“The Great and Holy War:” How World War I Became a Religious Crusade and Reshaped the Religious Landscape

Historian Fritz Stern once remarked that the Great War was the “first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.” On the centenary of World War I there is an overwhelming sensation of futility in the war’s outbreak, its nature, and its legacies. WWI seems to have encapsulated the brutality, emptiness, and fatalism that would become the hallmarks of the 20th century.

The war destroyed the world that existed in 1914; it toppled four empires, created the first communist state, and destroyed the confidence of western civilization. An entire generation seems to speak with one voice in Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” that “the war has ruined us for everything.”

Working against this conventional wisdom is Philip Jenkins. In his masterful book, “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade,” Jenkins argues that WWI was not only a “thoroughly religious event” but an event which drew the global religious map as we understand it today.

The religious character of WWI has often been seen in the polarization of either extreme secularization or extreme spiritualism. One view sees the Christian church as morally compromised by the conflict—Jenkins himself noting a 1916 poem describing the “church dead or polluted.” Frequently, 1914 is viewed as the tipping point to the secularization of the 20th century. The other view is ascribed to spiritualist sightings of angels in “No Man’s Land” or in the post-war fascination with séances. Jenkins moderates these extremes through a global examination of religion both before and after the war. While he does not dismiss secularization as a trend within western Christianity, he contextualizes the European response and suggests it was more the exception rather than the rule.

As soldiers rallied to the colors to defend their nations, so did churchmen stand ready to drape those soldiers in religious iconography. Pastors readily painted their enemies as being in league with the devil while also clothing their soldiers in the language of the martyrs. Germany depicted their soldiers as crusaders defending their homeland, while the Allies saw religious significance to their capture of Jerusalem. As the war dragged on and seemed to unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, clerics easily saw their figurative specter galloping across the globe as well.

What might be most jarring for American readers, steeped in the Jeffersonian ethos of separation between church and state, was how readily American churches adopted this crusading rhetoric. It was not a militarist or politician who declared that he “would have driven my bayonet into the throat or the eye or stomach of the Huns without the slightest hesitation,” but a Methodist minister. Jenkins traces how these close associations discredited religion. This led to gradual secularization and two wildly different trends. In Germany and Soviet Russia, the religious aspirations and rhetoric became affixed to the new “secular messiahs” of these two regimes in the post-war period. The collapse of the old church-state model, however, laid the groundwork for Christian Democrats and Catholic politicians to chart a future along a non-national path of European identity.

It wasn’t just Christianity but all of the Abrahamic religions that were changed by the war. The religious center of Christianity began to shift towards Asia and Africa. In fact, Africa may become the largest Christian continent in the world by 2030. As much as the Christian map expanded it also contracted during governmental persecution of Armenian and Russian Orthodox religious enclaves. The war was a double-edged sword for Judaism. Zionism became practicable with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and acquired the enthusiastic support of American evangelicals who, even today, see the state of Israel as fulfilling God’s providential plan. But the war also laid the groundwork for the Holocaust in the establishment of the “stab in the back” myth within Germany and the spread of “Protocols of the Elder of Zion” by Russian émigrés fleeing the Soviet Union. Lastly, modern Islam is a byproduct of the collapse of the organized caliphate. Separate from an organized state, Islam was refashioned into a force of colonial resistance and political mobilization. This new-fashioned Islam would help create the state of Saudi Arabia and whose legacies extend today to the caliphates proclaimed by ISIL and Boko Haran.

Jenkins draws on a poem by J.C. Squire which underscored the difficulties religions faced during WWI:

God heard the embattled nations sing and shout,

“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!”

God’s role aside, Philip Jenkins firmly establishes that WWI did not just reshape the political landscape, but it created the religious world we exist in today.