The Great and Holy War

W. Bradford Littlejohn
Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. New York: HarperCollins, 2014. 448 pp. Hardcover. $22.99/ £18.99

One hundred years ago this month marked the onset of what was then known only as "The Great War." As Philip Jenkins' new book The Great and Holy War shows, however, perhaps we ought still to dignify it with that awful title. Although WWII looms vastly larger in our cultural consciousness, this is due partly to its greater proximity in time, and to the much greater role that America played in the hostilities. Yet most people would be surprised to learn that the bloodiest battle in US military history remains the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, which took place over the final 47 days of WWI, in which 26,277 perished. And the toll suffered by US troops is immeasurably dwarfed by that of the European nations. Jenkins puts things in perspective for us: 
The full horror of the war was obvious in its opening weeks... On one single day, August 22, the French lost twenty-seven thousand men killed in battles in the Ardennes and at Charleroi, in what became known as the Battle of the Frontiers...To put these casualty figures in context, the French suffered more fatalities on that one sultry day than U.S. forces lost in the two 1945 battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa combined, although these later engagements were spread over a period of four months. One single August day cost half as many lives as the United States lost in the whole Vietnam War.  
During August and September 1914, four hundred thousand French soldiers perished, and already by year's end, the war had in all claimed two million lives on both sides.  The former chapel of the elite French military academy of Saint-Cyr systematically listed its dead for various wars, but for 1914 it offered only one brief entry: 'The Class of 1914'--all of it (pp. 29-31).

Britain lost 1.75% of its pre-war population to military deaths alone, not to mention the hundreds of thousands maimed for life; Germany, 3%; France, 3.5%. The Western Front of WWI would claim ten times as many lives as the Western Front of WWII, a statistic borne out by the somber lists of names that can be found in any parish church in Britain, under the words, "They shall not grow old as we that are left...." Given that Europe in 1914 was the unquestioned leader of world civilization, and still the center of global Christianity, such trauma could not fail to reshape the course of world religion as well as politics, remaking the world order more comprehensively even than its more global successor, WWII, could do.  It is this cataclysmic shift, in all its varied manifestations, that Jenkins seeks to chronicle in The Great and Holy War.  

This book is extraordinarily wide-ranging, even by the standards of Jenkins' impressive oeuvre thus far, and is difficult to summarize neatly. This is in part due to the sense one gets that Jenkins was working to a deadline (the centenary of World War One) and hence lacked the time to fully organize the immense array of material his research had assembled. The book thus perhaps lacks at some points the clear focus and compelling readability that has characterized much of Jenkins' other work, though it remains a fascinating read, and one hopes any such handicaps will not prevent readers from engaging with its remarkable insights and theses.

The title of the book declares Jenkins' most remarkable thesis: that the Great War, what we often consider the pinnacle of cynical nationalistic realpolitik, was perceived at the time as a deeply religious conflict, indeed, a "holy war," by all the combatants. Such a thesis strikes deeply at the roots of much modern secularization theory, which sees the de-Christianization of Europe as a long gradual process set in motion by science, the Enlightenment, and modern industry, a process very far underway by the 20th century. On the contrary, shows Jenkins, Europe in 1914 was still steeped in religion, perhaps as much as at any point in its history--mostly Christianity of course, but even freethinkers and secularists were more likely than not to follow strange alternative religions like Theosophy, and to dabble in the occult. 

Against the traditional narrative, Jenkins concludes his book with a new theory of religious development that he calls "punctuated equilibrium," echoing the leading current view in evolutionary science: long periods of relative stasis (such as 1815-1914) followed by short periods of cataclysmic change (such as 1914-1918).  Jenkins' thesis undermines any claim to comfortable self-assurance on the part of the modern West that technological and political progress necessarily leads to a cool scientific rationality; on the contrary, the years of the Great War were a time of superstitition, apocalypticism, and mass hysteria in all the combatant nations.  

