Old Europe self-destructed in the Great War of 1914-1918. In the future, the heroics of E R Mobbs,1 the England international who died leading his men into a hail of machine-gun fire, while punting a rugby ball ahead of him, would be celebrated but not repeated. Mass warfare had arrived with a vengeance.
The statistics were staggering, numbing and heartbreaking. France lost almost 20 per cent of its men of military age while Germany lost 13 per cent.2 Britain lost close to 6 per cent3 of its soldiers and civilians of military age, but the loss of half-a-million men under the age of 30 was felt disproportionately among the upper classes and educated.4 The loss of talent, ingenuity and imagination to the world was simply incalculable.
For Christians, there is another war to which we must look if we are to make sense of the Great War and its aftermath.
The European empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia disintegrated, with the Russians embracing communism prior to the close of the war. The warring nations incurred huge debts. Britain, the world’s leading financial lender in 1914, surrendered its lead to the United States of America, the new nexus of world economic and political power.5 Japan emerged as a world power to rival the British and Americans in East Asia and the Pacific.
For Seventh-day Adventists, the Great War also brought division and heartache. The Church in Germany split over whether Adventists should take part in the war and if they should fight on Sabbath, leading to the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement. It has taken a century, but maybe the wounds left from that time are beginning to heal. This year, the Adventist Review reported:
A hundred years after World War I created a split among German Seventh-day Adventists that remains to this day, the Church’s two unions in Germany have apologised for the combative stance taken by church leaders during the war and for their treatment of dissidents who left to create the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement.6
If the war was a disaster, peace proved more so. Field Marshal Earl Wavell said of the Paris Peace Conference, “After the ‘war to end war’, they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making the ‘Peace to end Peace’.”7 Germany was forced to accept responsibility for the damage done by her military forces and for those who fought with her. The punishing reparations and loss of territory were felt keenly in Germany and created fertile conditions for the rise of Nazism.
After 21 turbulent years, the second phase of the Great War broke out and engulfed Europe and the world in a terrible conflagration, killing more than three times the number of people as WW1, and involving unthinkable horrors. Again, Seventh-day Adventists were caught up in the conflict. Many were sustained by their prophetic understanding that Nazism would be defeated;8 some, tragically, didn’t see the dangers of Nazism despite the conflict of the ideology with basic Christianity and the clear Adventist prophetic understanding.9
What the Great War failed to do in the eclipse of Europe, the Second World War achieved. The establishment of the Eastern bloc under the leadership of the USSR in the post Second World War period divided Europe for decades. The miseries endured by a large number of Europeans, including many Seventh-day Adventists, in the twentieth century were severe.
All this resulted from the assassinations at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, and the failures of the 13-day diplomatic crisis, commencing on July 23, 1914, and leading up to Britain’s entry into the war.10 The Great War was not inevitable.11 The European nations had managed in the new century to sort out equally difficult circumstances and differences by diplomatic means. Tensions existed but they had existed for some time. It is confronting to reflect on the reality that the war need not have happened and that the twentieth century might have turned out quite differently.
Looking back, we can see that the Great War was an important turning point in our Church history. Might things have turned out differently? We like to celebrate our successes and the moral heroism displayed by church members. We find failure more difficult to deal with. As the world remembers and faces the past, are we able to do the same with our history?
The origin of war is one of the big questions of history.12 For Christians, there is another war to which we must look if we are to make sense of the Great War and its aftermath. It’s the war behind all wars. It’s the great controversy that began with the rebellion of Lucifer and which resulted in his expulsion from heaven.13 Like the Great War, the great controversy was not inevitable. It might have been different; but regrettably it wasn’t. We have all had to deal with the realities of the great controversy, just as those caught up in the maelstrom of the Great War, willingly or unwillingly, had to deal with its reality. We are all participants in this larger spiritual war.
Yet, despite the similarities, there is also a crucial difference. The great controversy, unlike the Great War, is in reality the war to end all wars. God has promised that when the great controversy is over, “. . . affliction shall not rise up the second time”.14 What a reassuring thought to contemplate and share as the world remembers the Great War that began a century ago!
1. McCarthy, T. 1989. War Games: The Story of Sport in World War Two. London: McDonald Queen Anne Press, pp. 14-15.
2. Hobsbawn, E. 1995. Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991. London: Abacus, p. 26.
3. Blainey, G. 2005. A Short History of the 20th Century. Camberwell: Penguin, p. 103.
4. Hobsbawn, p. 26.
5. Blainey, pp. 104-105.
6. http://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/adventist-leaders-in-germany-apologize-for-stance-in world-war-1 (Posted 30 May 2014)
7. Pagden, A. 2008. Worlds at War: The 2,500-year Struggle between East and West. Oxford University Press US, p. 407, cited in Wikipedia, The war to end war.
10. Ponting, C. 2003. Thirteen Days: Diplomacy and Disaster-The Countdown to the Great War. London: Pimlico. xii.
11. Ponting, x.
12. T. Palaima, “Why do wars begin?” in Swain, H. (ed.) 2005. Big Questions in History. London: Jonathan Cape, pp. 129-134.
13. Revelation 12:7-9.
14. Nahum 1:9, KJV.
Barry Harker is a retired educator who writes from Lake Macquarie, NSW.