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God and the Guns of August

ONE HUNDRED AND FIVE YEARS AGO THIS SUMMER, the world lurched and stumbled into the most destructive war it had ever seen. Eventually, sixty-five million men would be mobilized. Twenty million would die. Another twenty-one million would be wounded. In the conflict’s wake—and as world leaders planned, plotted, and partitioned—much of the planet became a hot zone as an Influenza epidemic wiped out another twenty-five million people.

Historians and scholars are still trying to figure out what happened that fateful summer a century ago. Was the casus belli of what was then called “The Great War” (or informally, “The War to End All Wars”) the inevitable result of a tangled web of alliances and treaties ebbing and flowing between the nations of Europe? Or was it because there had been a decades-long arms race, including the proliferation of a new class of warship, the Dreadnought? Were political leaders guilty of hubris? Did soldiers and sailors really believe the whole thing would be over in a matter of months?

One of the better books on the subject came out in 1962. It was written by Barbara Tuchman and titled, The Guns of August. It chronicles the miscalculations, underestimations, and shortsighted decisions made by European leaders in the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914.

President John F. Kennedy, a voracious speed-reader, devoured the book when it came out. A few months later, when faced with his own unique crisis-laden situation, having to do with Soviet missiles being placed in Cuba, he read it again. He wanted to get a copy to the Captain of every ship on the “quarantine” line he had established to intercept Russian ships bound for Havana during those tense days.

But was what we now call World War I merely about military might meeting political folly? Or were the roots of the conflict in something more philosophical—even spiritual?

In 1983, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident, received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion at a ceremony in London. During his acceptance speech he may very well have explained not only the “revolution” that wrecked his homeland, but the underlying cause of the colossal conflict that wreaked havoc on the world beginning in 1914:

“More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why this has happened.” [Emphasis added]

For decades, continental Europe had been creeping and convulsing away from its historic religious underpinnings. Across the English Channel, Great Britain was drifting as well, but the impact of pulpit giants during the latter part of the nineteenth century mitigated the spiritual decline, at least somewhat.

This was not the case in France or Germany. The French Revolution had left in its wake the kind of tyranny that would rear its ugly head again and again over the next two centuries. The revolt that began in 1789 was in many ways the sinister ancestor to Communism and Fascism. And in Germany this “rationalism” gained a theological foothold in seminaries and churches.

The living God was being replaced with the worship of “reason.”

It wasn’t long before destructive philosophical systems began to congeal. Karl Marx crafted a political and economic vision for a world without God. Charles Darwin published his ideas about human origins. Then Friedrich Nietzsche and others of his ilk began to cherry-pick all the new ideas characterizing the zeitgeist of nineteenth-century Europe and take them to their logical conclusion: God was dead.

The inevitable fruit of this long slide downward was best articulated in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s last novel, “The Brothers Karamozov,” published a few months before his death in 1880. In one chapter, a character contemplates, “Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?” This is often paraphrased in a quote attributed to the novelist: “If there is no God, everything is permissible.”

The rest, as they say, is history. — DRS

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