Friday, July 25, 2014

The Great War, a Great Tragedy

War began in Europe in July 1914, 100 years ago this month.

It was originally called the Great War—great meaning “notably large in size”—but after a second war that was even greater in size, it has come to be known as World War I.

The immediate cause of WWI was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, on June 28, 1914, by a Serb nationalist in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia.

Exactly one month later, on July 28, Austria declared war on Serbia. Within a week, Germany, Austria’s ally, had declared war on both Russia and France.

On August 4, Britain declared war on Germany. Later that month, Japan, who had been an ally of Britain since 1902, declared war on Germany. Then in October 1914 Turkey and the Ottoman Empire entered the war.

In May of the next year, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungry. Nearly two years later, in April 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany.

The Great War, truly, involved all of the most powerful nations of the world at that time.

When the armistice ending the war was finally signed on November 11, 1918, some 10 million soldiers had been killed, and millions more were permanently injured. In addition, around 7 million civilians had also died, and, as one analyst put it, “the physically broken and psychologically scarred were beyond counting.”

The formal peace accord, the Treaty of Versailles, was signed by Germany in June 1919. But the terms of that treaty were punitive; creating resentments that fostered the rise of Nazism a few years later.

Rather than being “the war to end all wars,” as many in the U.S. hoped and expected, WWI proved to be the first act in a global tragedy that was to resume 20 years later with even greater consequences.

In an outstanding new book, “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade” (2014), Baylor University professor Philip Jenkins points out that Christians found it easy to use “fundamental tenets of the faith as warrants to justify war and mass destruction.”

Criticism of the war from religious leaders was scant. Traditional peace churches such as the Quakers and Mennonites did speak out, and Pope Benedict XV publicly lamented “the suicide of civilized Europe.” What stands out about such voices, however, is how rare they were.

In some ways, WWI seems to show the failure of European Christianity.

In 1914, most Brits were Anglicans, most Frenchmen were Catholic as were most of the people of Austria-Hungry, most Germans were Lutherans, most Russians and most Serbs were members of the Orthodox Church. Rather than pledging allegiance to Jesus Christ, however, most people were primarily loyal to their national monarch.

It was only the U.S., it seems, that fought “over there” in the Great War for altruistic reasons, as well as, admittedly, to protect its economic interests. Although the intended goal was not fully reached, U.S. involvement was fueled by the desire to make the world safe for democracy.

Nevertheless, WWI was one of the greatest tragedies in human history, leaving important lessons for political and religious leaders to heed today.

The World War I Museum

Earlier this month when my son Ken, who is a high school history teacher in Maryland, was visiting us in Missouri, we went through The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. Some of you have done the same at one time or another. If you haven’t, I highly recommend you do so when you are in the area. It is not much fun seeing the detailed displays of the war that began in July 1914, but it is an excellent, very educational museum. 


  1. ن‎ Issa al Masih

  2. But that was the problem, except for the Ottoman Turks and the Japanese, the participants in World War I were all fighting for the Nazarene.

    1. Indeed.

      This is the current issue in the middle east - from much of northern Africa, around to southern Asia and down to Indonesia. Most of the American Church is not aware of the issues faced by their fellow believers. The concept of "Love One Another" (as well as "Love Your Enemy") has long been lost on the western Church. Jihad seems to be the new "Crusade" against the "infidels" all over the world. It may very well become the flash point for the next Great (world) War if western civilization takes an interest. In the mean time, I have ن‎ pasted on my office wall as a reminder to pray for my "Nazarene" brothers being persecuted and martyred for their ancient faith. يسوع هو الرب
      (The issue is close to me, as I have Persian and Arab friends who are devout followers Issa and have been persecuted for their faith.)

  3. Thanks, Leroy, for the interesting blog on WWI. I agree that WWI and then also WWII manifest a huge failure on the part of Christianity. I would add that the picture is even worse than you suggest. In fact, large numbers of Germans and English were also Catholic; large numbers of Germans were Evangelische Protestants (not Lutheranisch); all the continental armies had Jews in them; the U.S. Army was quite religiously diverse; and so on. So we had Catholics killing Catholics and Protestants killing Protestants, a situation in which nationalism trumped all religious sentiment to the contrary.

