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“1917” and Remembering Who We Are

Something broke in the Christian culture during World War I, and we’ve never recovered from it.

George MacKay, center, stars in a scene from the movie "1917." (CNS photo/Universal)

I saw the film 1917 on the vigil of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and I think there’s a connection between the movie and the liturgical celebration. Bear with me.

First, as everyone who has seen it remarks, the editing and cinematography of 1917 are so astounding that it appears to unfold completely in real time, the result of one continuous shot. Think of the famous scene from Scorsese’s Goodfellas, in which Ray Liotta and his date walk into the night club—but now stretched out for two hours. What this produces in the viewer is an almost unprecedented sense of being there, experiencing the events with the characters in the film.

And to be inserted into the First World War is, to put it mildly, horrific. Obviously, all wars are terrible, but there was just something uniquely appalling about World War I: the oppressiveness of the trenches, the rampant disease, the hopelessness of fighting over a few hundred yards of blasted earth, the rats (which play a prominent and disgusting role in 1917), and above all, the mass killing that was the result of combining antiquated military strategy and modern weaponry. As witnessed to by so many thinkers and writers who participated in it—Paul Tillich, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ernest Hemingway, etc.—the First World War represented, as did no other war to that date, a collapse, a sea change, a cultural calamity.

And a principal reason for the disaster of the War, too often overlooked in my judgment, is spiritual in nature. Almost all of the combatants in the First World War were Christians. For five awful years, an orgy of violence broke out among baptized people—English, French, Canadian, American, Russian, and Belgian Christians slaughtering German, Austrian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian Christians. And this butchery took place on a scale that still staggers us. The fifty-eight thousand American dead in the entire course of the Vietnam War would be practically a weekend’s work during the worst days of World War I. If we add up the military and civilian deaths accumulated during the War, we come up, conservatively, with a figure of around forty million.

And what precisely were they fighting for? I would challenge all but the most specialist historians of the period to tell me. Whatever it was, can anyone honestly say it was worth the deaths of forty million people? Mind you, I am not advocating pacifism. But I am indeed invoking the Church’s just war principles, one of which is proportionality—that is, that there must be a proportion between the goods attained by the war and the cost involved in achieving those goods if the war is to qualify as justified. Did such a proportionality obtain between means and ends in regard to World War I? I think the question sadly answers itself.

My point, again, is that this moral catastrophe unfolded in the heart of Christian Europe, almost exclusively among baptized people, all presumably schooled in the moral principles of Jesus Christ. How many Christians of that time raised their voices in protest, refused to cooperate with the folly of the war, placed their religious identities above their ethnic or national identities?

Those questions, too, answer themselves—which brings me to the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. According to the theology of the Church, Baptism involves the grafting of a person on to the Son of God, implying a share in the relationship between the Son and the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. It is infinitely more than the joining of a club or society; it is a participation in the inner life of God. Another way to put it is this: Baptism inserts a person into the Mystical Body of Jesus, which is an organism rather than an organization. Therefore, all of the baptized, despite even dramatic differences at the cultural, political, or ethnic levels, are related to one another, implicated in each other, like cells and organs in a body. To forget this truth, or even to underplay it, is to lose what it means to be a Christian.

For the past many years, I have been studying the phenomenon of disaffiliation and loss of faith in the cultures of the West. And following the prompts of many great scholars, I have identified a number of developments at the intellectual level—from the late Middle Ages through the Enlightenment to postmodernism—that have contributed to this decline. But I have long maintained—and the film 1917 brought it vividly back to mind—that one of the causes of the collapse of religion in Europe, and increasingly in the West generally, was the moral disaster of the First World War, which was essentially a crisis of Christian identity. Something broke in the Christian culture, and we’ve never recovered from it. If their Baptism meant so little to scores of millions of combatants in that terrible war, then what, finally, was the point of Christianity? And if it makes no concrete difference, then why not just leave it behind and move on?

I wonder whether we might take the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord as an opportunity to think more deeply about the moral implications of being a son or daughter of God, and hence a sibling to everyone else in the Mystical Body of Jesus. And I wonder whether we might look long and hard at this wonderful and disturbing film in order to see what happens when Christians forget who they are.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 184 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

24 Comments

  1. “My point, again, is that this moral catastrophe unfolded in the heart of Christian Europe”

    Europe may have been majority Christian but it was no longer ruled in accordance with Christian principles, but in accordance with nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism. That is how World War I happened.

