This is a translation (from the German) of a study of the reactions of Austrian religious leaders to the outbreak of the First World War. Similar responses could be found in the comments, sermons and pronouncements of religious leaders in all the belligerent nations of 1914-18.
God as Warlord: The Interpretation of Old Testament language during World War One
“God is with us in this battle for our holiest good! He stands by our side and calls to us as the Prophet Joel did: Beat your plough-shares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears. Even the weak shall say: I am a hero! (Joel 3:10)”
These words spoken by Cardinal Friedrich Gustav Piffl of Vienna, at the first “Eucharistic War-Time Prayer” in St Stephen’s Cathedral, are one example of questionable interpretation of Biblical texts, themes and metaphors during World War One. These were adopted not only by the Catholic Church but also by Protestant churches and the Jewish faith community in the Hapsburg [Austro-Hungarian] Empire. Both Catholic and Protestant clergy as well as Jewish authorities deliberately recalled metaphors and images from the Old Testament- the first part of the Christian Bible- the Hebrew Scriptures. Especially in those Scriptures there is a broad range of passages which can be used to interpret war. These were employed by all three religious communities in a piecemeal way, and not always in the original sense of the scriptures quoted. The Christian churches resorted to the Old Testament in particular because in the New Testament, their own section of the Bible, they found few passages which deal with warfare.
In wartime Old Testament texts especially could have an explosive impact, since war-affirming passages could be quoted as “Holy Writ” alongside others which plead for peaceful relations among people. The question of which texts should in fact be drawn on to interpret the current situation is always a problem for “religions of the Book”. It is clear that at the time of the First World War neither the Christian churches nor the Jewish faith community took account of this problem in their statements about the War. In harmony with the prevailing war-ideology of the Hapsburg Monarchy they picked out Bible passages that promoted war, and so greatly helped to support the war policies of the state. The aim of this article is, for the first time, to investigate the overall religious and confessional use of Biblical sayings in the statements of Jewish and Christian authorities in Austria during the First World War, and with concise examples to show their function in debate about the war. Biblical studies of the Old Testament and of the writing of history will bring their specific perspective to this, in order to shed light on the variety of ways the Bible was interpreted in the First World War.
War in the Bible: Towards an Old Testament Perspective.
Working through ancient Israel’s Holy Scriptures shows us that every part of the Bible does not speak in one and the same way or style in its discussion of war. It does not set out one uniform ideology of war, in the way that was still thought to be the case in the middle of the 20th century. The Old Testament research in recent decades can trace several Biblical ideologies of war which stand side by side in critical debate, or even contradict each another, and they cannot be convincingly placed in any chronological order:
“The several war ideologies….. are neither self-contained nor related to one another in simple chronological sequence in the social, religious and intellectual history of Israel…. In fact, the history of attitudes towards war in ancient Israel is a complex one involving multiplicity, overlap and self-contradiction” [“War in the Hebrew Bible” S. Niditch, p154]
The Bible does not supply us with a uniform or white-washed picture of war. It describes not only the supposedly ‘fine’ side of war from the viewpoint of the victors, but also gives a voice to the victims of war (for example, Lamentations, Judith 16). It explicitly recognises war’s grief and makes these human experiences the subject of its theological interpretation. Such texts which deal with the painful experiences of war are also to be taken as Holy Writ. The history of the Exodus especially emphasises this view of war from the perspective of the victims (Exod 13:17 to 14:31). The rescue of the unarmed Israelites in the face of the overwhelming power of Pharaoh’s army clearly depicts the experience of liberation for the people of Israel, and defines the way JHWH saves his people. This is shown in the range interpretation of Exodus themes in the Bible itself (see for example Genesis 15:13 and 14; Numbers 24:8; Deuteronomy 6:21 to 23; Joshua 2:10; Judges 6:8 and 9; 1 Chronicles 17:21; Nehemiah 9:9 to 12; Judith 5:11 to 13; Psalm 78:42 to 53; Wisdom 10:15 to 19; Isaiah 10:15 to 19; Hosea 12:14; Amos 4:10). But it is also clear from the fact that the Exodus event functions as a formative and foundational element of its own identity in Judaism to this day.
A survey of the variety of ideologies of war reveals the Bible’s teaching as spanning two poles of assessment. On the one hand the Bible affirms war. In these texts belligerent power is not questioned critically, nor portrayed as a brutal and problematic occurrence (for example Joshua 10:28 to 43; 1 Samuel 18:7; 2 Samuel 23:8 to 39; Isaiah 25:9 to 12). On the other hand the Old Testament also voices criticisms of war. These show war in all its brutality for those affected, and they disqualify it (for example 2 Kings 6:24 to 7:20; Psalm 46:10ff; Judith 16:4). The visions of peace, in which Israel’s God puts an end to all wars, also belong to this war-critical tradition. Among other things, this is imagined as people transforming their weapons into agricultural tools and no longer training for war (Isaiah 2:2 to 5; Micah 4:1 to 5).
