Reflections on how we as Christians should think about the events leading to and subsequent to The Second World War.
I meant to publish this on 1 September, but I was having computer trouble. My apologies.
The majority of my comments pertaining to the war are directed to an American audience, though the lessons I hope are applicable to Christians in any setting.
Yesterday was the 71st anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, the official start of World War II. Every day I look at the obituaries and find a veteran or two from that era dying off. Soon they will be all but gone. For many in that generation the changes they saw in the scope of their lives is nothing less than astonishing. Many grew up barefoot kids playing on a farm, listening to the radio, many with outhouses instead of bathrooms, some without electricity. As that generation leaves us, we find a world with space exploration, the internet, medical technology they would have never even dreamed of, and so much more.
World War II is almost universally viewed as 'The Good War,' and certainly with reason. Morally speaking, even those possessing pacifist tendencies struggle to be overly critical of the Allied troops and what they were combating. Though always skeptical of war, and certainly appreciative of pacifism, I also have to acknowledge that in a fallen world, how should I put it? Sometimes we have to sin to stop sin? It sounds a lot like should we do evil that good may come? I know for many the killing of Nazis, their European allies, and Japanese was not something evil, and thus they do think in those terms. I find it interesting that in the Old Testament, even when war was reckoned 'herem', righteous holy war, conquering for the Lord, the soldiers still had to offer sacrifice. In other words, though they were doing right, because we are so corrupt that even when we do what is right, we do it wrongly and with wrong motivation, we sin. And yet sometimes it has to be. I don't how else to put it. A hardnosed and systematic minded ethicist might take me to task, but I believe this question and many like it are messy. There's no real solution that is satisfactory. We have to take what we're given and deal with it.
That said, we can learn some things from all that happened in World War II. We don't need to criticize those who fought in it, and no doubt as in any war, they fought for different reasons. The British pilot in the Battle of Britain was playing with a different deck of cards than a drafted farm boy from Nebraska.
Japan attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, but we now know the full story was never told. I'm not talking about dark conspiracies; I'm talking about a deliberate White House policy to persuade a reluctant American public into the war. Long before December of 1941, Roosevelt had determined to enter the war and with Lend/Lease as well as American policies in the Pacific, the United States was already key player. Whether the public realized it or not, we were part of it and it was inevitable that we would eventually be participating in combat. But that's good, some say. My point is not whether it be good or bad, but rather we need to understand the nature of power, and how power uses tools like manipulation and disinformation. Remember the Lusitania? The Maine? The Gulf of Tonkin? WMD's?
We view the war today with 20/20 hindsight and we now understand the totality of the Nazi plan and the scope of their atrocities. We see Imperial Japan in a way the American public could not in the 1930's. We think in terms of the moral rightness of entering the war in light of the Holocaust and other war crimes.
While terms like tyranny and fascism were floating around, in the end the American public did not initially support entrance into the war because of the ideological concerns. It was because America had been attacked in Hawaii. Why did Roosevelt and others in Washington wish to enter? Because of Hitler's policies toward the Jews? Hardly. Many in American circles of power were well aware of what was happening in Germany and they were more than happy to do business with the Nazi regime right up to the threshold of open war.
We are in danger of romanticizing the past and certainly the motives behind what led to entering the war. Rather than see it as a glorious moment of American greatness, ascendency, and power, we ought to view these things soberly. And many do, don't misunderstand me, but I see a tendency to view the war in terms of a moral crusade by the good country…America, rather than a grim and gritty horror, a decision probably necessary but hardly glorious. I see a public being manipulated by our own propaganda. Anyone ever see the famous Capra movies?
The lessons were not learned, because we see the public manipulated time and time again throughout the 20th century. The American public in the grip of McCarthy-ite hysteria supported the Korean War, and the government was hardly forthright in their presentation of the Vietnam conflict. We find the pattern repeated with Iraq in 1991 and 2003. The world is an ugly place and there are times governments must intervene but you can scarcely find an example where the government deals honestly with the public. We have to be aware of that. Everyone seems to be suspicious of the government; they believe it to be dishonest. Why then do they consistently fall for its lies and deceits?
