The national heroes whom they revered more often than not had an evident religious significance.
The ‘imagined community’ (famously defined by Benedict Anderson) could not be created out of nothing. It built upon previously existing identities. And though nineteenth-century nationalism is often seen as essentially secular, the most powerful of these identities were frequently religious. Indeed the clergy often played a major role in promoting a national consciousness. While a ‘national church’ readily saw itself as the embodiment of the nation’s past history, present identity and future aspirations, religious minorities usually had a more ambivalent relationship with a nationalism that was always in some degree exclusive. And even in the case of a ‘national church’, the interests of politicians and ecclesiastics were not always the same. Moreover some nineteenth-century nationalisms were defined in ways to which religion was largely irrelevant, or were in explicit opposition to the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, in ways that varied in kind and degree from country to country, nationalism and Christianity came to be intertwined in nineteenth-century Europe. National identities were to an important degree defined by reference to specific Christian traditions, their history, their forms of worship, and their heroic figures. At the same time nationalism often came to be seen as an integral part of Christianity. Readiness to die for the motherland was presented as a Christian duty and, in particular, Christian preachers of this era were strongly influenced by the concept of a God-given national mission, which justified nationalist claims and might sometimes justify war.
Soldiers on both sides of the First World War believed that God was on their side.1 My purpose in this article is to explore the roots of this belief in the intertwining of Christianity and nationalism in the hundred years or so preceding the conflict. The article is in four main parts: (1) a general discussion of nineteenth-century European nationalisms; (2) a more specific analysis of the relationship between Christianity and nationalism; (3) the areas of tension between Christianity and nationalism; (4) why, in spite of these tensions, did most of the churches in most of the combatant countries conclude in 1914 that their nation was right to go to war? In a brief postscript I shall look at the years after 1918, asking what lessons the churches in Germany and Great Britain drew from the war.
European Nationalisms in the Nineteenth Century
Nationalism ranks alongside Liberalism, Conservatism and Socialism as one of the most influential political ideologies of nineteenth-century Europe.2 In the early and middle years of the century it was most often allied with Liberalism and its demands for constitutions, elected governments, a free press, and limitations on the powers of the monarchy and of the state. In the later years it was often allied with Conservatism and its search for binding identities and loyalties crossing the boundaries of social class within the context of a hierarchical society. Socialists were in principle internationalists, but like anyone else they felt the tug of national loyalties.3 There were also explicitly Socialist nationalisms like that of the Irish labour leader and revolutionary martyr, James Connolly, who linked the liberation of Ireland with the emancipation of the working class.
In nineteenth-century Europe nationalist ideas flourished in three quite different kinds of environment. There was:
- A nationalism ‘from below’ in which the subject peoples within the great multi-national states that ruled large parts of Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries claimed the right to autonomy or even independence. In 1815, at the end of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, to give only a few examples: Greeks and Bulgarians were part of the Turkish Empire; Poles and Finns were part of the Russian Empire; Czechs and Hungarians were part of the Austrian Empire. Meanwhile since 1801 Ireland had been part of the United Kingdom, in spite of the opposition of many of its people. The first successful nationalist movements of the century arose in countries where the majority of people were of a different religion from their rulers, namely the Orthodox Greeks who broke away from their Muslim rulers in the 1820s and the Catholic Belgians who broke away from the Protestant Dutch monarchy in 1830.
- Italian and German nationalisms, which sought to unify peoples scattered between numerous small states, some under foreign rule, and to establish a unified nation-state. In both cases the task of defining the boundaries of the new nation-state was complicated by religious differences. For many Germans, and especially for Catholics, it was obvious that the new state should be a ‘greater’ Germany, which included Austria.4 Many others, especially Protestants, feared that an authoritarian and Catholic Austria would be a dominant force, and so preferred a ‘smaller’ Germany from which Austria would be excluded. The task of unifying Italy was complicated by the claims of the pope that, in order to maintain his independence from political controls, he needed to be sovereign of his own independent state.
- A nationalism ‘from above’, propagated especially through the education system, in countries with their own national government. This focused on defence against external enemies and sometimes on expansion abroad, whether in Europe, or, more often, in Africa and Asia. Of course there was a degree of overlap between this and the other kinds of nationalism just mentioned, as Belgians, Italians, Germans and others succeeded in establishing new states, and what had begun as a nationalism ‘from below’ became a nationalism ‘from above’. The latter was common to most parts of Europe in the later nineteenth century, including not only the ‘great powers’, such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom, but also smaller states, such as Belgium or Sweden. Across Europe school teachers were inculcating their pupils with a strong sense of national identity and sometimes an awareness of national grievances; university professors and other prominent intellectuals were writing books celebrating the nation’s past and proclaiming its future destiny; and the streets and parks of capital cities were being filled with patriotic monuments and museums devoted to military and imperial themes.
Nationalists of different kinds agreed on three main points:
- That humanity is fundamentally divided into separate ‘peoples’ or ‘nations’. For Christian nationalists this separation was part of God’s plan for humankind. After about 1860 it was increasingly argued that it was rooted in biology, and specifically in racial differences. But nationalists of these two contrasting kinds reached the same place by different routes.
- Second, that each nation has the right to self-government. Admittedly, many people claimed this right for their own nation, while being reluctant to concede it to others. This apparent inconsistency arose partly from one of the central problems of nationalist ideology, namely the difficulty of deciding which human collectivities qualify for the title of ‘nation’. For example, Basque and Catalan nationalists claimed to be part of a separate nation, while Spanish nationalists saw Basques and Catalans as part of a greater Spanish nation.
