RECOMMENDED READING: PHILIP JENKINS ON WORLD WAR ONE

The current (June 2014) issue of Christianity Today includes my review of a new book by prominent Christian historian Philip Jenkins.  The book, timed to coincide with the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of WWI, is titled The Great and Holy War: How World War One Became a Religious Crusade.  It is a wonderful work of history.  Written for a broad audience, it casts new light on a familiar story and raises big questions of vital importance to people of faith.  I recommend it highly.

great and holy war

I offer a pretty thorough assessment of the book in CT, so here let me just share some of the things that struck me most as I read.  First, I gained a renewed sense of awe at the sheer magnitude of the conflict.  No wonder contemporaries referred to it as the “great” war.  Between 1914 and 1918 some sixty million men from approximately two dozen countries took up arms.  Bear in mind that the world’s population in 1914 was barely one fourth of what it is today.  A global war today proportionately equal to WWI would involve the mobilization of roughly a quarter billion troops.  Who can even imagine such a cataclysm?

Second, I was reminded again of the almost unfathomable human suffering that the war unleashed.  To begin with, there were approximately ten million military fatalities, a bloodless statistic that only hints at the millions more who were permanently maimed and the tens of millions of widows and orphans who mourned behind the lines.  On a single day in the war’s opening weeks–on the 22nd of August, 1914, in what was known as the Battle of the Frontiers–the French Army lost 27,000 killed.  That’s a death toll in twenty-four hours fully half as large as American losses during our eight years of involvement in the Vietnam War.  The mind reels.

The cemetery at Verdun, France, where French and German troops fought for much of 1916.  Casualties exceeded 700,000.

The cemetery at Verdun, France, where French and German troops fought for much of 1916. Casualties exceeded 700,000.

But the human loss triggered by the conflict was not limited to casualties within the ranks of the contending armies.  Perhaps seven million civilians also died during the conflict.  Some of these fell victim to the unintended and unavoidable “incidents of war,” but millions more were the intentional objects of premeditated national policies, most notably the genocidal “relocation” of Armenians in Turkey, but also including seemingly more innocent naval blockades aimed at starving civilians populations.  Jenkins also makes a persuasive case that the exposure and malnutrition that was rampant during the war rendered already reeling populations more susceptible to influenza when it struck just as the war was concluding.  The worldwide flu epidemic of 1919 would claim a minimum of fifty million lives, or roughly twice the cumulative death toll from AIDS over the past three decades.

Another thing that struck me was Jenkins’ description of WWI as a kind of “civil war.”  It was not a civil war in the sense that men of the same nation were fighting each other, as was the case in the United States when Americans squared off against Americans between 1861 and 1865.  But it was a civil war among Christians, Jenkins reminds us, a civil war “within Christendom.”  Is that not at least as great a tragedy?  One of the strengths of Jenkins’ account is to underline just how important religion was to each of the major warring nations.  As he puts it,

“The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.  Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war.”

One of Jenkins’ most important points is that in all of the major warring nations, popular opinion quickly came to see the conflict not merely as a “just war” but rather as a “holy war.”  The distinction is important.  From the time of Augustine onward, Christian theologians have argued that war is sometimes justified as a kind of necessary evil, an unavoidable last resort to prevent even greater evil.  Over the centuries, just war theory has evolved to develop a list of criteria that must be met before war can justly be inaugurated, as well as a set of constraints that must be observed in the way that war is waged.

“Holy war” goes far beyond the concept of just war.  Participants in holy war are not engaging in a necessary evil as a last resort; they are engaging in a crusade, consciously thinking of themselves as God’s instruments in a divine struggle between the forces of darkness and light.  Allowing for differences in degree, Jenkins demonstrates that the rhetoric of holy war predominated in each of the warring nations, including the United States.  (Evangelist Billy Sunday famously characterized the war as “Bill [Kaiser Wilhelm] against Woodrow.  Germany against American.  Hell against Heaven.”)

The irony, of course is that with the exception of Turkey, all of the major warring powers had predominantly Christian populations.  History shows that humans often demonize or dehumanize their enemies in wartime.  As Jenkins rightly points out, when warring countries profess the same religious faith, “dehumanization must also include dechristianization.”

This just scratches the surface of a book that is full of interesting and often provocative insights.  Most notably,  Jenkins also discusses at length the numerous ways that WWI helped to draw “the world’s religious map as we know it today.”  Like the best histories do, The Great and Holy War illuminates the present by shedding light on the past.

One response to “RECOMMENDED READING: PHILIP JENKINS ON WORLD WAR ONE

  1. Thanks for sharing. So much of 20th c. history (and even today’s conflicts in the Middle East) stem from borders drawn in the wake of World War I, making it a more significant conflict than is commonly thought.

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