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Themes of World War One:
Religion and War  pt2


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The religious movement known as Spiritualism began to evolve out of the Protestant Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century in which a more direct relationship with God was sought. They also came to believe that the souls of the dead had the ability to directly communicate between the realm of the diseased and the world of the living. The years of the American Civil War also saw a dramatic upturn in the trend to describe the afterlife in more concrete terms. Notions of a homecoming with family and friends after death began to take on greater emphasis even among those holding weak religious convictions. These ideas found fertile ground in the Victorian age, when people were finding less solace in traditional religion to cope with high mortality rate of the times. A culture of death developed in which the difficulties of letting loved ones go was highly romanticized. This was displayed in everything from the creation of finely crafted personal mementos to elaborate tombs and monuments.

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A great deal of the Spiritualist movement was centered on Theosophy, which incorporated ideas from Eastern religions. After countless claims of fraud were leveled against those who claimed they had direct contact with the dead, the movement began to die out at the beginning of the 20th century. Renewed interest in Spiritualism peaked during the Great War with the sudden death of so many young men fighting on distant shores. The inability to recover bodies had created an emotional void into which the grieving sought answers. By 1916 the number of Spiritualist societies almost doubled. While the number of people who were actually engaged in these societies was relatively small, their ideas even if watered down or corrupted had been infused into Western culture as a whole. While few postcards deal with this subject directly, there seems to be an endless supply of cards that portray connections between soldiers and their families. Even if they are only meant to represent dreams and wishes, it is hard to believe that their preponderance is not connected in some way to popular Spiritualist notions.

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On many British cards, communication between distant loved ones was not just a matter of allegory; it was often presented as the spirit of a mother or wife appearing on the battlefield to comfort the dying soldier. Even if these do not qualify as a true spiritualist encounter, the association is still quite clear. These cards are meant to comfort by insinuating that no one dies alone regardless of circumstances.

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Many postcards from Austria-Hungry and Germany depict the same spiritualist theme though often with more ambiguity. On these cards the spirits of soldiers can be found visiting a wife or a child but it is unclear whether this is meant to portray the spirit of the deceased or if it is just a metaphor for love and longing by someone deployed far away from home. Many postcards were made where the ephemeral thoughts of the soldier or his family were presented in concrete pictorial form. It is very possible that the ambiguity was an intentional marketing ploy; if the card could be read in different ways, then it would appeal to a wider audience.

It is very important to consider that people have long experienced visitations from important figures in their lives in times of crisis, which may range from family members to historic figures and even to angels. Very often we know they appear in the form of dream but their vividness can stand out to the point of confusing what is real. Even what we actually see is partially determined by what we believe. Today we tend to explain away these events trough science and psychology, but in the years of the Great War our knowledge of the brain was only cursory, and many fell back on spiritualism to interpret their visions.

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There were many reports of soldiers sighting spirits during the Great War as well as having other supernatural encounters. It did not matter for the publishers of postcards whether any of these sightings were real or the result of battlefield stress; it only mattered that enough people believed in them to create an audience for the subject. As it turned out, Europe was fertile ground for all sorts of beliefs that had no place in Church teachings and seemed totally out of place in a modern world. The audience for the supernatural grew steadily as a way to cope with the sheer size of this conflict where the individual seemed too insignificant to have any meaningful effect. The lack of real news due to censorship also created a fertile environment for speculation on all sorts of rumors. Many people came to believe in things that they would never accept under better circumstances.

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The best example of the supernatural to be found on postcards relates to the Angels of Mons. Early in the War the public was shocked when they learned that the best troops of the British Expeditionary Force were hastily retreating before the German advance in Belgium. The Welsh writer, Arthur Machen was so upset by the news that he was inspired to write a fictional story, called The Bowmen for the London Evening News that was set at the battle of Mons. It tells of British soldiers who were just about to be overwhelmed by a German attack when one of them summoned the spirit of St. George. Suddenly a line of English bowmen rose from the graves of Agincourt to halt the Germans just long enough for the British to safely withdraw. As the story continued to be passed on orally, fiction turned to truth, and the narrative was embellished until it was angelic soldiers that had saved the day. When the author tried to expose the facts, he was accused of aiding a cover up for soldiers had come forward to say they found Germans killed by arrows on this battlefield. It has been said that British officials encouraged the telling of this and similar stories, for it was proof positive that God was on their side. What constitutes the actual facts of this story is still debated to this day.

