For God and Fatherland

In his bestselling book about the First World War, the political scientist Herfried Münkler inquires into the meaning of the war: Why did the Germans hold out for so long? A conversation about sacred victims, speechless emperors, and guilty churches.

Christ & Welt: What was the point of the First World War?

Münkler: In hindsight, it must be said that there was no point. That is what makes this war so interesting. In 1914, not even those in charge in Germany knew why they went to war and what they hoped to achieve by it. It was easier for the French; they could argue, after all, that they fought to regain Alsace-Lorraine, which had been lost to Germany in 1871.

C&W: If there was no point to the war, how come it claimed the lives of millions of people? 

Münkler: Because people strove to ascribe meaning to the war or readily followed the constructions of meaning that had been created by others. They couldn’t help it. Dying in war for nothing was an idea that was unthinkable at the time.

C&W: So they fought for God.

Münkler: That’s at least what many German theologians and intellectuals claimed: for God and Fatherland.

C&W: But God is on the side of the victims, not on the side of the perpetrators.

Münkler: Most Germans were indeed convinced to be victims, forced by evil neighbors into a war they had not wanted.

C&W: How could they believe that?

Münkler: Where politics remained speechless, culture and religion arrogated the interpretive power to themselves. In this context, the churches—which have traditionally been the institutions that administer to the victims—played a prominent role.

C&W: Why the churches?

Münkler: The churches penetrate all social layers. With his sermon, a priest reaches a much more representative and broader cross-section of society than a university professor with a political lecture.

C&W: Besides, a priest, ex officio, has to believe in something he can never fully understand.

Münkler: Exactly. Since the beginning of history, religion and its becoming reflective in theology has been an attempt to live with what cannot be controlled. So it is not surprising that the clergy in particular play such a prominent role at the beginning of a war when it comes to interpreting what is happening. For centuries, they had been the authorities to announce and explain political events to their communities, especially if those events had to do with war and violence. They played the role that the mass media play today.

C&W: What reasons did the churches give for why people should die for Germany?

Münkler: The religious constructions of meaning intersected with the secular ones proposed by the intellectuals. For the intellectuals, the war was about liberation from English materialism or the fight against Tsarist despotism. The theologians transformed this secular idea into a salvation history. Victimization was redefined as sacrifice, which helped put into perspective the material circumstances: Since God was on the side of Germany and not on the side of her overpowering enemies, Germany was destined to win the war. Germany was no longer a victim of the circumstances, but an agent of divine will. God used the Germans for the purposes of salvation.

C&W: So if you know that God is with you in the trenches, you don’t need any other allies?

Münkler: Transforming Germany from a nation of victims into a nation sent by God indeed had a tremendously mobilizing effect on the population. The soldier charging the enemy with his bayonet did not see himself as a cog in the wheel of the machinery of destruction, but believed himself to be a servant of the Lord—small yet clearly visible to God.

C&W: You mentioned already that the churches did their best to stoke this belief. Which was worse: the Protestant or the Catholic Church?

Münkler: The difference between them was negligible. That is what is so astonishing about it.

C&W: How do you mean?

Münkler: In the case of the Protestant Church, the respective ruler (Landesherr) was also summus episcopus of the church in his territories. The Protestant Church was not only more closely connected with the Prussian state and later the German Empire than the Catholic Church; it was to a large extent identical with the Prussian state. Wilhelm II, for example, was the head of the united Protestant Church of Prussia—not in his position as German Emperor, but as King of Prussia.

C&W: The Protestant Church does not like to be reminded of that.

Münkler: That’s true. Since the anti-nuclear and peace movements of the 1970s, the Protestant church has been making its voice heard in politics as a civil society player and by drawing on religious rituals—for the most part in opposition to the ruling classes. Maybe it is a way of making “amends” for its pro-war enthusiasm in 1914.

C&W: Are you thinking of Margot Käßmann’s statement, “Nothing is well in Afghanistan”?

Münkler (laughs): Margot Käßmann is God’s punishment for the fact that the Protestant Church was so actively pro-war one hundred years ago. ?

C&W: What a nasty thing to say! After all, the Catholics weren’t any better.

Münkler: Could be. Which is, in fact, much harder to explain than in the case of the Protestants. After all, Catholicism is a supra-national organization, which is why the rulers of the Empire long cast a suspicious eye on it. The Catholic Church was seen as under the control of Rome and as politically unreliable, and during the Kulturkampf it was systematically excluded from the public sphere by Bismarck.

C&W: That was old hat in 1914.

Münkler: You think so? It is true that Wilhelm II declared an end to the Kulturkampf early on, and unlike Bismarck, he had championed a policy of integration from the beginning. But if you had been on irreconcilable opposite sides once, you cannot suddenly be good friends. On July 31, 1914, Wilhelm II stated in his famous balcony speech: “I no longer know any parties”—by which he also meant: any confessions—“I know only Germans.”

C&W: And the Catholic Church let itself be lulled?

Münkler: It was, in any event, very patriotic, and in this it was not alone. In 1914, the Social Democrats, who had also been persecuted by Bismarck, did not want to appear as unpatriotic fellows either. And contrary to later anti-Semitic claims, the German Jews, too, were extremely patriotic. Like everybody else, they got caught up in the enthusiasm for the fatherland that pervaded all of society.

C&W: Why did Pope Benedict XV fail to discipline the German Catholic Church? After all, he, unlike them, saw the war as a senseless slaughter.

Münkler: He did not succeed with the French Catholic Church either. August 1914 not only witnessed the failure of Europe’s aristocratic and Socialist international, but also of the Catholic international.

