Arrived in Koln this afternoon for a three day walk, rest and read. This is the stunning view (of the Kolner Dom) from our hotel window. On the train here, I have been reading the challenging account by Adam Hochschild of the anti-war socialists and pacifists that challenged British consciences during the First World War, when Britain was a lot closer to being a totalitarian state than it is now. You feel, throughout the book, that he has overplayed his hand somewhat – probably there was a lot more solid support for the war than he would have liked there to have been. However, on this centenary of the war’s beginning, I have been trying to think hard about what I want to learn from it. I have had enough, frankly, of the duty-and-honour militaristic Paxman approach, of brave sacrifice and poppies. The accounts of British soldiers marching into machine-gun fire at Loos and the Somme are tragic, but no less stupidly and criminally unnecessary for all that. I am just aware that we all live in the shadow of the 1914-1918 conflict, and I want to learn how that shadow was cast, what its impact was on my father’s generation and thus on mine, and what changed. So I have tried to cast my exploration, which I intend to last over the year, more or less, into some questions:
- What on earth was the established church up to urging us to war?
- Where was the pacifist voice of “love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you”?
- Did this have something to do with the mass desertion from the churches after the war?
- What was the church’s prophetic voice and how did it get heard? Did it get heard? Was God speaking in a way that anyone was willing to hear?
- How did we as a nation cope with the intense psychological disorder after the war?What was broken irreparably and was that a good thing?
- What were the deep and lasting changes wrought by the war and could these have been made without murdering, or causing to be murdered, millions of men (mostly) and women?
- Could we have achieved the changes in greater equality and suffrage without the war? Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A study in tyranny made the claim that Hitler in the Second World War achieved his life-long goal, the destruction of the bourgeois society in Europe that had made his early life a misery. Did we need these vast struggles of injustice to enable such beneficial changes to have been made in our societies?
- Most intriguingly, I have been wondering about the nationalistic and militaristic mindset of those who went to war and who supported, vociferously, those who did. This prompts the question, therefore, that when Jesus said in John 10 “the thief comes to kill, and steal and destroy” – referring probably to satanic forces behind the great national powers of the world – are there implications for the submission of whole populations to a satanic urge to destroy humankind, the beloved work of the Father and the pinnacle of his creation? Why, when peace was so desirable, and war as practised on the Western Front so demonstrably unchivalrous and criminally insane, did not more people long for peace and refuse to fight? Are we today so easily led by the media, by our leaders, by the military-industrial complex’s paranoid agenda? And can we see those in hindsight who stood up as objectors, as refusers to fight, as braver and with greater integrity, than those who fought to perpetuate (or eventually discover) a lie?
- And lastly, what entered the world through this murderous conflict? You don’t, I think, enter into such darkness without allowing something evil in. Is it possible, that in our zeal to destroy and hate one another, we opened our nations up to a greater evil?