COMMENTARY: 100 years later, God and World War I

January 16

God may well be an equal opportunity deity, but that’s never stopped political leaders and clergy from claiming the Creator favors their side over the other in armed conflicts. Indeed, the use and abuse of God and religion were never more evident than during the “War to End All Wars,” World War I, which began 100 years ago in 1914.

In his 2010 book “Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War,” University of Illinois professor Jonathan Ebel examines American soldiers’ many attempts to find religious meaning in the midst of a perplexing and catastrophic war.

America didn’t enter the fighting until 1917, but when Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, urged Congress to declare war on Germany, the president used traditional religious language: “The day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness ... God helping her, she can do no other.”

Stephen Wise, a prominent rabbi and a friend of the president, abandoned his long-held pacifism and supported Wilson’s call to arms. Wise delivered a fiery speech that included the theological terms “sacrifice” and “holy:”

“What are we fighting for? My answer to mothers and fathers is — enviable, even glorious is your lot if you give your sons ... to the highest and holiest of causes in which a people was ever engaged,” Wise said. “As your sons (go into) battle, be strong mothers and fathers in the knowledge that the sacrificial task unto which they are bent is nothing less than to make the world free. ... And when you join in the act of sacrifice, let your spirit be willing and even joyous. ... Forget not that the sacrifice is to be for that which is more precious than life, even as holy as love of life.”

But Wilson and Wise weren’t the only ones who thought God was on their side. During the war, 11 million German troops confidently carried three proud but dangerous words on their belt buckles: “Gott mit uns” or “God is with us.”

A century and too many wars later, the number of military dead during World War I remains a shocking figure. During the four years of combat, the Kaiser lost about 2 million of his divinely driven warriors. The British Empire lost 1.1 million soldiers, France 1.3 million, Russia about 2 million, the Austro-Hungarian Empire 1.1 million, Turkey 771,000, Italy 651,000 and the U.S. “only” 166,561. These ghastly numbers do not include the wounded, prisoners of war, the missing in action or civilian deaths.

Our own age was permanently impacted when four religiously based empires collapsed and disappeared from the world stage at war’s end in 1918: German (Lutheran), Austro-Hungarian (Roman Catholic), Russian (Eastern Orthodox) and Ottoman (Muslim).

And, of course, the unresolved conflicts of World War I led directly to the terrible World War II.

A feature of the war was the large number of military chaplains in the contending armies. Some of the uniformed priests, pastors and rabbis went on to achieve notable careers in the postwar years.

The Rev. Giuseppe Roncalli was an Italian army “padre.” He later became Pope John XXIII and convened the historic Second Vatican Council (1962-1965); this year, he’ll be named a saint. The Rev. Francis Duffy served as a chaplain with the “Fighting 69th,” an American regiment made famous in the 1940 movie of the same name. Today, a statue of Duffy features prominently in Times Square.

Rabbi Leo Baeck, the intellectual and spiritual leader of the German Jewish community during the Holocaust and a prisoner in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp, was a “feldrabbiner” or “field rabbi” in the Kaiser’s army. U.S. Army chaplain Solomon Freehof later led a large Pittsburgh congregation and was a world-famous expert on Jewish religious law and customs.

Protestant Paul Tillich was a German chaplain. In 1933 he immigrated to the United States, where he became a renowned professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

But during World War I, an obscure German corporal who fervently believed “Gott mit uns” made certain the horrific conflict of a century ago was not “The War to End All Wars.” His name? Adolf Hitler.

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”)

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