During World War II the Americans and the British were certainly happy to loosely ally themselves with Stalin's Soviet Union, especially when you consider the most horrific battles were taking place on the Eastern Front. Yet, what a shameful chapter for the United States! Uncle Joe was proffered to the public as a good ruler, a good man, embracing values like ours. This was done with full knowledge of the Holdomor, the Ukrainian holocaust perpetrated only a few years before. Was it necessary to ally with the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis? Maybe. But that's hardly the point. Again my point is not the mechanics of the war, fascinating enough to be sure. What I'm talking about is the nature of power and deception and how we of all people should be the most aware of it.
I know well the argument that governments must hide certain things from the public, there are certain things people don't understand, aren't able to understand. Geo-politics are very complex.
However true the argument may be, we as Christians should never support, encourage, or sanction lies. We should be the most vigilant and discerning people, but often the very opposite is true. Religiously garbed speech coupled with a flag is usually enough to deceive the average Christian in America.
So am I saying we ought to have been critical of World War II? I'm saying on some level, we need to be critical of everything. If we understand the depravity of man, then we ought to expect deception and manipulation at every turn…ESPECIALLY from those who hold power. Even believers with the indwelling Holy Spirit are susceptible to corruption when given power. How much more those who are unregenerate?
World War II was the most titanic struggle in the history of the world. We in the west have often failed to appreciate the full scope of what happened on the Eastern Front. The largest land battle in history, the largest front in history, with the added horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing, it was one of the most barbaric and dark chapters in the annals of humanity. I own a copy of the old World at War series from the 1970's, narrated by Lawrence Olivier. There are episodes dealing with the Eastern Front, the initial invasion in June 1941, the battles of Stalingrad, Leningrad, and then later the rush toward Berlin. I recommend them. They capture something of the massiveness of those battles, the human suffering and awe-inspiring and yet sickening scale of what was happening. Olivier does these rather stirring intros, and even though I've watched them at least a dozen times, I always experience a rush of blood. Not because it was glorious, but because the Eastern Front literally inspires awe. It was quite unlike anything prior.
For fallen man, who can only put his trust in this life and almost by necessity views the nation state as the expression of the desires, hopes, pride and strength of his people, it's understandable they he would find such battles to be glorious. To save the nation is to save his soul.
But how can any right-thinking Christian find glory in war? To do so we have to leave behind our pilgrim status. We have to forget who we are. Even when wholly legitimate, and there were many occasions of legitimate defense in World War II, killing other men who bear God's image is not something to celebrate. To stop an invader, defend women, children, the helpless, to protect them from rape and murder may be the right and necessary thing to do… but let's be careful, and let's remember how these wars start, and the games that are played by those who wield the power.
Even when the cause is right, we have no excuse to engage in butchery. The crimes of the Nazi's are staggering, but Americans ought not to defend such actions as the firebombing of Dresden or the dropping of the atomic bomb. It happened, but there are many who treat it as a magnificent thing and are defiant when anyone hints at a need for reflection. I'm not sure how events like Dresden are viewed from the British perspective. In light of the Blitz, I can understand if they are less than sympathetic. I actually know a man who was a teenager in Dresden during the firebombing. His story is pretty amazing. He was just a boy, his father was drafted into the Wehrmacht and died at Stalingrad. He's no fan of the Nazi's, but he's a perfect example of what I'm talking about. He was just a kid in Dresden with his mother. He hadn't killed any Jews, bombed Britain, or attacked Russia. I don't mean to sound like a bleeding heart, but I do want to remember the people who often suffer the most are humanly speaking innocent, just plain people caught up in the midst of the firestorm. War is sometimes necessary, but we must remember the nature of power and what fallen man does with it in the end. The costs should give us pause. I don't sense too many American Christians think this way, especially as they sing nationalistic songs in Church and treat the American military as something holy and to be revered.
And I am driven to think of the consequences. Again focusing on the American church in particular, I reflect on how the fallout from World War II affected the subsequent history of the United States and how that has played out in the Church. As the entirety of the Old Order was swept away during the 31 year period of 1914-45, Americans suddenly found themselves striving for hegemony, and the supposed ideological conflict we call the Cold War has heavily shaped the thinking of Christians in the United States. I would argue the result of this has been nothing less than a disaster. Starting with 'In God We Trust' in the 1950's, the Church has progressively succumbed to complete idolatry in the form of nationalism. It was there before, but the post war period took it to a new level, culminating in Christian demand and support for expansionism and militarism.