- And thirdly, and this is the point most relevant to my argument here, that the nation has a very high claim on all of its members – including the duty to sacrifice their individual life, if the nation should demand it.
In spite of these very different contexts, all forms of nationalism were shaped by the culturally dominant romanticism of the nineteenth century, with its search for national origins, its fascination with mythical heroes and medieval legacies, and above all its delight in the national language – which was said to embody ‘the soul’ of the people.5 There was an air of excited discovery in the early development of nineteenth-century nationalism, especially in regions of Europe where an élite language had for long marginalised the language of the common people. Thus a generation of Czech intellectuals was deliberately choosing to speak and write in Czech rather than German, Finnish intellectuals were using Finnish instead of Swedish, and so on.
Historians of different kinds have argued as to whether these ideas are essentially modern, as is strongly asserted by the Marxist and bitterly anti-nationalist Eric Hobsbawm, or whether they have much older roots, as is equally strongly asserted by Adrian Hastings, a Catholic Liberal and much more sympathetic to nationalism.6 But this debate is not relevant to my argument here. Historians of both kinds agree that modern European nationalism has its origins in the era of the French Revolution of 1789 and the wars which involved most of the continent in the quarter century that followed. The ‘fatherland’ (la patrie) was one of the central ideas of the French Revolution and it quickly replaced the king as the focus for the loyalties of French people.7 ‘Altars of the Fatherland’ were erected on the Champs de Mars in Paris and then throughout France on 14 July 1790. At first there was a significant Catholic element in the rituals enacted there, but they gradually became entirely secular.8 The Marseillaise vividly conveys the atmosphere of these years:
Allons enfants de la patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé.
And it goes on to make one of the most extraordinary of all the extraordinary claims and injunctions contained in nationalist anthems, when it urges French patriots to repel the Austrian and Prussian invaders by ‘watering the fields with impure blood’. The French historian, Philippe Contamine, quotes a letter from this time by a father to his soldier son. A republican, he wrote, ‘must know how to suffer and die for the liberty of his country … Nothing else counts when it is a matter of the safety of the fatherland. … When you suffer, know that it is for your parents and for your fatherland’.9
Here we have a non-Christian form of nationalism, and one that made claims of the most exalted kinds. It was founded on the sacralisation of the ideals and institutions of the Revolution, as well as of the nation. It was given added urgency and sharpness by the experience both of foreign invasion and of a civil war in which many of the insurgents were fervent Catholics. But nationalism of a more Christian kind developed in many of the countries invaded and occupied by the French in these years, most notably in the Prussian ‘War of Liberation’, culminating in victory over the French at Leipzig in 1813 – an event which nationally minded Germans were still recalling with pride a century later. The popular mobilisation both in Prussia and in other parts of Germany was partly inspired by Protestant preachers.10 Some of them saw the uprising against Napoleon as only a part of a wider ‘National Awakening’ which would lead to a sweeping reform of national institutions. As so often, however, with such generous and expansive visions of a reborn nation, the reality would fall far short of these hopes. Prussia’s brief ‘Era of Reform’ would come to an abrupt end in 1819 with a clampdown on the forces of liberalism, democracy – and indeed nationalism, with which they were at the time still linked.11
Nationalism and Christianity
Many of the classic histories of nationalism12 see it as an essentially secular ideology – even as a ‘political religion’, substituting for a declining Christianity. The French Revolution does indeed demonstrate this possibility. But more often nationalists made free use of Christian symbols and concepts, and churches willingly embraced nationalist ideologies.
Benedict Anderson famously defined the nation as an ‘Imagined Community’, whereby people felt an affinity with millions of others, whom they had never met and with whom they might have little in common, because they belonged to the same ‘nation’. But this ‘Imagined Community’ could not be created out of nothing. Its basic building blocks were shared language and/or shared historical memories. Even the language sometimes had a significant religious dimension, as is shown by the importance of translations of the Bible in the history of many languages.13 The historical memories nearly always had a significant religious dimension. The alliance between religion and nationalism was two-edged in its implications both for nationalism and for Christianity – as I shall argue. But it was uniquely potent as a means of inspiring both devotion to the nation and loyalty to the church.14 As regards the latter, it is well known that, in an era of increasing secularisation in many parts of Europe, loyalty to the church reached its highest levels in countries such as Ireland, where the links between religious and national identities were closest.15 Conversely, secularisation progressed much more rapidly where nationalism had a predominantly anti-church or anti-religious character. Here the classic example would be Bohemia. Czech nationalists were indeed divided as to whether Czech identity was essentially Protestant, but had been suppressed by Austrian armies and the Counter-Reformation, or whether it was essentially secular. But nationalists of both kinds were agreed in their hostility to the Roman Catholic Church, to which since the seventeenth century most Czechs at least nominally belonged.16
When nationalists pointed to shared experiences of oppression or of unity against external foes, these experiences were more often than not associated with religion. For example, in the eyes of Irish nationalists, the clearest example of British oppression was offered by the anti-Catholic Penal Laws enacted in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For English nationalists, on the other hand, the proudest moment in their national history was the defeat in 1588 of the Spanish Armada and thus of Philip II’s plans to impose the Catholic religion on the English people. Similarly no figure in England’s history was as notorious as ‘Bloody Mary’, the Catholic monarch who had sent 270 Protestant martyrs to the stake between 1555 and 1558.