    Erich Maria Remarque wrote a novel about Germany in the 1920s titled, Der schwarze Obelisk (The Black Obelisk). The main character sells tombstones and other monuments. He’s a veteran of World War I, and he's watching the rise of fanatical, right-wing nationalism in the midst of the stagflation and social upheaval of Weimar Germany. One day he starts thinking about a religious service surrounding the dedication of a monument he’d delivered. These are his thoughts (my translation):

    "The pastors bless the monuments; each for his God. I often thought about that when we were ordered to attend worship while we were in the field [of battle], and the pastors from various denominations prayed for victory for the German weapons, just as likewise the English, French, Russian, American, Italian and Japanese spiritual leaders prayed for victory for their weapons of their lands, and I would imagine God as some kind of harried club president in a great predicament, especially when two opposed countries of the same faith were praying. For which one should he decide? For the one with the greatest population? Or the one with the most churches? Or where was his justice when he let one land win, and the other lose, although in the other they too prayed earnestly?"

    1. Anton, thanks for your comments and especially for sharing the fascinating quote from the novel. Of course, there is questionable theology included in it, in my opinion--but I won't comment more at this point.

      In regards to your first paragraph, of course, there were non-Anglicans in England and many non-Lutherans in Germany. But although I could not come up with any statistics, I think it is valid to assume that since the Church of England was the established Church in Great Britain and that the Lutheran Church was the established Church of Germany then the majority of the Christians in those countries were members of the established church.

  4. The horrors and injustice of pacifism are frequently as devastating as those of war (several come to mind throughout history, and condemned throughout the Bible). Humanity and religion are a mess, in practice, regardless of brand - Christianity, Islam, Buddhism... Polictics and economics are no better. Only true and personal religion based on charity (love) can make a difference. And only the last of Christ's beatitudes offers a hope to which people can relate, the rest seem to be a mythical illusion.
    Thus saith the cynic.

  5. World War I is a classic example of "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." (Jeremiah 31:29 and Ezekiel 18:2) As the Middle East goes up in flames, it is discussed in the news how arbitrary national borders for countries such as Iraq and Syria drawn by the western powers after WW I set the stage for todays conflagrations. The Balfour Declaration in 1916 was an attempt by Great Britain to interest world Jewry in supporting England during the war, and was a major step towards the formation of Israel after WW II. Even as I write this, Israel and Hamas are pounding each other in and around Gaza. Lenin came to power in Russia during WW I, with a major assist from German intelligence. Nazis came to power in the 1930s as a direct result of the brutal reparations demanded in the peace treaty at the end of WW I. The United States invented the atomic bomb during WW II in part because it feared the Nazis would invent one first. Without WW II the atomic bomb might never have been invented, since it required an absolutely tremendous expense to create. World War I started a century ago, yet its long shadow lingers over us all.

    Having said all that, I must circle back to Jeremiah and Ezekiel. They wrote during the horrible aftermath of the fall of Judah. Yet they both railed against my opening quote, even though Judah was indeed fallen, and terrible fallout continued. Jeremiah goes on to announce a new covenant between God and man. Ezekiel does not use this powerful phrase, but he makes the same point. "For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live." Ezekiel 18:32

    Turn, then, and live. After a century of fallout from WW I, we still seem unable to wrap our minds around this simple concept. Left unchecked, the shockwaves from WW I will spread like a tsunami for a very long time. Yet there is another way. Can the people of the world try that simple advice? Turn, then, and live.

    1. WWI was the first "global war", but the Europeans and Asians had really been attempting it for centuries. Which brings us back to the proclamation Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to the contemporary "prophets" declaring ""Peace, peace." - but there is no peace." This concept jumps on into the New Testament as well from the Gospels to the Epistles. There has been too much war in my lifetime and before - some necessary, some inevitable, some wrong. Can Ezekiel's call happen if not all sides participate? Maybe King Solomon's wise insight as "The Preacher" holds better - " A time for war, and a time for peace". This may be the rule of justice.

    2. Thanks, Craig, for posting brilliant comments again. You regularly enhance the value of this blog.

      The words of the prophet Ezekiel are of great importance. Even though we can't determine what other people do, we are responsible for what we do--as individuals and as a society.

      Truly, we each individually and we as a society need to turn from the things that make for war and to live the way God intends for us to. The time for war is past; the time for peace is now.

      May it be so!