100 years later

The expectation at the start of every war is that it will be short. “The reason is psychological and compensatory,” Paul Fussell wrote. “No one wants to foresee or contemplate the horror, the inevitable ruin of civilized usages, which war will entail.”

Fussell, a professor of literature and a literary historian, wrote that in a book about the Second World War. But he could as well have said it in his much-acclaimed volume examining the literary output of World War I, “The Great War and Modern Memory” (Oxford University Press, $19.95).

German soldiers
German soldiers with gas masks fight from a trench at the World War I battlefield of Flanders in northern France in late 1915. The Granger Collection, www.granger.com

In the summer of 1914, soldiers marched off to fight, promising their loved ones, “Home by Christmas.” The French alone lost 75,000 dead by the end of August, with another 200,000 wounded or taken prisoner.

But they and the British stopped the German thrust at the Battle of the Marne, when the taxi cabs of Paris ferried troops to the fighting, and by the end of September the Western Front had settled into the hell of trench warfare that would drag on another four years.

The immediate occasion for the war was, of course, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, Serbia, on June 28. The Austrians, apparently wanting war, laid down terms the Serbs couldn’t accept and on July 28 declared war on Serbia.

At that point, a series of treaties and private understandings clicked mechanically into operation: the Russians coming into the conflict on the side of the Serbs, the Germans on the side of the Austrians, the French on the side of the Russians. Soon, very nearly the whole of Europe was aflame.

wounded
This 1915 photo shows wounded soldiers being transported from the front lines to a German field hospital. Newscom

Historians still argue about the deeper causes of the Great War. But all agree that the factors included: German ambition and aggressiveness; Russian fear of Germany and a Russian military buildup that led Germany to contemplate striking before Russia became too strong; and French and British abhorrence of the idea of German dominance on the continent.

Before the war was over, more than 16 million soldiers and civilians had died and many more had been wounded. Four empires — German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman — had either collapsed or were on the way. (The Ottoman Empire didn’t formally fold until 1922.) And the stage was set for an even greater slaughter barely two decades later. Historians never tire of pointing out that the Great War destroyed a European civilization that in 1914 was the envy of the world.

‘Having let hell loose’

A prime reason for the huge loss of life was the use of new tools of warfare. Yet when the war began, many military leaders supposed that mounted cavalry would play an important role, while the French infantry went into battle wearing decorative bright uniforms from the 19th century. “Not many of the commanders were at all bright, and some were downright dim,” author Norman Stone wrote. The fighting ended with machine guns, tanks, air battles, zeppelins and planes dropping bombs on civilian targets, and the introduction of what we now call weapons of mass destruction: weaponized chlorine gas.

Winston Churchill, British First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915 (when he lost his position in the wake of the disastrous Allied attack on the Turks in the Dardanelles), offered this summing-up after the war: “Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win. Germany, having let hell loose, kept well in the van of terror, but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. ... The wounded died between the lines: the dead mouldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas and all on board left to their fate ...

“Every effort was made to starve whole nations into submission without regard to age or sex. Cities and monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was projected onto their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames or were smothered slowly in the dark recesses of the sea. ... Torture and cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian states had been able to deny themselves — and they were of doubtful utility.”

And this was a war waged in the name of liberty, human dignity and human rights. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” declared President Woodrow Wilson upon leading the United States into World War I in 1917. Yet the conflict brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia, inaugurating a long era of totalitarianism, and paved the way for the Nazis in Germany.

The Church’s stance

If political consequences were largely negative, the war’s spiritual and psychological consequences were even worse. In his monumental study “A Secular Age,” Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor says the Great War “called into question the basic assumption that the belligerent states were truly civilized, or else more deeply, the very idea of civilization itself.”

German plane
A World War I German fighter plane flies above Courland, Latvia, in this 1917 photo. The Granger Collection, www.granger.com

At the beginning, nonetheless, the war was commonly seen very differently. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany called the German people “the chosen of God.” The Anglican Bishop of London pronounced the conflict “a Holy War.” Religious voices on all sides echoed similar sentiments, thus making active support for the conflict a moral imperative. On the eve of the congressional vote in April 1917 taking the United States into the war, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, leader of the American hierarchy, said this: “The primary duty of a citizen is loyalty to country. This loyalty is manifested more by acts than by words; by solemn service rather than by empty declaration. It is exhibited by an absolute and unreserved obedience to his country’s call.” Cardinal Gibbons was no warmonger. Churchmen at the time generally thought that way.

