Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Great War and the Twentieth Century: Taking the Kingdom of Heaven by Storm

It didn't take a war to tell the world at the threshold of the twentieth century that a new age was on its way. Half the map was coloured pink, won by British Imperial might, driven forward by rapid innovations in military and industrial technology. Evolution was in, God was dead, and philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer prophesied with glee the selective breeding of a new superman to replace Him, unfettered by the stale dogma and bourgeois moralism of the past. On the British Left, the Fabians, including one Winston Churchill at the time, championed the new science of Eugenics, and sought to engineer a new world order from which the weak and deficient elements of the gene pool would be eradicated: "The multiplication of the feeble-minded," wrote our future Prime Minister in 1910 to his predecessor in that role, "is a very terrible danger to the race." The artistic and musical world clamoured for revolution and wanted it won by arms: in 1914, the composers Ravel and Schoenberg were among the chief rattlers of the sabres so recently forged from ploughshares. And not just sabres, but deadlier weapons, now: breech-loading rifles, machine guns, aeroplanes, even rudimentary tanks. With our new technology and industrial might, we could manufacture death like never before, systematise it, sanitise it, even sanctify it: for yes, we were told, this was a holy war. No more waiting for the Kingdom of Heaven: it was time to take it, break it, remake it in our own image.

Yet for all its modern trappings, the First War still had a foot sunk deeply in more venerable ways of brutality. Field medics would find themselves treating not just bullet wounds or the atrocities of artillery bombardment, but the almost mediaeval lesions of sword and lance, limbs severed, raw bone exposed. Men fought on horseback: one million of the animals were requisitioned from farmers by the British Army alone, leaving the people at home hungry for want of the harvest. And old-fashioned methods were applied to modern maladies, still not understood, for all our forebears' confidence in their new science. Men we would now know as suffering post-traumatic disorders, brain damage, shell shock and the like, were simply lined up and shot as deserters if they staggered from their post.

So much for the brave new world. So much for the patriotic sermons, so much for the patriotic songs: "Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag And smile, smile, smile." So much for the miracles of modern science ending all those old troubles, so much for the war to end all wars: the unfortunate but necessary, surgical solution to all our ancient ills.

We are now well into the new age, and looking back over the twentieth century, we can see the benefits it yielded: the advances of modern medicine, travel, communications, food production technology, for a start. But we must not blind ourselves to the cost, a cost which haunts us still. Our leaders were like children playing with lethal toys, and we loved to try them out.

We tried our technological innovation in the Blitzkrieg, in the gas chambers, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Agent Orange, in the cluster bomb, in biological and chemical weapons and all the myriad tools of modern warfare.

We tried our political hubris and newfound certainties in the doomed and deadly experiments of Imperialism, Communism, Fascism, and we feel their ripples still in Islamism and strident Neoconservatism. The crayons our masters used to scribble out new borders for the world have turned to serpents in their chubby little fists.

Let's step back now to 1914. The mood was exuberant. But it only took a couple of years for people to see what was ahead, and this caused a loss of faith in the new order. The artists and musicians who had been tearing up the old conventions, confronted with the barbarity now being unleashed, retreated back to safer, more familiar classical modes. Ravel recanted. Painters who had once turned people into series of squares and blotches went back to showing them as human beings, dying among the wires. The new artistic register, the languages of the new age, just could not express the full breadth of human emotion encountered in the trenches and the eastern fields. For a while, at least, we walked back on older, more familiar paths.

So it was with religion. Clergy at home preached the sixteenth century Protestant novelty that the dead were dead and God had made his mind up about them, so there was no point in praying for them. But this did not ring true for the men and their chaplains abroad, nor for the relatives left behind to mourn them. Again, they retreated to the older ways of the Christian Church, and soon, for the first time since the Reformation, Requiem Masses were being sung in English parishes again. People needed to believe that God was not deaf to their appeals for their men who died perhaps with the enemies' bloodstains on their immortal souls.

People also needed that basic certainty of the old faith which modern liberal religion at the time risked eroding: namely, the truth of the Incarnation, that God the Son really had walked the earth among us as Jesus Christ. They needed to know that God was not some distant satrap or fanciful theory, but that He had truly lived and suffered and died as bloodily as they and their kin. And it was only in the light of His historic sacrifice on the Cross, only by their participation in it through Baptism and the Eucharist of the Church, that many found meaning in their own sacrifices in that otherwise frankly quite meaningless War. Through the Cross, they were given hope in the promise of a true new world order, a promise made millenia ago, and one which would not rely on barbarity and slaughter to bring it to fruition: the Kingdom of Heaven, where swords would turn to ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks.

That promise was (and is) yet to be realised. As the detritus of the Great War settled, the new certainties fought back to replace the old: the new religions of Bolshevism, Fascism, nationalism, eugenics, all promising their own home-made utopias. Look at the fallout of Russian socialism, Islamist anti-Semitism, Israeli nationalism, Anglo-American consumer capitalism, and decide for yourself if any of the -isms are going to bring us to a glorious new world. But, whatever certainty you might choose, and whatever you think of the Christian promise, the First World War surely proved us right on one thing: the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be taken by storm.

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