A Crusade, a Holy War: Protestant Preaching in War-time, 1914.

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Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 4 (December 2014)

A Crusade, a Holy War: Protestant Preaching in War-time, 1914.

By Manfred Gailus, Technische Universität Berlin

This article is based on “Ein Gott, der Fahnen entrollt,” zeitzeichen: Evangelische Kommentare zu Religion und Gesellschaft, 7 July 2014, available at http://www.zeitzeichen.net/schwerpunkt/fruehere-schwerpunkte/kirchen-und-1-weltkrieg/ . Our thanks to John S. Conway for his translation of Manfred Gailus’ text.

For the Berlin Court and Cathedral preacher Bruno Doehring, preaching to a large crowd from the steps of the Reichstag in a spontaneous service on 2 August 1914 was the high point of his life. The war had hardly got underway, but Doehring expressed in his inflammatory address all the main themes of Protestant war theology. This war, he told the crowd, had been forced on Germany. As a result, this could be seen as a perfectly justified war of defense against a conspiracy of surrounding enemies.

Yes, if we didn’t have justice and a clear conscience on our side, if we didn’t feel – I should almost say implicitly – God’s presence, which encompasses our flags and leads our Kaiser to take up his sword and call for a crusade and a holy war, then we should be shaking in our shoes with timidity. But now we will boldly give a defiant answer, one which is the most German of all: We Germans fear God, and nothing else in the world.

This patriotic war-time euphoria which gripped so many Germans in the late summer of 1914 was accompanied by a wave of religious enthusiasm. In the church the heightened sense of comradeship brought about by the events of August was seen as the beginning of a new era. The outbreak of war was enthusiastically greeted by many Protestants (and hardly less by many Catholics). The war raised the level of religious fervor and was theologically justified as a “holy war” or “righteous war” undertaken by Christian Germany against an imagined world of enemies, consisting of sinners or heathen or godless barbarians. Pastors, theological professors and publicists all took this historic moment to be a clear signal from God calling the people back to faith and the church from the allurements of faithlessness.

On 11 August 1914, the leaders of the Prussian Protestant Church, which was by far the largest in the country, issued the following declaration: “Seemingly lifeless signs of faith are awakening once more….The fields are white and ripe for a spiritual harvest.” But what did these leaders mean by conjuring up this somewhat questionable image? Clearly they could expect a great deal of suffering, death and distress, which would lead to a new and more realistic sense of the need to take life seriously. This would put an end to the too long period of peace since 1870-71 which had induced indifference and a frivolous superficiality of life. Now the need for faith, the church, communion, pastoral care and prayer would once more be recognized.

Early reports in the first days and weeks of the war seemed to confirm such expectations. Years later, Pastor Paul Vetter, in Berlin Friedenau, recalled almost nostalgically the enthusiasms of those late summer days. On 5 August, in response to an edict sent out by the Kaiser ordering a “day of prayer in war-time,” his church was almost overwhelmed by the number of those who wanted to participate.

At first we planned to have an overflow evening service, then an extra early morning service. In fact we had to have five services. When the church was filled up by 10 a.m. the parishioners got the off-duty pastors to leave their studies and hold an extra service in the parish hall, and even to have the children’s room opened up, because everyone was so eager to have the chance of hearing God’s word. And this continued Sunday by Sunday, even though we organized every evening special war-time prayer services.

The desire to take part in communion services was enormous. Quite often there would be a spontaneous request to have a special communion service if a sudden command to march off was ordered. Or someone would knock on the church office door and call out: “Pastor, I can’t stay for the communion service. But please give me a comforting word to live and die by.” Young couples now sought to have a church war-time wedding, including quite a number who had already been married by a civil rite and who now “because of the shattering seriousness of the outbreak of the war wanted to have God’s blessing for their union and for the baptism of their children, which for so long they had neglected or despised.”

The Protestant churches put all their spiritual and material resources behind the war effort. There was even talk of a spiritual mobilization campaign. As evidence of this hugely patriotic enthusiasm, we can point to the petition signed by 172 Berlin pastors in which they protested against the clergy’s exclusion from active military service, and sought to obtain permission to have the honor, like other professions, of defending their country in the front lines. But in general this strongly expressed desire to take up arms was rejected by the church bureaucrats. Only young ordinands were allowed to volunteer their services, i.e. those who were not yet fully established or had families. Pastors in office were to stay there and serve the cause on the home front. They were called as preachers, pastors and publicists to advance the nation’s collective cause by upholding the people’s patriotism, readiness to sacrifice, and maintaining confidence in the final victory. If pastors were called up, they would be serving as chaplains or ambulance workers, i.e. not with weapons. And in fact, during the course of the war approximately 1400 pastors were posted as chaplains.

