Surprising spiritualisation of WWI

Amid the mud and mechanised slaughter, it is difficult to see how the teachings of the Good Book could have been much more than an afterthought for those who lived and fought through the horrors of the First World War. Yet the Bible may have done far more to shape popular perception of the war than has previously been appreciated. A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge havel examinined how the Bible played an influential role in the brutal armed struggle.

The importance of the Bible to the war effort was so great that German theologians debated whether the Bible was sufficiently bloodthirsty to be given out to the troops.  The Bible is a clear “blind spot” in academic and popular understanding of the Great War, its legacy, and in the home front's perception of the war. Religious instruction was still a core part of the education of many of those who fought, and soldiers and civilians alike were still widely familiar with scripture. In Britain, Bible Society printing presses went into overdrive in 1914 as efforts were made to satisfy the demand for personal copies among troops departing for the front.  The Bible was deeply embedded in edwardian England's culture, school leavers aged  12 or 14 knew the Bible better than many theology students now. Most could quote it with ease. Politicians and church leaders exploited its prominence to influence popular sentiment. It led to a sense on both sides that the conflict was in some sense a Holy War.

The religious resonance with which aspects of the war were fought is perhaps most obvious in the Sinai and Palestine campaign, in which the British ultimately defeated a German supported Ottoman army. For the Christian nations involved in the Middle Eastern theatre, this was seen as a battle for their own people’s hearts and minds, with both sides keen to present success in the Holy Land as symbolic of a righteous cause. Germany, for example, sent a battalion to the Middle East charged with protecting monuments and claiming inheritance to the world described in the Bible, including in its number the theologian Albrecht Alt.

When, in December 1917, General Allenby became the first Christian to capture Jerusalem for centuries, he deliberately entered the Old City on foot, taking his cue from the description of Jesus’ humility in the Bible. David Lloyd George described the capture as “a Christmas present for the British people”.

The Bible was an essential tool of the propaganda war. British publications depicted the Germans as “Philistines” and as a modern-day Assyria sweeping down on Israel. The Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, whose fervent jingoism offended leaders on even his own side, declared a “great crusade to defend the weak against the strong”. Motivational sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury and other religious leaders, were printed in national newspapers. The use of the Bible is particularly evident in the German context, however, where a debate erupted over whether soldiers should be allowed access to it at all. Some academics feared that, with its peace-loving message, the text would weaken soldiers’ will, but their opinions were successfully countered by a school of thought which argued that the Bible persuasively encouraged violence for a cause. As this implies, one of the project’s main contentions is that the Bible was used on both sides as a “mirror” in which any claim (or counter-claim) could be seen reflected. Many conscientious objectors, for example, refused to fight on religious grounds, and often found themselves before tribunals at which they were grilled on their Biblical knowledge by Church officials.

The First World War changed the way in which people treated the Bible. For some, the conflict destroyed any belief in God; but for others it represented the apocalypse as foretold. During the war interest in the Book of Revelation and its apocalyptic prophecies soared. Opinion also evolved within the Church. The German scholar Alfred Bertholet, argued that war had enabled Biblical concepts such as divine vengeance to be appreciated by those who had survived. Meanwhile, Karl Barth, deploring the way his teachers in Berlin had used the Bible to support the war effort released a revised commentary on the Book of Romans, which laid the foundations for what became known as “neo-orthodoxy”, and for much 20th Century Christian thought. “The Bible is an inescapable part of the cultural and religious landscape of World War I,”

Dr Andrew Mein, the project’s leader of cambridge's research project, said; “It was perhaps the single most widely-read book during the war, offering inspiration, challenge and consolation to soldiers and civilians alike.” This use of scripture to precipitate a Holy war is dismissed todat as primitive and confined to fanatics in the Global South, however, the use of the Bible in such a manner deomonstartes the effectiveness of such a concept, even in a modern and largely enlightened society.
German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's sketch of the four horsemen of the apocalypse

Bibliography - “The Book And The Sword” - Cambridge University research project, link here


Popular Posts