Conference Report: “Christianity During the Era of Total War,” Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, January 7, 2011

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 1, March 2011

Conference Report: “Christianity During the Era of Total War,” Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, January 7, 2011,  Boston, MA.

Doris L. Bergen, University of Toronto

This session, sponsored by the Conference Group for Central European History and moderated by Donald Dietrich (Boston College), spoke directly to the theme of the 2011 AHA meeting: “History, Society, and the Sacred.” It was an international panel, with members from the United States,Canada, and the U.K. Although scheduled for the first time slot on the opening day, it drew an audience of some twenty people, among them military, diplomatic, and women’s historians as well as historians of British imperialism,France, and the U.S.In other words, in both content and participation, the session embodied the degree to which study of religion has entered the historical mainstream.

Because of a delay in setting up the PowerPoint projector, the papers were given in reverse chronological order, so that the presentation on World War II by Lauren Faulkner (U of Notre Dame) preceded the papers by Patrick Houlihan (U of Chicago) and Michael Snape (U of Birmingham) on World War I. This switch highlighted the benefits of discussing the World Wars together while it underscored the differences in how Christian responses to those two conflicts are assessed.

Under the title “Priests in Dark Times: Catholicism, Nazism, and Vernichtungskrieg, 1939-1945,” Lauren Faulkner examined the thousands of Roman Catholic priests and seminarians who served in the Wehrmacht as chaplains, medics, and in some cases, in active combat. She drew on personal accounts, including wartime correspondence and postwar memoirs and interviews, to argue that these men, led by the energetic and dedicated Catholic field vicar-general Georg Werthmann, aimed above all to care for the religious needs of soldiers. Devotion to their vocation and to the souls of the men they served drove them to make compromises with their Nazi masters to the extent that the contradiction they lived became all but invisible to them. Indeed, in Faulkner’s analysis, faith in God not only bolstered the courage of priests and seminarians and made them an anchor for the soldiers around them; it enabled them to exculpate Nazi crimes, justify their own lack of resistance, and present their participation in the war as suffering to preserve the “great Christian legacy.”

Patrick Houlihan’s focus was not failure but success, in this case the surprising effectiveness of Catholic chaplains in the Austro-Hungarian war effort of 1914-1918. In “Imperial Frameworks of Military Religion: Catholic Military Chaplains of Germany and Austria-Hungary during the First World War,” Houlihan called for a “more nuanced cultural history of religion for the losing powers.” Modernist depictions of the Habsburg chaplains as bumbling hypocrites – most famously, in Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Schweik – have influenced subsequent interpretations, but in Houlihan’s view they should not be taken at face value. In fact, he showed, chaplains of the Habsburg Army were well organized under the leadership of Emmerich Bjelik, commander of the apostolic field vicariate, and attuned to the changing needs of soldiers. In contrast to Prussian divisions, which were served by two chaplains, a Catholic and a Protestant, divisions of the Austro-Hungarian army had between twelve and twenty-six Catholic chaplains. In rural regions, notably Tyrol, Houlihan indicated, military chaplains, and Catholic religiosity in general, provided meaning and stability amidst the upheavals of war and defeat.

Michael Snape’s analysis of “The YMCA and the British Army in the First World War” showed the Young Men’s Christian Association as a major source of practical care for the British soldier. In makeshift huts and marquees, the Y’s workers provided postcards and notepaper, hosted recreational activities, distributed refreshments, sold cigarettes, held prayer services, and dispensed good cheer, not only on the Western Front but wherever the war took British forces, from the Dardanelles to Italy and East Africa. The result, Snape argued, was a significant contribution to sustaining British morale. Military commanders valued the Y as what Sir Arthur Keysall Yapp, the YMCA’s wartime National Secretary, called “the embodied goodwill of the British people towards its beloved army.” There was a cost, Snape showed: the Y ended the war in debt, its financial integrity under investigation (charges were eventually disproved), and dependent on the help of people previously outside its purview: women, liberal Protestants, and agnostics. Yet it also emerged from the war a truly national institution.

In her comments, Doris Bergen (U of Toronto) made four observations that linked these stimulating papers. First, she noted that all three presenters expressed their central arguments in terms of success and failure. But can a success-failure binary do justice to these complex situations? Second, she pointed out the contrast between the moral tone of Faulkner’s assessment and the more pragmatic nature of Houlihan’s and Snape’s conclusions. This difference mirrors tendencies in the historiography of the two World Wars, but hearing these papers together suggests how productive it might be to identify and interrogate conventions in our respective subfields. Third, Bergen emphasized the elusive nature of sources for studying wartime religiosity and the wonderful work all three speakers did to locate fascinating and challenging materials. Finally, Bergen highlighted the papers’ connections to “current events” – in their awareness of the ways Christianity is embedded in relations to its “others”; in their empathy for people who suffer in wartime; and in the increased public interest in the subject of our panel, given developments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the lively Q&A that followed, almost everyone in the room spoke. Gerhard Weinberg reminded us that history is lived looking forward but written looking back. He and others thanked the panellists for giving us ways to address the challenges that fact poses for understanding the history of Christianity in the face of total war.