In the Bible the decisive criterion for judging war is the position of Israel’s God on the war. If military conflict is undertaken according to his will, he stands beside Israel and acts decisively for his people (for example Exodus 13 and 14; Joshua 10:1 to 27; 2 Kings 19:35 and 36). But the Bible does not only tell war-like “success stories”- it also reports on war-making conducted by Israel deliberately against their own God’s intentions. Without exception such enterprises lead to disastrous defeats (for example Numbers 14:40 to 45; Joshua 7:2 to 5). These were not interpreted as signs of their God’s weakness, but rather as just punishment for Israel’s offence against JHWH- and in the sense of God’s vindication.
If, in addition, we approach the Holy Scriptures of ancient Israel from the viewpoint of the history of religion, it is clear that, when it refers to warfare, the Bible is firmly anchored in the imaginative limits of the ancient Orient. Especially when we set out to interpret passages which are relevant to warfare, we cannot ignore this background. So, for instance, the close association of religion and politics in warfare is a characteristic concept of the whole ancient Orient, and is present also in the Hebrew Bible.
Compared with other cultures, however, we find a shift of emphasis particularly about the place of the king, that institution which at the political level is mainly responsible for waging war. Whereas, for example, Assyrian war-texts start from the special significance of the king as a manifestation of the gods in the present situation, the war-texts of the Old Testament transfer the competence to wage war and the responsibility for its outcome entirely onto JHWH. This shows that biblical concepts of war are already the result of a process of interpretation and reflection.
Religion in the service of Warfare during the First World War.
“God with us”, “Gott mit uns”, “Dieu est de notre côté” [“God is on our side”]: this often repeated political and ideological formula, already employed in the Bible (for example Isaiah 7:14, 8:8; compare Matthew 1:23) is symptomatic of the way God and religion were exploited in the First World War. A long catalogue of fusions between military and theological terms could be taken from the language of all participants in the war, and is an expression and symbol of the way faith and patriotism often merged into one another, seemingly creating an indissoluble partnership. Absolute categories such as “the good” and “the evil” often expressed the notion of being involved in a holy war. The slogan “With God for People and Fatherland” was an essential element of this ideology, as in some ways it still is today.
In every war soldiers and civilians on the “Home Front” alike must cope with extreme psychological and often also physical demands. Peace-time patterns of thinking and acting prove unworkable. A greater need for models of religious interpretation, and for consolation in hours of sorrow and of mourning for the fallen emerges at the same time. To make sense of being involved with the war it is essential to graft the actual war situation into people’s own religious roots, including the Holy Scriptures, the foundation documents that are understood as revealed by God. These have authority to determine faith, and offer categories and patterns which can organise and interpret the present situation.
Austrian Faith Communities in the First World War
The Hapsburg monarchy was a state which brought together many ethnic groups and cultures, confessions and religions. A wealth of denominations and religious communities co-existed in equality, following the tolerant Josephinist policies of the 1860s: Catholics, Protestants of the Lutheran (Augsburg) and Reformed (Swiss) Confessions, Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Old Catholics and Unitarians. If we look at the numbers of the faithful in each religious community shortly before the beginning of the War, the numerical dominance of the Roman Catholic Church is clear: in the Census of 1910 more than three-quarters of those living in the western (Cisleithanian) half of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy were of this religious confession. Of the approximately four and a half million members of the Protestant churches in the whole Monarchy, about 13 percent lived in that part of the Empire. Of the Jewish faith community, with around two million two hundred thousand members, 58 percent lived in the Cisleithanian part.
[Note: Since the “Compromise” of 1867 the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been divided into two: an Austrian part, governed from its capital at Vienna, and a Hungarian part with its capital at Budapest. The River Leitha marked the boundary between the two- hence the Austrian section was known as Cisleithania (this side of the Leitha) while the Hungarian was called Transleithania (over the Leitha). Both owed allegiance to the Hapsburg Monarchy- Franz Josef had been King and Emperor since 1848, when he was aged 18.]
