Gott Mit Uns : Germany's Protestant Theologians in the First World War

Bailey, Charles Edward, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Midelfort, H. C. E., Department of History, University of Virginia

On the eve of the First World War, Germany's 220 Protestant theologians enjoyed unchallenged supremacy in religious studies. Students from all over the world came to sit at the feet of the Berlin giants: Adolf von Harnack, Ernst Troeltsch, and Reinhold Seeberg. And when the guns of August marred the Christian hope of ’’peace on earth," sensitive men everywhere looked to these high priests of the academic profession to illumine the darkness that had descended upon Europe. Surely these scholars who interpreted divine truth, who had led the world in higher criticism, comparative religion, and church history, would rise au-dessus de la melee, even though others were committing, in the opinion of Julien Benda, intellectual "treason." Unlike 1939» when no one expected anything hallowed to come forth from the halls of Nazi academe, neutrals and belligerents alike in 1914 hoped for a fresh oracle— a word of censure against reported Teutonic barbarism and disregard for international law. But, seemingly, the theologians too had sold their soul to the god of blood and iron. Unlike the ancient Hebrew prophets, who had upbraided their kings for their iniquities, these modern religious spokesmen cloaked their rulers with a mantle of righteousness.

The theologians unanimously pronounced Germany to be innocent of having plotted the war. Declaring England to be the villain of the piece, they seized the self-proclaimed savior of Belgium and verbally crucified her for four years. With only one notable exception, Martin Rade of Marburg, they dismissed the Kantian ideal of "perpetual peace" as a fairy tale and limited Jesus1 admonition, "Turn the other cheek," to individuals, leaving states free to fight a "just war." With unflagging vigor, they took up pen and sword in defense of the Fatherland. Some perished at the front, while at home, others celebrated the glories of German Kultur. extolled their tradition of militarism and political conservatism, and proudly proclaimed the gospel according to Treitschke. And they did all this spontaneously; there was no Gleichschaltung in World War I. The theologians were passionate patriots who flung aside their tempered judgment and indulged in an orgy of abuse against "barbaric" Russia, revanche-blinded France, and "perfidious Albion."

On all moral and cultural issues, they spoke with one voice. Only on territorial war aims and the question of political reform did they disagree— and here, they split predictably, The conservatives, with their rigid "positive" theology, championed grandiose continental and colonial conquests and the maintenance of the political status quo at home, while the liberals, reflecting their more flexible Ritschlian viewpoint,advocated moderate territorial goals and a progressive domestic policy, particularly the introduction of equal suffrage in Prussia. Germanophiles called attention to the moderate minority, but Germanophobes stressed that it agreed with the chauvinistic majority on the larger questions of war guilt, atrocities, and pacifism.

But the German Protestant theologians were not the only ones who abandoned the realm of academic detachment. Like the Spanish influenza of 191Ö-1919, war fever reached epidemic proportions and played no favorites with nations or classes. The sage as well as the simpleminded was Infected with jingoistic myopia. So, if the theologians had a tragic flaw, it was simply that of being human, all too human. And if their cry of "Gott mit uns," which animated the final years of the Second Reich, seems a bit presumptuous to our sophisticated ears, it was certainly far more noble than the strains of the Götterdämmerung, which accompanied the collapse of the Third Reich.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
World War, 1914-1918 -- Religious aspects, War -- Religious aspects, Germany -- Politics and government -- 1888-1918

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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