Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Great and Holy War. . .
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander

The Great and Holy War: 
How World War I Became a Religious Crusade

by Philip Jenkins
HarperOne; Reprint edition, 2014

What is the relationship between religion and violence? This question has grabbed my attention for much of my adult life, starting with grad school. I was assigned to TA a Bible as Literature class; not having been raised with any religion, I rapidly set to study and was (among other things) amazed at the sheer amount of violence and horror in some religious works. This led me to explore the centuries of writing about violence and religion, an exploration that only deepened on 11 September 2001. As a professor at a small college, I helped a group of faculty and students explore the emerging conflict, including trying to understand religion's role.

Surprisingly, Germany Had an Equivalent to the Angel of Mons Legend

This interest brought me to Philip Jenkins's powerful Great and Holy War. Many people see the 20th century as driven by competing secular ideologies (fascism, communism, decolonialism, etc.). In this setting, World War I appears as the first war of science and industry, the first great modern conflict. In contrast, Jenkins assembles a powerful case for understanding World War I as a deeply religious conflict.

The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict (5). Each chapter takes a different run at the problem. So rich is the subject, and so assiduous is Jenkins's approach, that I have to identify these topics to give a sense of the book's richness.

Great and Holy War begins by demonstrating how the gigantic horrors of WWI summoned up religious responses from participants. Many soldiers, leaders, observers, and civilians saw the bloodshed and destruction as apocalyptic, or as signs of divine wrath, or as creating martyrs, or as summoning up vengeful ghosts. All of this makes sense if we recall that the belligerent nations were, in 1914, deeply religious, many with religious authorities intertwined with state power. Some of those authorities and believers called on religious reasons to understand or support the war, even to the uttermost. Jenkins does a terrific job of assembling quotations from clerics of all kinds, calling on their followers to murder, destroy, exterminate, and sterilize.

For example, from the Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, came this jeremiad:

[K]ill Germans - do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends... I look upon it as a war for purity, I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr (71).

These beliefs appeared in every involved nation according to Jenkins: Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Italy. I'm impressed at how he takes care to focus not just on Anglophonic countries. WWI is when Portugal saw the Fatima visions, for instance.

Jenkins does a commendable job in broadening our attention to areas beyond the Western Front. He takes care to show how Russian orthodoxy committed itself to holy war. He addresses the complex intersection of Judaism and WWI, from the importance of Jewish soldiers in different armies (on both sides!) to the decisive John Chilembwe (269–270). He reminds us that the (Islamic) Ottoman empire's genocidal attack on (Christian) Armenians was, in part, a religious struggle (chapter 11). Indeed, the Sultan launched his empire into WWI as a holy war, while German agents sought to spark jihad against British and French colonial regimes, with some real effects, including organized violence (345).

There are so many ways that religious believers brought their faiths to bear that I cannot summarize them all here. Let me mention Jenkins's keen eye for imaginative writers. He begins with Arthur Machen's "Angel of Mons", where a defeated British army successfully summons up Agincourt's dead to defend them from German attack. Jenkins reminds us that J.R.R. Tolkien experienced the Western Front's horrors, which we can see in the famous "Dead Marshes" scene, among others. And he recalls that Carl Jung, absent from the war in neutral Switzerland, nonetheless addressed it in his cryptic Seven Sermons to the Dead. Jenkins even establishes a link between Rudolf Steiner, visionary on multiple levels, and the von Moltke family, leaders of the German war machine (156).

I approve of how Great and Holy War does not end with 11 November 1918, but carries on as wars continued to rage, most notably in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The book reminds us that religion played a huge role in the Russian Revolution and Civil War ("a full-scale religious civil war" (201)), and that many believers beyond the Orthodox spent the next generations terrified of a Soviet-style campaign against belief—the 20th century's anticommunist movement would draw heavily on religion. It also reminds us that after 1918 the victorious nations struggled to manage their expanded empires. "Between 1919 and 1925 Britain's newly founded Royal Air Force saw action against Muslim rebels and enemy regimes in Somalia, Afghanistan, Waziristan, and Iraq" (349).

A Zionist Interpretation of Allenby's Conquest of Jerusalem

The book also addresses the post-Armistice civil strife within Germany, which appears in the notorious Nazi theme, the Horst Wessel song, where the "postwar" dead appear:

Kam'raden, die Rotfront und Reaktion erschossen,
Marschier'n im Geist in unser'n Reihen mit
(Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries
March in spirit within our ranks.)

