With startling literalism, visual representations in all the main participant nations placed Christ himself on the battle lines, whether in films, posters, or postcards. Jesus blessed German soldiers going into battle; Jesus comforted the dying victims of German atrocities; Jesus personally led a reluctant Kaiser to confront the consequences of his evil policies. Apart from the obvious spiritual figures — Christ and the Virgin — most combatant nations used an iconography in which their cause was portrayed by that old Crusader icon Saint George, and their enemies as the Dragon. Death in such a righteous cosmic war was a form of sacrifice or martyrdom, elevating the dead soldier to saintly status.
In every country, mainstream media stories offered a constant diet of vision and miracle, angels and apocalypse. Angels supposedly intervened to save beleaguered British troops, the Virgin herself appeared to Russians, while Germany claimed to follow the Archangel Michael. Those stories circulated in the first days of the war, and they persisted through the whole struggle, long after we might expect the armies to be wholly focused on the grim realities of front-line life. When the Germans launched their last great offensive in 1918, of course it was called Operation Michael. For the Allies, religious and apocalyptic hopes crested in 1917 and 1918, with the great symbolic victories in the Middle East. Most evocative were the capture of Jerusalem from the Turks, and the decisive British victory at — honestly — Megiddo, the site of Armageddon.
George Weigel blames the “century-long assault on the Christian worldview” leading up to 1914 – he points to Darwin, Nietzsche, and Marx, among others – for the Great War’s destructiveness:
[T]he erosion of religious authority in Europe over the centuries—meaning the erosion of biblically informed concepts of the human person, human communities, human origins, and human destiny—created a European moral-cultural environment in which politics was no longer bound and constrained by a higher authority operative in the minds and consciences of leaders and populations. Some will doubtless think it too simple to suggest that the most penetrating answer to these grave questions—Why did the Great War begin and why did the Great War continue?—is the answer suggested by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn thirty years ago: It was because “Men [had] forgotten God.”
Erasmus responds to Weigel:
It’s true, of course, that in different circumstances religion can either restrain the urge to fight or exacerbate it. Both factors are sometimes underestimated by people of a secular cast of mind. And sometimes, both factors are at work simultaneously. Religion can mitigate conflict within a large group (say, Christendom or the Muslim ummah) but also increase the chances of conflict between those large groups. A century on from the Great War, religion seems in many places to have retained its power to exacerbate strife but lost its capacity to calm and restrain.
(Image: The French military cemetery at the Douaumont ossuary, which contains the remains of more than 130,000 unknown soldiers, via Wikimedia Commons)