This story in our World War I Centennial series is written by Joseph T. Stuart, Ph.D., who is associate professor of history at the University of Mary in Bismarck.
By Joseph T. Stuart
It desecularized the state and, instead of religion, made politics the highest expression of human values. The mobilization of entire societies during the Great War dramatically increased expectations for state involvement in the lives of people. Powerful political religions that claimed absolute adherence arose out of the political vacuum left behind by the collapse of four empires in Russia, Italy, Germany and Turkey.
For example, through the Russian Revolution, Lenin rose to power in Russia. He created a brutal regime that posed as the ultimate arbiter of value and meaning — killing or exiling dissenters. “The war has left throughout Europe a mood of disillusionment and despair which calls aloud for a new religion,” the British agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote after touring Russia in 1920. “Bolshevism has supplied the new religion.”
Mussolini and his followers also derived meaning and purpose from their wartime experience. In 1932, he wrote that fascism is a “spiritual attitude” and the Fascist state a “spiritual society” outside of which no values exist. “Thus understood, fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist state — a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values — interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people,” he noted.
In Germany, Adolf Hitler resolved to go into politics as a continuation of his wartime experience of unified national purpose. Hitler believed that a people needed a common faith. Writing to him in 1926, Josef Goebbels, future minister of propaganda, wrote, “You gave a name to the suffering of an entire generation who were yearning for real men, for meaningful tasks. … What you uttered is the catechism of a new political credo amid the desperation of a collapsing, godless world. … A god gave you the strength to voice our suffering.” Nazism de-secularized the state by giving it the ultimate spiritual meaning. It joined church and state, so to speak, into one, powerful force.
In this way, the Great War witnessed one of the most startling births of new deities in the history of the world — those of Class (Communism), state (Fascism) and Race (Nazism) for which people killed. These new European deities inspired parallel political-religious movements around the world — such as nationalism in Turkey and the backlash seen today as Islamic terrorism tries to restore the Caliphate after it disappeared there immediately after the Great War.
China is another example. To inspire Chinese nationalism, western-educated Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China, appealed in 1921 to American President Wilson’s idea of the “self-determination of nations.” But a rival movement would ultimately take over China in 1949 — the Chinese Communist Party, directly inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Chinese Communist political religion reached its height under Mao Zedong and his Cultural Revolution, complete with rituals, morality, a sacred text, the deification of Mao and the inculcation of a sense of profound belonging and undivided allegiance. The Great War paved the way to that totalitarian transformation of the world’s most populous country.
In the U.S., the war helped clarify America’s political faith. University of North Dakota student William Greenleaf wrote at war’s end about America as “the composite of the world’s best ideals, the promise of the world’s future.” Progressive clergy gave the upheaval a transcendent meaning by interpreting it as a total war for righteousness. America, as the world’s political messiah, would make the world “safe for democracy,” as President Wilson put it. Ever since, most American presidents have shared his redemptive goals in foreign policy.
In France, a nationalist movement supported Catholicism as the state religion and gained immense prestige, despite its eventual condemnation by the Vatican. Socialism, in the form of the Labour Party, was the real draw in Britain after the Great War. One British historian noted in 1932 that socialism elicited religious emotion through its appeal to social salvation. “The type of man who a century ago would have been a revivalist or even the founder of a new sect, today devotes himself to social and political propaganda. And this gives Socialism a spiritual power which the older political parties did not possess …”
In all these ways, the Great War created a tremendous impetus toward the de-secularization of the state, towards making politics the source of all values. That alone justifies the characterization of the Great War as the “original sin” of the 20th century.