One who didn’t was Pope Benedict XV. In the face of great pressure to do otherwise, he adamantly refused to take sides — and brought down on his head the resentment of every side for not siding with it. In November 1914, with nearly a million men already dead, the pope issued an encyclical, his first, titled Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (“Appealing for Peace”). “Surely,” he pleaded, “there are other ways and means whereby violated rights can be rectified.” Perhaps there were, but the combatants weren’t interested.

US soldiers
U.S. troops advance through barbed wire in a European forest during World War I in this photo from 1918. The U.S. entered the fray after declaring war on Germany in April 1917. The Granger Collection, www.granger.com

During the war, the Holy See labored bravely to relieve the suffering. Its efforts included collecting and sharing information on the situation of POWs, arranging for some 26,000 wounded and sick to convalesce in Switzerland, spending 82 million lire, a huge sum for the time, on humanitarian relief, and lobbying Wilson and other leaders on behalf of peace.

When the fighting ended, Pope Benedict wanted badly to be represented at the Versailles peace conference, but the anticlerical governments of Italy and France said no. Arguably, it was a blessing in disguise, since the Holy See couldn’t be blamed for a harsh and vindictive peace treaty that a historian calls “a formula for economic disaster and future war.”

“Did all this happen so that a gang of wretched criminals could lay hands on the fatherland?” demanded Adolf Hitler in his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf. The Germans believed they ought to have won the war and thought their defeat due to a stab in the back — no doubt delivered by Jews. These things had to be set right, and he, Hitler, had been summoned by history to see to that.

Heart of darkness

The Great War is often said to have undermined faith in God, but it also contributed to a deep-seated loss of faith in man. That the most sophisticated, technologically advanced nations of the world should have inflicted such devastation on one another spoke volumes about that heart of darkness — the human heart. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” the psalmist asked. And the answer was, “a little less than the angels.” But what happened from 1914 to 1918 seemed to situate humankind in demonic ranks.

Humane sentiments clashed with the brutality of combat. In 1916, a French writer named Henri Barbusse published Le Feu, (“Under Fire”), one of the first novels of the war by someone who’d actually been in the fighting. At a point in the story, a soldier accuses the Germans of “unfair tricks” in using poison gas. A hardened veteran explodes at that:

“You make me tired with your fair ways and your unfair ways. When you’ve seen men squashed, cut in two, or divided from top to bottom, blown into showers by an ordinary shell, bellies turned inside out and scattered anyhow ... you’ve seen that and yet you can say ‘There are clean ways!’”

Loss of faith

The war that began in idealism ended in disillusionment. Adding to the horror was the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920. Estimates of the number of dead range from a low of 20 million to a high of 100 million, far more than the number who died in the fighting. People speculated that two of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — war and pestilence — had arrived. The other two could only be close behind.

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U.S. troops march through the ruins of a European town during World War I in this 1918 photo. The Granger Collection, www.granger.com

Faith in eternal truths was understandably shaken by such events. “Something has happened that has never happened before,” wrote the Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot: “Men have left God not for other gods ... but for no god.” The result was “an age which advances progressively backwards.”

In a sense, it wasn’t new. Some such process had been underway among the Western intellectual classes at least since the 19th century under the influence of the ideas of figures like Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, or their popularizers.

World War I seemed to support a view of history as the ongoing record of a Darwinist evolutionary struggle for the survival of the fittest, or the operation of a Marxist dialectic driven by economic determinism, or a Freudian narrative of the acting out of sublimated libidinous impulses.

But above all it was Nietzsche who seemed vindicated. The angry German thinker, an atheist who died in 1900, declared that “God is dead” — meaning the anemic version of God in whom bourgeois Christians of his day believed while, Nietzsche contended, largely ignoring him — and that the moral code of “slave morality” had died with him, to be replaced by the “master-morality” of a new superman (übermensch).

In “Beyond Good and Evil” (1886), he wrote of a time when this “new caste” would rule by “a dreadful will of its own, that can set its aims thousands of years ahead.” And he added: “The next century will bring the struggle for the dominion of the world — the compulsion to great politics.” Hitler gave this vision a name: the Thousand Year Reich.

