Text: Mark 12:28-34 (the greatest commandment)
The Greatest Commandment, Jesus says, is to love God and neighbour. Today, on the centennial of the end of World War One, I remember how some of our ancestors were able to obey this commandment even in the terrible circumstance of war.
Loving one’s neighbours is never more challenging than in war. The neighbours of soldiers are the soldiers on the other side. They are not commanded to love these neighbours but to try and kill them. So, in war the commandment to love one’s neighbour seems impossible.
Nevertheless, the story of how the Great War came to end 100 years ago today can remind us of that some were able to love their so-called enemies in war, which also brought themselves and the world closer to salvation.
The scale of the First World War is staggering. More than 70 million men were mobilized and 10 million soldiers and seven million civilians were killed.
The Canadian young men who enlisted did so for the best of motives. Their King and Emperor, George V, told them it was the right thing to do. Their Prime Minister and elected government said the same. Their churches told them it was a sacred duty to kill Germans, Hungarians, and Turks. It was supposed to be over quickly. It was a chance to see Europe. Why wouldn’t they go?
The same is true for the soldiers of the Central Powers. Their various emperors and governments had declared war on Britain, France and Russia. All churches blessed the slaughter: Lutherans in Germany, Catholics in Austro-Hungary, and Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria and Serbia for the Central Powers; Anglicans in England, Methodists in Canada, Orthodox Christians in Russia, and Catholics in France and Italy for the Allies. One hundred years ago, almost all churches were state establishments. Church and empire were often one.
Millions went to the trenches to slaughter their neighbours with the blessings of priests and ministers ringing in their ears. It was supposed to be a sacred cause. And the soldiers did make it sacred by sacrificing their youth, their health and often their lives for the cause of church and empire.
The words sacrifice and sacred share the same root in the Latin word “sacer,” which means holy. And so, for the past 100 years, the celebration of the end of the First World War each November 11th has been a sacred moment. Each year, with great feeling, we say, “Lest we forget.” Except some things we have forgotten, I think.
Remembrance is key to spiritual growth. We try to be mindful of, and thankful for, the sacrifices of our ancestors. In faith communities like this one, we gather each week to remember our sacred values and to discuss how to live into them. Remembrance also has the connotation of stitching up broken hearts, bodies, and minds, which is part of our healing ministry.
Each November 11th for the past 100 years, Canadians have gathered to remember the sacrifice of those who died in the Great War and, since 1945, in wars that followed it. We remember the dead for many reasons. One is to give thanks for the freedom we enjoy as a result of their sacrifices.
Unfortunately, most wars don’t bring freedom. For one, war always involves two sides, and both of them can’t be on the side of the angels. Often, neither side can be considered a force for freedom.
Today, 45 years after the end of the Vietnam War, many people believe that the Americans intervention there was unjust. How difficult, then, must it be today for American veterans who fought in Vietnam?
Other wars seem black and white. Almost everyone sees World War II as a fight between good and evil because the Nazi regime in Germany was so egregious.
World War One particularly interests me because of how it ended. Why, for instance, did the Armistice that ended World War I come into effect at the 11th hour of the 11th month of the 11th day one hundred years ago on November 11, 1918?
The simple answer is that after four years of slaughter, the Allies had finally defeated the Central Powers. The war had been a stalemate until the United States — encouraged by the overthrow of the Czar in Russia in March 1917, which led to a liberal government that the Americans found acceptable as an ally in a way that the Czar’s regime was not — entered the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917.
By the summer of 1918, 10,000 American soldiers a day were landing in Europe, and the tide had turned. In September and October of 1918, the Serbians, the Bulgarians, and finally the Turks surrendered to the Allies.
Throughout October, the German High Command telegraphed U.S. President Woodrow Wilson seeking honourable terms for an armistice. But Wilson was an idealist. Unlike the European powers, Wilson published the aims of the U.S. upon its entry into the war: freedom for colonies, the creation of a League of Nations, demilitarization, and the establishment of democracy.
Wilson also insisted that the Kaiser — who was both the King of Prussia, the Emperor of Germany, and bizarrely the beloved first cousin of both King George V of the British Empire and Czarina Alexandra of Russia — abdicate as a condition for peace. Abdication was not acceptable to the German military, so on October 30, 1918, they ordered their navy to launch a final attack against the Allies in the Baltic Sea. Except this time, the sailors of the German fleet said, “No! We refuse to kill any more British, Canadian, or American sailors. We won’t go.”
Their rebellion on October 30 quickly spread throughout Germany. By the first week of November, Berlin and other cities were in revolution. The military told the Kaiser that he had to abdicate to save his life, which he did on November 7th. The conservative government that had prosecuted the war resigned in the face of the revolution and handed power to the Socialist Party. The Socialist government then signed the Armistice with the Allies in France on November 11th, 1918.
Without the revolution that swept the Kaiser and his government from power, World War One would still have ended. But without it, many more thousands would have died, and the war might have limped on until December or January, in which case the 11th hour of the 11th month of each year would not have the sacred significance it has held for us these past 100 years.
After years of obedience to church and empire and after more than one million German deaths, the German sailors had said, “Enough! We refuse your commands to kill. More than that, we are willing to die to stop the war.” They had realized that British, French and American soldiers were not their enemies. Instead they were their neighbours who deserved their love. The true enemy of the German sailors was their emperor, the Kaiser, who along with his government and church, had led them into the nightmare of war. In that moment of rebellion, these German rebels received their own salvation. By expanding their definition of neighbour, they led the world a huge step toward its salvation as well . . .
The Great War changed everything; and out of its horror, greater freedom did arise. On the Allied side, the War led to the overthrow of the Czarist monarchy and the end of the Russian Empire. On the Central side, it lead to the overthrow of monarchies in the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman empires and to independence for many of the nations formerly imprisoned by them.
After the war, women won greater equality; the authority of corrupt governments and their religious apologists was lessened; colonies strove for independence; and democracy sank deeper roots in many countries.
None of this freedom is worth the death of 17 million people, of course; but it is still something for which we give thanks. This is one of the reasons why we acknowledge the 600,000 Canadian young men who fought between 1914 and 1918 and the 60,000 who perished.
Rebelling against one’s empire and its military can get you killed just as surely as battle. But as the useless slaughter of the Great War dragged on, more and more soldiers rebelled – in France in 1915, in Russia in 1917, which led to the overthrow of the Czar and his police state, and in Germany in 1918, which led to the overthrow of the Kaiser and the signing of the Armistice 100 years ago today.
These rebels fulfilled the greatest commandment even in the middle of an unjust war. At great risk, they refused to kill for empire even as they were willing to die for their neighbours.
Today on the centennial of the Armistice, I remember my grandfather who was wounded in France in 1915; the 60,000 Canadians who died in the Great War and the 40,000 who have died in other wars since; the 17 million dead on all sides in WWI; and the more than 100 hundred million who died in WWII and in subsequent wars. I also remember the German soldiers who in 1918 stood up to their imperial, clerical, and military rulers and said “No! We won’t kill anymore.”
May our poppies remind us that all nations are our neighbours, and that all the blood shed in World War One – whether Canadian, German, British, Austrian, or Russian — was precious. The sacrifices on all sides are what make our commemoration of that war sacred.
I also pray that we can remember forward to a time in which we no longer blindly follow king and pastor, kaiser and priest, or czar and patriarch to kill and be killed. May we instead love God and neighbour in the daring but peaceful pursuit of a world transformed.
May it be so. Amen.