    • Neither nationalism not capitalism are in any way incompatible with Christian principles. And knowing history beyond the comic book level, one can easily see that neither had anything to do with motivating WWI.

      • Nationalism that is a product of the state is definitely incompatible with Christian principles, as is the state and oligarchy. The sort of nationalism that is present now is more a form of populism; it isn’t state-sponsored nationalism as it is opposed to the state to one degree or another, and it is not yet ethnonationalism.

        The Church lost to the state a long time ago.

    • SOL,
      Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the sense that the continent of Europe wasn’t rule in accordance with Christian principles even at the height of Christendom.

      • Of course, even medieval Europe was not Civitas Dei of St. Augustine and tended more to the Civitas Terena. But the key is this: medieval Europe was aware of this, was aware of link between this terrenae and death, and was able to project transcendental based order into the system of medieval monasticism.

        And it is precisely this ability to distinguish between good and evil that is unprecedented in history of fallen man. One can contrast this ability and, for example, disability of modern Christians who thinks of Communism as of “lived Christianity”.

      • Steve Seitz: We will find out on the last day but not everything in medieval Europe was about the Holy Roman Empire of the Eastern Roman Empire, and so maybe some Christian polities were better than others.

  2. If you look at the beginning of the war, nobody imagined it would be so long and horrific. If you acquaint yourself with Fatima, you will find many of the reasons, and of WWII, also.

  3. Bishop Barron –

    “Christianity” was clearly not a primary force in Europe for the 1st World War to have happened.

    Note the supreme irony that the USCCB had its very origin in organizing the Catholic Church in the US to rally US Catholics to fight in the 1st World War.

    Having lived more than 6 decades, I remember how so many of our Catholic families had 2 pictures on the wall in the USA: Pope John XXIII and JFK. Now we are heirs of the “dead-faith” worn by JFK, an episodic sacramental theater, trotted our for special occasions, but having no influence in our lives, which are devoted to worldly achievement and self-indulgence.

    When Caesar acts like he is God, it is easy for good citizens to succumb to the seductive conclusion that when they serve Caesar, they thus are serving God.

  4. As to “remembering who we are,” I note that if one visits the historic landmark basilica in Baltimore, and descends to the crypt of the church, you can see the tomb of Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, a friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, and a letter from President Roosevelt calling the Cardinal “one of the most useful men in America.”

    I can only conclude that the curators of the basilica read and posted that letter without feeling a chilling sense of irony.

  5. Christian culture ended with baroque. As of the First World War, it is an era of the first massive Church exodus. There were for example no faith in bodily salvation at that time just as there is no faith in hell and damnation today.
    Example of this can be seen in prewar popularity of musical pieces performed in Paris showing Russian prechristian paganism and its alleged ecstatical dancing with children – until children death. This shows both widely shared admiration of spiritual salvation (not bodily as in Christianity) through ecstasy and it also explains general admiration of later war ecstasy – again until children death.

    As of Christian culture, a brief analysis shows that people like Wilson and particularly Ludendorff or Lenin have nothing common with Christianity. This cultural influence over kings, universities, international relations, and so on, influence marked with active knowledge of analogy of being and of the ultimative goal of history, was long gone at the time of World War I.

    • jl,
      Woodrow Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister who had served several Southern congregations & taught theology. Wilson grew up with daily prayer in his home as a child. Presbyterians were serious believers back then.
      We can disagree with some of Wilson’s decisions but I think his upbringing had quite a lot to do with Christianity.

      • I didn’t say a word about daily prayer of Mr. Wilson.
        I just talk about Christian culture. For example Wilson’s thesis about the very construction of WWI is one of many modern “end of the history” thesis – ranging from Endlösung and Soviet deporting whole nations to the Far East to Fukuyama of the 90’s. It is not compatible with Christian culture.

    • Just a PS to my comment re. Pres. Wilson:

      “Mr. Wilson was one of the most devout of our Presidents. His religion was marked by constant and regular prayer, not a formality but a sincere outpouring of his spirit and supplication for divine guidance. He read his Bible consistently every day, meditated on what he read, and sought to put into action the teachings of the Scripture. He was an habitual church attendant and an Elder in the Presbyterian Church. Even in Paris he often attended church though the pressure was so great upon him that he was forced to violate his usual rule and work upon Sundays either in his office or in conference. His power of criticism, so keen in literature, political science and practical politics, was, to use one of his favorite words, “adjourned” during a religious service. He would listen attentively to the preacher as one seeking guidance. His Washington pastor, the Reverend Doctor James H. Taylor, in a memorial sermon on President Wilson, said: “He gave the most careful attention to the reading of the Scripture and to the preaching of the sermon. In fact, it was often quite disconcerting to a visiting minister to discover suddenly that the sermon was being listened to with such concentrated attention.”
      http://presidentwilson.org/items/show/22351

  6. Finally, I failed to note that Bishop Barron overstates the 1st World War death toll: it is approx. 15 M, not 40.

    It was only 25 years later that WW2 went to 50 M.