At the beginning of the First World War a wave of popular religious piety took hold of the Catholic majority in Austria. In the 1840s and 1850s, during the “New Absolutism” which marked the early years of Emperor Franz Joseph’s reign, the Roman Catholic Church, together with the Army and Civil Service, had formed an essential pillar of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Monarchy. Although the bond between “Throne and Altar” was though of as broken since the Kulturkampf [the Prussian Government’s struggle with the power of the Catholic Church] of the 1860s and 70s, it was still of central importance at the time of the First World War. To the last Franz Joseph acted as Patron of the Church, just as the Catholic Church also was recognised as Patron of the Habsburg Monarchy and the ruling dynasty.
In the eyes of both Church and Jewish authorities the War was clearly seen as the instrument of God’s will to lead the world back to the right way. Especially in the Christian community the faithful were urged to make specific virtues of humility, patience and perseverance their duty. As their core guildeline to interpret the sufferings of the War the Catholic hierarchy used the theological sequence of sin, repentance and grace. But as the War continued the Catholic Church found itself facing a crisis of interpretation, and pastorally on the defensive. It sought to compensate for this threatened loss of religious and social interpretive authority through even closer ties to the state authorities.
The Church authorities, for their part, urged obedience to secular authority ever more strongly on the people, and underpinned this by biblical rhetoric. Thus, for instance, the Cathedral Preacher at Brixen declared: “People of the Tyrol, sign up for war loans- it is God’s will! Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar!” In response the Habsburg Monarchy strengthened former special legal position of the Catholic Church, which it had lost in the nineteenth century, and helped anti-modernist political tendencies to make a break-through. But as the War continued, with the mounting roll of war-dead and the daily experience of grief, the bonds of the religious communities drastically weakened; at the end of the War a broad wave of secularisation swept Austria. At the outbreak of war the Jewish faith community of Austria reacted as loyally as the Christian churches of the Empire towards the Habsburg Monarchy and the Kaiser, who was seen as friendly to Jews. The generally widespread enthusiasm for War permitted a sense of community between people of different origins and religion not seen during a long period of increasing anti-semitism. Jewish war enthusiasm and loyalty to the Kaiser was reflected not least in the Jewish periodical “The Truth”. Thus an article dated September 18th 1914, entitled “The World in Flames”, about the murder of the Austrrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, declared:
“Naturally the government of our glorious, generous Monarch, celebrated by all the world as an Emperor of peace, whom we always praise and honour as our God-given guardian angel, could not pass over in silence this dreadful deed. Therefore with full justice it put to the Serbian government the request that they should initiate a rigorous investigation against the instigators of this outrageous prince-murder living in Serbia, so that the fiends would not be able to escape the punishment that is their due.”
This shows a patriotic disposition among the Jewish population, also expressed in the conviction that Austria-Hungary’s war was not only a war to defend the Monarchy, but to protect the Jewish people.
The Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in the Discourse of the First World War
The topical choice of biblical texts, themes and motifs was more than a straightforward setting out of Christian or Jewish statements for the First World War. By their use of sacred texts to interpret the war situation the faith communities reasserted their own origins, and thus their identity. We see an interaction between text and interpretation in this process: on the one hand Old Testament war-texts and interpretations massively influence the biblically-based strategies for coping with the war situation, as much as the attitude of readers to war and peace. On the other hand, contemporary understanding and interpretation, the current state of biblical research and readers’ own attitudes put their stamp on the way texts were understood and so were taken into account. Thus the question of which biblical passages were taken up during the First World War not only shows the way religion is used in wartime from a historical perspective, but is still a controversial subject for Old Testament biblical science.
The way texts, themes and metaphors of the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures were in fact used in the war discourse of the First World War will be shown in the following examples. We will also examine the public announcements of the Catholic and Protestant churches and the Jewish faith community in the country which is Austria today, to see which biblical passages and motifs they resort to as relevant to the War. Into this category, for example, fall pastoral letters of the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference, sermons of Catholic and Protestant pastors, military chaplains and rabbis, as well as publications in contemporary newspapers and periodicals sympathetic to religion. Both the choice of motifs and the principles of interpretation show common features in many areas, even though the received body of texts was not precisely the same for Christian churches and for Judaism, because of differences in their Canons of Holy Scripture.
Thus Biblical citations especially served the following purposes: 1. affirming the War; 2. interpreting the War as a “court of judgement” and a “school of virtue”; 3. finding coping strategies in the extreme emergency situation of the War; 4. constructing images of both friend and foe; 5. Constructing specific images of peace.
The following paragraphs will show some of these models of interpretation used in the official statements of the three religious communities under consideration. These examples reveal the central elements which were important in the way religious communities used the Bible to underpin their debate about war. Special attention will be placed on the actual biblical references which carried weight in the argument.