The national heroes whom they revered more often than not had an evident religious significance. The greatest figures in Spanish history were Ferdinand and Isabella, ‘The Catholic Monarchs’, who had not only united the nation, but had forced Muslims and Jews either to convert or to leave. The greatest figure in Swedish history was the ‘Lion from the North’ and Protestant champion, Gustavus Adolphus. Some national heroes, admittedly, had a more ambiguous significance. For devout Lutherans, Martin Luther was primarily the prophet who had restored the pure Christian gospel after many centuries of popish error. But for many other Germans, less interested in, or even hostile to, his theology, he was primarily ‘The German Man’, who had heroically stood up for the rights of Germans against Pope and Emperor. Joan of Arc was revered by Catholics as a saint, but for many other French people she was simply a symbol of national resistance to foreign invasion. Yet in neither case could the hero be entirely detached from his or her religious context and significance.
Nationalists liked to celebrate distinctive national values and virtues, and very often these were seen as having religious roots. Thus nineteenth-century Britons frequently claimed that their political power, their economic success and their free institutions were all rooted in Protestantism. In a typical sermon of 1898, Dr Welldon, headmaster of Harrow School and later Bishop of Calcutta, claimed that ‘wherever there was a nation that was stationary and retrogressive it was Catholic, wherever there was a people that was progressive and Imperial it was Protestant’.17 This claim proved indeed to be controversial, as it was becoming increasingly fashionable to see the basis of ‘national character’ in biology, and specifically in racial differences, rather than religion. But even an advocate of the newer theories, such as the editor of the Spectator, in a critique of Welldon’s sermon, granted that Protestantism was ‘a more nutritive creed than Romanism’ and ‘nearer to ultimate truth’, though even the best of religions could take a people no further than ‘the inherent powers of the race may admit’.18
Nationalists celebrated the art, architecture, literature, music and folklore of their people, and very often these were shaped by specific religious traditions. A classic case is the French Catholic revival of the years around 1900, which was strongly coloured by nationalism. After the long ascendancy of Freethinkers in the French intelligentsia, a generation of intellectuals, among whom the most famous was the poet Charles Péguy, rediscovered the Catholic faith at this time. An important part of this rediscovery was the realisation that French history and culture were so deeply imbued with Catholicism, that to be truly French it was necessary also to be Catholic.19
Nationalists also drew on ideas of national mission or chosenness. Many nineteenth-century Britons believed that the British Empire had been providentially ordained to facilitate the spread of the pure Protestant gospel.20 Sometimes, as in France there were two rival versions of this national mission: one pointing to France’s historical identity as ‘The Eldest Daughter of the Church’, while the other focused on ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. Charles De Gaulle, raised in an atmosphere of Catholic nationalism in the years around 1900 was still referring to the former title in the 1960s.21 The more secular interpretation of France’s destiny and historic role made equally exalted claims. According to a school textbook of 1912, ‘France is the most just, the most free and the most humane of fatherlands’, and ‘In defending France we work for all men in all countries, because France since the Revolution has given to the world the ideas of justice and humanity’.22 More commonly, as in Britain, explicitly religious and more secular understandings of national mission, rather than being in opposition to one another were mutually reinforcing, offering a repertoire of justifications for national pride and national power which could be drawn upon separately or in combination as the situation demanded.23 The historian of missions, Andrew Walls, highlights the immense popularity of the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, whose justification for British (and American) imperialism as ‘The White Man’s Burden’, though not explicitly Christian, drew on biblical language and examples in a way that both Christian and agnostic readers found inspiring.24
Meanwhile priests and pastors were often strongly influenced by nationalist ideas and gave them influential support through sermons, through ‘national’ hymns, through the teaching in church schools, through Christian youth organisations.
