with their “patriotic” siding with Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, springs to mind).

    Had the United Kingdom not gone to war against German aggression in 1914, it would not have meant “peace” – it would have meant that Imperial Germany would have been able to unite the entire resources of Europe (under conditions of plunder and slavery – as was practiced by the German regime in Belgium, northern France and elsewhere) for the purpose of DESTROYING BRITAIN.

    The German political and academic elite (closer in Imperial Germany than in any other land) had made their global desires plain – and for those desires to be made real, Britain had to be destroyed.

    Sean Gabb knows all this – and pretends he does not know. And that pretence (like his promotion of anti British propaganda was posing as a patriot) is despicable.

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