On the home front, the pastors’ contributions consisted mainly of highly morale-boosting services, with special “war sermons” or “prayers in time of war”, which were often held every evening. Later on, a carefully organized system of pastoral care was developed through letters sent to the soldiers at the front, which brought greetings from home as well as uplifting spiritual messages. On top of this, a service for sending parcels was arranged to bring the soldiers gifts from loved ones. At the same time, the pastors were keen to demonstrate their care for the families affected by the war, and especially for the war widows. Finally we should note the very considerable financial support given by churches, church organizations or well-endowed parishioners to the government-sponsored War Loans, as well as the numerous occasions on which parishes donated their church bells to be melted down for the war effort.

War sermons were very much in demand, and became the hall-mark of Protestant responses to the outbreak of the war. Pastor Ferdinand Vogel was one of those who had taken his wife to join the crowds rejoicing on the main street Unter der Linden on the evening of July 31. In his memoirs, he made a point of describing the scene, and then on August 23 he had preached his first war-time sermon in the Sophia Church on the text of Romans 8. 31-9, with the stirring words: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” This was the spirit, the pastor claimed, which prevailed throughout the country in those weeks.

Of course the number of those who are against us is not small. Not only in Europe, but even in Japan, an island nation in far east Asia, there are those who hate us or are envious. So we won’t be surprised if others also join in. But we have Luther’s great hymn to comfort us: ‘A mighty fortress is our God’, which is so appropriately used by our congregations in this time of war.

At the same time, in contrast to many other pastors, Vogel did not allow himself to overly indulge in patriotic rhetoric, since his sermon also included prudent passages calling for circumspection. “What right do we have as a people, he asked his parishioners, to claim that God is on our side? Why should we expect God to be with us, and not with those who oppose us? Of course we know that God deals not just with individuals but also with the destinies of whole peoples. Up to now God has given the Germans a great deal of support with which to build up his Kingdom. Look at Luther’s deeply spiritual powers of belief, the lofty flights of thoughts which are to be found in Schiller and Kant, or the depth of commitment to our people as seen in Bismarck or the old Kaiser, which they turned into legislated steps for social improvements. Yes, God has indeed called the German people to a great and glorious destiny.”

Very frequently these pastors referred in their sermons to the heroic spirit of the “Wars of Liberation” against Napoleon a hundred years earlier. The significant difference was that in 1914-18 it was not German territory which was occupied by foreign troops, but rather that all the most important theatres of war lay outside Germany’s borders. This fact was ignored in the fervor of patriotic enthusiasm. One of those in the forefront of jingoistic preachers was Bruno Doehring, already mentioned above, and his various colleagues in the Berlin Cathedral. He was born in 1879 in Mohrungen in East Prussia, the son of a farmer. In 1914 as a young pastor he was promoted by the Kaiser to be a Court and Cathedral Preacher. During the war, and because of it, this young and hitherto unknown country pastor became one of the best known preachers in the nation’s capital. His sermons were printed with large circulations. The titles of his collected war-time sermons say it all: A Mighty Fortress. Sermons from a Testing Time (1915), Religion on the Battlefield. Impressions and Reflections (1916), and God and the Germans. Thoughts for the Present Day (1917). Particularly notable was his sermon of 15 April 1917 when he preached to a congregation of between two and three thousand people in the Cathedral. The original enthusiasm of August 1914 for a quick victory had been replaced by a disillusioned sober assessment of the war’s experiences. Great controversy was raging about Germany’s war aims and about possible negotiations for peace. “Our enemies,” so Doehring claimed, “are trying to shatter our innermost faith and trust in God for our mission. But Germany will never capitulate, even when we fall in heroic sacrifice for our nation. If Christ dwells in our people, then even if we are murdered as the Jews murdered Jesus, then a new faith in Germany will arise from our graves.” Indeed, in his address Doehring painted a picture of the German people as a redemptive force, whose nearness to God had given them the mission of calling a lost world back to God.

What other people could undertake this task to save the world from the chaos around them? There can be no doubt that only a strong and courageous people can do this. So we must remain united and be led by men filled with God’s spirit. We have got to find those courageous elements who demonstrate exactly the opposite from the materialist-minded English, or the blindly hateful French, or the violence-loving Russians, or the treacherous Italians, or the bestial Rumanians, let alone the mendacious and greedy followers of the so-called mighty American dollar.