Anniversaries of notable battles, as well as royal birthdays and jubilees provided occasions for special services with patriotic sermons and sometimes the composition of new hymns with patriotic themes. For example Queen Victoria’s jubilees in 1887 and 1897 were marked by numerous special services at which imperial themes played a big role.25 The year 1913 saw the anniversary of the Prussian uprising against Napoleon and special services were held in many German churches. The Prussian Landeskirche provided a special prayer to be read on this occasion, which thanked God for help to the German people in their time of need, and asked him to continue to bless the German nation and especially the emperor, inspiring them with a spirit of ‘discipline and honour’, rejecting the enemies of ‘divine and human order’.26 More generally, the historian Frank-Michael Kuhlemann has noted the prominence of themes of the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the whole people in the writings of German Protestant preachers and theologians, liberals as much as conservatives, in the years round 1900.27
Walls notes a new category of ‘national hymns’ entering British hymn-books in the 1880s, and observes that it was then that hymn-books began to include the national anthem.28 The Swedish historian Alf Tergel refers to the popularity in the early years of the twentieth century of hymns by J.A. Eklund, bishop of Karlstad. In ‘Our Fathers’ Church’ he recalled Sweden’s decisive role in the Thirty Years’ War, and then went on to appeal to ‘Christian youth’ to ‘battle for God’s glory in the North’. While the latter appeal was open to a metaphorical interpretation, the fact that Eklund was also a prominent advocate of ‘national defence’ suggests that it was equally open to a more literal reading.29
In Britain Christian youth organisations with military trappings proliferated in the years 1880–1914. The prototype was the Boys’ Brigade (BB), founded by a Glasgow Presbyterian in 1883, and also popular in the English and Welsh Free Churches. This aimed to attract members through the wearing of uniforms and military ranks, and marches through the street banging drums and blowing bugles, and carrying dummy rifles. This was too much for many Dissenters, who founded a Boys’ Life Brigade (1899) as an emphatically peaceable alternative. However the militarism of the BB was low-key and clearly subordinated to the movement’s evangelical agenda. However the military dimension was more central to later rivals such as the (Anglican) Church Lads’ Brigade (1895), and above all the more vaguely Christian but explicitly patriotic Boy Scouts (1909).30
Again in France there were rival Catholic and Republican youth organisations in these years, but both were imbued with the nationalist spirit. Initially they prioritised gymnastics and rifle-shooting, which were seen as part of the preparation of a younger generation that could defend the fatherland and win back the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine when the time came. Later they would also promote other kinds of sport, such as football and rugby, but the priorities of the two movements were always political, religious and patriotic. For Catholics and republicans alike, politics and religion were closely bound together and could not be clearly separated, and neither could be separated from devotion to an idealised Catholic or Republican France.31
There were many reasons for the strongly nationalist colouring of much European Christianity in the nineteenth century, but among these reasons we should remember that priests and pastors could not be entirely detached from their social environment. It would indeed be crudely reductionist to suppose that clergymen thought and behaved exactly like other members of their social class, but it would be equally unrealistic to suppose that they lived entirely within a clerical sub-culture. Protestant clergy, in particular, who had been educated at university with future doctors and lawyers, and who also married and had children, were especially likely to be influenced by their family and by those of their parishioners with whom they mixed socially. Furthermore, both Protestant and Catholic clergy were highly politicised in this period,32 and were influenced not only by their families but by the political circles in which they moved. As an example of these influences, the German historian Werner Blessing provided a charming portrait of the ways in which the homes of Franconian pastors changed in the years after Bavaria’s entry into the new German Reich in 1871. On the walls of the pastor’s study, beside the portrait of Luther, there was now a portrait of Bismarck. In the bookcase, next to the works of Goethe and Schiller there now appeared memoirs of Prussian generals. And when the pastor’s daughter sat at the piano she played not only Bach chorales and Schubert Lieder, but ‘Deutschland über alles’ and the hymn to the Kaiser ‘Heil Dir im Siegerkranz’.33
Tensions between Religion and Nationalisms
In spite of many affinities, the relationship was two-edged. Religious sentiments and symbols could nearly always be drawn upon by nationalist orators and organisers – but churches were institutions with their own doctrines and interests which could contradict the nationalist agenda.
A striking example was the conflict between Italian nationalism and the papacy. Enthusiasts for Italian unification initially hoped that the pope might give his blessing to their cause. But it soon became clear that Pius IX was completely opposed. This was principally because he had no intention of surrendering his temporal sovereignty over Rome and large parts of central Italy, which he regarded as essential for the maintenance of his independence. Moreover, he did not wish to antagonise the Austrians, the most reliably Catholic of the Great Powers, whose rule over much of northern Italy made them the nationalists’ principal target. In response to papal obstruction, a nationalist movement that had initially been strongly influenced by Catholicism took on a strongly anti-clerical dimension.34 The church might also be strongly committed to nationalist objectives, while condemning the methods that some nationalists used. Here the classic example would be the persistent tensions between the Irish Catholic Church and the revolutionary wing of Irish nationalism, from the Fenians in the 1860s to the Provisional IRA in our own times.35
Moreover the alliance between religion and nationalism, while extremely effective in countries that were more or less religiously homogeneous, could raise problems within religiously divided nations, where appeals to the religion of the majority risked alienating minorities. Indeed there is a fundamental tension between a religion such as Christianity, which claims to have a message for all of humankind and in which ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek’, and the claims by nationalists that everyone’s first loyalty should be to his or her own people.
So in the later nineteenth century many nationalists were seeking new bases for national identity which were religiously neutral and which circumvented confessional differences. French republicans had indeed devised a secular nationalism, but this only divided the nation in new ways. The need therefore was for forms of national identity which were meaningful to religious and secular people alike, and to those belonging to different religious denominations. Sometimes this meant a focus on language, or even on sport – an approach which would come into its own in the twentieth century. Thus Ireland in the 1880s and 1890s saw the creation of the Gaelic League, which focused principally on the Irish language, and for a time included significant numbers of Protestants among its supporters, and the Gaelic Athletic Association which promoted authentically ‘Irish’ sports, such as hurling and Gaelic football as alternatives to ‘British’ sports (‘garrison games’) such as cricket and association or rugby football.36
But most often the search for alternative bases for national identity meant recourse to the newly fashionable racial ideas, which gained intellectual authority from trends in anthropology and in Social Darwinism. A racially based nationalism was thought to carry the authority of science, which a religiously based nationalism lacked. It was obviously attractive to the growing number of agnostics and freethinkers, especially in Germany, where the zoology professor and leader of the Monist League, Ernst Haeckel, was regarded as the prophet of a new scientific world-view.37 But many Protestants and Catholics believed that they could accept the new ‘science’ without having to drop their religion. In Germany this was reflected in the development of völkisch ideas, which posited a continuous history of the German people, the Volk, going back to pre-Christian times, in terms of which the religious divisions of the sixteenth century were only a minor episode.38 Some went further, rejecting Christianity and seeking a return to older and more authentically ‘German’ gods. The early twentieth century saw a wave of neo-pagan books and new organisations. Siegfried or Christ (1910) by Otto Sigfried Reuter was a typical title.39 In Great Britain the dominant imperialism of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was legitimated by belief in a national mission to bring civilisation and good government to less favoured regions of the world. This was often linked to Protestant Christianity and its plethora of overseas missions. But increasingly this religiously based concept of national mission was supplemented by, or even replaced by, claims for the racial superiority of the ‘Anglo-Saxon peoples’. These ‘peoples’ were often taken to include not only the British and the Protestant Irish, but Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and the people of the United States.40 This version was especially attractive to those Liberal Imperialists who wanted to go beyond a narrowly British, or even English, chauvinism, while still claiming that British rule over large parts of Africa and Asia was beneficial to the people living there.
