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Thought for the Day - 13/01/2014 - Canon Dr Alan Billings

Thought for the Day

When Carl von Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means, he might have added: and so is the way war is remembered.

That was forcefully illustrated last week when politicians and historians clashed very publicly over how the First World War should be remembered in these centenary years. Would schools, for example, find it easier to teach using the writings and therefore the perspectives of the war poets, or 'Oh what a lovely war'. Was some corrective needed? At least we are alert now to the fact that there are many different ways of interpreting the Great War – as there were at the time.

But one clear difference between then and now is that 1914 was a more religious age and not surprisingly many gave what was happening a religious meaning. Leaders on both sides, clerical and lay, had few inhibitions in using Christian religious language and imagery. All called God in aid. All believed they were implementing God's will. The Kaiser, who had both a secular and a religious role within the state church, made this personal. 'Remember', he said, 'that the German people are the chosen of God. On me... as German Emperor, the Spirit of God has descended. I am his weapon, his sword and his visor.' In France, the Roman Catholic Church put on hold its quarrel with secularists to defend the mother country from what it saw as German barbarism.

In Great Britain, Anglican bishops mainly gave their blessing with the Bishop of London saying the war was holy, a choice between Christ and Kaiser. Even non-conformists – many of whom had been critical of the Boer Wars – became more conforming than dissenting, perhaps because one of their own, David Lloyd George, was a senior and persuasive member of the government. He conjured up the image of the medieval Christian knight when he said, 'We are in the war for motives of purest chivalry to defend the weak.'

It's inconceivable that anyone would justify a resort to arms now in this way. Christians would see it as an abuse of the faith, an attempt to identify the city of God with our earthly cities. But we don't have to use religious language to give the conflicts of our day a similar if secular endorsement. After all, it makes it easier to fight any war if the cause is seen in terms of a moral crusade.

Using religious language to frame the First World War enabled it to be cast as a holy war, and for the enemy to be demonised. That made it easier, when it came to the peace in 1919, to have as the dominant notes revenge, retribution and reparation: not reconciliation. As we soon learnt to our cost, that is a dangerous place to be at the end of any conflict.

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3 minutes