Adopting Old Testament texts to Affirm War
To ensure broad support for the war effort among all social classes, those responsible for the state needed a well-functioning propaganda machinery to affirm the present military engagement as legitimate and necessary. To a great extent the Austrian religious communities helped to carry this policy of supporting the war policy by picking out biblical passages relevant to war and using them deliberately to underpin and strengthen their statements.
In Catholic Pastoral Letters and preaching the comparison with the people of Israel was a common theme. So the Styrian Prince-Bishop Leopold Schuster announced in his Pastoral Letter of July 29th 1914: “Beloved in the Lord! God is the same yesterday and today; so we must learn to use the means which led the Israelites to victory. While our sons fight on the field of battle, we will lift our hands to heaven, and seek through constant, earnest prayer to beseech God for victory.”
In that statement Prince Bishop Schuster was alluding to the story of Israel’s battle against their arch-enemy, the Amalekites (see Exodus 17:8 to 13). In this war-text Moses, far from the battle lines, lifts his hands to heaven, supported by Aaron and Hur. This action finally secured victory for the army led by Joshua. By appealing to this image Prince Bishop Schuster sought to motivate the faithful on the Home Front to pray for victory, and at the same time to arouse confidence in that victory.
Cardinal Friedrich Gustav Piffl of Vienna, in his sermon at the first “Eucharistic Prayer for the War” in St Stephen’s Cathedral on October 4th 1914, appealed to a passage from the Old Testament book of Joel, but in a sense which completely contradicted the meaning of the text he quoted: “In this battle for our holiest good, God is with us! He stands by our side and calls us as did the Prophet Joel: Beat your plough-shares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears. Even the weak shall say: I am a hero!” (Joel 3:10)
Had Piffl considered the context of this biblical quote (see Joel 4:1 to 21) he would probably not have enlisted this prophetic word as one which affirms war. For in this “court proclamation” God is not standing with the people who are preparing for war. Rather JHWH is in the Valley of Decision holding them to account (see verse 12), and their land will be destroyed because of their violent actions (see verse 19). Also the Cardinal of Vienna disregarded the fact that in the books of Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) the re-forging of iron tools is described in exactly the opposite sense. Piffl certainly passed over such visions of peace, which describe the collective disarming of the peoples and so the end of all violent conflicts, in the interests of his war-affirming and war-promoting interpretation.
The Jewish faith community used its Holy Scriptures just as much to affirm the war. This can be seen in an article in the Austrian-Jewish periodical “The Truth”, September 4th 1914, where the figure of Moses is used to strengthen battle morale: “A single look at Holy Writ is enough to persuade us that certainly Moses, our great teacher, and after him the prophets, were constantly at pains to call forth the spirit of heroism in the hearts of the sons of Israel who were so often tested, and actively to maintain and impress on them that the certain and unshakeable faith in God alone is able to give them strength and courage to be able to stand against a world in arms.”
The same article referred to Exodus chapter 15, to Moses’ Song of Thanksgiving after the rescue of Israel from the Egyptian army, and related it to the certainty of Austria’s military success: “God is my triumph and my song, he alone is my God, to him alone I ascribe my victory. I will praise him, the God of my fathers I will exalt. The eternal God is the Lord of war, everlasting is his name!”
The Protestant churches in no way lagged behind the Catholic and Jewish authorities in their efforts for the War. In the German-speaking part of the Empire the Protestant clergy, as much as the Catholic, were gripped by downright euphoria for the War, and the alliance of the German and Austrian monarchs was seen as a revival of the Christian-German tradition of the Middle Ages. Not only there, but in the Hungarian part of the Monarchy also the Protestant clergy promoted the Imperial war policy. On July 29th 1914 the Vienna Consistory of the Lutheran and Reformed Confessions announced the following decree: “Our sons and brothers of military age have gone to the field of battle with eager hearts and heightened awareness, responding to the call of their supreme commander. They have gone, with our most tender blessings, to fight for a great and just cause in this war which has been forced on us….. If in these turbulent days everyone for his part faithfully fulfils his duty, following the glowing example of our beloved Emperor in his never-tiring devotion for the well-being of his people…..then this word of the Scriptures will apply to us: Be confident and undaunted (Deuteronomy 31:6)”
This partial Biblical quotation is taken from an address by Moses. The context is his instruction to Joshua, who very soon would lead Israel in “taking possession of the land” (Deuteronomy 31:1 to 8). This decreee names and celebrates the Austrian Emperor as “supreme commander”, and by this biblical reference gives him the status of divinely appointed leader. At the same time the Protestant Consistory at the outset of the War was appealing to these words of Moses, spoken to the people immediately before their “annexation of the land”, to encourage fearlessness and steadfastness in the face of the enemy.
