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Was World War I the Last Crusade?

At the end of the First World War, iconoclastic American journalist Randolph Bourne famously warned, “War is the health of the state.” He had witnessed the unprecedented expansion of national power in the heat of war mobilization. Twenty years ago, political scientist Bruce D. Porter likewise argued, “States make war, but war also makes states.” For the losers, of course, unsuccessful war destroys states, but the hundred years since the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 ought to make the symbiosis between warfare and Leviathan obvious.

Do we find similar tendencies when we turn from war and politics to war and religion? Does religion make war? In the case of the Crusades and the 16th-century wars of religion, the answer might seem obvious. But it would be hard to argue conversely that “war is the health of religion” or that “war makes the church (or the mosque).” Nevertheless, from antiquity to the present day, religion has shaped war and war has shaped religion, sometimes consciously and deliberately, sometimes with consequences evident only generations later, and always with complex twists and turns.

In The Great and Holy War, Baylor historian Philip Jenkins explores this two-way relationship in the extraordinary circumstances of World War I. Known for his sweeping global histories of Christianity, Jenkins explores the religious “mood” and motivations that, in his judgment, pervaded all sides of the Great War. Inexplicably, in the century since the war, no scholar has attempted this sort of comparative religious history of a conflict that did so much to remake Europe, her far-flung colonies, and the United States. Such neglect is unaccountable given how prominently religion appeared in the war’s rhetoric and symbolism, whether from official propaganda, belligerent clergy, or common soldiers. Jenkins’s volume comes, then, as a welcome contribution to scholarly understanding of the relationship between religion and the First World War and the consequences of that volatile mixture down to the present day.

In 448 brisk pages, Jenkins manages to cover the major Allied and Central powers, the United States, the Ottoman Empire, the emergent Middle East, Africa, India, and South Asia. He compares the experiences of Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. He argues that religion entered into the motivations of the great powers as one among many causes of the war, and for Germany and Russia in particular as a driving force inseparable from those other causes. Jenkins leaves no doubt that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam contributed language, imagery, intensity, and even whole theological frameworks to the war and that adherents found their beliefs mobilized from the first shot to the last for the deadliest war the world had yet known.

Jenkins challenges conventional notions of just how secular the West had become by the early 20th century. He shows first that the generation of 1914, both at home and at the Front, carried existing religious beliefs, practices, and expectations with them. Soldiers and their families seemed to find it easy to believe rumors and press reports about the dead rising on the battlefield to fight again, prophecies, appearances of angels, and visions of Jesus himself and the Virgin Mary, such as the famous visitation at Fatima in Portugal. People routinely “biblicized” the war and invoked the aid of such Christian heroes as St. George and Joan of Arc. But “religion” did not always mean orthodox ideas and practices; it often embraced mysticism, spiritualism, the occult, and communication with the dead to find meaning in a world gone mad.

Jenkins also challenges the idea that the war itself was a profoundly secularizing experience for participants. The literature of disillusionment was vast in the 1920s and has become canonical in anthologies, but it created a false memory that either obscured how pervasive religious justifications for the war had been or else treated such expressions as cynical cover for baser material motives. If anything, Jenkins concludes, citing the recent work of historian Jonathan Ebel on the faith of American soldiers, “we should think less of disenchantment so much as re-enchantment, a renewed interest in spirituality, and a quest for certainty.” Jenkins is certainly right that standard accounts do little or nothing to prepare those curious about World War I for the widespread and persistent religious talk they will encounter in private letters and diaries, in the wartime press, in popular culture, in the visual arts, and in government publicity campaigns.

One of principal ways the belligerent powers mobilized religion was in how they defined themselves, the enemy, the stakes in the war, and what victory would bring. Jenkins shows how messianic nationalism was not only present from 1914 to 1918 but intensified through the darkest years of the war.

The Allied and Central powers depicted themselves as uniquely chosen by God to fulfill a civilizational and religious mission; demonized their enemies as Antichrist or Satan; portrayed the war as a Manichean struggle between good and evil; and promised world redemption if they and their allies triumphed, and nothing but human bondage and misery if their enemies prevailed.