However, Jenkins' thesis also strikes deeply at any comfortable self-assurance on the part of western Christians: we like to think that our religion has long been a force for peace in the world, or at worst, essentially disengaged from the secular rationality that drives global conflict; Islam, on the other hand, is a primitive and violent religion that seeks to discern the divine will in every historical incident and to pursue expansion by merciless jihad, or "holy war."  Jenkins neatly inverts this narrative: "enlightened" western Christianity was responsible for some of the most shocking rhetoric of holy war that we can imagine, at a time when global Islam was diffuse and relatively passive and apolitical; the events of World War One, in fact, set in motion the radicalization of Islam and its current appetite for "holy war" thinking. A few quotations will illustrate just how fully and frighteningly "holy war" rhetoric took hold in 1914 Christendom: 
It's not a saint or a bishop, it's Our Lady herself,  it's the Mother of God-made-Man for us, who endures the violence and the fire. She's the one we saw burning at the center of our lines, like the virgin of Rouen once upon a time, She's the one they're trying to slaughter, the old Mother, the one who gives us her body as a rampart. At the center of our lines, she's the one who stands as the rampart and the flag against Black Luther's dark hordes -- Paul Claudel, La Nuit de Noël de 1914.
Kill Germans--do 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 those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends... As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity, I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr -- Rt. Rev. Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London.
It is God who has summoned us to this war.  It is his war we are fighting... This conflict is indeed a crusade.  The greatest in history--the holiest.  It is in the profoundest and truest sense a Holy War... Yes, it is Christ, the King of Righteousness, who calls us to grapple in deadly strife with this unholy and blasphemous power -- Rev. Randolph McKim, Rector of Church of the Epiphany, Washington, DC.
There is not an opportunity to deal death to the enemy that [Jesus] would shirk from or delay in seizing! He would take bayonet and grenade and bomb and rifle -- Albert Dieffenbach, American Unitarian pastor (of German heritage!).
Our Father, from the height of heaven, make haste to succor thy German people.  Help us in the holy war, let your name, like a star, guide us: lead Thy German Reich to glorious victories... Smite the foe each day, with death and tenfold woes. In thy merciful patience, forgive each bullet and each blow that misses its mark. Lead us not into the temptation of letting our wrath be too gentle in carrying out Thy divine judgment...Thine is the kingdom, the German land. May we, through Thy mailed hand come to power and glory -- Rev. Dietrich Vorwerk (German pastor), Hurrah and Hallelujah.
As this last quote suggests, German Protestants were perhaps the most extreme in such blasphemous rhetoric (so that their defeat seems indeed like an act of divine judgment), they were scarcely to be outdone by any of the combatant powers.  Indeed, similar language and pervasive attitudes could be found in Orthodox Russia, Catholic Italy, etc., as Jenkins shows.  Liberals and conservatives, clergy and laymen, educated and uneducated, established and disestablished churches, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox alike participated in the crusading mood of the time (though a few prominent leaders, such as Abp. of Canterbury William Temple, and Pope Benedict XV, stand apart as noble exceptions). If there is anything for modern Christians to take comfort in, it is that at least contemporary examples of Christian nationalism, which many of us have so lamented, pale in comparison to anything a century ago; we have perhaps learned a few lessons.  

The story Jenkins recounts does not neatly fit any of the leading narratives of secularism or modernity-criticism.  The "secular nationalism causes violence" narrative of William Cavanaugh and company is as thoroughly contravened as the "religion causes violence" thesis that he seeks to overturn. (Also, it should be noted, simplistic Catholic attempts to pin nationalistic violence on Protestantism per se, or Anabaptist attempts to pin it on church establishment per se, just do not fit the evidence). On the one hand, it seems clear that for all the appalling Christian baptism of violence that the Great War witnessed, Christian convictions could hardly have caused the war, given the patchwork of religious allegiances represented among its combatants: Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic Germany allied with Catholic Austria-Hungary, Eastern Orthodox Bulgaria and the Muslim (!) Ottoman Empire against Orthodox Russia, secular/Catholic France, Catholic Italy, Protestant Britain, and secular/Protestant/Catholic America. Indeed, it is a testament to the incredible power of self-deception in wartime that any of the combatants could have plausibly narrated their struggle as a sectarian one (i.e., in the first in the sequence of bloc quotations above, the French managed to portray their struggle as one against "black Luther's dark hordes" despite the fact that their leading ally, Great Britain, was staunchly Protestant). This, together with the fact that non-Christian minorities (notably Jews) in the various nations enthusiastically supported each national cause, suggests that idolatrous nationalism, rather than any genuine Christian conviction, was the real motivating force behind the war. And yet at the same time, it is important to note that most of the "holy war" rhetoric, far from being stoked by cynical political leaders, was carefully disclaimed and even in cases systematically censored by many of them, especially the British. On the whole, while the impetus for the conflict itself may have come from the politicians, the impetus for its sacralization came straight from the churches.  