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When the German onslaught finally halted in 1914, many proclaimed it the miracle on the Marne. French General Joffre took most of the credit, but many Frenchmen put their thanks elsewhere. They did not see the German withdrawal on September 8th as a consequence of military strategy but in the strength of their religious faith. This day was the Feast of the Virgin’s Nativity, when many saw French soldiers rise from the dead (Debout les Morts) and then these blessed martyrs drove out the Germans before them. This story of the Virgins help became renown, and many similar stories of Resurrection would follow. Many soldiers throughout the War would state that they saw dead comrades charging the enemy alongside them.

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While many cards of ruins were produced to highlight the barbarity of the enemy, some captured oddities. A prime example is the basilica of Notre Dame de Brebieres in Albert on the Somme front. Its tall statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus toppled over from its roof when hit by a shell in 1915 but it did not fall. While this would be a curious attraction under any circumstance, people at this time were searching for omens everywhere. Many held the superstitious belief that the War would end when the statue fell, and those responsible for its destruction would be the ones to loose. This prompted French pioneers to secure the statue in place though it still hung precipitously over the street below. It became a landmark to the British troops marching off to the front, and they in turn became eager customers for Leaning Virgin postcards. While some of these were presented as straight forward view-cards, others stressed its spiritual associations. The statue was finally destroyed by a British bombardment after the Germans captured Albert in March 1918.

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The strong belief in omens was dangerous to traditional religion as well as governments because they could quickly redirect people’s beliefs away from official polices. For as much that the British incorporated knights and chivalric associations into their propaganda, they had a fine line to walk. Any references to the Crusades might offend Muslims of which there was a great multitude fighting in the colonial armies propping up the Empire. When General Allenby took Jerusalem from the Ottomans in December 1917, it was a big news event that went beyond the ability of British censors to control. For the most part publishers cooperated with government policies by self-censoring themselves; but the crusading myth was so strong in England, enhanced by popular culture, that they could not pass up the opportunity to exploit this news. There was a sudden flurry of jubilant stories that claimed the Crusades against the infidel were finally over, which was followed by stories of Jerusalem’s capture that were further embellished to fit into a more Christian narrative.

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In Western Europe roadside cavalries depicting the Stations of the Cross were more common than shrines. These invited the traveler to contemplate the passion of Christ as he passed. They do not appear often on military postcards with the exception of the Saarsburger Cross. This cavalry suffered battle damage where the cross was blown apart only leaving behind the figure of Christ standing on a pedestal. Some cards depict the August 1914 battle that damaged the statue while others show the serene aftermath. In either case the message presented is that this was a divine sign to show that no matter how terrible war may become, Christianity will survive and protection may be found through faith. This same message can be extended to the survival of Germany. Text displayed alongside the Saarsburger Cross often adds meaning to the card but in differing ways. Some cards stress a defiant Germany that cannot loose with God’s protection, while others call for an end to the horrors of war. While seemingly contradictory, both messages have their roots in chivalry.

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If one looks hard enough divine messages and omens can be found nearly everywhere, and during World War One people were looking very hard. This was especially true after it was realized that the conflict was not going to end quickly, and it seemed as if there was no end in sight. When no solutions were forthcoming from political leaders or generals, people began hoping for divine intervention, which many thought was the only way the War could end. Any sign that might indicate that God was taking a direct interest was seen as movement toward victory. Duds and unexploded artillery shells were extremely common, but if they failed to detonate in a church it was obviously through the hand of God.

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The fears and stress that all faced in a war they had no control over caused many to seek solace in the supernatural. For some this was found within established faiths but for many this took on superstitions trappings that did not resemble any Christian teachings. Many of these superstitions and rituals had been embedded within cultures since medieval times but only became highly visible when people were under great duress. Since nothing seemed to stop the endless destruction, everything was tried. Talismans proliferated, and omens were sought. One superstitious medieval custom that was revived during the War was the habit of driving nails into a wooden statue for good luck. The first of these appeared on public display in Vienna in March 1915 and soon there was a proliferation of Iron Nail Statues (Nagelfiguren) being produced for just this purpose. They took on many forms but knight and the iron cross seem to have been the most popular subjects.

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Nail statues were usually commissioned by various charitable organizations that raised funds by charging a fee for every nail driven in. Some nails were plated in silver or gold that could be used for a higher fee. Sometimes postcards of these statues were issued to those who who paid to drive in nails. A number was rubber stamped on it to certify the bearer had made a patriotic contribution. Additional postcards depicting nail statues were also sold to raise additional funds.

