THIS PAST YEAR, we have heard a great deal about the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. Throughout that commemoration, though, we have rarely paid due attention to the religious language of Holy War and crusade deployed by all combatants.
Think, for instance, of the great historic moment that many will remember this month—namely, the Christmas Truce of 1914. British and German troops emerged from their trenches to fraternize, drink, and play friendly games of soccer. This has become one of the war’s best-remembered moments, an event frequently depicted in films, fiction, and popular songs. The Truce sends an optimistic message about wars and ideological struggles, which supposedly result from rows between governments and elites, while ordinary people maintain their basic human decency.
There is a great deal wrong with the Christmas Truce mythology, not least that it was a strictly limited and localized affair. Plenty of other people at the time had radically different and uncompromising ideas, and they counted far more.
That very season was the setting of Paul Claudel’s dream of divine vengeance in his violently anti-German play La Nuit de Noel de 1914 (Christmas Eve 1914). At the time, the famously pious Claudel was one of France’s most esteemed writers, beloved especially by Catholics. The play was hugely successful, although, to the best of my knowledge, no English translation exists.
La Nuit de Noel is avowedly a manifesto for a modern-day crusade, a Holy War. The play begins with the two dead soldiers, Jean and Jacques. Jean realizes that they are now with God: “Just one second made me a Christian and one of the blessed.”
Jacques replies, “Now, I am pure, Jean, and without sin. It’s your blood that made me this white robe.” Death in battle leads straight to heaven.
The play depicts the gathering of the souls of French people killed by the Germans, including soldiers but also many civilians slaughtered in German mass executions. All are among the blessed, martyrs in a holy Catholic struggle against German aggression and against that country’s pagan worship of naked state power.
Jean and Jacques summon the souls of the murdered civilians, especially the children:
Come, holy innocent souls.
Come, witnesses of Jesus Christ.
Come, tender lambs immolated by cruel Herod,
not for the slightest wrong that you have done,
but for the hatred of the God of which you stand as image.
These were martyrs and saints, just as much as the missionaries killed by native tribesmen, the martyrs of China, the heroes of the Faith in the time of the Roman emperors. “Just as Christ gave His life for you, you have given yours.”
At the recent Battle of the Marne, says Claudel, French armies stood flanked by Saint Genevieve and Joan of Arc. Even so, France’s best hope was the Virgin Mary, who had led their armies so often through the centuries. As the dead soldier reports from beyond the grave,
It’s not a saint or a bishop,
it’s Our Lady herself,
it’s the Mother of God-made-Man for us,
who endures the violence and the fire.
She’s the one we saw burning at the center of our lines,
like the virgin of Rouen once upon a time.
She’s the one they’re trying to slaughter, the old Mother,
the one who gives us her body as a rampart.
At the center of our lines,
she’s the one who stands as the rampart
and the flag against Black Luther’s hordes.
The play culminates in a Midnight Mass conducted in this heavenly setting, with the noise of the German shelling of Reims Cathedral substituting for the customary midnight ringing of bells.
Another of France’s greatest writers was Leon Bloy, whose thoughts on the coming of war were collected in his book On the Threshold of the Apocalypse. A popular 1915 book on priests at the battlefront declared that victory would come only through “sacrifices and voluntary sufferings”; the original English translation gives “holocausts” rather than “sacrifices.”
The Germans were also engaged in an apocalyptic crusade. Witnessing the patriotic upsurge that August, clergy had spoken freely of a New Pentecost, a moment of Transfiguration, Verklarung. That mystical language endured throughout the war. Germany’s most revered war poet was Walter Flex, who died on the Eastern Front in 1917. In his best-known work, he proclaimed “From German blood is Christ’s wine prepared / And in the blood of the purest works the power of the Lord / who strides through the holy transformation.”
Some people in 1914 took Holy War language very seriously.
Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (December 2014)