The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade

Word War I is often called ‘the War to End All Wars.’ From our vantage point one hundred years later, we now recognize that WW I was really the beginning of a century of conflict that continues even now. At the beginning of the 20th century many intellectuals thought that the inevitable progress of human beings would cause religion to fade as humans lived up to their full potential. However, WW I cruelly crushed those dreams as all sorts of horrors were unleashed by human beings against other human beings.
‘Holy War’ evokes all sorts of responses. Philip Jenkins, an eminent historian, claims that World War One (the ‘war to end all wars’) is just that: a ‘Holy War’ . This battle often called The War to End All Wars pitted Christian nation against Christian nation. Even notionally secular states (France, Italy, and the United States) used specifically Christian imagery to rally their constituencies to support the war effort. Jenkins demonstrates using accounts drawn from soldier’s diaries, contemporary newspaper articles, and other material that WW I impacted religious thought and practice for Christian, Jew, and Muslim. States/empires such as the German Empire, the Russian Empire, long associated with particular strands of Christianity were changed in significant ways by the brutality and scope of the conflict. Though WW I started as a regional conflict European nations used the opportunity provided to strengthen their colonial holdings in Africa, Asia, and South America.
Though citizens in Great Britain, Germany, Russia (pre-1917) and the United States all claimed to believe in the same God to an unbeliever the images and language used must have been extremely confusing. All sides claimed that the same God was indeed on ‘their’ side and that this God encouraged brutality and even in extreme cases, genocide.
Jenkins uses a compelling narrative to illustrate and highlight the religious nature of the conflict and to impress upon the reader how believers were forced to re-think their previous understandings of God. Victor and defeated alike were forced to evaluate their convictions and their theological understandings during and after the war. The protracted stalemate in France created an inherent tension as all sides sought to generate support and enthusiasm for continuing the war by using common religious symbols. Jesus was pictured as ministering to the dying by all sides. The eschatological concept of Armageddon was also used by Germany, Britain, and the United States as a tool to prop up support particularly during the stalemate of trench warfare in 1916-1917.
Particularly enlightening are Jenkins’ chapter on the religious impact of the war in African nations and the growth of Pentecostal-type movements during and after the war. The Muslim world was impacted as well. As the Ottoman-Turk Empire crumbled and the caliphate was abolished, Muslims were forced to look elsewhere for sources of authority and political/religious leadership. An interesting side-note in that chapter points out the impact of the shift in Muslim theology upon a young man who would later come to Iran as the Ayatollah Khomeini who authorized the captivity and imprisonment of a number of American diplomats in the late 1970’s.
Indeed, as Jenkins concludes, “Not only did the First World War show how calamity can transform the world, but it also suggested just how long it takes for the results to be apparent…Only now, after a century, are we beginning to understand just how utterly that war destroyed one religious world and created another” (377).


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