Against any simplistic attempts to trace the relation of "religion" or "nationalism" or "secularism" to violence, then, Jenkins' narrative invites us to see just how slippery these terms are, how inextricable they become in the actual heat of conflict. But inasmuch as we might venture a thesis, it might be this: although violent conflict itself usually stems from worldly causes, it is human nature to imbue such conflicts with other-worldly significance, thus intensifying them. In short, religion, unfortunately including Christianity serves as a means of explaining and legitimating violence, regardless of the original grounds of that violence (or of the logical coherence of the religious explanation). Of course, the word explaining is key here; it should not surprise us at all that in times of almost inconceivable suffering and trauma, people should reach out for any explanation that can try to make sense of the enormity of events, and often only supernatural explanations are equal to the task.  As Jenkins says, immediately following the passage quoted above about the scale of the human cost of the war's opening months, "Confronted with such horrors, it would be amazing if contemporaries had not believed they were entering some apocalyptic era. How could anyone understand such hideous numbers except in supernatural terms?" (p.31).

Of course, there is much more that might be said of Jenkins' book.  In a nutshell, he attempts to explain how so much of the world as we know it today, both politically and religiously, was a product of those tumultuous four years. The crucible of war destroyed ancient empires and launched fledgling modern democracies or else dictatorships, it forged the Soviet communism that would drive so much of 20th century history, and laid the foundation for Nazism and all its horrors (as Jenkins chillingly comments at one point, "of necessity, messianic nations must have Satanic foes"; for humiliated Germany, the failure of such a grand messianic vocation could only be explained by a scapegoating of correspondingly Satanic dimensions). For other nations, such as Britain, the disillusionment with the "holy war" mood of the Great War, rather than being re-cast in purely nationalistic terms, led to a rapid secularization of the public square and a general decline in religious commitment. In the Third World, meanwhile, the events of the war stirred explosive religious growth, both Christian and Muslim, including apocalyptic forms of faith that Europe was now trying to leave behind. For Jews, the war helped launch the Zionist movement, which together with the post-war revival of Islamic fundamentalism, drives so much geopolitics today.  

No doubt in a book so wide-ranging, there are numerous details that specialist scholars in various fields might dispute, and many points that call for elaboration.  But the overall lessons for today are clear enough. For one, Christians in the West today have much to repent for, and need to think twice before so casually demonizing the jihadist Islam which they helped create in their own image a century ago. For another, history can change quickly and dramatically; our future will not necessarily resemble our past anymore than the future of Europe in 1914 would resemble its long Hundred Years' Peace. And yet out of these changes, however disastrous at the time, God often achieves remarkable renewals of his church. Jenkins' conclusion is an invitation to be alert and ready for whatever mighty works both the forces of evil and the Lord might have in store in the decades to come: 
In religion, as in politics and culture, we should see the pace of change not as steady, gradual evolution but as what biologists call punctuated equilibrium--long periods of relative stasis and stability interrupted by rare but very fast-moving moments of revolutionary or cataclysmic transformation. These radical innovations then take decades or centuries for the mainstream to absorb fully, until they are in their turn overthrown by a new wave of turmoil... Might another such realignment occur at some future point, a new moment of tectonic faith, with all that implies for innovation and transformation?... When we trace the southward movement of Christianity, we also see faith becoming synonymous with the most volatile and ecologically threatened area of the world...Catastrophe might once more precipitate a worldwide religious transformation (pp. 375-76).

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at