Interpreting the War as God’s Judgement and Punishment
Next to the war-affirming use of Old Testament texts, a central element of the official pronouncements by religious authorities was the description of the War as God’s just punishment. An important source for the powerful promotion of this theme of castigation was linked to the “Old Testament historical pattern” where God afflicts the unfaithful people of Israel. The Styrian Prince Bishop Schuster, for example, used this idea in his “Pastoral Letter on the Interpretation of the World War” as follows:
“The War is God’s just punishment for people who have abandoned his laws. If we open the Holy Scriptures of the Old Covenant and examine the fate of the chosen people of Israel we find that God similarly proclaims war to be punishment for the violation of his laws. ‘I am the Lord your God’ he said to Moses. ‘If you walk contrary to me, so I will be against you and will bring the sword on you- as punishment for violating my covenant’ (Leviticus 26:23 to 25). And later God threatened the people of Israel again and said ‘If you do not serve the Lord your God, a people from the furthest bounds of the earth will be brought up against you, whose language you do not understand, who neither respect grey hair nor spare children’ (see Deuteronomy 28:47 to 50)….. Now God always remains the same and his principles do not change; so they are also valid in the New Testament, and still also valid for our time…..
The history of Christendom also teaches us that God often uses war as a means of correction for Christian nations too, in order to punish depraved nations and if possible to move them to change their ways ….. So the present World War, in the light of faith, is clearly God’s punishment imposed on the nations of Europe for their lapse from God and God’s law, from Christ and his teaching, from the Church and her precepts.”
An article entitled “World History is the World’s Judgement” in the Jewish periodical “The Truth” further interpreted the First World War as a Judgement for which the opposing side would have to answer, and appealed both to the Hebrew Bible and to Rabbinic tradition:
“The diplomats of the Entente, who for many years have forged dangerous plans directed at the destruction of the Monarchy and the German Empire, have since the outbreak of the World War continuously slandered the Central Powers and sown suspicion. But if they believe that the world is deceived by them, they greatly deceive themselves. As the Preacher has said: ‘Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, do not scold the powerful in your secret bedchamber, for the bird in the air will spread the word, a little flying beast will tell the word.’ [Ecclesiastes 10:20]. To these slanderers and warmongers the words of Rabbi Jehuda HaNosi apply: ‘Think about what is above you- whatever you do, the fly which sees everything finds out all things. All your nefarious deeds and actions, your wiles and tricks, your lies and intrigues, your slanders and suspicions have been recorded in a book, fixed for all time, so that in the final generation the ringleaders of the world conflagration will be detested, condemned, cursed and sentenced. World History is the World’s Judgement.’”
With this interpretation of the war as God’s judgement the Christian churches, on the basis of Old Testament models, called strongly above all for repentance. So, for instance, in a Repentance Day sermon based on a scene from the conflict between King David and his son Absalom (see 2 Samuel, chapters 15 to 19), the Protestant pastor Ostermann preached:
“How should we react to such cursing and stone-throwing? Like David, we do not insist on our immediate rights, but humbly and repentantly we remember the dark hours of our lives, the bitter experiences which have made us reflect. These we take from God’s hand and ask ourselves why he has permitted them to hurt us so gravely, so that sometimes we still struggle with curses, lies and abuse from our brothers! ….. We see in David precisely how God can also be gracious to great sinners, can raise them high and bless them, if only they are humble, penitent, recognise their own mistakes, and allow God to punish and heal them. Oh that our people might have David’s mind!”
In the Biblical story which Ostermann uses here David reacts to the abuse and stone-throwing of an enemy from Saul’s deposed dynasty not with counter-violence but with the retort that this could perhaps be divinely authorised (see 2 Samuel 16:5 to 10). By referring to this Bible passage and with the challenge to have this mind of David the Protestant preacher sought to move the faithful to permit God to punish them for their supposed sins, to accept this present situation of warfare in humility as their correction, and to be penitent.