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After the nail statue craze spread to Germany it was taken to the extreme when a Giant effigy of Field Marshal von Hindenburg was built in Berlin. Despite the criticism that this statue was inviting Christians to make a sacrifice at a pagan alter, thousands took part in the magical ritual of driving in nails. While many who were engaged in this activity did so as a way of providing protection for a loved one fighting at the front, it eventually became to be seen as a patriotic duty to participate. The dedication of this colossus opened with great fanfare and both the statue and the festivities were captured on postcards. Other large nail statues were also built to replicate famous Germans, but the one of von Hindenburg received the most attention on postcards.

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The very common use of talismans and charms by soldiers of all nations made it a difficult subject to mock. Fear of dying or loss of a loved one was the paramount concern of many, and if publishers did anything it was to help relieve this anxiety. The nail statue craze in Germany was however particular to a culture, and so it could more easily be ridiculed or poked fun of by Allied publishers. While seemingly trivial, it was another way to say that the enemy is not made up of fellow Christians, so it is okay to hate and kill them. The French postcard above is a mechanical; when the tab is pulled down, the nail is driven into Hindenburg’s head, the general not the statue.

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While the French mocked the German nail cult and cited it to demonstrate Germany’s degradation into the occult, they had their own fetish in the form of woolen dolls known as Nenette and Rintintin. These were originally woven by children as magical talismans for family members going off to War, but many children hung them off their own bedposts so not to be killed by artillery fire while they slept. Eventually these dolls were passed out to soldiers marching by in the street as a patriotic gesture. As these dolls came to be pictured on postcards in increasing numbers, the cards themselves became to be seen as talismans, and they too were passed out for protection. All sorts of amulets and charms were widely carried by soldiers during the War.

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The widespread growth in esoteric beliefs during the War years drew many critics from those that saw it as the infiltration of evil to those who thought it a sad withdrawal from a rational society. While there were complaints from Church leaders, there is an inherent problem in any religion that promotes faith above empirical knowledge. When people do not find the answers they are seeking, it becomes easy to redirect their beliefs away from official doctrine toward other spiritual ideas. As belief in the supernatural grew to become part of popular culture, it was reinforced by written stories in magazines, movies, and of course postcards. Some postcards went in the opposite direction to satirize this cultural phenomenon.

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Although the Germanic mythology that grew alongside the new empire stressed many pagan virtues, it also served to influence traditional Christian faiths rather than replaced them. We can see this most clearly in Lutheranism, which enjoyed a renaissance with the coming of the German Empire. Martin Luther came to be seen as the savior of the German people, and as his message became intertwined with the nationalist spirit, it became a holy cause. For many the Empire was seen as being founded through the hand of God because he had a special mission for the German people. While this link may not have been as strong in other countries, most held a strong sense of national destiny that grew from similar beliefs.

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While this religious backed nationalist spirit caused nearly all to rally around the call for war in Germany in 1914, this unity began to split in 1917 along traditional religious divisions. Catholics appalled by the extremes of the War were now calling for peace without profit. This was anathema to those Lutherans still espousing the nationalist myth. Their ideals were only strengthened by the 400th anniversary celebrations of Luther’s posting of his Theses at Wittenberg (Reformation Day); and they would help launch a new wave of ultra-nationalistic patriotism. This spirit not only fostered the policy of expansionist militarism, it did much to increase antisemitism. By the end of summer the Germany had become a military dictatorship consolidated under the control of Ludendorff and von Hindenburg. A war of alliances was now one for empire.

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Patriotism functioning as the new state religion was not a phenomena limited to Germany, but it became a very important mechanism through which Germans created a national identity. While patriotic themes were openly employed on countless numbers of postcards, they were also disguised on cards that at first glance seem to be about something else. This is the way propaganda works the best, when the real message is hidden behind another. After continual exposure, propaganda messages begin to seem as if they are part of the natural order, thus giving license to what might be otherwise considered questionable behavior. Rarely can this be used to good effect to promote new ideas; propaganda usually reinforces values that are already openly exposed or hidden away within a society so that the reluctance to practice them can be overcome. While most societies consider self-sacrifice for a greater good a virtue, many find they have trouble with this concept and need encouragement to actually practice it.

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Personifications of liberty, victory, and the nation appear on many cards as well as the spirits of past leaders and heroes. While they can take on otherworldly form, they are not meant to evoke actual spirits but act as political symbols. Sometime there is some spillover as nationalist movements were often intermingled with religious fervor. This can be commonly seen in cards that reference the Tyrolean War of Napoleon’s day. While a nationalist struggle, the roots of the conflict partially stem from the largely Protestant inhabitants of Tirol being unwilling to serve their Catholic Bavarian overlords. Cards depicting this early conflict were published during the First World War to galvanize the Austrian inhabitants of Tirol against the new threat from Italy. There are cards that reference the patriotic nature of the struggle while others evoke the spirit of its leader, Andreas Hofer. Though some of these cards seem secular, others overtly evoke the religious side to the conflict presenting it as a crusade.

