1914-1918: "The War That Killed God": An Answer

"God with us" was the slogan that seems more than strange today and which many German soldiers who went to war a hundred years ago, were engraved in their padlock. This little reminiscence from the historical archive helps us to better understand how devastating World War I 1914-1918 was for religious beliefs and beliefs. Pastors and priests incited their young parishioners with trivial assurances that God was on the side of the particular nation to which they belonged. The backlash to church participation in the war, which claimed the lives of almost ten million people, including two million Germans, is still having an effect today.

The Roman Catholic theologian Gerhard Lohfink accurately described the aftermath: "That 1914 Christians enthusiastically went to war against Christians, baptized against the baptized, was in no way regarded as a work of destruction on the church ...". The Bishop of London had urged his parishioners to fight "for God and the Fatherland" as if God needed our help. In neutral Switzerland, the young pastor Karl Barth was shaken to the core in view of the fact that his seminarians readily responded to the battle cry "To the weapons!". In the prestigious journal, The Christian World, he protested, "It is most distressing for me to see warlike liveliness and Christian faith mingled in hopeless confusion."

"The Game of the Peoples"

Historians have revealed the direct and indirect causes of the conflict, which began in a small corner of the Balkans and then pulled in the great powers of Europe. The French journalist Raymond Aron summed this up in his work "The Century of Total War" on p. 16: "The growing tensions involved three main points of conflict: the rivalry between Austria and Russia in the Balkans, the Franco-German Morocco conflict and the arms race - at sea between Great Britain and Germany and on land under all powers. The last two reasons for the war had laid the groundwork for the situation; the former supplied the sparking spark.

Cultural historians go deeper into the causes. They are researching apparently elusive phenomena such as national pride and deep-seated fears, both of which are mostly reciprocal. The Düsseldorf historian Wolfgang J. Mommsen summed up this pressure: "It was a struggle between the different political and intellectual systems that formed the basis for this" (Imperial Germany 1867-1918, German p. 1867-1918], p. 209). It was certainly not a state alone that indulged in national selfishness and patriotism in 1914. The British noted with relaxed serenity that their royal navy commanded over a quarter of the world in an empire where the sun never sets. The French had made Paris a city where the Eiffel Tower testified to the creative use of technology.

"Happy as God in France," said a German saying from that time. With their special "culture" and half a century of rigorously realized achievements, the Germans felt that they had a sense of superiority, as the historian Barbara Tachman put it:

"The Germans knew that they represented the strongest military power on earth, the most capable merchants and the most active bankers penetrating all continents, who supported the Turks in financing a railway line leading from Berlin to Baghdad as well as the Latin American trade itself tied; They knew that they posed a challenge to British naval power and, in the intellectual field, were able to systematically structure each branch of knowledge according to the principle of science. They deservedly played a dominant role (The Proud Tower, p. 331).

It is striking how often the term “pride” appears in analyzes of the civilized world before 1914, and it should not be left unmentioned that not every version of the Bible reproduces the proverbial: “arrogance comes before the fall”, but for example in the Luther Bible of 1984 in the correct wording also means: "Whoever should perish will be proud beforehand" (Proverbs 16,18).

Not only houses, farms and the entire male population of many a small town should fall victim to the annihilation. The much larger wound inflicted on European culture should become the "death of God," as some have called it. Even though the number of churchgoers in Germany declined in the decades before 1914, and the practice of the Christian faith throughout Western Europe was practiced primarily in the form of "lip service," the belief in a benevolent God in many people dwindled due to the horrible Bloodshed in the trenches, which was reflected in carnage never seen before.

The challenges of modern times

As the writer Tyler Carrington noted in relation to Central Europe, the institution's institution was "ever retreating" after the 1920 years, and what is even worse, "today the number of worshipers is at an unprecedented low". Now it has not been that before 1914 the Golden Age of Faith could be mentioned. A series of profound interventions from the religious camp of the defenders of the historico-critical method had led to a steady process of erosion in the belief in a divine revelation. Even between 1835 and 1836, David Friedrich Strauss' The Life of Jesus, critically edited, had questioned the traditionally postulated divinity of Christ. Even the disinterested Albert Schweitzer had portrayed Jesus as a louder apocalyptic preacher in his 1906 published work History of Jesus' Life Research, but in the end he was more of a good person than God-man. However, this notion reached "the critical mass" only with the disillusionment and the sense of being betrayed, which millions of Germans and other Europeans became aware of after 1918. On the drawing board, unconventional models of thought gained the same contour as the psychology of Freud, Einstein's theory of relativity, Marxism-Leninism and above all Friedrich Nietzsche's misunderstood statement "God is dead, [...] and we killed him". Many survivors of the First World War seemed to feel that their foundations had been irretrievably shaken. The 1920ers ushered in the jazz era in America, but for the average German began a very bitter time in which he suffered from the defeat suffered and the economic collapse. 1922 tasted a loaf of bread 163 Mark, a price that culminated in 1923 Mark in 200.000.000 Mark.

