Crusade, jihad, holy war: we are well acquainted with these words in 2014. We’ve seen—and continue to see—the gruesome results of the conflation of God and war. We’ve seen the spectacle of fanatics perpetrating the most evil acts of violence in the name of ideology. Given our context, it is sometimes hard to remember that holy war is an old concept; it’s probable that we’ve been killing each other over the intangible since before we wrote history down.
And why not? A holy war is the easiest to justify; the easiest to recruit for; the easiest to create martyrs in. People don’t want to die for a material gain they will never see. They need an idea to die for. Duty, honour, God, King, Country: These are not the sinews, but the soul of war. Societies can be pragmatic about a war over resources and money; but they will endure almost any sacrifice in a war of ideology. Governments understand this, which is why—even in the early days—the Great War was cast by each nation as a holy war in defense of civilization itself. One of the easiest ways to do this was to demonize the enemy.
In every belligerent nation, citizens were given stories of enemy depravity as evidence of the righteousness of their cause. In Britain, exaggerated tales of German atrocities in Belgium brought rage-filled men flocking to the Army to kill “the Hun.” The same was true in Germany. Piete Kuhr, a young German girl, was 12 years old in 1914. On September 10th, she wrote in her diary:
“Horror stories. They say Russians tie German women to trees, then set up wooden crosses in front of them and nail their little children to them. When the kids have died before their mothers’ eyes, the Russians mutilate the women and kill them. The Belgian guerillas are said to be no better, but they do it all more secretly.” (1)
I don’t know if these particular horror stories have any truth to them, but their presence in Piete’s diary is proof of their wide dissemination. To those Germans who believed such stories, they must have proven very potent motivation to fight. If that was the kind of enemy your nation faced, wouldn’t any amount of sacrifice—any amount of violence—be justified? How could surrender or negotiation be contemplated in the face of such evil?
The unfortunate truth is that, though propaganda and rumour were undoubtedly prone to exaggeration, atrocities were committed by all sides. Each horror story could potentially contain the garbled elements of truth. At each telling, these stories inspired an ever more bitter hatred of the enemy—an ever greater urgency to destroy them completely. Quite simply, they created the conditions for a hate filled battle to the death.
Stephane Lauzanne spent most of the early 1900s as the Editor-in-Chief of a Paris newspaper, but when the war broke out, he was called to the French Army like any other, and became a First Lieutenant in the Territorial Infantry. What he saw during his tenure enraged him. He wrote:
“Paris was doubtless the first city in France to comprehend the significance of this war, which is a war of civilization against barbarism, a sacred war in which the forces of humanity raise a rampart of human breasts against the violent reappearance of primitive savagery.
Those of us who had a hand in some part of the Battle of the Marne were not slow to comprehend who the enemy was we were fighting and why we had to fight him to the death.
Among the many things that will be always engraved on the tablets of my memory, the deepest is of the time when I was on guard at the field of battle on the Ourcq, north of Meaux, on the extremity of the battle line of the Marne. […] No, it was not a field of battle but a field of carnage. […] I shall never forget the ruin that was everywhere, the abominable manner in which the fields had been laid waste, the sacrilegious pillage of homes. That bore the trade mark of German “Kultur.” That trade mark will be enough to dishonor a nation for centuries.
I see again those humble villages situated along the road to Meaux, Penchard, Marcilly, Chambry, Etrepilly, where a barbarian horde had passed. Since there were no inhabitants remaining—men whose throats could be cut, women who could be violated, or babies to shoot down—the horde had vented its rage on the furniture and the poor little familiar objects in which each one of us puts a bit of his soul.
The Barbarians had placed their claws on them. Everything had been taken out of the houses and scattered to the four winds of heaven. Here is a portrait that has been wrenched from its frame and trampled on. A baby’s bathtub has been carried into the garden, and the soldiers have deposited their excrement in it. There are chairs that have been smashed by the kicks of heavy boots and wardrobes that have been disemboweled. Here is a fine old mahogany table that has been carried into the fields for five hundred meters and then broken in two. An old red damask armchair, with wings at the sides, one of those old armchairs in which the grandmothers of France sit by the fire in the evening has been torn in shreds by knife thrusts. Linen is mixed with mud; the white veil some girl wore at her first communion is defiled with excrement.
A woman was there, too. […] she stood on the step of her defiled, despoiled home where the curtains hung in tatters at the windows. She saw me pass by. She wanted to speak to me, but her voice stuck in her throat. There she stood, her arms extended like a great cross. She could only sob:
And she was like a symbol of the whole wretched business.
The men who do such deeds are the men France is fighting.” (2)
The potent hatred of the Germans that was aroused in Stephane Lauzanne is almost beyond description. He named them savages and barbarians, and called his readers to fight them to the death in a battle of civilization against barbarism. He used the language of holy war.
It’s hatred like this that forms the foundation for the most bitter of conflicts. This is the kind of rage and lust for vengeance that fuels the endless cycle of atrocity and reprisal, and renders negotiation impossible; victory or collapse are the only possible outcomes of such conflicts. By turning the Great War into a holy war, Europeans guaranteed that it would last until the bitterest end of extremity. By turning their enemies into monsters, they made themselves so.
1. Piete Kuhr, “Diary of Piete Kuhr,” trans. Walter Wright, in Intimate Voices From the First World War, ed. Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 50.
2. Stephane Lauzanne, Fighting France, trans. John L. B. Williams (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1918), 25 – 29.
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