When we think of World War 1, we think of trenches, mud, poison gas and brutal, senseless slaughter. We think of nations thrown into war for what seems to us, looking back 100 years, like some pretty petty reasons. We think of millions killed and livelihoods destroyed for a few hundred yards of ground. All those things are evocative of World War 1. But what we don’t think about is the spiritual and religious aspect of the war. We don’t realize that the combatant nations involved in the war considered it a crusade against evil. We don’t realize that the Great War was seen at the time as a Holy War against evil.
Philip Jenkins, professor of history at Baylor University, sets out to help us think differently about World War 1. In his book, The Great and Holy War: How World War 1 became a Religious Crusade, Jenkins explains the powerful effects the Great War had on the world, especially from a religious standpoint. As Jenkins notes, “Without appreciating its religious and spiritual aspects, we cannot understand World War 1.” (pg. 28) His argument is that the reality we live in today, especially when it comes to religious faith, was created by World War 1.
In the first half of the book, Jenkins argues that World War 1 was a religious war in a sense that most people never realize. Every European nation involved considered itself a Christian nation. Nations on both sides trotted out churches, preachers and theologians to make the case that the war was a crusade for God and that death in this war was akin to martyrdom. Jenkins has page after page of evidence pointing to the religious nature of the conflict. He discusses popular novels and films and how they reflected the war’s spiritual nature. Spiritual visions and apocalyptic scenarios played important roles on each side of the conflict. In fact, the wealth of information he provides is almost overwhelming at times.
The second half of The Great and Holy War looks at the world after the treaty of Versailles was signed. How was the world, and specifically the religious world, affected by the war? How did it respond? For Jenkins, World War 1 destroyed one religious world and created another, the world we live in today. For some, the war and its religious overtones turned them off completely. The aftermath of the war brought about the rise of profoundly secular thinking. Christianity in Europe was thrown into decline and into an identity crisis it has not recovered from. On the other hand, other aspects of faith grew. Judaism’s vision of a return to Zion, the Promised Land, gained a great deal of traction in the aftermath of the war. Christianity spread powerfully in Africa in the years after the war. Pentecostal and apocalyptic forms of Christianity grew rapidly. In the Muslim world, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire had great consequences. One of the oldest Christian civilizations in the world – the Armenians – were destroyed, in part by the Ottomans, in part by the nation of Turkey that rose in its stead. The Muslim Caliphate, Islam’s spiritual head, came to an end, causing the world of Islam to search for a new leader and a new vision of their faith.
You might be reading this and thinking – that is kind of interesting, but so what? This is where Jenkins’ arguments are most fascinating. The state of Christianity in Europe today, the rise of secular thinking, the existence of the nation of Israel, and even the radical Islam embodied in ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the nation of Iran all have their roots in the chaos and betrayal that followed World War 1. As Jenkins very ably argues, World War 1 did indeed change the world in ways that still affect us today. We live in a new reality because of the events of World War 1. And unfortunately, apart from a few exceptions, most of those changes are profoundly negative and dangerous to our world as we know it.