National Magazine of the Lutheran Church of Australia

The quest for myth and meaning

April 2015

by Nick Mattiske

Christianity has a long—some would say indispensable—history of pacifism. At the very least, followers of the one who asked us to turn the other cheek should be wary of war and its promoters.

This anniversary year, as we are bombarded with war imagery, in a climate where the television industry, breweries and sporting codes all cash in on the Anzac legend, how can we Christians be critical of war without disrespecting the war dead? How do we remember them without glorifying war?

First, we need to avoid oversimplification, including the idea that the Great War was inevitable, or that it was simply a case of sober Britain responding to German hotheadedness. Lately, some fine research has solidified into books such as Gordon Martel’s The Month That Changed the World, which covers the month after Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo. Martel surveys the complex political and diplomatic manoeuvring as multiple European powers with their elaborate system of alliances and agreements delicately moved around each other, eventually becoming hopelessly entangled. Or so it seemed. There were opportunities to halt the march, with many working frantically for peace, even though in the end they were lost opportunities.

A select few wielded power undemocratically, and often secretly. This was accentuated by erratic and eccentric personalities, such as the German Kaiser, who was, at various stages, a sabre-rattler, a peace-activist, and maddeningly indecisive. Like most people, these elite were contradictory. They played dangerous games while fully aware that millions of lives were at risk. One persistent myth is that these figures couldn’t envisage the extent of the coming Armageddon, but they could— and were horrified by the prospect—but in the end a mix of fatalism, inability and pride succeeded in making their nightmares come true. War is not simply the product of impersonal forces but of sinful human beings.

Australian historian Douglas Newton argues that Britain’s participation in the war was far from unavoidable, but that some in government were more than reluctant participants. Prime Minister Asquith’s liberal cabinet was split, and early on most were desperate for peace (which would have, of course, kept Australia out of the war). But the great debate was steered and ultimately silenced by the warmongers, not least among them Winston Churchill.