Catholics also rated the theme of repentance highly, as the following example from Bishop Leopold Schuster’s “Pastoral Letter on the Meaning of the World War” shows:
“But because ‘God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should convert and live’ (Ezekiel 33:11), he has placed it in our power to shorten the punishment by repentance and return. God could and should, according to his own justice and holiness, simply bring the punishment upon sinners and depraved people, and let them perish in it. But through his compassion and goodness, and on account of the reconciling merits of Christ, he is able to let even his punishment work as a means of salvation in this world. He uses it as a wake-up call, even counts it as repentance if the sinner accepts it willingly and bears it patiently. So today, with the prophet Isaiah, I would call on all sinners: “Do penance and be taught! Let the godless forsake his way, and the unrighteous his sinful plans! Let him return to the Lord, and so he will find mercy; let him go to God and he will receive grace and loving kindness.” (Isaiah 55:7)
In this Pastoral Letter Schuster explicitly returns to the prophet’s call for repentance and applies it to the current situation: on the one hand the War was seen as God’s punishment, which the faithful must bear patiently. On the other Schuster sought to turn necessity into a virtue by positively portraying the punishment as the divine “means of salvation.” Through repentance it was possible for the faithful to accept this “means of salvation” and to foreshorten the God-sent punishment that the War was interpreted as being.
Constructing Opposing Images of Friend and Foe
Not only interpreting of the War, but also creating images of the “foreigner” and the “enemy” plays a significant role in military conflicts. This works alongside consolidating and strengthening a sense of identity to legitimise the War. Only by constructing an image of the enemy is an interpretation of experience possible which justifies and supports military action. Drafting and propagating rigid images of both friend and foe ignores their diversity. The result is the construction of a picture of a cruel and dangerous opponent who alone bears the guilt for War, and can be prevented from doing even worse only by military intervention. On the one hand, in the First World War the fact that the Imperial and Royal Army was markedly multi-ethnic and multi-religious was more or less disregarded- as was also, on the other hand, that the opposing side contained many soldiers of the same religious origin, who fought with the same conviction that God was only on their side. The Austrian side sought, for example, to defame their enemy Italy- like Austria a majority Catholic country- as godless, in order to justify a war against members of the same confession. Thus the conservative-Christian “People’s Paper of Graz” was rather at pains to portray Italian soldiers as godless and anti-clerical, and as a result to paint Italy’s war against Austria and its allies as a battle against religion, and ultimately against God.
Frequent appeals were made to Old Testament texts to underpin their arguments. For example, at the time of the death of Emperor Franz Joseph I, Cardinal Piffl referred to the story of Amalek’s war against Israel, aiming to portray the late Emperor as a glowing example of a practising Catholic, as well as a new Moses, and thus a leader-figure with God-given legitimacy: “Just as Moses on the mountain top raised his hands pleading to heaven while Joshua with the army were engaged in bloody battle, so the Kaiser’s heart and prayer have ceaselessly been with our soldiers in the East and the South.”
With this application of the text not only was God’s unstinting aid assured to their own side, but also at the same time the enemy was identified with Israel’s arch-opponents, the Amalekites (see Exodus 17:16; Deuteronomy 25:17).
Russia above all was plainly described as the enemy power from a Jewish perspective. Biblical references also served here to lend greater weight to the argument. Thus Chief Rabbi Dr Moritz Lüdemann in January 1915 dedicated a New Year talk to the theme “The World War and the Bible”, in which he referred above all to the stories of David, and in the following example to the confrontation between David and Goliath (see 1 Samuel chapter 17). The Jewish periodical “The Truth” reported this as follows:
“Now from the Biblical example of the duel between David and the giant Goliath Dr Lüdemann showed the holy intrinsic quality of battle, as the Shepherd Boy stepped forward, filled with an ideal and the sense of God, facing the sinner in order to defeat him. In this present war Russia plays the role of the giant Goliath, one who wishes to destroy the seeds and blossoms of everything noble and exalted.”
This talk did not describe the World War in its global dimensions, but portrayed it as a duel with Russia. No doubt the severe persecutions of Jews in the Tsarist Empire formed the background to this perception of Russia as the absolute enemy, but it ignored the fact that there were also many Jews serving in the Russian army. The traumatic experience of many pogroms at the beginning of the century found expression in the description of the warring partners: their own small group was given the role of the shepherd-boy David, representing culture, civilisation and faith. The opposing enemy was identified with the menacing and violent giant Goliath, portrayed as barbarian, cruel and godless. Stereotyped constructions of the enemy during the First World War were not only created for members of other confessions or religions, however- as in the example of Orthodox Russia given above- but also for the faithful of the same religious persuasion in enemy countries- a consequence of the religious diversity of the Imperial and Royal Army. Patriotism and loyalty to the Emperor ranked unambiguously before feelings of friendship for members of one’s own religious confession in countries declared to be enemies. In this case also there were attempts to justify the War from a biblical perspective. This intention can be seen, for example, in the Repentance Day sermon by the Gmunden Protestant pastor August Ostermann on 8th December 1914. He took up the story of David and his son and opponent Absalom (see 2 Samuel chapters 15 to 19), with reference to Great Britain as an enemy in the War, as follows:
“Our people tread a similar path to that which David once did, to fight against enemies who are our nearest relatives- above all if we think of our Protestant fellow-Christians, the Christians of England, who are fighting against us but who stand especially close to us spiritually. What have we done to them? Nothing unjust. The War has been forced on us.”