    A writer at “The American Catholic” takes issue with the Bishop as to whether fighting the 1st WW was seen as a just war, in light of the German aggression and brutality that was being called confronted.

    It’s hard for the common man, who has to fight wars btw a rock and a hard spot, wondering if the cause is just and the enemy a threat to his loved ones, under the policing force of the establishment elite, while their own sons “enlist” at Harvard and Georgetown.

  7. “Something broke in the Christian culture, and we’ve never recovered from it. If their Baptism meant so little to scores of millions of combatants in that terrible war, then what, finally, was the point of Christianity? ”

    Interesting but lacks some depth. Russia, Austria/Hungary, and Germany were ruled by absolute monarchs. The people, Christian or not, had little choice in what was about to happen. Additionally, they were subjected to propaganda to justify the war. If a finger is to be pointed to anybody, it would be the political elites and the bishops of said countries. France was already weakened by anti-catholicism among the political elites.
    Sounds similar to the situation in the west today. That is, Bishops who bend to popular culture and political elites who hate the church.

    • I often reflect on what exactly each bishops ‘conference’ said and did to oppose the war. How many supported the Peace Initiative of Benedict XV? And some even opposed it? Did the Church in all its Petrine institutional form express anything more than support for their own national governments? The model appears to be St. John Paul II when he opposed the Iraq War. How often has the Church gained anything from war? Is the answer – nothing. To speak the Truth creates martyrs, imprisons Bishops and build the Church. Is this an area for study – why did the Bishops not oppose the 1st World War.

  8. “But I have long maintained…that one of the causes of the collapse of religion in Europe, and increasingly in the West generally, was the moral disaster of the First World War, which was essentially a crisis of Christian identity. Something broke in the Christian culture, and we’ve never recovered from it.” What is being claimed here? If a crisis or collapse in Christian identify already existed then how can one identify this war as one between Christians per se? Yes, they were Christians but did they march behind Christian banners (I would not doubt there being some Christian symbols in national or emperial flags)? Bishop Barron is also not clear if he is stating that the Christian culture broke before, during, or after (because of) WWI (or all of the above). I would think that any war between Christians (including the genocide in Rwanda) would be about a split in Christian unity that needs much better explaining. This article certainly sets up questions but provides no substantial answers. I am reminded however of an inciteful statment made by Dr. Moriarty in the movie “Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows” which was all about the build up to WWI: “You see…hidden within the unconscious is an insatiable desire for conflict. So you’re not fighting me…so much as you are the human condition. All I want is to own the bullets and the bandages. War, on an industrial scale, is inevitable.” Perhaps war between Christians has much more to do about their unfortunate fixation on their human condition.

  9. “Something broke in the Christian culture, and we’ve never recovered from it.”

    It broke a long time before WWI. The date was almost a whole four centuries earlier: October 31st, 1517. (Currently, the day is commemorated by the Satanically “inspired” All Hallow’s Eve.)

    To believe that Protestants are Christians is very probably to be justly suspected of the heresy of religious indifferentism.

  10. The article hopefully to help many to ponder what bl.Mother meant , in her mention in Fatima that ‘ war is punishment for sins .’
    Feast of St.Joseph Vaz today – thank you Universalis site – 🙂

    http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2015/documents/papa-francesco_20150114_srilanka-filippine-omelia-canonizzazione.html
    Raised to sainthood , by Pope Francis on his visit to Sri Lanka , in 2015 , fascinating history too , in his struggles against the ( Dutch ) powers, set to destroy The Church there .
    Such a pattern through out history , of using God given blessings to use it against His Church , in desire for worldly riches too .
    That , in turn bringing on enemy debts and claims through even generations may be ,
    in the misuse of freedom , inviting in the powers of the enemy , who too has been given freedom to do what it desires .
    The three little children of Fatima ,as well as the many holy saints chosen to help us to see how doing things , in His will can make a great difference –
    below , how Rosary helps in heart health 🙂

    https://spiritdailyblog.com/health/marian-wonders-and-curiosities

    May the prayers of the Rosary too help many to open the hearts to His will and its Peace .

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