Was this what our ancestors in the 17th and 18th century envisioned as they came to North American shores? I remember thinking of this as I watched George Bush lead America into two wars. I found it fascinating listening to Christians cheer him on, and at the same time thinking themselves to represent a perfect continuity with their ancestral forebears. These same ancestors who in many cases had fled Europe precisely to escape the ideas and vision that the Christian Right and their president were supporting.
And then I'm driven back to another insane period, the year 1914, when Christians in British dominions and the United States championed a war on the European continent. Whipped up into frenzy by their own political machines, Kaiser Wilhelm became a demonic apparition, a threat to the world. Little did they know, the war they would so eagerly support, in casting down the Old Order would indeed give rise to the demonic power they feared. Everything treasured by those generations would be completely undone. How ironic. We see the Tsar, George V, the Kaiser, Franz Joseph, all in their splendid uniforms, with all the pageantry and protocol of that era. They all signed their own death warrants, or at least the death warrant of their era, their world.
Was it all bad? In some ways the removing of the old system and the subsequent entry into the modern secular age, an age of a modern America, a post-Imperial Britain, and a new Germany were not entirely bad things. America was set on a course which would eliminate many things, some were things which needed to be eliminated. Some Sacralist legacies, such as racism are still in the process of being removed.
Though necessary, World War II has extracted a terrible price. The subsequent period we refer to as the Cold War avoided direct combat between the Superpowers, but for many other parts of the world it could hardly be described as cold. Even the post-war 20th century was a period of much suffering and destruction. Even today, the Israeli-Palestinian situation, the troubles between India and Pakistan, the situation on the Korean peninsula, and many of the troubles in the Balkans and Eastern Europe stem from unresolved issues left over from the period of the World Wars. We could also mention that the United States still occupies German, Japan, and Italy.
World War I was probably one of the most foolish and unnecessary wars in human history. The fools at Versailles set the stage for part two beginning on this date in 1939. The settlement and treaties ending World War I placed everyone in an impossible situation in the period from 1939-45. If you were British, French, or Russian, you were under attack. For Americans, a case can certainly be made for entry into the war even if our own government was not honest with us about why. The American public and Church proved naïve not only in regard to the situation in Europe and Asia, but were also blind to the power-elites who had a vision of American power the average citizen could not fathom. The American propaganda machine was all the more powerful because so many trusted the government. Everything was cast in moral terms, and marketed in a way to show our goodness and benevolence. In reality, America had long been on the quest for power. One need only to look back at McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson to see this. Wilson flexed his muscles at Versailles and led the diplomatic charge to bring down the House of Habsburg, smiting it into the dust. Though no Protestant would weep its passing, we should not celebrate its demise at the hands of Wilson.
The New Rulers of the World
(Lloyd-George, Orlando, Clemenceau, Wilson)
Since the turn of the century with the close of the American frontier and the final subjugation of the American Indian, American policy had turned outward. The Monroe Doctrine was now at last being implemented. Beginning with McKinley and the Spanish-American War, the United States entered the pathway to Empire. America was a land secure, teeming with potential and resources, and those wielding political and economic power had a vision for America that would have horrified the simple farmer in the Midwest, the folk of Appalachia, or even many a forward looking town-dweller on the eastern seaboard. A horrible war was fought in the Philippines, but was marketed to the American public as civilizing and Christianizing a pagan people, the right thing to do. Theodore Roosevelt stole Panama, and began to build the canal. It was for everyone's good. Wilson turned the Caribbean into an American sea, occupying Venezuela and crushing Haiti, which still bears the wounds of American domination to this day. Everything was always couched in propaganda. Reading some of the quotations made by American officials at the time is shocking. The people of Latin America are referred to as savages, children, and unworthy of self-rule. The Western Hemisphere was being brought under American power, and often maintained with brutal force. Commencing largely with Wilson, this would hold true until 1959 and Fidel Castro's revolution. There have been many challenges since that time, but they are always viciously opposed, sometimes at a terrible price for the people living there. Remember the Monroe doctrine when you read, watch, or listen in regard to anything pertaining to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The issue and the policy are still very much alive. Few Americans realize this has been American policy for a long time.