Apocalypticism, encouraged by the war’s length, widening scope, and destructiveness, appeared in wartime novels and movies, animated radical political movements, and fueled end-time speculation made even more plausible among fervent premillennialists by the British army’s victory in Palestine—at biblical Armageddon, no less—and by the Balfour Declaration’s promise of a homeland for the Jews. This was a war of prophetic fulfillment.

Wartime governments found willing clergy who perpetuated holy war. Countless sermons and articles reveal just how far the clergy would go to spiritualize earthly warfare. At times they did so to support their governments, at others they did so without being asked and for no other purpose than to express their own conviction that somehow the World War really was a war of transcendent meaning. Jenkins singles out German theologians and pastors for particular censure, yet rightly concludes that overall, “as we examine the mainstream assumptions of the greatest churches at the time, we repeatedly see just how close to the surface of the Christian and biblical tradition such patterns of state alliance and militancy actually lie, and how easily ideas of the church militarist emerge in times of crisis.”

Jenkins’s most important contribution comes in the book’s second half, as he surveys what the war did to religion. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism all experienced upheaval. Jenkins identifies the war’s consequences as nothing short of a “global religious revolution.” To take one example, the Great War led to the final collapse and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.

Already known as the “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany, fought desperately against the Russians, defeated the British navy in the Dardanelles and expelled British and Australian forces at Gallipoli, exacted a terrible cost on its Armenian population, but ultimately collapsed under the weight of conflict on such a scale. This war of attrition toppled the sultanate, led to the Turkish war for independence to prevent complete dismemberment by the victorious allies, and soon brought about the end of the caliphate under Ataturk’s secular republic. In the eastern Mediterranean, Islam lost its political unity under the sultan. Globally, it lost its symbolic and spiritual center in the caliphate. These dislocations sent the faithful looking for sources of renewal in their oldest traditions and scrambling for a new focal point of legitimacy and authority. Opportunists had the chance to grab for spiritual or political power in a fragmented world.

Although Jenkins does not put it in these terms, it is clear that the First World War, while in important ways a modern war of religion, was more precisely a war of civil religion. The great powers, including the United States, easily mobilized religion to wage a crusade because both church and state had been in the habit of doing so for centuries, especially since the age of romantic nationalism that swept Europe after the French Revolution. If there ever had been a united “Christendom,” by 1914 Christianity had been nationalized, instrumentalized, and divided into competing brands of civil religion. In the course of constructing the modern “secular” state, nationalism freely appropriated the language, symbolism, ritual, and dogma of Christianity.

Nationalism had become, in the postwar judgment of Carlton J.H. Hayes, “the dominant religion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” It bound together peoples seeking independence from multinational empires and provided emerging states with a potent means to consolidate new nations and remake the political map of Europe.

At the same time, the older empires of Europe, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, found the same formulas of romantic nationalism useful to resist movements for greater autonomy and to rally their peoples in a righteous cause against internal and external enemies. Web issue image [1]

By the summer of 1914, Christianity had already been “Islamized”—in the narrow sense that it had abandoned historical and theological distinctions between church and state, religion and politics, the sacred and the secular—to such an extent that waging a global war for righteousness came effortlessly for governments, churches, soldiers, and civilians. Even sultans in Istanbul learned a thing or two from their Western neighbors about how messianic empires can mobilize religion for war and shore up a faltering regime.

The great powers may not have said it this way, but they had long since concluded that “religion is the health of the state” and that “religion makes war.”

The Great War became as terrible as it did in part because of how religion was co-opted to wage war against flesh and blood, to sustain or expand earthly kingdoms, and to legitimize ideologies of worldly redemption. A century ago, Europe turned its latest regional conflict into a world war. Four years later, four empires—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Turks—lay in ruins. Religion of all kinds helped the great powers justify and wage the costliest war of attrition the world had ever seen.

Richard Gamble is the author of In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Was World War I the Last Crusade?"