As well as justifying war against members of the same religious denomination, this position served also to declare that the present War was an inevitable, imposed and given fact, and to ascribe war guilt to the opponents. This example shows clearly that, according to the background of the enemy, biblical patterns of interpretation were chosen which seemed to serve their own argument.
Biblical Visions of Peace in Debate about the First World War
Text and motifs from the Holy Scriptures were cited not only to construct images of foes and friends or to legitimise the War, but also to formulate pictures of the future peace. An example of this comes from the newspaper “Dr. Bloch’s Austrian Weekly”, which carried a subtitle declaring itself to be a “Central Organ Representing All Jewish Interests”. On the occasion of the Passover Festival of 1915- the festive re-enactment of the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt- the paper’s editorial took up the famous vision of peace of Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah chapter 11):
“How powerfully, how far in advance of our much-lauded time, stands the mighty prophet of salvation, who says: No evil person, nothing violent, nothing pernicious will be seen on all my holy mountain, full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9)…. The thoughts that in our terrible and bloody days move the whole of humanity, thoughts of the liberation of peoples, of what is called the self-determination of peoples, these thoughts the ancient Passover brings clearly before our eyes. What did Moses, that great man of the people, that man of freedom, want? He wanted to lead a people who had lived in slavery under a terrible tyranny to its destiny. We Jews have always stood for freedom, from Moses up to our own days. The freedom-fighters against Tsarism come from the old stock which cannot be destroyed, which blossoms and blooms and bears marvellous fruit. Our struggles for freedom have brought us many severe sorrows, but they have not bowed us down. Next to the Cup of Bitterness gleams for us the Cup of Blessing and Salvation….. This is why, at this Passover Festival also, we will not abandon ourselves to pain. We wish rather to see it as a time of Crossing Over, a preparation for the breaking in of a new spring morning…. And we will once more celebrate Passover in joy and freedom. This confidence holds us upright.”
With the help of this biblical vision the article confidently points people’s eyes to the time of peace announced by the prophet Isaiah, a peace promised not only to Israel but to all peoples and the whole creation (see Isaiah 11:6 to 10). In the perspective of this vision of peace the present situation of warfare was thus reinterpreted as a time of necessary transition which would serve as a preparation for that peace. In addition, by referring to Moses, the “man of freedom”, it appealed to the Exodus, the key experience of liberation for the people of Israel, and so interpreted the First World War as the Jewish people’s struggle for freedom against the anti-semitic Tsarist Empire. This example demonstrates again that from a Jewish perspective Russia was seen as the arch-enemy. The Austrian Catholic bishops also used Old Testament visions of peace to underpin their statements and lines of argument. The following example from the Christmas 1916 Pastoral Letter from the Episcopate expresses clearly which side- in the opinion of the Austrian bishops- should initiate moves for peace:
“Never was the word ‘Love’ so appropriate as in this time of unbridled hatred for peoples, of loveless selfishness. Faithful Christians! We do not curse our enemies. ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘and I will repay at that time when the enemy’s foot staggers; the day of their downfall is near and the time is no longer distant.’ (Deuteronomy 32:35). But we pray for our enemies, that the Lord will take away the blindfolds from their eyes and the armour from their hearts. May enduring hatred not be the bitter fruit of war, but the Messianic peace for the peoples which Isaiah prophesies: ‘Where the wolf lies down in peace with the lamb.’ (Isaiah 11:6)”
As this citation shows, even the borrowing of biblical passages to formulate hopes of peace made unmistakably clear to the faithful that their own side was peace-loving and forgiving, while the opposing side was named as the “actual” cause of the War, who first needed to adopt a peaceful attitude. So one must pray for the enemy, blinded and driven by hatred for people, that God would open their eyes to peace.
This position taken by the Austrian Episcopate, holding the enemy to be responsible for beginning the War and also for the continuation of fighting, and absolving its own side from responsibility for further efforts to make peace, also appears in the following quote from Cardinal Piffl’s Lent Pastoral Letter of 1917:
“Beloved members of the Diocese! May our heart stay calm in these final decisive battles, because it bears no guilt for the continuation of this unholy and destructive struggle. ‘Joy will follow those who counsel peace’ we read in Holy Writ (Proverbs 12:20). Our offer of peace was declared openly before all the world, and it was honest, without deceit or reserve. If, however, our enemies have summoned up the unhappy spirit to reject the hand of peace, then the guilt and responsibility for all the victims that the War may still demand, and for all the misery that must follow, falls on them alone.”
