Moral test

H G Wells

The Great and Holy War: How World War I Changed Religion Forever, Philip Jenkins (Lion).

H G Wells (above) was not a Christian apologist, in fact, quite the opposite. But during WWI even Wells was caught up in the tendency to use religious language when writing about the war, and, Philip Jenkins tells us, later embarrassedly tried to explain away his momentary fervour. The First World War is often thought of as the first modern war, and by extension, a secular one, but religion, if it did not play a part in its beginning, certainly played a large part in the justification for continuing the war, the encouragement of soldiers and civilians, and the explanation for why the enemy was the enemy. Jenkins, in this comprehensive cultural study that differs from the current proliferation of accounts of battles that have sprouted during these hundredth anniversary years, digs up numerous examples, many from popular culture, of how the war was viewed through a religious lens.

At the same time, as the subtitle suggests, Jenkins also notes the changes to religion made by the reorganisation of empires, and by the philosophical implications of the unimaginable carnage. As Terry Eagleton notes in his latest book, although WWI should have killed off the faith in humanity that had been growing since the Enlightenment, rather than faith in God, the idea that God had a purpose for the world took a battering. In time, it was hard to make moral sense of a conflict where both belligerents claimed God was on their side. But of course divine sanction for their armies was precisely what each claimed at the time.

Holy war rhetoric was particularly strong. Germans described the war as a ‘moral test’ and fell back on crusader imagery. Britain, too, evoked the crusades, and the symbolism of recapturing Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire was provocative. It is no coincidence that premillennialism flourished at the time, with such portentous signs abounding.

At the same time, as had happened in Europe for centuries, heightened Christian language mingled with superstitions and an interest in the occult. Germany’s top military adviser was a rabid occult follower, as well as a devotee of Nietzsche. Britain could point to these facts as evidence of the enemy’s anti-Christian nature, but British soldiers were equally susceptible to visions, premonitions, and attempted contacts with the dead.

In general, theologians were reluctant to go against the tide of warmongering, and prominent theologians such as Adolf von Harnack waved the nationalistic flag fervently. In Germany liberal theology had become intertwined with the march of modernity and nationalism, and it didn’t help that the Reformation’s 400th anniversary fell during the war. Most clergy from both sides supported the war, even if they had some reservations about soldiers being equated with saints, and many argued that war was good for the moral fortification of young men, though clergymen had to wilfully ignore Christ’s teaching and example to do so. This was easier when, as in Germany, they could resort to using (and abusing) Luther’s ‘Two Kingdoms’ theology. The language of sacrifice, which Jenkins suggests was less of a ‘euphemism’ than it is today, abounded.

But after the war there was what Jenkins describes as almost an embarrassment over the earlier use of religious language and he suggests that we do not find the same overtly religious rhetoric in the Second World War. It is fair to see the roots of Europe’s secularisation here, but, Jenkins suggests, that is not the whole story. In surveying the post-war landscape, he, typically, moves beyond the borders of Western Europe. The rise of anti-Semitism, particularly within Germany (as Germans tried to find scapegoats for their defeat), led to the Balfour Declaration and the creation of Israel. Christians participated in this new Zionism not just for the security of Jews, but because many believed the resettlement of Israel would bring on Christ’s second coming. Jenkins also notes the war’s secondary nature as a war between competing empires. Dissolution of these empires resulted in the eventual religious division of the subcontinent, and the rise of more evangelical-styled, independent churches within Africa. In Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, where there had been a mix of cultures, stricter religious boundaries were drawn, with consequences that continue today to affect the configuration of world religions within the Middle East and beyond.

(A shorter version of this review appears on Eternity magazine’s website.)



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