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THE GREAT AND HOLY WAR by Philip Jenkins


How World War I Became a Religious Crusade

by Philip Jenkins

Pub Date: May 1st, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-06-210509-7
Publisher: HarperOne

A painstaking, densely layered study of the many slippery uses of religion in the making of war.

Holy war rhetoric was not new to World War I, having been used to rousing effect during the Crusades. As Jenkins (History and Religious Studies/Baylor Univ.; Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses, 2011, etc.) delineates, the “highly material conflict” of 1914 and the messianic zeal undertaken by Germany and Russia especially rendered this a uniquely disastrous and foreboding phenomenon. Not only did the powerful states of the czar and kaiser glorify in the language of divine providence in justifying their aggression, but the church leaders in the West also employed violent language involving Christian duty and honor to save Christian civilization from “God’s enemies,” the barbaric Germans. World War I erupted during a time when religious themes still resonated powerfully with rural and peasant societies, and medieval imagery of battling knights and angels was used frequently in propaganda. For Protestant Germany, the war heralded God’s special mission for the nation. Yet rumors of German atrocities unleashed tales of Christ-like suffering. Spiritual calls to sacrifice and martyrdom underpinned the militarism and nationalism of the embroiled nations, and as the grisly slaughter grew, shocking people with the numbers of dead—the French lost 27,000 men on Aug. 22, 1914, alone at the Battle of the Frontiers—so did the use of the language of the apocalypse. Superstition among soldiers was common, as were sightings of angels and the walking dead on the battlefields. While the war was largely a Christian struggle, the Ottoman Empire jumped in with stirring calls to sacrifice one’s life “for the safety of the faith.” Indeed, as Jenkins carefully portrays, the war changed everything, from the collapse of the old order to the compromising and weakening of world faiths.

A work of intensely nuanced research.