Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Killing for God: In the Great War, religion was both a crutch and a sword

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The waning fortunes of the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine in the face of Ukrainian government forces likely explains the curious command of rebel leader Igor Strelkov, who earlier this month issued this decree to his forces: Stop cursing.

In the decree, Strelkov says, "We call ourselves an Orthodox Christian army. Foul words do not have a Russian origin and were used by Russia's enemies for the desecration of holy places." Never mind, as The Guardian correspondent Shaun Walker puts it, in 99.8 per cent of his interactions with the rebels, Strelkov's decree would "prove problematic."


Strelkov, who recently abandoned his leadership role, stands in a long tradition of those who have tried to rally religious language to their warring cause. Virtually all sides do it, and Islamist warriors in recent years most visibly. Vladimir Putin has increasingly resorted to linkages to the Russian Orthodox Church to bolster his influence.

In The Great and Holy War, Catholic historian Philip Jenkins had written an impressive account of the Great War and its aftermath that provides a compelling picture of just how widespread such a practice was during the 1914 to 1918 war. While there are a range of explanations for the appeal to the divine or the occult, a central feature, says Jenkins, is this: "The scale of violence in that war was so incomprehensibly vast that only religious language was adequate to the chore of describing it or justifying it."

Even in a time when we see and hear much that appalls, the slaughter during many of the battles truly was -- to use religious language -- apocalyptic. Thus on a single August 1914 day in battles in the Ardennes and at Charleroi, 27,000 French soldiers were killed, half as many as the U.S. lost in the entire Vietnam War. France lost 400,000 soldiers during August and September 1914. By the end of 1914, the war had already claimed two million lives. The battles around Ypres during five years of war caused 1.5 million casualties.

When the Great War ended, it had taken some eight to 10 million lives among the enlisted. Germany gave up two million dead, the British Empire 1.1 million, France 1.4 million, Russia 1.8 million, Austria-Hungary 1.1 million and so on. Between massacres and famine, another seven million civilians died, says Jenkins. The Armenian genocide alone claimed some 1.5 million lives.

For the most part, the Great War was between nations that called themselves Christian. Jenkins explains that by 1914 most Christians would already have put the idea of holy wars behind them, or so they thought. But they still carried a great deal of the legacy of Christendom, a close affiliation of the church with the state. In Germany, for example, the kaiser was the highest bishop. In Britain, the monarchy held symbolic authority over the church. Still does. In country after country, military oaths were made in the name of God. But nowhere was the connection between church and state stronger than in Russia, says Jenkins, where the "Orthodox Church operated in intimate alliance with the imperial authorities," a posture to which Russia has to an amazing degree reverted after the Soviet interlude.

As a result, despite dissenting or cautioning voices, there were those like the Anglican bishop of London who in a sermon told his congregants to "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... I look upon it as a war for purity; I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr."

He was termed an "intensely silly bishop" by one prime minister, but the next, David Lloyd George, spoke about young people flocking to the standard of "international right, as to a great crusade." That was invoking the image of holy wars against the enemies of God.

But, says Jenkins, "one Western country stands out for the power and consistency of religiously based militarism, and that was Germany." Germans of all factions, he writes, "agreed to stand together in support of a divine cause." He cites a preacher in Bremen who recalled the mood in Germany in 1914: "The spirit of God came upon us. It was a New Pentecost. A great roar came from heaven... Didn't we hear the divine words?" God's voice, he believed, was heard through the "imperial statements and war communiqués of that triumphant opening week of war." At the war's beginning, the German nation was swept by a spirit of "unprecedented unity."

Dissenting voices, when raised, did so cautiously. In England, one was the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Catholic Pope took a more aggressive tack. He tried to mediate in 1917 by coming forward with a peace proposal that might have profoundly changed the course of events. It was ignored.


Jenkins describes the many prominent theologians and leaders who helped fashion or embraced the ideologies that fostered the war. In time, much crept on various sides that had in it elements of the occult, superstition, racism, martyrology, communication with the dead, visions, end-time prophecies -- a gamut of efforts to bring sense to the catastrophe that was descending upon the world.

Both the British and the German side had persons who died who were believed to be speaking from the other side. Raymond Lodge, son of a prominent jurist, was killed in battle in 1915. Mediums claimed he spoke from the afterlife and the book his father wrote about the messages gained such attention that it went through 12 editions by 1919.

Many stories of ghosts and angels came out of the war. In a story written by a fantasy writer in 1914, as the British faced the Germans at Mons, a soldier called on St. George for help. In the story, the writer had bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt in the 15th century come to their aid. Somehow the story came to be believed as true and eventually it became known globally as the Angel of Mons who helped the British.

What did invoking God and religion do to the pursuit of the war effort? It made it possible for national and church leaders to persuade soldiers at the front and those left behind that they were engaged in a holy cause, as Jenkins says, "a thoroughly religious event." Religious and supernatural rhetoric surrounded the war "on all sides." Each side claimed God was fighting for them.

It also meant that all sides fell back to "de-Christianizing" the other. Just as the Islamists of the ISIS forces in Iraq are now blowing up Shia mosques because these are viewed as the meeting places of apostate Muslims, so Christians on the Allied side and in Germany viewed the other as in league with the devil, as pagan or linked to heathen forces. Such de-Christianizing permitted great destruction and atrocities because it was in a righteous cause.

In Germany, the seed was being sown for the next world war through the development of "a special national and racial sense of mission," writes Jenkins. A Lutheran theologian wrote in 1915, "The German people and German spirit are, in our most sublime conceptions, the revelation of eternity." Such views lent themselves to the drive to grasp territory (Lebensraum) and anti-Semitism of subsequent years.

But, says Jenkins, the Second World War "produced no overtly religious manifestations vaguely comparable to the first." Some lessons had indeed been learned from the invoking of God in the first. Moreover, faith survived, even though in Europe Christendom took a devastating blow. In other parts of the world, Christianity has remained strong, especially in the southern half of the globe.

Yet, as Igor Strelkov and the warriors of ISIS show, the temptation to appeal to God for the right to kill and destroy remains strong.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2014 A7


Updated on Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at 7:22 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline

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