World War I--The Great War, as it was called at the time--is remarkable in military history for its massive scope and loss of life, with more than nine million combatants killed. But its role in religious history is less appreciated, and an array of books coinciding with the July centennial could change that. “World War I studies have not highlighted the role religion played,” says Roger Freet executive editor at HarperOne, publisher of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade by Philip Jenkins (Apr.). “It is an unexplored part of what led up to the war, motivated the war, and sustained it on all sides,” says Freet. “World War I reshaped and remapped the major religious traditions.”
That is especially true of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the triple focus of Jenkins’ well-received book. The Baylor University history professor (The Next Christendom) argues that the fighting powers--especially the predominantly Christian nations--viewed the conflict as a holy war and a crusade, even using apocalyptic images from the Book of Revelation--seven-headed beasts, dragons--to depict the enemies. That set the stage for Nazism, which held that Aryans were created a superior race by God, as well as for America’s Cold War against “godless Communism” in later decades; both were framed in terms of one side being favored by God. The Great War, Jenkins writes, shaped how religions and global powers view each other today, such as in attitudes toward statehood for Israel and in how some Islamic cultures define themselves against other cultures. The book is HarperOne’s first on religion and war, Freet says, and a rare examination of war through a religious, though critical, lens. “We are still living in the shadow of World War I,” he says.
Another exploration of religion and World War I is Princeton University Press’s Faith in the Fight: The American Soldier and the Great War by Jonathan H. Ebel (Feb.). Ebel (From Jeremiad to Jihad), an associate professor of religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, delves into the diaries, letters, and memoirs of American troops, nurses, and aid workers to show how they framed the conflict in religious terms. He also argues that contemporary attitudes about America as a God-favored or Christian nation have roots in 1914, something frequently overlooked by scholars. Fred Appel, executive editor at Princeton, says religion’s influence on individual soldiers is an important subject. “Unfortunately, due perhaps to the secular bias of the scholarly community, such questions have until recently not received the attention they deserve. Things are changing, and the books by Jonathan Ebel and these other authors are making up for the past neglect of religion in American military history.”
Two more books explore the intersection of the Great War and religion. The Unknown Pope: Benedict XV and the Pursuit of Peace by John Pollard (Bloomsbury Continuum, Mar.) looks at the brief papacy of Benedict XV, a would-be peacemaker who eventually founded Save the Children. Lutterword Press is reprinting Alan Wilkinson’s 1978 The Church of England and the First World War. (Jan.). But don’t expect a stream of religion-and-war books, publishers say. The overlap of these titles with the war’s anniversary seems less by design than serendipitous. Says Appel, “I was attracted to Ebel’s book because I was intrigued.”
See the May 12, 2014, issue of Publishers Weekly for The War that Fractured History,100 Years On: WWI Books.