This mix of religion, politics, imagination, and violence appears in the 1920s within the American KKK, which had a strongly religious mission as well as symbolism (206). It appears in the brutal war between (Christian) Greece and (Islamic, though soon to be secularized) Turkey from 1919 to 1923.

Throughout the book Jenkins looks even further ahead, to WWI's century of influence. He finds the war to have rebooted a global sense of Islam, a development obviously of today's moment. He sees WWI as launching the huge shift of Christianity to Africa (starting with "an African reformation", 325). He argues that while the passionate public religiosity of WWI faded afterward, its currents continued to flow and develop.

Strongly recommended.

Bryan Alexander


  1. Bryan, thanks for a great review of what sounds like an interesting book. I'd like to contrast it with Michael Neiberg's Dance of the Furies.
    Pete Belmonte

  2. Thank you, Peter.
    I haven't read _Dance of the Furies_ (yet!). What does it see as the role of religion in sparking 1914's descent into war?

    1. Bryan,
      Dance of the Furies doesn't deal with religion in the depth that the Great and Holy War does, or at least it doesn't from what I gather from your review. It is much more about what the common people felt; how war wasn't seen as inevitable right up until the point it actually started. So, it would be interesting to compare the "common people" view with the notion of the war as a holy war. Furies deals mostly with the lead-up to the war.

    2. That sounds like a fine pairing. Thank you, Pete!

  3. I wonder if the book discussed the violent way atheism ushered in the Soviet Union? I'm not sure it's news to say that wars are generally fought over issues that are perceived as religious. In fact, I don't think it's possible to motivate major portions of a society to do ANYTHING without involving passions that stir mankind at the level of a religious issue (and I would include atheism as being at that level.)

    1. Definitely, KT. Jenkins goes into great detail about the violence around the Soviet Union and religions, dubbing the revolution, civil war, and attendant conflicts religious wars.
      He also draws attention to how some religious believers beyond the Russian empire/Soviet world were terrified by this, and how that reaction inspired more political and cultural developments.

    2. KT, be cautious before ascribing the horrors of the Bolshevik years to atheism. The regime may have been officially 'atheist', but their ruthless motivation was the Leninist-Bolshevik-Communist political creed. There is nothing in the atheist rationale to encourage violence against others.

    3. Good point, Brian.
      To be clear, Jenkins is very precise. He identifies violence conducted by the Soviet government and its supporters, as well as violence offered by their opponents.

  4. Thanks for a very useful & absorbing review, Bryan. My current library (in a skilled nursing facility) runs to five books, three of them by Le Carre. I obviously find plenty in Jenkin's approach to sympathize with. I wish I'd just read it and ran into you at a conveniently synchronistic coffee house with a half dozen hours to spare..

    Jung had a vision of a flood or sea of blood submerging Europe, BTW, so the Seven Sermons were not the only expression of his awareness of WWsI &II at a sort of abstracted / archetypal level. And Steiner > von Moltke -- !! -- what an audacious Glass Bead Game move!

    Thanks again!

    1. Three Le Carre books is a fine thing, Charles.
      I thought you'd appreciate the Jung and Steiner bits. Wild, eh?

  5. Thank you for an amazing review. The book sounds very interesting. I will no doubt appreciate the detail the author put in his analysis when I get around to reading it.

    “Many people see the 20th century as driven by competing secular ideologies (fascism, communism, decolonialism, etc.). In this setting, World War I appears as the first war of science and industry, the first great modern conflict. In contrast, Jenkins assembles a powerful case for understanding World War I as a deeply religious conflict.”

    I really like what you said here. I seem to recall running into one WWI historian who noted that, because WWI and it’s time period are textured and deep, those of us that come after keep using it for a touch point for many different things that came after. It ends up meaning something different to lots of different people and subject to various interpretations. But because of that depth, many of those interpretations can co-exist and be accurate. It can be about science and industry and religion and other things too. So I’m glad this book takes the time to shine a light on some of the overlooked aspects of that history.

    1. Well said.
      The more I study it, the more WWI seems like the great crack in time, the world shattering experience that birthed the next century.

  6. On the subject of Bolshevism and religion, the subsequent Communist regime did have a god. His name was Lenin.

    George Orwell's "1984" is an excellent analysis of how a government can make itself into a religion, worshiped (and feared) by the people it rules. Big Brother was Stalin, while Emmanuel Goldstein was Trotsky.

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