#1 Comment By Eric On July 2, 2014 @ 10:03 am

In Germany, Lutheran ministers, as an example, were employees of the state. With their daily bread dependent upon the favor of their employer, naturally they preached quite overtly, the official state/Prussian message of militarism. The same was true, and had been true for the two decades leading up to the Great war, of the German public school system.
I was unaware that any such arrangement existed to that degree in any of the allied countries and look forward to reading Jenkins’ argument to that effect.
A hundred year old warning of the consequences of entangling the state with religion or with the education of a country. What will be the consequences of the federally driven agenda of climate change/hate speech/PC/special group rights/militant environmentalism/imperialism in the US public school system?

#2 Comment By Frank OConnor On July 2, 2014 @ 10:41 am

Thank you for this review. Like many, I have been reading up on WWI in this centennial year, and will definitely put this book on my list.

#3 Comment By Johann On July 2, 2014 @ 11:27 am

Germany was roughly 1/2 Lutheran and 1/2 Catholic. Yes, it was all Christian, but denominations mattered in 1914. So I don’t think Germany could have played the national religion card quite as effectively as the other European countries other than a general mantra that “God is on our side”.

And what about Austria-Hungary? It was composed of many religions and nationalities.

So based on this review anyway, some of the points of the book seem over done. People were however more religious than today, and so surely their correspondence between family members and newspaper commentary would reflect that.

#4 Comment By FatHappy SouthernBoy On July 2, 2014 @ 11:28 am

Perhaps the last major Christian crusade but certainly not the last. I think you will occasionally see Christianity used to justify atrocities during conflicts in some Eastern European countries (Bosnia was a good example of this) and in other less well developed parts of the world in the future. And certain branches of Islam are crusading across the middle east and Africa as we speak so I think we can count on more Crusades in the future.

#5 Comment By Alan Vanneman On July 2, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

I enjoyed most of this review, but to say Christianity had become “Islamicized” is to claim that “real Chrisitanity” is good religion while Islam is inherently “bad” religion, and this is an exceedingly tasteless and false assumption to make.

Anyone at all familiar with the history of Christianity knows that it is quite capable of committing monstrous crimes without any assistance from anyone else.

#6 Comment By Rob G On July 2, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

“Anyone at all familiar with the history of Christianity knows that it is quite capable of committing monstrous crimes without any assistance from anyone else.”

Anyone else except the state, that is. Islam has been largely theocratic since day one. Christianity, not so much.

The vast majority of “religious wars” always involve state power.

#7 Comment By Hooly On July 2, 2014 @ 6:58 pm

Interesting article. Interesting perspective. And here I thought it was the Thirty Year’s War that started to turn Europeans away from Christianity. It would seem the blood and slaughter of that 17th century conflict was not enough, more blood and slaughter had to be inflicted unfortunately before Europe sees the light. This brings to mind the current conflict in the Middle East between Shia and Sunni, so like the historic conflict between Christian denominations. Perhaps when the Muslim world is engulfed in their own Thirty Year’s War, Muslims will come to see the light as well.

#8 Comment By Chris C. On July 5, 2014 @ 9:57 pm

Pope Benedict 15th condemned the senseless bloodshed and called for peace. The nations of Europe paid him no heed. [2]

#9 Comment By Acilius On July 6, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

Professor Gamble is too modest, I think. His 2004 book, The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation is a sobering look at the role the religious left played in building popular support for the war in the USA. I’d say it is an essential companion volume to the work under review.

#10 Comment By pB On July 7, 2014 @ 3:08 am

“Anyone else except the state, that is. Islam has been largely theocratic since day one. Christianity, not so much.”

i assume you know neither the history of Christendom nor Islam.

#11 Comment By Dato On July 7, 2014 @ 8:05 am

“Four years later, four empires—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Turks—lay in ruins.”

And so did the British empire, although the hollowed-out shell was still standing. Manpower, skills and capital infrastructure had been abraded, colonies were restless, and years of production had been uselessly dumped onto battlefields to guarantee the neutrality of Belgium. The government had also gone off the gold standard, essentially declaring its own bankruptcy. And how.

Russia of course, soon reconstitued itself with upgraded nastiness and went looking for easy prey in Europe, giving the War of 1920.