National churches were not surprisingly those readiest to identify with ‘the nation’. These national churches included most obviously the ‘people’s churches’ (Volkskirchen) of Germany and Scandinavia, the Churches of England and Scotland, the Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox Churches – but also the Catholic Churches of France and Spain which saw themselves as churches of the nation, or those of Ireland and Poland which claimed to speak for a nation as yet denied nationhood. Overt opposition to the nationalist agenda was most likely to come from minority churches, whether because of uncertainty as to how far they were really part of the national project – or whether the experience of being in a minority (and often of discrimination arising from this) tended to make such churches readier to question mainstream values and conventional wisdom.
Thus in Germany the Catholic Church was more cautious than the Protestants in its support for militarism and imperialism.41 In England and Wales the Nonconformists were more so than the Anglicans. The most striking example is the South African War (1899–1902). It was supported by most of the Anglican clergy, though with some significant exception, including Henry Scott Holland and John Percival, bishop of Hereford. But it was opposed by large numbers of Nonconformist ministers. Indeed more than 5000 of the latter signed a call for an end to the war in 1901. The opposition was provoked especially by revelations concerning the ‘concentration camps’ in which the British confined Afrikaner civilians, but also more widely by the belief that the British Empire was ‘bullying’ a small nation in a way that made a mockery of all the British claims to offer peace and good government. There certainly were prominent Nonconformists who supported the war, including Hugh Price Hughes, the best-known Wesleyan preacher of the day, and the historian of churches and war, Alan Wilkinson, argues that the majority of Nonconformist ministers supported the war.42 Whether or not he is right, I think that, in view of the immense social pressures to rally behind the national cause in time of war, the 5000 ministers represent an impressive level of religiously based dissent. It has few parallels before the very widespread opposition to the Vietnam War by Catholic and ‘mainline’ Protestant American clergy in the 1960s. A symbolic moment was ‘Mafeking Night’ in 1900 when all over Britain enthusiastic crowds celebrated the British relief of the besieged town. In the London suburb of Lewisham, while the vicarage was festooned with Union Jacks, a patriotic mob smashed the windows of the Congregational minister who had been a prominent opponent of the war.43
There were also Christians of all denominations who recognised peace as the ideal and were prepared to work for it, in spite of the pervasive influence of militarism and imperialism in the European culture of the early twentieth century. From 1908 there was a series of exchanges between British and German churchmen, leading to conferences for ‘Promoting International Friendship through the Churches’. One such conference was meeting at Konstanz in August 1914 at the very time that war broke out.44
Yet when the delegates reached home, many, probably most, concluded that their own nation was right to go to war.
Absolute pacifism was still largely restricted to small ‘peace churches’. Of these, the best known and most influential were the Quakers, who even had a presence within the British ‘establishment’, including prominent businessmen, academics and Liberal Members of Parliament. It is therefore not surprising that a significant minority of Quaker men of military age chose to fight.45 Other British churches with a strong anti-war ethos, such as the Brethren, Churches of Christ, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses or the early Pentecostals, were much more socially marginal and were to some degree insulated from the conformist pressures by a more strongly sectarian identity. But the Churches of Christ were also divided in their response to the war.46 Of those Conscientious Objectors whose religious affiliation is known, the overwhelming majority were Protestant Nonconformists, most belonging to these smaller churches, but also including significant numbers of Methodists.47 The Methodist Churches all officially supported the war, but some of their members did not – most often because of their reading of the New Testament, sometimes reinforced by Socialist arguments. Only after, and as a result of the war, did absolute pacifism spread more widely to include many Anglicans and members of the Church of Scotland, as well as those from all of the larger Dissenting denominations.48
Moreover the outbreak of war in the wake of the Austria/Serbia crisis in July 1914 was sudden and took most people by surprise. World War II was a long time coming, and by September 1939 many people had already spent a lot of time thinking about what they should do if war broke out. In 1914 by contrast they had to make a decision in a hurry about their personal stance – and to do it under intense social pressures to conform.
