This year marks the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, and a flood of books of all kinds commemorates that horrific event. But although they seem to cover every conceivable aspect of the conflict, I believe that virtually none of these works gives serious attention to the role that religion played in creating and prolonging the struggle. This is the enormous gap that I have tried to fill with my new book The Great and Holy War.
To varying degrees, all the warring powers claimed to be fighting a Holy War or Crusade, and leaders and thinkers of all shades regularly invoked God. For elites and grass roots alike, people understood the war in terms of familiar Christian imagery of the apocalyptic, with countless references to the Four Horsemen, to demonic enemies like the Great Beast.
In its origins, the war was absolutely shaped by religious ideologies. The war was driven by the long-term policies of two great empires, Germany and Russia, both of which had visionary ambitions that could not be reconciled with the interests (or survival) of other Powers. At the highest levels of the respective regimes, both Germany and Russia were deeply motivated by national visions that were messianic and millenarian, and framed in thoroughly Christian terms. Each nation saw itself as playing a predestined role that was divinely inspired, and those self-concepts contributed overwhelmingly to the outbreak of war. German elites were suffused by a Lutheran Protestant theology that understood the nation as something like the Kingdom of God; Russian elites still cherished Byzantine prophecies about redeeming the Middle East from Islam. Given the network of alliances to which each empire was bound, those two religiously-based visions could not coexist.
When I began my research, I tended to accept that the vast outpouring of religious rhetoric and propaganda was entirely driven from above, by governments and military commands. The more I explored this, the more spontaneous and grass-roots it appeared. In fact, elites tended to dislike and distrust so many of the religious themes, and actively tried to suppress them. We see this dramatically in 1917-18 with the British campaign to prevent their war in the Middle East being seen as a Crusade, language that could have catastrophic effects in Britain’s vast Muslim dominions. Yet no matter how hard the governments worked, crusade language became all but universal—as did the language of “Armageddon.” Whatever governments wanted, Holy War visions kept breaking through.
When we do read about the Great War and religion, it is usually based on the assumption that the war destroyed faith, and marked Europe’s drift towards secularism, to religious disenchantment. But again, I challenge that equation. For one thing, we have to look at the wider world beyond Europe and North America, where the war marked the beginning of radical new forms of religion—for African Christians, for example, for Muslims in the Middle East or South Asia, for Jews.
But even in the West, there really is little evidence of a great disenchantment with religion, apart from some elite writers of the Lost Generation. Neither Europe nor America secularized to any degree before the 1950s, even such countries as the Netherlands, and church attendance rates boomed through the 1920s. In fact, churches and clergy gained status from the war, from the courage of military chaplains, and from their role in the whole post-war effort to commemorate the dead. For every one contemporary individual who complains about the war destroying faith, we find dozens converting to more stringent or demanding forms of faith in a quest to make sense of the recent carnage.
Old forms of faith perished in the war, but assuredly not faith itself. And the religious condition of the world that we know today is a direct product of that war.