Wednesday, March 08, 2006

# Posted 4:07 PM by Patrick Porter  

A WAR OF FAITH?: Scholars are still debating how much the First World War was a religious war. An Ottoman jihad, a Roman Catholic crusade to liberate French soil, a Germanic Protestant defence of Kultur, a sectarian struggle in the Balkans? Or beneath these rhetoric devices, was it a war fought by demystified masses for whom nation-worship was the new religion? My phd was about the religious rhetoric of the First World War, in the British and German armies. I think in many respects the debate is a sterile one, as its hard to quantify the extent of religion accurately. The language and concepts of martyrdom and salvation were clearly powerful to fighting populations, even if people were worshipping less. Its one of those definitional arguments. My work tried to shift focus towards the rhetoric of sacrifice and how it evolved.

But consider the following. One of the most famous heroines and martyrs of the British war effort was the nurse Edith Cavell, who was executed by the Germans for covertly assisting the escape of enemy soldiers. Her statue is to be found just outside St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. Edith Cavell's father was an Anglican vicar. The general who authorised her execution was a Lutheran pastor's son. Her famous last words 'patriotism is not enough' were first publicised by the British military chaplain who visited her in prison. The description that she died 'like a heroine' was made by the German chaplain to Brussels.

Sometimes it just was a religious gangbang.
(11) opinions -- Add your opinion

I am not an expert (and I will prove it:), but I always thought it was the end result of generations of competition. The nations involved in the conflict had spent decades competing with each other for national honor, power and pride. Religion may have played into someone's identity, but I doubt that was why they killed and died.

It might be that everyone knew that states would always be at war with each other (even during "peace") and each side thought it was time that they finished the job.
hey mike,

there certainly was intense competition.

the problem with that argument is that it doesn't take us the whole way. britain's main imperial competitor was France, not Germany. Russia's regime, meanwhile, was more driven by the delusion that a war would eliminate domestic threats and strengthen the regime. Belgium was in a very intense competition for imperial/colonial power, but didn't want to take a side, insisting on its neutrality early on.

so competition is a large part of the background, but only has limited force as an explanation.

I agree that religion was probably not primarily the motivation for most of the participants, my thesis was only on the small 'hard core', but religious language was a way in which many people described and defined the war in the absence of precise territorial goals.
I'm not an expert on these matters either, but I think you offer an interesting perspective, and am going to post a link to this article on my own blog.
New to this blog, but I've been pretty impressed by the stuff posted here, so I figure I'll try my hand at making a comment.

I agree that the war was more about competition than anything else. Since the Great War was the first truly mass war (though I will grant you the French Revolutionary-Napoleonic wars), there was a clear need to rouse up popular passions to get the necessary total mobilization for victory. Historical hatreds stemming from territorial holdings - the French anger of the lost of Alsace in 1871, Russian desire for Constantinople (the Second Rome; Moscow as the Third) - was probalby the single most effective way to foster the necessary passions.

Thus, if people were motivated to fight because of history, then that is religion comes into play. Already a powerful impetus for action, religion also had prominent part in shaping European identity and therefore its history (though this can be said for most place in the world). In addition, religion encourages viewing the world in terms of black and white; belief in one's absolute purity of purpose was critical in war. Religious rhetoric, imagery, and feeling were means to mobilize the populace for the more hazy political ends.
It's always struck me that even when the "Great" War wasn't being described in overtly religious tones, the 'secular' rhetoric was
essentially religious in tone. A case in point: the war memorial nearest to where I live, which bears the inscription (from Rupert Brooke):

Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.

Fussell's "Great War and Modern Memory", I seem to remember, has a deal of commentary on this kind of thing -- there was often a sort of mish-mash of submerged Christianity with classical mythology and a revival of Pan-worship.

When can the rest of the world get a look at your D Phil thesis?
porter, do you think the british would side with the french because they were trying to maintain some sort of international order. At that point in time they maintained world order, perhaps they thought germans running europe would pose some sort of long term threat to the empire.

Again, I am not an expert and the reasons for war, prosecution of the war and end of the war have always seemed like picketts charge to me. I don't know what the hell they were thinking.
hey Mike,

I think there are two things here. The main 'hard' reason the British sided with the French was in line with their traditional geostrategic foreign policy. They wanted to keep the continent divided, preserve the balance of power. this was the same policy they ran against sixteenth century Spain and Napoleon. Germany and its allies threatened to tip the balance. Which would mean that one overmighty power with naval ambitions would control the Channel Ports, which would threaten to make invasion possible and would potentially cut off Britain from the oceans, access to its empire and markets. This was also an existential threat: by that time, I think, Britain fed itself with imports. To isolate it from the sea lanes could starve it into submission. So yes, the threat to world order of an imbalance of power also was seen to threaten Britain directly.

I also think that these interests converged with a very strong, very forceful demand in Brit society to resist the militarist attack of Germany on Belgium & France, once Germany had invaded Belgium. Socialists, liberals bought into this, so it united the nation pretty much behind the war effort. Many of the atrocities said to be committed by the Kaiser's army in Belgium actually did happen, as a recent book has shown. Its hard to recall this outrage because it pales so much compared to the atrocities and genocide of the Third Reich in its expansionism.
I don't think the First World War had anything to do with religion, except the way they were dying on the Somme would drive you to religion... Consider, gents, the Brits, French, Germans, Russians, Italians, Belgians, Americans, et al., all worshipped Jesus Christ. They all wanted to think He was on their side, perhaps, but it was a stretch.
Dear exguru,

you seem to have confused your distaste at their religious view of the war and the issue of whether the war was subjectively for them one with religious meaning.

Religious participants often didn't just think God was on their side. they feared that unless they repented/fought faithfully, they would lose God's favour and be punished with defeat. This is a classic anxiety of the 'God's chosen people' mentality. Abraham Lincoln's quote was commonly cited: the question isn't whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God's.

Finally, explain the popularity of John Oxenham's overtly religious 'Hymn for the men at the Front', which in wartime Britain sells 7 million copies.
Many of the atrocities said to be committed by the Kaiser's army in Belgium actually did happen, as a recent book has shown.

Wow -- with the bayonets and the babies and all that too? Cor. What book is this?
John Horne and Alan Kramer, 'German Atrocities A History of Denial'.
Many atrocities, though not all, actually took place.
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