the great and holy war

This book is a horror show. How is it possible that so few years can contain so much horror? Let's name a few of the ones which Philip Jenkins discusses in The Great and Holy War (OUP, 2014).

Horror #1   Not just the Great War, World War 1 was a holy war.
Christendom reigned in 'the three holy empires' (Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary) of the time. Throw in the British, the Americans, French Catholicism and you have 'the majority of the world's Christians engaged in a holy war that claimed more than ten million lives (5).' Later other nations joined in - but initially this was a monumental intra-Christendom scrap.

The propaganda and the rationale for the war was framed within religious, mystical, apocalyptic, messianic, and millenarian language. 'A holy war ideology became social orthodoxy' (92), as 'a faith-based militarism' took over. Imagery like the offensive depiction of the Emmaus Rd story (see below) seeped into the public consciousness.

A disturbing application of the
Emmaus Rd story to two soldiers...
Horror #2   The pointless brutality of it all
The 'war was a monument to human stupidity' (193) - and it was savage, so savage. It is known for it's trench warfare where men were 'trapped in a seemingly eternal vortex of slaughter and squalor' (43).

Take Verdun, for example - 'a battle of many undesirable superlatives' (55). It was fought on a narrow front of 15 miles, with 800,000 people dead. Or, the Somme: '600,000 Allied casualties gained six miles of French ground' (56). JR Tolkien was at this front for four months and the experience inspired the 'dead marshes' scene in The Lord of the Rings. Or, Passchendaele: 'the whole campaign cost at least 500,000 casualities on both sides and achieved a gain in land of five miles ... (or about) two inches per fatality' (168).

Horror #3   The influenza pandemic
It just so happened that an influenza spread around the world at the same time... 'The Great War itself killed perhaps ten million in four years. In just one year, from around mid-1918 through mid-1919, the Spanish pandemic killed at least 50 million, and some estimates put the death toll at twice that ... (possibly) 10 percent of the world's young adults at that time (182).' And so the influenza killed twice as many people in four months as the AIDS epidemic killed in twenty years.

Horror #4   'Russia's martyrdom' (200-206)
Again, at just the same time, the Bolsheviks, with an 'anti-crusade' fury, instigate 'a full scale religious civil war (201)' in Russia. 'Within a decade ... one of the world's great churches was uprooted and most of its leaders were dead or in exile ... the Russian church neither died nor faded away gently, but was violently killed (200).' As part of this, the Bolsheviks seized land and churches and even turned many a monastery into a gulag - or, concentration camp.

Horror #5   The Armenian genocide (287-314)
Today 'the Middle East is a Muslim East ... (but) for most of the past millennium that division would have seemed absurd (288).' Take a city you've probably never heard about: Diyarbakir, in Turkey near the Syrian border. For centuries it was one of the most 'prestigious centers of the Christian world' (290) - and then, just one hundred years ago, it was part of a genocide in which 'the oldest Christian world perished' (308). Who speaks of this today? Where in today's Christian world will it be remembered with a centenary in 2015?  Even Hitler himself, as he gathered a rationale for his own genocidal aspirations, once asked, 'Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?' (287) ... And so, let's see - "If they didn't remember the Armenians, they probably won't remember the Jews." Is that how the logic goes? In the end we remembered the Jews and forgot the Armenians.

The night before the Aussies and Kiwis landed in Gallipolli is when it started. The rulers of the 600 year old Ottoman empire were feeling increasingly insecure. They were concerned that Christian-European countries would infiltrate their lands (I guess this is what Gallipolli looked like to them), gain a foothold alongside the Christian minorities and incite an agitation that would cause the empire to collapse from within. 'European powers hoped to use Christian minorities within the Ottoman world as the basis for expanding their hegemony (292).' And so on the 24th April, the Turkish regime arrested 250 key Armenian cultural and intellectual leaders 'in an act that today is commemorated as the formal start of the genocide' (298). The purge was on.  Village after village 'cleansed'. Forced marches. Deportation. As is customary with rodents today, the 'extermination of a race' had begun. Make no mistake about it. The 'genocidal fury' in this regime 'targeted Christians as Christians (303).' [NB: the word 'genocide' was invented in 1943 to describe this horror show].

I'm a good Kiwi. I'll commemorate Gallipolli's centenary in 25 April 2015.[NB: my mother's uncle is one who died there]. But my sense of identity is wrapped up far more with a global church than it is with a specific nation and so the 25th will get what is left over from a lamenting heart on the 24th when the centenary of the rodent-like extermination of the oldest Christian world will be remembered.

