The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, Philip Jenkins

Ever since I got this book last Christmas, I’ve been just a little skeptical of it. As I have mentioned in other reviews of mine, I have been on a huge WWI kick this year. This has been on my shelf for nearly a year and I just got around to reading it.

Dr. Philip Jenkins thesis centers around the thought that World War I was actually not a political war, but a religious one. He invokes images of Christianized Western Europe at the beginning of the 20th century as a type of Medieval landscape that went to war purely on the proposition of religious fervor. If you read this and are too skeptical, you should be. Mostly because I think that Dr. Jenkins argument is really weak.

You’d have to read the book to get a full grasp on the argument, but what I thought was most interesting is that by the end of the book, the culmination of all the evidence he presents warps into an entirely different idea. At the beginning, he lays out the fact that World War I was a “religious crusade.” By the end, the conclusions he draws from the rest of the book more resemble that World War I was a turning point in world history and it’s grasp on religious ideals. Now this is a thesis I can get behind.

Part of the reason why I think the religious crusade talk is weak considering the scope of World War I is because Dr. Jenkins utilizes really weak sources to back up his proposition. Isolated incidents of religious war percolate in any global conflict. He cites German Lutheran Pastors,English Anglican Pastors, and American Evangelical Pastors amongst others who all spoke out quite fervently in nationalistic language shrouded under the guise of religion as to why their side was fighting the war. But this doesn’t suggest that the entire war was started because of religion: it just demonstrates that in every age there are radical religiously convicted people who try to push a point under the auspice of religion. I’ve never heard of that before (see: the crusades).

I came to agree with the conclusions he purported by the end of the book though. The religious landscape of the world was forever altered by the First World War, and there is no doubt about this. Here are a couple of ways in which it changed:

1) In Europe, men and women were both so desensitized to the mass carnage that was brought about by the war that they lost their spiritual footing. Dr. Jenkins mentions that there was a crucial shift even before the war to a more secular society. Perhaps the war really brought about the mass secularization of Europe. When looking to Europe today, you see dwindling numbers of people who consider themselves overtly religious. Perhaps the two world wars that brought about so much pain and suffering are the genesis of this. Perhaps not.

2) The roots of anti-semitism can actually be traced to the end of World War I. The “Jewish problem” (I refer to this in the book I read called “In the Garden of Beasts“) was mostly fiction. It actually is rooted in German conspiracy theories that a) the German Jews shirked their civic duties to their country when they refused to go to the front to fight for Germany (this is a huge lie as over 80% of the Jews enlisted in the German Army saw combat on the Western Front) and b) they thought that after the war, there was another conspiracy that suggested that the Jews were working together to work their way to the top using their stereotyped financial prowess to ultimately bring a new world order into existence (also a ridiculous notion).

3) In one of the most interesting chapters of the book, he talks about how the war was also the genesis of radical Islam. I’ve written a little bit about this in the book “Fall of the Ottomans,” but essentially after the Ottoman Empire collapsed, three major things happened in the Middle East: a) the ottomans killed off thousands, if not millions, of Christians in areas that were the centers of probably the oldest types of Christianity in the world. Because of this, Muslims dominated the left over populous, making the Middle East dominantly Muslim. b) the British, after their takeover of Jerusalem and other centers, carved up the Middle East into national identities, new nations that had never been seen before. In fact, the Middle East as we know it today was because of the treaties at the end of World War I (see my book review on the Fall of the Ottomans for more information). c) The Ottoman’s were not pacifists, but had leadership to organize the separate factions of Islam. After the empire crumbled, the Shia versus Sunni argument came back to haunt them. In addition, bands of ultra-conservative Muslims formed coalitions that were once suppressed due to the rule of the Ottomans, therefore contributing to the rampant terrorist organizations that we see today.

In all, I think this was a really interesting book even if I disagreed with some of his reasonings.

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