C&W: Still, Benedict XV tried to broker a peace between the warring parties. Why did he fail?

Münkler: Because the notion of victimization was too strong a cohesive force with the warring nations. A negotiated peace, as proposed by the Pope, would have meant a return to the status quo ante. For what, then, would hundreds of thousands of soldiers have lost their lives? Transforming dead bodies into sacred victims put peace out of reach for years.

C&W: Could a victory that was built on such a pile of corpses still be said to be divinely ordained?

Münkler: The longer the war dragged on, the more it consumed the explanations and justifications that had been advanced at its beginning. Everybody was disillusioned by the permanent presence of death, the cruelty of trench warfare. With the start of massive mechanized warfare in 1916, more and more soldiers were writing home to say that they wished for the homefront preachers to risk their necks on the front lines so that they would stop prattling on about Germany’s sacred mission.

C&W: And yet the German soldiers continued to fight. Until 1918, no other army had as few deserters as the German army. What made the soldiers carry on despite the bleakness of it all?

Münkler: That very bleakness. There was no longer an outward space for sacred matters, no military cemetery where one could pause and remember the fallen comrades. Battles no longer took one or two days, as before, but went on and on and on in the same place. The battlefield itself became a cemetery where the dead were hastily buried and literally blew up in the survivors’ faces during the next artillery attack. It was probably well-nigh impossible to be an atheist and keep your sanity in such circumstances. Therefore, the sacred space shifted inwards, into the soul, the psyche: If you survived all of that, you would be a new, a better human being—that’s what many told themselves. Earlier ideas of victimization were transformed into a religion of endurance irrespective of the outcome of the war.

C&W: Was this also reflected in the sermons delivered at the field services?

Münkler: This is a topic that has not been much studied. It can be safely assumed, however, that a field service in 1914 looked different from a field service on the eve of Verdun in 1916. Besides, field services were not propaganda events in the classical sense. Just like it was the job of the medics and the military hospitals to render the physically wounded soldiers fit for further battle, the clergy was supposed to take care of the soldiers’ psychological recovery. At the front, the ministers competed with the psychiatrists. Or to put it positively: they gave the soldiers the courage to carry on. Even more than on the home front, the construction of meaning on the frontlines was an activity carried out by the priests.

C&W: Were the churches able to benefit from this religion of endurance?

Münkler: Not so much as institutions. While the inward turn was by no means synonymous with a turning away from God, it did, however, signal a turning away from an institution that, as a result of its earlier excessive efforts to give meaning to the war, was plunged deeper and deeper into a credibility crisis. God was being privatized by the soldiers. Religion cut loose from its institutional moorings and started to drift around in the most peculiar varieties and ways. After the end of the war and during the Weimar Republic, we consequently see a gradual charismatization of religious and political ideas that could no longer be controlled institutionally. The NSDAP especially managed to generate a new sacred atmosphere that appealed to the survivors of the war. And not just to them.

C&W: Can this form of the sacred still work its seductive power today? In Mein Kampf, Hitler envisioned a new type of German, hard like steel. Is this why Mein Kampf should remain locked away in the steel cabinet instead of being reissued in a historical-critical edition?

Münkler: As an academic, I am, of course, convinced that historical-critical editions are the best way to desacralize dangerous texts. The Free State of Bavaria, which holds the rights to Mein Kampf and does not want to see it published, might do well to remember that editorial scholarship is a sharp weapon. This started with Erasmus of Rotterdam, who said about the Septuagint: “The Holy Spirit writes bad Greek.”

C&W: Yet one might argue—to propose an admittedly bold thesis—that it is the fault of Protestantism that Mein Kampf was written in the first place.

Münkler: How so?

C&W: If Kaiser Wilhelm II had listened to his advisors in 1918 and had died in battle, the monarchy may not have been discredited such that it perished practically overnight shortly afterwards.

Münkler: Maybe. Unfortunately, being killed in action was not compatible with how the Kaiser saw his role as head of the Protestant Church in Prussia. Therefore he went into exile.

C&W: Wasn’t that merely an excuse?

Münkler: Wilhelm II was a weak human being and a weak leader. He did not have the personal courage of someone like Joseph Stalin who, in 1941, when the Wehrmacht was advancing towards Moscow, decided to stay in the capital no matter what.

C&W: So the Kaiser could have prevented the most famous First World War private from becoming the Führer, if he had been more like Stalin?

Münkler: Who can say these things with certainty? However, there’s a catch to this kind of historical speculation.

C&W: And that is?

Münkler: In that case, Germany today might not have a Protestant chancellor and a Protestant president, but a Protestant potentate. 

Herfried Münkler is professor of political theory and history of ideas at Berlin’s Humboldt-University. His 2002 book Die neuen Kriege (The New Wars, 2005) and his 2008 Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen (The Myth of the Germans) are considered standard reference works and have received many awards. His most recent, 900-page book, Der große Krieg: Die Welt 1914–1918 (The Great War: The World, 1914–1918), published by Rowohlt, is the first overview of the First World War written by a German academic in years. Like his Australian colleague Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Münkler denies that the German Kaiserreich was solely responsible for the war and argues that German historians for too long have seen the First World War as merely a prologue to the Second. Both Clark’s account of the beginning of the war and Herfried Münkler’s more comprehensive overview made it to the bestseller lists this year.

The interview was conducted
by Raoul Löbbert for DIE ZEIT / Christ & Welt.

Translated from the German by Manuela Thurner

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