Bishop Robert Barron posts on World War I at The Catholic World. Go here to read the post. He uses as the springboard for his remarks the fact that he had seen the World War I flick on combat on the Western Front in 1917. He makes some remarks that are factually incorrect.
And a principal reason for the disaster of the War, too often overlooked in my judgment, is spiritual in nature. Almost all of the combatants in the First World War were Christians. For five awful years, an orgy of violence broke out among baptized people—English, French, Canadian, American, Russian, and Belgian Christians slaughtering German, Austrian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian Christians. And this butchery took place on a scale that still staggers us. The fifty-eight thousand American dead in the entire course of the Vietnam War would be practically a weekend’s work during the worst days of World War I. If we add up the military and civilian deaths accumulated during the War, we come up, conservatively, with a figure of around forty million.
World War I was no day at the beach, but the fact that Christians were fighting Christians made it a typical war in the West. What made it unusual was its world wide scope and the number of non-Christians involved, from the Muslims, most notably, but not limited to, the Turks and Arabs of the Ottoman Empire, and their Allied Muslim adversaries in the Middle East, the Muslims and Hindus of the British Raj in India who fought in every theater of war, the Japanese, the various peoples of Africa, either animistic or Islamic by and large with a few Christians tossed in, and the Jews who fought with their Christian countrymen in every clime and place. Barron gets the 40 million figure from misreading Wikipedia on the subject. That figure throws in wounded. The actual deaths were probably 12-15 million, ghastly enough.
And what precisely were they fighting for? I would challenge all but the most specialist historians of the period to tell me.
The causes of some wars are fairly obscure, like the War of Jenkin’s Ear. The causes of World War I are fairly straight-forward. After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Austria used that event as a pretext to go to war against the Serbs. The Austrians only did this because Germany gave them a blank check in support. Russia honored its treaty to support the Serbs, and Germany went to war against Russia and Serbia. France honored its treaty to Russia and declared war on Germany and Austria. The United Kingdom and the British Empire were drawn in when Germany, in defiance of its treaty obligation to respect Belgium neutrality, invaded Belgium. As they say, this isn’t rocket science.
Whatever it was, can anyone honestly say it was worth the deaths of forty million people?
Bishop Barron might ask this question in the next world of GK Chesterton. Chesterton had opposed the South African War as unjust, and was quite far from being a hawk, but he never doubted that World War I for the British was a righteous struggle, a view he defended till his dying day. His beloved brother and hundreds of his friends died in the War, but he had no doubt the sacrifice was worth it to prevent Teutonic dominance of the continent. What that would have likely meant was played out in occupied Belgium and north western France. The Imperial Germans were not Nazis, but life under the double eagle was bad enough for defeated peoples. We see the passions that were aroused among the Allied peoples in this war in the poem In Flanders Fields:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The poet, John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer, served in the worst of the fighting on the Western Front and died of spinal meningitis there on January 1918. He thought it was worth it, and most of the men fighting with him agreed with him at the time. A century later, and living in safety and security, most people, who know bupkis about the conflict other than maybe the body county, would probably agree with Bishop Barron who, like them, never had any skin in the game.
But I have long maintained—and the film 1917 brought it vividly back to mind—that one of the causes of the collapse of religion in Europe, and increasingly in the West generally, was the moral disaster of the First World War, which was essentially a crisis of Christian identity. Something broke in the Christian culture, and we’ve never recovered from it.
A popular theory but incorrect. European secularization was a steady process since the Eighteenth Century. If anything, both the World Wars led to temporary religious revivals, with secularization resuming, and picking up steam, in the Sixties. It is trite to say that there are no atheists in foxholes, but CS Lewis, who served as an infantry officer on the Western Front from 1917-1918, had the right of it when it comes to the general effect of war on religion in The Screwtape Letters:
Of course a war is entertaining. The immediate fear and suffering of the humans is a legitimate and pleasing refreshment for our myriads of toiling workers. But what permanent good does it do us unless we make use of it for bringing souls to Our Father Below? When I see the temporal suffering of humans who finally escape us, I feel as if I had been allowed to taste the first course of a rich banquet and then denied the rest. It is worse than not to have tasted it at all. The Enemy, true to His barbarous methods of warfare, allows us to see the short misery of His favourites only to tantalise and torment us-to mock the incessant hunger which, during this present phase of the great conflict, His blockade is admittedly imposing. Let us therefore think rather how to use, than how to enjoy, this European war. For it has certain tendencies inherent in it which are, in themselves, by no means in our favour. We may hope for a good deal of cruelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self. I know that the Enemy disapproves many of these causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew. Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition! And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever.
I know that Scabtree and others have seen in wars a great opportunity for attacks on faith, but I think that view was exaggerated. The Enemy’s human partisans have all been plainly told by Him that suffering is an essential part of what He calls Redemption; so that a faith which is destroyed by a war or a pestilence cannot really have been worth the trouble of destroying. I am speaking now of diffused suffering over a long period such as the war will produce. Of course, at the precise moment of terror, bereavement, or physical pain, you may catch your man when his reason is temporarily suspended. But even then, if he applies to Enemy headquarters, I have found that the post is nearly always defended,
Using history to make points in current debates is tricky. Trickier still when someone lacks fairly basic knowledge of the history involved. Do better next time Bishop. If you are unable or unwilling to do so, leave history alone.