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The needs of a society usually determine the manner in which it interprets its own history. These needs often reshape history into national myths and facts are simply overlooked when inconvenient. Cards that employ this premise are designed to give comfort in the sense that it lets fighting men and their families know that they are part of a greater historical struggle from which they can draw meaning. When a leader or hero takes on mythical status within a nation’s history they grow larger than life. Andreas Hofer was an important rebel leader, but he was not nearly as strong as represented on postcards where he almost assumes the status of a saint. The formation of the German Empire in the mid-19th century was part of a nationalist movement that saw itself as carrying out God’s will. This sometimes led to Bismarck being depicted on postcards as a spirit that watches over German like a god.

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The idea of divine protection over an entire nation was not a new concept. We can see this played out in ancient civilizations where the gods needed to be constantly appeased to ensure good fortune. By World War One we see a number of postcards that project this idea by showing Christ, the Virgin Mary, or angels protecting some allegory of homeland. A country united in faith will be well protected from its enemies, though new types of sacrifices are still called for.

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Some cards straddle personal and national focus when it comes to faith. On the Austrian card above, a lone sentry stare out across a mountain valley, not only on the lookout for the enemy but to ponder his future. The specter of Christ with palm leaf and flag gives assurance that through his faith victory and peace is assured. While there is no direct message of protection in this allegory, the insinuation is that the soldier’s fate it wrapped up in his divine cause. There is no need to worry over the personal outcomes because all that follows is God’s will.

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If God watches over a nation, he also became the protector of all the faithful within that nation. This however was not seen as some sort of giant cosmic talisman; soldiers knew that they or their comrades would suffer and die as a result of the War. This concept was more a matter of putting oneself in the benevolent hands of God, and accepting whatever fate may come as his divine will. Although this is a softer message than carried on many propaganda cards, it still has a patriotic tone. These cards were not promoting resignation in the face of inescapable hardships, but rather a sense that one’s fate, even if cruel, was not arbitrary and served a greater purpose.

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Some images expressing divine protection go beyond this simple message of keeping faith. The story of Christ sacrificing himself for the sake of humanity can be retold so that the sacrifice is made for the believers of a particular nation. In this way a nation that retains true faith redeems itself in the eyes of God and receives his blessing. This can also imply that the nation needs to sacrifice itself in Christ’s name just like a chivalric knight. This type of message was meant to unite all in a holy war, asking everyone to accept their suffering as a requirement of God’s grace. This was also an important message in helping define both nation and individual. By setting oneself apart from an enemy lacking God’s blessing, fellow Christians can be seen as nonbelievers or even promoting evil.

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Some cards demonstrate God’s favor by providing us with images of masses of men being directed into battle not by generals but by Christ; they are the conquering army of God. The message is obvious; victory resides in faith, and as long as we remain faithful to the teachings of Christ, God will see us through the ordeal of war. While contemporary soldiers are depicted, they might as well be knights battling Muslims in the Levant. This association is very relevant when we consider that the Great War was mostly made up of Christians fighting one another. It was important that the enemy was not perceived as real Christians.

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On some cards named generals accompany God’s army. If you believe in the power of Christ, then you must also put faith in the nation’s generals who if not guided by his hand are at least supported by his strength. While all nations claimed to have the support of God and represented this on their postcards, few were as blatant as the French in assigning God’s grace to their generals. These types of cards appear most often at the end of the War when claims of victory did not seem overly boastful.

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Christ does not just protect righteous soldiers on the battlefield, sometimes he gets involved in the action. On some postcards he is not just giving his blessing but is directing a soldier’s fire toward the enemy to make sure he gets his kill. Even though chivalric notions were used to reconcile the Church’s teachings against violence with the values of warriors, seeing images of Christ so directly involved in killing seem out of place. The pictorial allegory is actually and old one used since medieval times, but the figure helping the soldier on the battlefield was traditionally the personification of death.

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While there are many cards that show enemy soldiers helping one another’s wounded on the battlefield, these cards were largely produced to reduce anxieties over injured soldiers not receiving the proper care they need. There are also cards that show Christ on the battlefield tending to the wounded and dying. Most rare are cards that display Christ as a teacher, where he calls for mankind to show magnanimity toward those in need. While this type of card expresses the basic teachings of the Church, it was a message that many found difficult to express amidst a sea of vitriol.




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