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Easter 1916: Blood, Sacrifice and Holy War


National Library of Ireland on The Commons CC

Philip Jenkins - published on 03/28/16

Just a century ago, talk of a Christian holy war. There is nothing new under the sun
Too long a sacrificeCan make a stone of the heart.O when may it suffice?

“Easter 1916” by William Butler Yeats is one of the most famous poems written in English in modern times. It commemorates the doomed Irish rebellion that occurred at Easter a century ago. I say little here about the event itself, but I stress the rhetoric of blood, sacrifice and martyrdom surrounding the rising, and how precisely it fit the themes prevailing in most European nations at that time, in the context of the ongoing Great War. These themes raise troubling questions about just how easily and naturally Christian rhetoric can be adapted to the cause of warfare and violence.

One of the Irish leaders was Patrick Pearse, who was obsessed with ideas of redemption through blood. These ideas were rooted in Catholic thought but also drew on neo-pagan racial mysticism. In 1913 he had called for armed struggle, writing that, “We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing.” Two years later he praised the war, declaring, “The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed by the red wine of the battlefields,” because “life springs from death.” He believed firmly that “one man can free a people, as one man redeemed the world.”

Following the logic of his teaching, on Easter Monday 1916, Pearse joined other nationalists, both Catholic and secular, in a suicidal rising against British power. The revolt was of course timed to symbolize the nation’s death and resurrection. In the words of Conor Cruise O’Brien, “Pearse saw the rising as a Passion Play with real blood.”

But however much Irish nationalists opposed the Allied war effort, their language reflected a worldview identical to that of the warring powers. As I discuss in my 2014 book The Great and Holy War, all the major European nations produced very similar and no less blood-drenched rhetoric of holy sacrifice — and so did the Americans when they entered the war in 1917. (And so, by the way, did Pearse’s Protestant Unionist enemies in Ireland itself.)

Such sacrificial ideas were a mainstay of sermons. In 1916 a French Christmas carol imagined an army waiting in the trenches “and like the child in the stable/it awaits that critical hour/to sacrifice itself [s’immoler] on the altar.” Some of the most vivid examples come from the war’s very rich visual heritage, which is so readily found in the illustrated magazines that were such a mainstay of popular media in all major countries and languages. At Christmas 1914 a widely reproduced British painting titled “The Great Sacrifice” juxtaposed a dying British soldier with the crucified Christ. Other much-reproduced military images of the war years bore titles such as “The Greater Reward” and “Greater Love Hath No Man.” That final phrase also appeared regularly on Russian military graves, implying that the dead man had laid down his life for his friends.

Ideas of sacrifice and redemptive suffering had a special resonance for Catholics, whose faith focused on the reenactment of Christ’s sacrificial death in the Mass. That event gave great charismatic power to the priests who were alone permitted to perform the ritual. Eucharistic imagery dominates Catholic war literature, of whatever nation. In 1915, pseudonymous French author René Gaëll published the popular book Les Soutanes sous la Mitraille (Cassocks Under Machine Gun Fire), which appeared in English translation the following year. The book depicts France’s priests as the heroes and martyrs of a war that is at once Christian, Catholic, and patriotic, in a death struggle against the barbarians of “sacrilegious Germany, which profanes weakness and slaughters Catholic temples.” Victory would come only through “sacrifices [immolations] and voluntary sufferings” — the original English translation gives “holocausts” rather than sacrifices. Although Christians will shed their blood, this should be seen as “the red seed of battle, an eternal seed of victory and redemption.” God, who requires us to suffer and die, also “gives us the superhuman joy of having been chosen to be heroes of freedom, and martyrs for violated rights.”

In practice, this commitment to suffering and sacrifice meant serving in uniform, taking up weapons, and inflicting death upon others. So constantly do such accounts portray soldiers undergoing sacrificial death that it is sometimes hard to tell who, if anyone, is actually attacking, rather than merely dying nobly. Somebody, surely, must be firing the shells and wielding the bayonets.

The idea of martyrdom and sacrifice was deeply dangerous when it affected attitudes to the scale of military losses. It was one thing for an individual to sacrifice his life for others, but on occasion commanders steeled themselves to accept the mass bloodshed of inferiors in the great cause. In Italy the high command committed their infantry to “a necessary holocaust” with the goal of “redeeming” Italy’s natural frontiers. This fanatical mind-set contributed to Italy’s appalling rate of wartime casualties and a repeated series of crushing defeats.

None of the Allied sentiments about sacrifice and martyrdom would have surprised soldiers from the Central Powers. At the time of Verdun, German Catholic clergy regularly compared the sacrifice of front-line soldiers to that of Christ.

One of Germany’s celebrated war writers was Walter Flex, who died in 1917 of wounds received on the eastern front. His popular verses presented the war as a Last Supper, in which “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.” He also proclaimed that “The sacrifice of the best of our people is only a repetition willed by God of the deepest miracle of life … the death of Christ.” Sacrifice was the prerequisite for glorification and resurrection: “To fight, to die, to be resurrected, that is the essence of being. From out of your death [in the war], the nation will be restored.”

At the time, Flex’s books sold in huge numbers. Predictably, the Nazis loved his work, with its mystical vision of German blood and military sacrifice, and they celebrated his writings — which is the main reason why he has so dropped from the memory of later generations.

Flex and Pearse inhabited exactly the same spiritual universe.

On this Easter Monday, it’s useful to be reminded that all this talk of Christian holy war comes not from the long-distant era of the Crusades but from just a century ago.

Philip Jenkinsis a distinguished professor of history atBaylor Universityand is the author ofThe Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious CrusadeandThe Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost GospelsNew York: Basic Books, 2015.

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