J. Crouthamel: Trauma, Religion and Spirituality

Trauma, Religion and Spirituality in Germany during the First World War.

Crouthamel, Jason
New York 2021: Bloomsbury
Anzahl Seiten
272 S.
$ 115.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Skye Doney, History, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The First World War is one of a handful of historiographic topics that have inspired entire monographs on the historiography.1 Despite the vast amount of ink historians have spilled in the past century, each new thematic turn and historiographic trend continues to inspire unique analyses of the calamitous conflict. In his original contribution to the discussion, Jason Crouthamel's Trauma, Religion and Spirituality in Germany during the First World War focuses on “the function of religion for individuals under extreme stress” (p. 4). In doing so, Crouthamel urges historians to once and for all move beyond the debate on whether religious beliefs and practices were either reinforced or eroded between 1914 and 1918.

Crouthamel is keenly aware that his is not the first study of the religious practices of combatants. Already in the 1990s George L. Mosse and Annette Becker investigated the role of religion in commemorating the fallen and how faith pushed combatants and the home front to persevere through previously unimaginable loss.2 And more recently historians have benefited from Patrick Houlihan's careful excavation of the breadth of belief in correspondence from Catholic soldiers.3

While keeping a careful eye toward the work that has already been done, Crouthamel looks to advance the discussion of religion and the First World War in two complementary directions. First, Crouthamel demonstrates, through an intriguing array of evidence, the multiplicity of religious responses to the conflict. Combatants did not simply become atheists even if they lost their original sacred worldviews in combat, nor did they become dogmatic believers who made the carnage, stress, and scale of the war comprehensible through traditional Jewish and Christian theological categories. Second, Crouthamel expands on the work of Joanna Bourke and Benjamin Ziemann, provocatively positing that religion “played a role in giving men a language to describe the ways in which they became enamored of violence” (p. 11). Some soldiers, most famously Ernst Jünger, found a new spiritual awakening in the industrial slaughter. They described existential and even biological transformations made possible through uncompromising violence.

These two arguments progress through seven chapters, five of which are focused on the diverse religious responses of individuals to the stresses of the war. The other two examine religious ideals at the outbreak of the war and contemporaneous academic discussions on how the conflict was changing German spirituality. The first chapter lays the foundations by explicating how societal leaders viewed religion and sought to mobilize faith to reinforce the goal of swift and decisive victory in the field. Accordingly, Crouthamel sees German clergy, military, and other state organizations collaborating “to weaponize religion as an indispensable tool for reinforcing ideals of masculine discipline and sacrifice for soldiers” (p. 16). By “collaborating,” Crouthamel means their religion acted as an effective argumentative tool in favor of the war. In official publications, army newspapers, and mass media, the idealized soldier was supposed to be devout, disciplined, and ready to hold through (durchhalten). This state-inspired God of the First World War was “in many ways a reflection of the militarized, masculine, and nationalistic self” (p. 25).

But the nationalist, militarized, manly God was rarely to be found in soldier correspondence: “These eyes drank all the misery, all the pain of the world…Will such eyes still see God?” asked soldier Karl Bröger in 1917 (p. 167). There was no one or monolithic answer, Crouthamel explains. Rather, combatants demonstrated the “nimble, flexible capabilities of human minds under pressure to conceive a tolerable reality” (p. 182).

Among the new spiritualities Crouthamel deftly reconstructs are fatalism, comradeship, totemism, humor, and an array of individualized sacred responses to the war experience. In short, Crouthamel found “no singular paradigm for spiritual-religious responses to initial encounters with trauma” (p. 59). But the book does follow a convincing arc within the letters examined. It begins with soldiers reiterating standard lines on the nation and God, and progresses to the adoption of these improvised systems that helped the correspondent make sense of the senseless. This point is most clearly demonstrated in the fourth chapter wherein Crouthamel focuses on the development of religious language through letters sent to and from the front.

To help make his arguments, Crouthamel has turned to psychology to better understand trauma and “moral injury” among veterans of more recent conflicts. “Moral injury” includes psychological damage when soldiers’ own actions violate their personal moral precepts. The tension between ideal morality and the reality of combat in the First World War led to varied religious responses. He notes in the second chapter that orthodox, dominant religious ideals “had only limited or temporary appeal for ordinary men and women, especially after encounters with traumatic violence” (p. 35).

Instead of relying on already extant religious structures, Germans at home and at the front developed new language to describe their spiritual and emotional selves. In chapter three, Crouthamel argues that the “language of nerves” became intertwined with religious discourses to create “a form of self-therapy” that helped individuals stabilize their emotional response to the rigors of war. Above all, both the sacred and medicalized means of describing the soul or the spirit helped to alleviate anxieties about being separated, about the constant presence of death, and about the overwhelming fear of uncertainty. Crouthamel demonstrates the fluidity between the rhetoric of nerves and of religion, even as he acknowledges that many combatants were deeply skeptical of psychology, and shows how soldiers and the home front found common ground through acts of prayer, petition, and faith.

Crouthamel works throughout the book to build the “religious bridge” he identifies as bringing the home and combat fronts together. He shows how both soldiers and civilians worked to convince each other that God had power, but most of Crouthamel's discussion of both zones accentuates the experiential gap between the two spheres. Events like Christmas widened this chasm. Soldiers fretted about lost patriarchal authority while away, longed to be away from battle and back at home, and generally - whether because of state-sponsored or self-censorship - did not frankly communicate what they witnessed. The “religious bridge” between home and the front is highly evocative, and Crouthamel has left space for further investigation into how faith did and did not tether a combatant to civilian networks both among German soldiers and within other participating nations.

Trauma, Religion and Spirituality in Germany during the First World War is an organized and methodical study of how religion helped Germans cope with the “complex, often contradictory emotions generated by trauma” (p. 2). The book ranges from the idealized religious virtues advocated by societal elites through the crises of faith soldiers experienced after participating in battle. Crouthamel excavates the complexity of wartime religiosity, digging beyond the reinforced or eroded dichotomy, and in the process reveals beliefs about how carrying pubic hair would keep one safe, the perils of the number thirteen, on how hanging a rosary on a rifle would ward off death, on how a cigarette had to be lit with no more than one match lest bad fortune follow. This is a book with much to recommend to scholars teaching about the First World War, to researchers of the conflict, and of modern European religion more generally.

1 One notable example: Jay Winter and Antoine Prost, The Great War in History. Debates and Controversies, 1914 – Present, New York 2005.
2 George L. Mosse, Fallen Soldiers. Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, New York 1990; Annette Becker, War and Faith. The Religious Imagination in France, 1914–1930, New York 1998.
3 Patrick J. Houlihan, Catholicism and the Great War. Religion and Everyday Life in Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914–1922, Cambridge 2015.

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