With this Pastoral Letter Cardinal Piffl reacted to the Allies’ rejection of the peace offer made by the Central Powers on December 12th 1916. For this he relied on a Wisdom saying, that good things are promised to those who seek peace. However he located that disposition only on his own side, while the opposing powers were represented as warmongering and peace-hating. Now the sole responsibility for the the continuation of the war and for its future victims was ascribed to them.
As these few examples show, the Austrian faith communities in no way blotted out the theme of peace from their statements on the First World War; but peace was not seen as a real alternative either to the outbreak of war or to the continued fighting. Because war was often portrayed by the Austrian religious communities as an inevitable stage of transition to peace, the faithful would have to accept it patiently and- at least in the case of the Christian confessions- bear it with humility and a readiness to repent. In that way Biblical passages about peace were explicitly placed in a context which justified war, and thus robbed of their peace-making potential.
The question of the link between religion and politics, as well as the significance of religious debate in a war situation, is a controversial subject at all times. To the present day religious communities repeatedly serve what politics demands. The Holy Scriptures of each religious community have served, and still serve, an essential role, especially those passages which are judged to be relevant to war. Which texts are taken up at at whichever point in time is clearly a problem of interpretation for all religions of the Book. In the case of the Austrian faith communities in the First World War, however, there is no evidence of critical reflexion on the variety of the biblical messages about war. On the contrary, they used the Holy Scriptures as a quarry to express their own objectives, and saw biblical topics as a rich fund of various models of explanation. According to demand they appealed to passages which justified and affirmed war, to texts which called for repentance and were connected to the interpretation of war as God’s “court of judgement”, and also to visions of peace.
The fact that the Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible- the first part of the Christian Bible- do not offer a single viewpoint even in their conceptions of war, but a mixture of different ideologies, often remained ignored. The wave of patriotism and loyalty for the Emperor, above all, which swept over the religions and confessions at the beginning of the war was too great, linked as it was with the conviction of being dragged into a “just war”. To adopt texts which would promote and underpin such an understanding was therefore important. In this way the Austrian religious communities failed to distance themselves from the ruling dynasty and its war policy, although a glance at the Biblical Scriptures would absolutely have suggested this (see for example, 1 Samuel chapter 8; Isaiah 2:2 to 5; Judith 16:2). So the Habsburg Empire was seen in the role of biblical Israel, the Kaiser characterised as a new Moses or a second Joshua, and thus given divine legitimation. They also believed they recognised themselves in David the shepherd boy fighting against the giant Goliath and winning- always borne up by confidence in God’s unlimited help at hand.
The cry “God with us” (see Isaiah 7:14, 8:8; Matthew 1:23) not only served to strengthen their own identity and give divine sanction to their own actions, but also to denigrate the enemy and construct an image of “godless” opponents one could and should destroy. So the use of biblical texts, themes and metaphors to affirm war often went hand in hand with the construction of contrasting images of friend and foe, similarly biblically underpinned; from Israel’s war against Amalek to the confrontation between David and Absalom.
It is precisely this adoption of texts promoting war which today provokes widespread prejudice that the Old Testament has a word for all military force and gives it divine legitimacy. On closer examination, however, it is clear that Old Testament teaching about war is an extremely complex phenomenon. Despite the availability of a wide range of texts, the question of which texts would be taken up and applied to which point in time, or how these would be drawn on to interpret the actual context was not clarified in the history of their adoption in the First World War. It is also critical to see how the Old Testament was exploited by the deliberate strategies adopted by the Church. So in the minds of people to the present day it is regarded as a violent book- though admittedly mainly understood as Jewish! At the same time people try to hold the New Testament free of this reproach, even though its position with regard to power is not unambiguous either.
The examples shown in this article can only give a glimpse into the connexion between the Bible and war discourse during the first years of the War. But they all show one thing clearly: the references to Old Testament language about war and peace were an intrinsic and many-sided element in the interpretation of wartime events. They can therefore illustrate the whole problem of the use of biblical texts in preaching and pastoral advice.
This is a translation of the paper written by Edith Petschnigg, Bernd Obermayer and Irmtraud Fischer in 2010. With grateful thanks to Revd Ray Vincent, of Pontypridd, for his invaluable help with the translation. The original article (in German, with full footnotes), may be found at http://universaar.uni-saarland.de/journals/index.php/tg/article/viewArticle/523/562