Doehring appealed to his hearers to remain strong in their faith and love, since God still had great things in hand for Germany and the Germans. In fact the tone of this sermon presaged the party line of the Fatherland Party which was to spring up a few months later, and which campaigned with fanatical zeal for the retention of all annexations in a truly imperialistic confidence of eventual victory.

This was the prevailing tone of war sermons. Only a few pastors adopted a more peaceful line. Amongst these men were the five Berlin pastors—Karl Aner, Walter Nithack-Stahn, Otto Pless, Friedrich Rittelmeyer and Rudolf Wieland—who in October 1917 issued a declaration in support of the Peace Resolutions passed by the majority of the Reichstag in July 1917. In view of what they called the “catastrophic consequences of war” they called on all Christians to reject the idea of using war as a means of settling international disputes, and instead to campaign for peace. The great majority of their clerical colleagues found such ideas to be outrageous. They immediately drafted up a counter-blast, which was signed by 160 of the capital’s pastors . “There are only two things in store for Germany: victory or defeat. Once we have achieved victory, that will be the time to show the English and French that we are ready to practice reconciliation. But in the meantime we are still entitled in the sight of God and man to righteous anger against our enemies. And therefore we will hold off from any offers of reconciliation until the enemy is defeated and ourselves and our children have secured peace and freedom.”

Such was the prevailing tone amongst these pastors in the fourth year of the war. Anyone who did not subscribe to such a view of the need for victory was quickly accused of being un-Protestant, even un-German. And it was this tone of unyielding militancy which could be seen in the founding of the Fatherland Party on the anniversary of Germany’s victory at Sedan on 2 September 1917. Numerous pastors, even some complete synods, church organizations and clubs were quick to join. And it is easy enough to trace a direct line between this kind of nationalist-conservative mentalities to the later German National People’s Party of the Weimar Republic, or to the militia groups and the subsequent radical nationalist associations such as the Stahlhelm and other supporters of the new Nazi Party in the post-war years.

“The fields are white and ready for a spiritual harvest” was the joyful proclamation made by the Prussian Protestant Church Council when war was declared. But at the end of the war many branches of the Protestant Churches experienced a collective spiritual collapse. Defeat had brought to an end the 500 years of Hohenzollern rule. And the subsequent democratic revolutions of 1918-19 seemed to be wholly disastrous. Many shattered people wanted to know from their pastors how God could have allowed this to happen. The pastor of the Good Shepherd Church in Friedenau, who had recorded the throngs coming to church in August 1914, was now obliged to deal with his own reservations about preaching at the end of the war in 1918. “The question, what should I preach about, seemed so easy and yet was so difficult, all the more because the nation’s defeat was so sudden after we had put so much effort into maintaining hope and trust.” The end of the war raised agonizing questions amongst the members of the congregations about God’s righteousness, which were not easily answered in either sermons or pastoral counseling.

The young Court and Cathedral preacher Bruno Doehring, already prominent for his fanatical war sermons, now at the end of the war became one of the significant propagators of the so-called “stab-in-the-back” theory. This attributed Germany’s defeat not only to the military superiority of their known enemies on the battle fields, but also to the decisive contribution of those treacherous and secretive elements who had betrayed Germany at home. The only way to regain Germany’s political resurrection would be to return to those values which had made Germany great, namely God, Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, Bismarck and Adolf Stoecker. It was in this sense that Doehring was to use his position as a political preacher and to combat Germany’s new and first democratic experiment in the years that lay ahead.

Comment by John Conway:

But what could the pastors say? They held a position of authority and stature in the parish, and were easily accessible. They were supposed to provide not only personal moral uplift to individuals but to nourish the parish’s corporate loyalty to the state. In any case, they lacked the knowledge or the capacity to be critical of the nation’s political or military leaders. The pastors’ conservative milieu, their nationalist sympathies and their loyalty to their God-given Emperor all induced them to play the expected role of spiritually equipping their parishioners for war. To have uttered a dissenting voice against the widespread feelings of the majority would have evoked tremendous resentment or even hostility. No pastor, even today, wants to play that role. To be sure, their readiness to predict Germany’s imminent victory, or to ascribe this to divine approval, or to demonize Germany’s enemies as agents of Satan, were regrettable features, which for the most part were replaced by more appropriate lamentations. But the inevitable conflation and contradiction of political and pastoral claims in war-time needs to be reckoned with. After all, I can myself recall that in September 1939 we all went to church to pray for God’s guidance and protection for our armed forces. And Bob Dylan surely expressed a widespread opinion when he wrote:

The First World War, boys

It came and it went

The reason for fighting I never did get

But I learned to accept it

Accept it with pride,

For you don’t count the dead

When God’s on your side.

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