A scene from Ravished Armenia, a movie that tells the story of a Christian girl
(Aurora Mardiganian) who survived the genocide. Christian women being crucified.
Horror #6   The abuse of 'subject' peoples
Eventually, 'the western front became a world front ... savagery was unleashed across Africa, Asia, and Oceania: it was a war of jungles, oceans, and steppes as much as Flanders fields (270).' For example, one million Indians fought for the British - with 75,000 deaths. Throw in the influenza epidemic, which the war helped to spread, and 'India alone might have lost 20 million people, or 5 percent of its total population (272)' over these years. Europe's war became the world's war.

But subject peoples watched and wondered - and were emboldened by it all. 'Those from below would not always remain in the humble places that the empires assigned them (285).' And so 'while the great powers were making exalted claims for their own divine missions, so the world's underdogs were also seeking their own place in history and framing their claims in supernatural or spiritual terms (270).' A new nationalism and a desire for self-determination was on the way...

But alongside the horrors, let's not miss Jenkins' evocative subtitle: How World War 1 changed religion forever. 'The war created our reality' (28). Christianity, Judaism, and Islam changed.

Islam?  'The war created the Islamic world as we know it today (334).' In 1914 there were just three independent Islamic states in the world: the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Afghanistan (with a total of about 35-40 million). But then within the British Empire, there were 75 million Muslims; in the Dutch East Indies there were 40 million Muslims etc. Far more Muslims lived in these empires - but they were 'politically weak ... with little sense of global unity (336).'  But imperial domination slowly stirred them up. There were revolts here and there, now and then - and 'most of the revolts of these years grew directly out of wartime agitation (350).' While the Great War marked 'the end of the caliphate' (with the fall of the Ottoman Empire), 'the shape of modern Islam owes much to the Great War, and especially to the resulting upsurge of activist movements and the creation of autonomous states (366).'

Judaism? While the great and holy war was fought primarily by so-called Christian peoples, it was a time when both Zionism (among the winners) and anti-Semitism (among the losers) flourished. Indeed 'the Zionist dream fueled the anti-Semitic nightmare' (254) ... and therein lies a taproot or two for the holocaust a generation later.

Christianity? I won't find it too difficult anymore to understand why Europe has become so secular. And yet in the very same years that severe losses were taking place in Russia and the Middle East, new gains were taking place in Africa (314-331) as the religious world was being turned upside down. And yes, it still annoys me that history curricula in New Zealand choose to go back one thousand years to find an example of a crusade (by Christians) when there are two such crusades in the most recent one hundred years (against Christians) that could also be chosen.
Studying the densely packed events of the Great War, it is often easy to forget just what a shockingly brief span of time they covered: just four years for formal hostilities, with several more years of chaos following - but still less than a decade in all. And yet, as we have seen, the world changed totally in that time (374) ... Not only did the First World War show how calamity can transform the world, but it also suggested how long it takes for the results to become apparent. Observing a revolution is quite different from comprehending it. Only now, after a century, are we beginning to understand just how utterly that war destroyed one religious world and created another (377).
nice chatting


I gained a new appreciation for Karl Barth from this story. My conservative evangelical training of yesteryear focused on how he did not go far enough in his break from liberalism and remained a naughty neo-orthodox theologian. But gee-whiz, this 'daring intellectual from a tiny (Swiss) parish' (221) was in his 20s when he started writing about his horror over this horror show. Eventually he articulated 'a sweeping reassessment of Christian faith ... a radical quest to rediscover sources of divine authority (218).' He reminds us that the default position for Christians is to stand against the prevailing cultural tide, rather than riding it - and not to clothe the church in the aspirations of the state. An inspiration for us all.


Have you seen that film "Ravished Armenia"? I can find it on Amazon as a book, but no film. I would really like to see it. I have many Armenian friends.
Tim Hodge said…
Hi Paul

Thanks for the review, it's certainly piqued my interest given you mention Diyarbakir. The church in the UK that Liz and I were part of had strong links to the church in Diyarbakir for prayer, for exchange, for mutual support. I still occasionally pray for the work there now, especially as that border is in the news so much more now.
Myk Habets said…
And Barth said that when he preached he preached the Word of God and did NOT preach anything about the war or Hitler or current events like this, as, for him, the Word rightly preached would make its own point. And it did. Food for thought aye?! Interesting thanks Paul.
Paul said…
I haven't seen the film, Steph. There is a full page picture in the book of the poster that advertised the film.

At least you had heard of the city, Tim. I cannot claim such a strong pedigree :)

'the Word rightly preached would make its own point' is a conviction I think I believe (!) - but as long as we are praying desperately for the listener and not just the preacher.

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