#12 Comment By philadelphialawyer On July 7, 2014 @ 11:04 pm

Johann:

“So based on this review anyway, some of the points of the book seem over done. People were however more religious than today, and so surely their correspondence between family members and newspaper commentary would reflect that.”

Yes, and that was true of the American Civil War as well. That war, like WWI, was fought primarily between Christians, and while religion was certainly invoked by both sides, and religious feelings, even “revivals,” were pronounced among many of the common soldiers and the officers, including the generals, still, neither war was really a “religious” one. Religion was simply a more important part of life for most people then (in the 1860’s and 1910’s) than it is now, so, naturally, it is more prominent in diaries, newspaper articles and so on than it would be now.

And the great disillusionment in the era following the Great War has always been understood as an elite artist/leadership event in the first instance. The writers and the artists lost faith (they were losing it anyway, as the new century dawned, but the process was accelerated), and so did the political and other leaders in society. Most ordinary folks continued to believe in God and Christianity, after the war.

On the other hand, elite opinion does matter, and the proclivity of even “ordinary” people to put their faith in quasi religious movements, including fascist/Nazi and communist/leftist movements in the post war years does show that faith in traditional Christianity, as in the secular institutions that accompanied it, was quite shaken by the war experience, including, eventually, among ordinary people. Christian monarchs were in fact overthrown in Germany, Austria, and Russia (as was an Islamic monarchy in Turkey). And new republics, specifically secular in organization and rhetoric, modeled more or less on the “secular” (or, at least, non sectarian) USA and French Third Republic, were set up in their place, and in the successor States of central and eastern Europe.

#13 Comment By Sam On July 9, 2014 @ 8:44 am

Christianity departed in the 4th century from the teachings of Jesus when the men of the Church accepted the violence of the state to get their way. Jenkins has some great histories of Christianity, but he is blind to the anarchical nature of Jesus’ teachings. Caesar’s state is irrelevant to Jesus. The marriage of the state and institutional Christianity has led to a transformation of the teachings of Jesus to a secondary status behind rational ethics. War fits nicely into rational ethics – it is alien to loving (agape) your enemy.

#14 Comment By Andy On January 3, 2015 @ 1:30 pm

It’s not about religion, per se, so much as it’s about human nature. Human nature will always seek ways to gain power at the expense of others, whether in relatively benign ways (e.g., butting ahead of someone in a lineup) or violent ways (such as all-out war).

But since none of us lives in a cultural vacuum, human aggressiveness will always take on the surface trappings of whatever worldview is dominant in that time and place. Since the West had been “Christianized” (which _doesn’t_ mean all or even most Westerners were genuine Christians, according to the Bible), it’s to be expected that the way they waged war would give a veneer of Christianity.

A generation later an even more destructive world war was fought, this time instigated in the West by Nazi-style nationalism and racism, and in the East by more mystical, religious-style racism and leader-worship.

Today there isn’t presently a world war going on, but there’s increasing Western fascism based on the decidedly antireligious worldview of secular-humanism.

The common thread? Human aggression, looking for surface excuses to act out.

#15 Comment By almasdar On September 2, 2016 @ 2:46 am

It’s not about religion, per se, so much as it’s about human nature. Human nature will always seek ways to gain power at the expense of others, whether in relatively benign ways (e.g., butting ahead of someone in a lineup) or violent ways (such as all-out war).

But since none of us lives in a cultural vacuum, human aggressiveness will always take on the surface trappings of whatever worldview is dominant in that time and place. Since the West had been “Christianized” (which _doesn’t_ mean all or even most Westerners were genuine Christians, according to the Bible), it’s to be expected that the way they waged war would give a veneer of Christianity.

A generation later an even more destructive world war was fought, this time instigated in the West by Nazi-style nationalism and racism, and in the East by more mystical, religious-style racism and leader-worship.

Today there isn’t presently a world war going on, but there’s increasing Western fascism based on the decidedly antireligious worldview of secular-humanism.

The common thread? Human aggression, looking for surface excuses to act out.