'..our interest must march forward, altruists though we are; other nations must see to it that they stand off, and do not seek to stay us.'---Woodrow Wilson
The Orwellian style arguments for power and destiny were sold in vain to the American public. Or perhaps it could be said, a check, a banknote was written, that wasn't cashed by the American powerbrokers until 7 December 1941.
Wilson's League of Nations was rejected but World War II allowed FDR and Truman to help form the United Nations. American conservatives have always been suspicious of these internationalist organizations, viewing them as a threat to American sovereignty. Rather, they have always been tools of those who hold the cards. Since 1945, that has clearly been the Americans. Wilson wanted the League not to give up American power, but to establish it. The UN was much the same. In the early days under complete American domination, the UN sanctioned the formation of Israel in 1948, and even allowed the United States to legitimize the Korean War by placing it under a UN label. Only with decolonization did the Third World gain a voice, but the real power lies with the five nations who hold veto power on the Security Council. The United Nations is a geo-political joke and in no way is a threat to American sovereignty or power. It was, is, and will remain a tool, sometimes useful, and in other circumstances to be ignored.
We've always been told that everything the United States does is good and moral, though often it has been nothing but a façade, a smokescreen for rather devious and yet ingenious scheming. While America reaches out to help, she often in the end steals from her own allies. Even the seemingly altruistic Lend/Lease programme with the British helped to cripple them in the post-war period. What did Britain gain from the victory? Nothing. America controlled not only Western Europe, but before long would begin to exercise considerable power in the European colonies. Britain today is rightly referred to as America's lapdog. I say this to our shame.
Am I trying to bash the United States? It's understandable if some read it that way, but my point I want to emphasize yet again, is that we cannot be blind to the manipulations of those who hold power. Of course it doesn't help when Evangelicals deliberately write devotional-type histories supporting the very narrative of the power-seekers. The goals are the same, one couches them in terms of humanitarianism, free-markets, and democracy, and the other in theological terms like Christian Nation, destiny, and exceptionalism. Get a hold of Peter Marshall's The Light and the Glory if you don't believe me. Anyone having to do with American destiny is transformed into Godly Christians, even Columbus and Cortez. It's amazing how deceived and blind American Christianity has been. When we today consider China, Burma, Saudi Arabia, or Sudan, we are offended at the conduct of these governments, and we should be. But they don't claim to be Christian. The Christians there don't claim their governments and nations are Christian. The United States must be judged and discerned employing a different criteria. What is wicked for a pagan, is all the more wicked for a Christian. Consider Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 5. He judges the Christian by a different standard and dismisses the world...God will judge it. We might consider this as we think about the Church in the lands we sadly call Christendom.
The War happened. Obviously it was all in God's Providence as hard as that may be for some to digest. His Will be done. Rather than glorify a grim chapter, let us instead learn. Learn how governments lie and manipulate whether they be Constitutional Monarchies, Democratic Republics, or Totalitarian Dictatorships. We should learn something of the nature of power and its abuses. We should certainly learn of the horror of war and how it drives all men to madness and murder in the end. We can condemn Nanking and Auschwitz, but are we also prepared to condemn Dresden and Hiroshima? We need to think as Christians, not as nationalistic members of our countries.
We can be thankful that Hitler was stopped and we ought to be. It should humble us, sober us. It should help us to remember we are pilgrims here. We should look at these things in terms of the Church. We can rejoice that Germany was freed from Nationalistic Idolatry, but we should try and understand why it happened. And we should learn from what happened in the New Britain (my term) which came about post-war. And we should be very aware at how the American ascendancy in both geo-political and economic terms had a profound effect on the American Church. The 1950's were for many Evangelicals a golden age, and much of the current anger and rhetoric is rooted in what they view as the fall of their little Eden, their Israel, an unsustainable period of prosperity and security, a dream. For many of them the decline of the Church, is in reality the decline of a socio-cultural construct we continue to label as Sacralistic. The 1960's as awful as they were, accomplished one thing we as American Christians should rejoice in. The public was at last sceptical of the American government. Shame on the Church that it took a bunch of lost youth to see it. I think we could call that Judgment.
As a follow-up to this last idea, the next piece addresses this question. Is Christianity in decline? It all depends on how you define it.
No surprise, I can answer both yes and no.