Even if the more left-wing Weimar Republic (1919-1933) tried to maintain a certain order, millions were captivated by the nihilistic face of the war, which Erich Maria Remarque did not trace anything new in his work In the West. Home leave soldiers were devastated by the gap between what was spread about the war far away from the front and the reality that had been shown to them in the form of rats, lice, mortar funnels, cannibalism and the shooting of prisoners of war. “Rumors were spreading that our attacks were accompanied by musical sounds and that the war was a long delusion of song and victory for us [...] We only knew the truth about the war; because it was before our eyes " (quoted from Ferguson, The War of the World, p. 119).

In the end, despite their surrender, the Germans had to accept an occupation army under the conditions imposed by US President Woodrow Wilson - burdened with reparation payments of $ 56 billion, with the loss of huge territories in Eastern Europe (and not least most of its colonies) and threatened by street fights by communist groups. President Wilson's comment on the peace treaty that the Germans had to sign in 1919 was that if he were German, he would not sign it. British statesman Winston Churchill predicted: "This is not peace, but a 20-year ceasefire." How right he was!

The faith in the retreat

Faith suffered huge setbacks in these post-war years. Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), bearer of the Iron Cross and later captured by the Nazis, saw "Years of Darkness" in the 1920s. At that time most of the German Protestants belonged to 28 parishes of the Lutheran or Reformed Church, a few to the Baptists or the Methodists. Martin Luther had been a strong supporter of obedience to the political authorities, almost at all costs. Until the formation of the nation state in the Bismarck era in the 1860s, the princes and monarchs had exercised control over the churches on German soil. This created optimal conditions for fatal nominalism in the general public. While world-famous theologians discussed areas of theology that were difficult to understand, worship in Germany largely followed the liturgical routine, and church anti-Semitism was the order of the day. Germany correspondent William L. Shirer reported on the religious divisions after the First World War:

“Even the Weimar Republic was anathema to most Protestant pastors; not only because it led to the deposition of kings and princes, but also because it owed its support mainly to Catholics and socialists. ”The fact that Chancellor Adolf Hitler signed a concordat with the Vatican in 1933 shows how superficial parts of German Christianity had become . We can sense the estrangement tendencies between Christian faith and the people if we are aware that such outstanding personalities of the Church as Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) rather represented the exception to the rule. In works such as Succession, Bonhoeffer highlighted the weakness of the churches as organizations that, in his opinion, would no longer have a real message about the fears of people in 20th century Germany. "Where faith survived," writes history scholar Scott Jersak, "he could no longer rely on the voice of a church that sought to divinely legitimize such [unbridled] bloodshed [as in 1914-1918]." He added: "The Empire God does not stand for empty utopian optimism or for a slipped retreat into a guarded refuge ”. The German theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), who was forced to leave Germany in 1933 after serving as a field clergyman in the First World War, recognized that the German churches had largely been silenced or had become meaningless. They would not have been able to persuade the population and governments to take responsibility and to change with a clear voice. "We weren't used to flying high, we were dragged into the depths," he later wrote about Hitler and the Third Reich (1933-1945). As we have seen, the challenges of modern times have always been at work. The horrors and turmoil of a grueling world war were needed to bring their full effect to fruition.

Dead or alive?

Therefore, the devastating consequences of the "war that killed God" and not only in Germany. The church support of Hitler contributed to the fact that it came to an even worse horror, the Second World War. In this context, it should be noted that God was still alive for those who trusted him. A youth named Jürgen Moltmann had to witness how the life of many of his classmates was wiped out by high school in the terrible bombing of Hamburg. This experience eventually led to a revival of his faith, as he wrote:

"I sat 1945 as a prisoner of war in a camp in Belgium. The German Reich had collapsed. German culture had been dealt the death blow with Auschwitz. My hometown of Hamburg was in ruins, and in myself it did not look any different. I felt abandoned by God and the people and stifled my adolescent hopes [...] In this situation, an American pastor gave me a Bible and I began to read it. "

When Moltmann happened to come across the biblical passage on the cry of Jesus on the cross: "My God, my God, why did you leave me?" (Matthew 27,46) is quoted, he began to understand the key message of the Christian message better. He explains: “I understood that this Jesus is the divine brother in our suffering. It gives hope to the prisoners and the abandoned. He is the one who releases us from guilt, which depresses us and deprives us of any future prospects [...] I had the courage to choose the life at one point, where one might be ready, to embrace the whole End put. This early communion with Jesus, the brother in suffering, has never let me down since then. ” (Who is Christ for us today? P. 2-3).

In hundreds of books, articles and lectures Jürgen Moltmann assures that God is not dead after all, that he lives on in the spirit emanating from his son, the one whom Christians call Jesus Christ. How impressive that even a hundred years after the so-called "war that killed God", people still find their way through the perils and turmoils of our time in Jesus Christ.

by Neil Earle


pdf1914-1918: "The War That Killed God"