Philip Jenkins: Was the Great War a Holy War?

During the First World War, overwhelmingly Christian nations claimed ten million lives in the name of God.

When Europe went to war a hundred years ago this summer, all the nations involved loudly claimed to see God’s hand in the struggle. To varying degrees, all governments spoke the language of crusade and holy war, martyrdom and sacrifice. All portrayed their enemies as quite literal servants of the Devil, of Antichrist. Even at the time, such language attracted plenty of cynics. As one 1920 poem mocked,

“Gott strafe England!” and “God save the King!”

God this, God that, and God the other thing.

“Good God!” said God, “I’ve got my work cut out!

Disenchanted later generations likewise dismiss such tales as the window dressing offered by callous states sending their young men off to mass slaughter. But the closer we look at that war and its rhetoric, the more seriously we have to take those religious ideas.

In their attitudes to war and peace — as so much else — Christians and Muslims have far more in common than they care to admit.

war I do not personally believe in the sanctity of any war, leave alone the confused bloodbath that began in 1914. But the overwhelmingly Christian Europe of those years certainly did believe in Holy War, and treated that conflict accordingly. If we ignore that element, we are missing the heart of the story. 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.

Historians usually note the upsurge of religious enthusiasm that greeted the outbreak of war. German preachers, for instance, debated whether they should see the national mood in terms of Transfiguration or of a New Pentecost. All the main combatants deployed Holy War language, particularly the monarchies with long traditions of state establishment — the Russians, Germans, British, Austro-Hungarians, and Ottoman Turks — but also those notionally secular republics: France, Italy, and (later) the United States. What we may miss, though, is just how persistent and overwhelmingly widespread such language was, and how it was reflected in the enormous outpouring of visual imagery.

More specifically, with the obvious exception of the Turks, it was a Christian war. With startling literalism, visual representations in all the main participant nations placed Christ himself on the battle lines, whether in films, posters, or postcards. Jesus blessed German soldiers going into battle; Jesus comforted the dying victims of German atrocities; Jesus personally led a reluctant Kaiser to confront the consequences of his evil policies. Apart from the obvious spiritual figures — Christ and the Virgin — most combatant nations used an iconography in which their cause was portrayed by that old Crusader icon Saint George, and their enemies as the Dragon. Death in such a righteous cosmic war was a form of sacrifice or martyrdom, elevating the dead soldier to saintly status.

Australian propaganda cartoon by Norman Lindsay, 1915.
Australian propaganda cartoon by Norman Lindsay, 1915.

In every country, mainstream media stories offered a constant diet of vision and miracle, angels and apocalypse. Angels supposedly intervened to save beleaguered British troops, the Virgin herself appeared to Russians, while Germany claimed to follow the Archangel Michael. Those stories circulated in the first days of the war, and they persisted through the whole struggle, long after we might expect the armies to be wholly focused on the grim realities of front-line life. When the Germans launched their last great offensive in 1918, of course it was called Operation Michael. For the Allies, religious and apocalyptic hopes crested in 1917 and 1918, with the great symbolic victories in the Middle East. Most evocative were the capture of Jerusalem from the Turks, and the decisive British victory at — honestly — Megiddo, the site of Armageddon.

Also, far from being imposed from above — from central state propaganda offices — such stories usually arose from the grass roots, often from soldiers themselves. Governments actually spent a good deal of time trying to suppress such tales of crusades and miracles, for fear of their effect on national morale. Yes, ordinary British and Americans might freely describe their war in the Middle East as a holy Crusade, guided by God. But the British government invoked its ferocious powers of censorship to suppress any such language in the media, for fear of offending the empire’s many millions of Muslim subjects. Whatever governments wanted, Holy War visions kept breaking through.

The Europe of 1914 was very far removed from modern day secularism. A sizable majority of the combatants were from peasant or small town backgrounds, and even in the cities, churchgoing persisted at rates that today seem astonishing. Even when people rejected faith, they still came from a society that intuitively knew the Christian thought-world of sanctified sacrifice, of cosmic confrontations between good and evil. Holy War was still credible, in a way that it certainly is not for later generations of Christians. Yet this was also a modern world, where cutting-edge techniques of media and propaganda — including the cinema — allowed those ancient images a global distribution.

Jesus blessed German soldiers going into battle; Jesus comforted the dying victims of German atrocities; Jesus personally led a reluctant Kaiser to confront the consequences of his evil policies.

For a modern audience, those Holy War themes offer an unsettling sense of déjà vu. Today, radical Muslim clergy and activists often cite religious justifications for violence, to the extent that many Jews and Christians even doubt that Islam is a religion, rather than a militaristic doomsday cult. Yet Christian leaders in 1914 or 1917 likewise gave an absolute religious underpinning to warfare conducted by states that were seen as executing the will of God.

They also used well-known religious terms to contextualize acts of violence. Modern Shiites recall the bloody sacrifice of the Battle of Karbala; Christians spoke of Gethsemane and Golgotha. Christians then, like Islamists today, portrayed their soldiers as warriors from a romanticized past, with a special taste for the Middle Ages. Both shared a common symbolism of sword and shield. Both saw heroic death as a form of martyrdom, in which the shedding of blood washed away the sins of life and offered immediate entry to paradise. In their attitudes to war and peace — as so much else — Christians and Muslims have far more in common than they care to admit.

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. Not in medieval or Reformation times but in the age of aircraft and machine guns, the majority of the world’s Christians were indeed engaged in a holy war that claimed more than ten million lives.

Philip Jenkins
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  • Doug Wilkening

    This is quite the creative interpretation of history. I prefer the more widely accepted understanding of WWI as having been caused by a mood of nationalism and imperialism that led Europe into both a race for colonies and resources as well as an arms race that in the end made war inevitable.

    As for the role of religion, we know that during times of war, propagandists will try to recruit to the cause anything and everything that the general public regards as heroic. In devout Christian countries this will of course include Jesus. In WWII even Santa Claus was recruited. Don’t believe me? Google “Santa Claus has gone to war 1942.” So, you will have no trouble finding writings and documents from the WWI era that explained the war in religious terms. Perhaps even in Santa Claus terms if you look hard enough. But these were propaganda documents. Your error is that you fail to distinguish between the causes of the war on the one hand (the rising tide of nationalism and imperialism) and propaganda to justify the war on the other hand (God is on our side).

    • Daniel Wilcox

      If you have some scholarly history books to recommend which support your view, I would very much like to read them.

      I think the historical evidence is more on Jenkins’ side. That’s based on my own reading of historical tomes
      and, also, the strong fact that in Christianity, nation and God are almost always thought of as together.

      For instance, check out the book on Christianity and WW1, Preachers Present Arms by Ray Abrams.

      Consider, that even later, the vast majority of Christians in the U.S. strongly supported the Vietnam War. We were told, me personally as well, to go to Nam to kill Communists for Christ, when I was drafted in 1967.

      And wars since then such as the Gulf War and the Iraq War, have been stridently supported by the vast majority of Christians, especially President Bush.

      As an American literature teacher, I can’t recall a war in which Christians didn’t strongly support the war for God.
      My best knowledge is of the American Civil War, another war in which both sides very emphatically, sincerely believed God was on their side and calling on them to kill the evil side.

      This was true of WW1 too.