But most important of all was the fact that most clergymen shared with the majority of their fellow countrymen and countrywomen the conviction that their nation was fighting in a just cause. This is especially striking in the case of Great Britain where, as already mentioned, there had been considerable opposition to the South African War. Most of those who had opposed what they had seen as an imperialist war now believed that there was an obligation to defend Belgium from German aggression.49 Meanwhile, the French were fighting in defence of their native soil, and probably nowhere was support for the war so overwhelming. The Germans also claimed that they were encircled by enemies bent on their destruction and that they were fighting a war of self-defence. The Austrians felt about Serbia rather as the United States did about Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, reasoning that support for terrorism must be punished. The Russians, on the other hand, believed that they had to defend their Slav brothers. The only major exceptions among the combatant nations was Italy, where many Catholics were unconvinced by the case for entering the war, and the strongest advocates of Italian intervention were often anti-clericals.50 Of course the situation was different among some of those national minorities within multi-national states, for example Irish Catholics, many of whom believed that they had been dragged into someone else’s war.51
Thus even those clergymen who saw themselves as men of peace and who opposed the more militant forms of nationalism, concluded in the majority of cases that this war was justified. Of course, for most clergymen, as for most of their fellow countrymen and countrywomen, support for the national war effort was taken for granted and scarcely needed much conscious reflection. In explaining this we also need to look at the peculiar atmosphere of the years between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1 and World War I. The factors leading to an intensification of nationalist feelings and international tensions in this period included the poisonous legacy of the Franco-Prussian War; the climax of the drive by the countries of Europe, together with the United States, to acquire colonies and to obtain economic control over other parts of the world; and more indirectly, the impact of social tensions within European countries.
The war of 1870–1 had seen Bismarck’s Prussia inflict a severe defeat on Napoleon III’s France, leading to the fall of the Second Empire, the establishment of the Third Republic, and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Bismarck exploited the nationalist excitement not only in Prussia but in many other parts of Germany to establish a unified German state with himself as Chancellor. In France, the years after the war were marked by bitter resentment of the Prussian victors, a thirst for eventual revenge and a focus on the two ‘lost children’, whose true place as part of the French family was clear from the maps hanging on classroom walls.52 Republicans and Catholics vied with one another in nationalist enthusiasm. In Germany the prevailing mood was one of triumphalist euphoria. The newly united Reich was fast becoming Europe’s economic and scientific, as well as military super-power. Among devout Protestants this triumphalism often took the form of a belief that God had formed a special relationship with the German people.53 A dramatic reflection of the mood of these years is the monumental Völkerschlachtdenkmal in Leipzig, which took 15 years to construct and which was opened in 1913 on the centenary of the battle in which the Prussians and their allies had defeated Napoleon. The interior of this huge structure, including notably the ‘Crypt’ and the ‘Hall of Fame’, are devoted to remembering the soldiers who died in the battle. But on the front of the monument is a giant figure of an armoured and sword-wielding Archangel Michael, and the words ‘Gott mit uns’, leaving no doubt that this is also a celebration of German military prowess, a statement of the righteousness of the German cause and an expression of gratitude for God’s favour.54
In a statement issued on 5 August 1914, the Protestant Press Agency in Berlin would refer to ‘God our old ally’ who would sweep out everything ‘ungodly and un-German’, so that ‘their hearts will be ready once more to make sacrifices as in 1813, and that the free German fist will be able to deal blows as in the battles of that holy war’.55
This mood of patriotic exaltation mingled with claims to special divine favour were closely paralleled in Great Britain, though there the principal focus was on the empire and on the supposed benefits of British rule for those who had been colonised. Of all the bombastic nationalist anthems composed in the years from the French Revolution to the First World War none compares with ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ written in 1902 at a time when victory over the Afrikaner republics meant that the bounds of empire had been set ‘wider yet’. The author A.C. Benson, whose father had been Archbishop of Canterbury and who was at the time a master at Eton, was ‘distinctly unorthodox’ in his Christianity, though ‘on the side of the things it stands for’,56 but like many of his contemporaries was ready to draw on a generally accepted religious vocabulary which affirmed God’s providence while avoiding reference to specifically Christian doctrines. But equally exalted claims for the empire were made by many more orthodox voices, especially by agents or supporters of overseas missions. As the editor wrote in the report on the international missionary conference in 1888, ‘it is the race which is sending the blessings of Christianity to the heathen to which God is giving success as the colonisers and conquerors of the world’.57
Yet amid so much euphoric self-congratulation, this was also an age of anxiety, in which each of Europe’s great powers and many smaller nations too felt threatened by hostile neighbours and/or enemies within.58 Intensified class conflict and, in particular, the rising popularity of Socialism threatened the social order, while all of Europe’s multi-national states were under pressure from separatist movements. At the same time, in spite of their worldwide empire, there were many voices in Britain complaining that in terms of military preparedness and ‘national efficiency’ they were falling behind the Germans. France and Belgium were highly conscious of the direct threat from Germany – and in 1913 France increased the period of compulsory military service to three years. And Germans were well aware that in spite of all their achievements since 1871, the British still had a more powerful navy as well as a vastly greater overseas empire. European nations in the years up to 1914 were under the influence of a lethal mixture of paranoia and patriotic fervour, and though there were questioning voices in the churches as elsewhere – and most notably in the Socialist movement – they were very much a minority.