Pope Leo
Pope Leo XIII pushed for societal changes. CNS photo

Nietzsche’s image suffered undeserved damage from the Nazis’ selective use of his ideas. Yet elements of his thinking did have a seminal influence on Hitler, who liked to have his photo taken standing beside a bust of Nietzsche. Addressing him as “masterly debunker of our liberal fallacies,” British poet W.H. Auden wrote: “In dim Victorian days you prophesied a reaction, And how right you’ve been. But tell us, O tell us, is this tenement gangster with a sub-machine gun in one hand really the Superman your jealous eyes imagined ...?”

But when the Great War ended, this lay a few years in the future. The immediate postwar reaction, wrote author Charles Taylor, was “crushing disappointment.” It wasn’t just that the conflict failed to deliver liberation and peace. Still worse was what it delivered instead.

“The spiritual hunger with which many entered the war remained unsatisfied. Various extremist movements built themselves on this continuing aspiration, both communist and fascist ... Fascism gives us the paradigm of a counter-ideal of the modern order, one which extolled command, leadership, dedication, obedience, over individualism, rights and democracy, but which did so out of a cult for greatness, will, action, life. There was no place left for the morality of Christianity.”

In sum, Taylor writes, a process — call it secularization, de-Christianization, loss of faith — that had impacted Western elites for several centuries was popularized in the crucible of World War I: “The spiritual condition of the elite became that of the masses.”

Pastoral care

In modern times, the Church has made a serious effort to combat this spiritual malaise by reaffirming the dignity and transcendent destiny of the human person. This was a central part of the message of both the Second Vatican Council and Pope St. John Paul II.

In Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”) from 1965, the council taught: “It is only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. ... Christ the Lord, Christ the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

Pope Benedict XV
Pope Benedict XV appealed for peace. OSV file photo

John Paul II reaffirmed this Christian personalism throughout his pontificate, starting with his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (“The Redeemer of Man”) in 1979. Quoting what Vatican II had said, he declared: “This is the human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity.”

For people of faith, these are deeply meaningful insights. But faith is what Western secular culture tragically lacks in the wake of two devastating world wars.

Possibly in that light, it makes sense to end an overview of World War I and its results with something that usually doesn’t get a place in the history books — but should.

Over a span of six months beginning in May 1917, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared monthly to three peasant children near the remote village of Fatima, Portugal, and delivered a message about peace. According to a memoir by one of its recipients — Lucia Santos, 9 years old at the time, who later became a cloistered Discalced Carmelite nun — Mary told them to pray the rosary and said in part:

“You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end, but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the pontificate of Pius XI.”

The Virgin called for the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart and for a “communion of reparation” on the first Saturday of each month. “If my requests are heeded,” Sister Lucia quoted her, “Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church.”

No one is required to believe private revelations, but the Church has declared the apparitions at Fatima “worthy of belief.” And Mary’s words, spoken as the Great War raged, still point the way to peace.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Appealing for Peace
Pope St. Pius X died Aug. 20, 1914, soon after the outbreak of World War I. Elected to succeed him was the Archbishop of Bologna, Giacomo della Chiesa, who took the name Benedict XV. In November 1914, he published his first encyclical, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum. Excerpts follow: “The combatants are the greatest and wealthiest nations of the earth; what wonder, then, if, well provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised, they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror.”

“Ever since the precepts and practices of Christian wisdom ceased to be observed in the ruling of states, it followed that, as they contained the peace and stability of institutions, the very foundations of states necessarily began to be shaken. Such, moreover, has been the change in the ideas and morals of men, that unless God comes soon to our help, the end of civilization would seem to be at hand.”

“Let the princes and rulers of peoples ... consider whether it is a prudent and safe idea for governments or for states to separate themselves from the holy religion of Jesus Christ, from which their authority receives such strength and support. Let them consider again and again, whether it is a measure of political wisdom to seek to divorce the teaching of the Gospel and of the Church from the ruling of a country.”
U.S. Bishops Push for Change
World War I was a sharp break with the past — an experience of discontinuity of historic proportions. Unsettling though that was and remains, some people at the time sought to use the opportunity to introduce changes for the better into the life of society.