Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War
Oxford University Press, 2014
336 pp., $34.95
Soberingly, he challenges the common view of Verdun as utterly unprecedented in its human cost. While not understating the human toll, he also notes how many other battles in the Great War had involved much higher casualty rates, not least the astonishingly lethal Battle of the Frontiers in 1914, when the French lost tens of thousands on single days. (That earlier conflict is all but absent from Anglo-American historical consciousness.) Mythology, though, demanded that Verdun be unique, unparalleled, an unprecedented glimpse into the mouth of Hell. "Posterity mistook the subjective imaginings of men for the objective realities of the war, and conferred upon Verdun a mantle of singularity in suffering that other sites of the war might justifiably contest."
In this as in so much else, Jankowski is undoubtedly right about the degree of mythmaking, although we might question his underplaying of the battle's real significance. Other battles have likewise begun with scattered and ill-planned scuffles, although they undoubtedly did evolve into thoroughly decisive struggles: we think of Gettysburg. Also, if we think how Verdun might have developed, it is not too difficult to imagine an outcome that really did lead to the collapse of French military power, and with it an epochal reconstruction of Europe and of the global balance of power. And if the French had simply abandoned Verdun, how much further could they retreat before settling on a line that absolutely had to be defended at all costs? Verdun lies only 160 miles east of the heart of Paris. Were contemporaries really so wrong to imagine Verdun as Thermopylae? Was France's survival not literally at stake?
However inaccurate those "subjective imaginings" of the conflict might have been, they had a lasting impact that endures today, and that is especially true in the spiritual realm. Struggling to comprehend the slaughter they were living through, both sides resorted freely to religious imagery. Given the overwhelmingly Christian foundations of European culture in that age, how could matters have been otherwise? From its beginnings, the attack on Verdun was codenamed Operation Gericht, "Judgment," and both military and media sources readily lapsed into God-talk. By far the commonest image was that of sacrifice, with its implications of voluntary redemptive bloodshed. On both sides, soldiers shed their blood for national resurrection, dying that others might live. Already too, both sides were adopting the language of immolation, of (voluntary) holocaust. For participants, though, the battle raised fundamental questions about all religious assumptions and rhetoric, and the nature of Christian societies. The reigning deity of Verdun was Moloch.
Some of those religious perceptions lingered for decades, naturally enough when we think of the lengthy later careers of some of those soldiers. Paul Tillich served in the battle as an army chaplain, and he experienced a life-changing epiphany. He observed the collapse of older hopes and aspirations, writing that "the World War in my own experience was the catastrophe of idealistic thinking in general … . If a reunion of theology and philosophy should again become possible, it could be achieved only in such a way as would do justice to this experience of the abyss of our existence." Serving on the French lines were a number of men who later became—or already were—influential Roman Catholic thinkers, among them Henri de Lubac and Étienne Gilson. In his first speeches after his election last year, Pope Francis quoted de Lubac and Bloy. The latter was a venerated Catholic mystic who during the battle published a commentary on the times entitled On the Threshold of Apocalypse. The Catholic Church still lives under the shadow of Verdun.
Was it possible to witness Verdun without facing searching questions about the whole basis of Christendom? Was "Christian civilization" an oxymoron? As the battle raged that summer, one non-combatant thinker was agonizing over that question. Just two hundred miles from the battlefield, in neutral Switzerland, Karl Barth was seeking answers in Paul's Letter to the Romans, which described how even the best-intentioned human beings succumb to the world's temptations. Barth portrayed a world fallen into illusion and self-deception, a world prepared to annihilate a whole continent in the name of the false gods they erected—such idols as patriotism, nationalism, and honor. He demanded that Christians reject the world's false claims to allegiance, its Prestige Trap. Much of Protestant theology over the following century amounted to a commentary on the insights of Barth, Tillich, and others of the Verdun generation.
Philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Pursuing theology after Verdun was scarcely easier—but nevertheless imperative.
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. His book The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade is coming this spring from HarperOne.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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