Of course, those countries that had suffered the horrors of four years of war sought to draw lessons from what had happened. In British churches the most common answer was the need for international co-operation, especially through the League of Nations, and the League of Nations Union had branches in numerous congregations in the 1920s and 1930s – 2656 (predominantly Nonconformist) in 1934.59 In the 1930s, some British Christians went further, advocating pacifism. It was a striking symbol of this new atmosphere that the most prominent figure in the peace movement was a former military chaplain and former vicar of St Martin’s in the Fields, Dick Sheppard.60 Some Protestant Germans were thinking on similar lines.61 But there were many others who drew very different lessons from the war, and especially from what has been called ‘the trauma of 1918/19’. In the bitterness of defeat they believed that they had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by less patriotic fellow-countrymen, and in the 1920s they enthusiastically adopted the fashionable ‘Orders of Creation’ theology, according to which every individual belongs to a particular ‘people’, ‘fatherland’ and ‘race’, and all of these are to be seen as gifts of God. There lay the roots of the welcome that so many of them gave in 1933 to the unchristian nationalism of Adolf Hitler.62
- Snape, God and the British Soldier, 61–72, 179; Becker, Guerre et foi, 15–16, 25–6; Gailus, Protestantismus, 416–17, 450–1. See also Krumeich, ‘“Gott mit uns?”’, which like much of the literature focuses on the ample examples from sermons by military chaplains and others, rather than the more elusive responses of soldiers.
- For extended discussion of these interrelations, see Breuilly, Nationalism.
- Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism, 123–30.
- Steinhoff, ‘Creation of Germany’, 288–9, 292–3.
- Smith, National Identity, chap. 4; Smith, Chosen Peoples, 190–204; Benner, ‘Intellectual Origins’, 41–7.
- Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism, 9–13; Hastings, Construction of Nationhood, 33.
- Contamine, ‘Mourir’, 1690–1.
- McManners, French Revolution, 68–79.
- Contamine, ‘Mourir’, 1692.
- Echternkamp, ‘Religiöses Nationalgefühl’; Smith, ‘German Religious Conflict’, 81–8.
- Nipperdey, Deutsche Geschichte, 92–3, 272–85.
- Anderson, Imagined Communities; Gellner, Nations and Nationalism; Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism.
- Hastings, Construction of Nationhood, 15–18, 108, 152 and passim.
- Gilley and Stanley, World Christianities, part 2.
- Gilley, ‘Catholicism’; Kloczowski, ‘Poland’.
- Matejka, ‘Religious Construction’, 49–61.
- Spectator, October 1, 1898.
- Spectator, October 29, 1898.
- Gugelot, Conversion des intellectuels; Cholvy and Hilaire, Histoire religieuse, 142–6.
- Brown, Providence and Empire, 435.
- Rémond, ‘Fille aînée’, 4322, 4349.
- Kselman, ‘French Identity’, 74–5.
- McLeod, ‘Protestantism’.
- Walls, ‘White Man’s Burden’.
- Brown, Providence and Empire, 324, 434.
- Gailus, Protestantismus, 45–6.
- Kuhlemann, ‘Pastorennationalismus’, 560.
- Walls, ‘White Man’s Burden’, 44–7.
- Tergel, ‘Sweden’, 242–5.
- Springhall, Youth.
- McLeod, ‘Religion, Politics and Sport’, 199, 203–6.
- To give a few examples: Sperber, Kaiser’s Voters, 57–8, 80–1; Larsen, Religious Equality, 26–7 and passim; Fitzpatrick, ‘Catholic Politics’.
- Blessing, Staat und Kirche, 199–200.
- Pollard, Catholicism in Italy, 18–28, 39–43.
- Lyons, Ireland, 117–23; Bell, ‘Northern Ireland’, 233–6.
- Townshend, Ireland, chap. 3; Cronin, Sport and Nationalism.
- Weir, Secularism and Religion.
- Walkenhorst, ‘Nationalismus’, 521–3.
- Hübinger, ‘Sakralisierung’.
- McLeod, ‘Protestantism’, 57–60.
- Sperber, Kaiser’s Voters, 242–8.
- Wilkinson, Dissent or Conform? 18.
- McLeod, ‘Protestantism’, 62.
- Wilkinson, Church of England, 21–7.
- Kennedy, British Quakerism, 313.
- As is shown by Andy Vail who is writing a Birmingham PhD on Nonconformists in the city during World War I. I would like to thank him for permission to refer to his research.
- Rae, Conscience and Politics, 250–1. Rae’s statistics, in which the largest group are Christadelphians, refer to those Objectors who were willing to do some kind of alternative work. There are no such precise numbers for ‘Absolutists’ – those who refused all alternatives, and were consequently imprisoned. According to Rae (202), they were predominantly Socialists and/or Quakers.
- Wilkinson, Dissent or Conform? 85–136.
- Ibid., 23–53.
- Pollard, Catholicism in Italy, 70–4.
- Townshend, Ireland, 70, 84 – though he notes that many Irish Catholics did support the war.
- Weber, Peasants, 334–6.
- Lehmann, ‘“God our old Ally”’, 104.
- Hocquél, Leipzig, 305–7.
- Lehmann, ‘“God our old Ally”’, 87.
- Hyam, ‘Benson’.
- Brown, Providence and Empire, 435.
- See Gildea, Barricades, 403–35 for an overview.
- Robbins, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, 235.
- Wilkinson, Dissent or Conform?, 112–25.
- See Gailus, Protestantismus, 616–19 for some examples.
- Gailus, Protestantismus, 424, 450. See also Lehmann, ‘“God our old Ally”’.
- AndersonBenedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983.
- BeckerAnnette. La guerre et la foi. Paris: A. Colin, 1994.
