How World War I Became a Crusade

By Philip Jenkins

On rare occasions, buildings not only capture the spirit of a time, they also foreshadow great events yet to come.

In 1913, near the city of Leipzig, Germany dedicated its vast monument to the Battle of Nations a century before, in which the German states had taken the lead in crushing Napoleon's empire. Beyond the obvious military symbols, the monument also depicts heroic German virtues of faith, fertility, and sacrifice, integrating ancient paganism into a kind of medieval Crusading Christianity.

Dominating the whole spectacle is a forty-foot high figure of the Archangel Michael, depicted as a supreme warrior, almost as Germany's very own god of war. In retrospect, the whole building looks like a foretaste of aggressive German nationalism in the Great War that began the following year, and more disturbingly, of the dominant themes of later Nazism. Hitler spoke there regularly.

At first sight, the angel seems like an odd centerpiece. In modern imagery, angels tend to be benevolent and even cuddly creations, far removed from the fearsome figures of ancient Jewish and Christian lore. Yet, as I detail in The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, when the Leipzig monument was constructed -- and throughout the Great War that was to come -- warlike angels featured heavily in the patriotic mythologies of all the great powers. As at the Battle of the Nations monument, it is seldom clear whether we should regard these as purely Christian figures, but their importance is beyond doubt. The legends of the First World War years remind us of the powerful religious and mystical undercurrents that pervaded the conflict. It is startling just how strong these images remained in the era of tanks, aircraft and machine guns -- not in the era of the medieval Crusades, but in historical terms, only yesterday.

Each side had its angels. For the British, the most potent legend was that of the angelic host that had intervened to defeat a superior German force at Mons in 1914. The tale was celebrated around the world, and commemorated in paintings, postcards and musical compositions. German elites returned time and again to the figure of Michael. When the German Empire launched its all-or-nothing final offensive against the Allies in 1918, the operation was naturally code-named "Michael."

But the Allies too had their myths. Hearing so much supernatural talk from the wounded British soldiers under her care, skeptical nurse Vera Brittain wondered what would happen if the imagined angelic protectors of British and German forces encountered each other over no-man's-land. Who would win, the Angel of Mons or the Kaiser's Michael? It sounds like a page from a superhero comic book. But such mockery was rare in these tortured years.

Pleasant as it might be to hope for the aid of angels or superheroes, the popularity of angels during this conflict had distinctly Christian religious roots. Angels had a special role in the apocalyptic scheme and feature prominently in the biblical book of Revelation. Michael in particular leads the cosmic hosts in the final war against Satan. Even before 1914, angelic images were a mainstay for Europe's most progressive cultural figures. This is not surprising, as successive war scares over the previous decade had placed imminent war and catastrophe firmly on the cultural agenda. In Germany and Russia, France and Italy, young artists and writers understood the fragility of the social order and filled their creations with images of angels and Antichrist, of cosmic war and apocalypse.

Leading pre-war modernists organized in the famous Blue Rider school, which is actually a mistranslation of the German original: it should refer to a horseman, harking back directly to Revelation. As the movement's manifesto proclaimed in 1912, "We stand before new pictures as in a dream, and we hear the apocalyptic horsemen in the air...Today is the great day of the revelations of this world." Angels appeared time and again in the art of these years -- in paintings, in ballets and symphonies, and in the emerging world of film. D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) -- by far the most ambitious cinematic work yet devised -- ended with an apocalyptic vision of angels appearing over the Western front, and brining peace to the struggling nations.

Revelation also prophesied the coming of a Woman Clothed with the Sun. Those mystical themes came together in the grim year of 1917, when a group of children reported meeting an angelic figure -- universally identified as Michael -- and soon afterwards, of the Virgin Mary herself. We need not believe every detail of the astonishing claims made about her miraculous appearances at Fátima, stories reportedly confirmed by vast crowds of onlookers. What did matter was that the Fátima apparition were (and are) very widely believed throughout the Roman Catholic world, and that the Virgin's prophecies supplied a template for Catholic anti-Communist ideology through the end of the century. Pope John Paul II was an especially fervent believer.

When war erupted in 1914, few doubted that it would utterly transform the world. A.E. Housman famously wrote of "the day when heaven was falling/The hour when earth's foundations fled." What we might forget is just how naturally and spontaneously a still overwhelmingly Christian Europe framed this cataclysm in Biblical terms, and resorted to the language of apocalypse. When we encounter such imagery so regularly in the war's rhetoric and its visual imagery -- when we meet so many angels at the Front -- we really have to pay due attention to its religious content.

Those angelic images were not a matter of mere elite propaganda: they were deeply rooted in popular religious sentiment, and near-Christian mythology.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

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