- BellJohn. ‘The Dynamics of Religious Difference in Contemporary Northern Ireland’. In Protestant–Catholic Conflict from the Reformation to the Present Day, ed. JohnWolffe. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
- BennerErica. ‘Nationalism: Intellectual Origins’. In Oxford Handbook of the History of Nationalism, ed. JohnBreuilly, 36–55. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- BlessingWerner. Staat und Kirche in der Gesellschaft. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1982.
- Breuilly, John, ed. Oxford Handbook of the History of Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- BrownStewart J.Providence and Empire 1815–1914. Harlow: Pearson, 1998.
- CholvyGérard, and Yves-MarieHilaire. Histoire religieuse de la France contemporaine, 1880– 1930. Toulouse: Casterman, 1986.
- ContaminePhilippe. ‘Mourir pour la patrie’. In Les lieux de mémoire, ed. PierreNora, vol. II1673–98. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.
- CroninMike. Sport and Nationalism in Ireland. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999.
- EchternkampJörg. ‘Religiöses Nationalgefühl’. In Nation und Religion in der deutschen Geschichte, ed. Heinz-GerhardHaupt and DieterLangewiesche, 142–69. Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 2001.
- FitzpatrickBrian. ‘The Emergence of Catholic Politics in the Midi, 1830–1870’. In Religion, Politics and Society in France since 1789, ed. FrankTallett and NicholasAtkin, 89–106. London: Hambledon, 1991.
- GailusManfred. Protestantismus und Nationalsozialismus. Cologne: Böhlau, 2001.
- GellnerErnest. Nations and Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
- GildeaRobert. Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800–1914, 3rd ed.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- GilleySheridan. ‘Catholicism, Ireland and the Irish Diaspora’. In World Christianities, c.1815–c.1914, ed. S.Gilley and B.Stanley, 250–9. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- Gilley, Sheridan, and BrianStanley, eds. The Cambridge History of Christianity. vol. VIII, World Christianities, c.1815–c.1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- GugelotFréderic. La conversion des intellectuels au catholicisme en France (1885–1935). Paris: CNRS, 1998.
- HastingsAdrian. The Construction of Nationhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- HobsbawmE.J.Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
- HocquélWolfgang. Leipzig, 3rd ed.Leipzig: Passage, 2010.
- HübingerGangolf. ‘Sakralisierung der Nation’. In ‘Gott mit uns’: Nation, Religion und Gewalt im 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhundert, ed. G.Krumeich and H.Lehmann, 233–48. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000.
- Hutchison, William R., and HartmutLehmann, eds. Many are Chosen: Divine Election and Western Nationalism. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 1994.
- HyamR. ‘A.C.Benson’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- KennedyThomas C.British Quakerism 1860–1920. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- KloczowskiJerzy. ‘Poland’. In World Christianities, c.1815–c.1914, ed. S.Gilley and B.Stanley, 270–81. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- KrumeichGerd. ‘“Gott mit uns?” Der erste Weltkrieg als Religionskrieg’. In ‘Gott mit uns’: Nation, Religion und Gewalt im 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhundert, ed. G.Krumeich and H.Lehmann, 273–84. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000.
- Krumeich, Gerd, and HartmutLehmann, eds. ‘Gott mit uns’: Nation, Religion und Gewalt im 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhundert. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000.
- KselmanThomas. ‘Religion and French Identity’. In Many are Chosen: Divine Election and Western Nationalism, ed. W.R.Hutchison and H.Lehmann, 57–80. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 1994.
- KuhlemannFrank-Michael. ‘Pastorennationalismus in Deutschland’. In Nation und Religion in der deutschen Geschichte, ed. Heinz-GerhardHaupt and DieterLangewiesche, 548–86. Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 2001.
- LarsenTimothy. The Friends of Religious Equality. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1998.
- LehmannHartmut. ‘“God our old Ally”’. In Many are Chosen: Divine Election and Western Nationalism, ed. W.R.Hutchison and H.Lehmann, 85–108. Harrisburg PA: Trinity, 1994.
- LyonsF.S.L.Ireland since the Famine. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971.
- MatejkaOndrej. ‘Religious Construction of the 20th Century in a “Non-Believing” Country: The Protestant Milieu in Czech Society 1900s to 1960s’. PhD thesis, University of Geneva, 2012.
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- McLeodHugh. ‘Religion, Politics and Sport in Western Europe, c.1870–1939’. In Religion, Identity and Conflict, ed. Stewart J.Brown, Frances Knight and John Morgan-Guy, 195–212. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.
- McMannersJohn. The French Revolution and the Church. London: SPCK, 1969.
- NipperdeyThomas. Deutsche Geschichte, 1800–1866. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1987.
- PollardJohn. Catholicism in Modern Italy. London: Routledge, 2008.
- RaeJohn. Conscience and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.
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- SmithAnthony D.Chosen Peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- SmithAnthony D.National Identity. London: Penguin, 1991.
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- SpinghallJohn. Youth, Empire and Society. London: Croom Helm, 1977.
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- TergelAlf. ‘Chosenness, Nationalism and the Young Church Movement: Sweden 1880–1920’. In Many are Chosen: Divine Election and Western Nationalism, ed. W.R.Hutchison and H.Lehmann, 231–50. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 1994.
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- WilkinsonAlan. Dissent or Conform?London: SCM, 1986.
Originally published by the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 15:1 (2015, 7-22), DOI:https://doi.org/10.1080/1474225X.2015.1020009, open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.