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The Sacrificial Theory of Warfare, Chapter XI:
The Crucified Soldier

Kelly Denton-Borhaug finds that the “sacrificial war narrative”—at the heart of American citizenship—has “Incredible power” and deeply shapes our understanding of the nation. References to death in battle as “necessary sacrifices” constitute a “powerful motivation for warfare.”

These references, Denton-Borhaug says, are drawn from centuries of Christian interpretation of the “death of Jesus as required for salvation.” Warfare is transformed into a sacred enterprise devoted to saving the nation from its enemies. Just as Christ died to save humanity, so does the soldier die to save his nation. Like Christ, “Soldiers die so that we may live.”

It would appear, however, that the sacrificial war fantasy—equation of the soldier with Christ—is not unique to American culture. An identical ideology shaped German thinking about warfare—one hundred years ago. Analyzing the sermons of German pastors during the First World War in The Gospel of Nationalism (1986), Arlie J. Hoover found that “the sacrificial soldier lay at the heart of religious nationalism.” The soldier, like Christ, was ready to “place his earthly life on the altar of love.”

German pastors looked upon the warriors death as the “most beautiful of all deaths.” The death of a German soldier resembled the “freewill offering of Christ himself,” who left his life voluntary for his brethren. Whoever dies in battle, “dies in the Lord”—because he has “subordinated his bodily good” and “offered his life for the good of the Volk.”

Sabrine Behrenbeck (in Betts an Eghigian, 2003) observes that in the nineteenth century an interpretive framework had been adopted for locating the death of the soldier in the scheme of Christian sacrifice. In most European states, sacrificing one’s life “on the altar of the Fatherland” was a common trope in justifying a soldier’s death. The nation served as the highest ethical value, justifying—and thus demanding—any sacrifice. As the refrain of a famous soldier’s song went, “Germany must live, even if we must die.”

J. W. Baird’s To Die for Germany: Heroes in the Nazi Pantheon (1990) fleshes out this fantasy of sacrificial death as the essence of German nationalism. The poet Josef Magnus Wehner mused on the enduring meaning of Langemark and the Great War. It had been a religious experience for him and for those who had served at the front. Christ's passion had found its parallel in the deeds of those soldiers, who had sacrificed themselves for the nation.

But the tears of Good Friday gave way to the joy of a German Easter and the promise of eternal life. Wehner celebrated this sacrifice in his poem "Vom Blut der Helded Schlagt das Herz der Welt:"

You should neither cry nor grieve, for our sacrificial blood was life win. God created death as a brother to life: The heart of the world beats with the blood of heroes. We marched before you through the dark gate and shone for your resurrection.

In his last letter to his mother, written before his death on the western front in 1940, Hitler Youth officer Ernst Nielsen tried to prepare her for the loss of her son. When the news arrived, he warned, she was not to grieve; rather, she was to affirm the nobility of the cause:

If I die, mother, you must bear it, and your pride will conquer your pain. Because you have the privilege of offering a sacrifice. That is what we mean, when we say Germany.

The officer’s mother has the “privilege” of offering a sacrifice. This is what one means when “we say Germany.” In short, according to Nielsen’s poem, the mother’s offering of her son as a sacrifice—and the German nation—are one and the same. Germany is born—comes into being—as mothers offer their sons as sacrifices in battle.

Or—as Carolyn Marvin put it (1999), “blood sacrifice creates the nation.” Put more precisely, in many European nations (and in American, as Denton-Borhaug notes), the soldier is equated with Christ, whose sacrificial death leads to national resurrection. The soldier—crucified in battle—is raised from the dead.

Warfare, Christ, and Sacrificial Death
Richard A. Koenigsberg
We distributed a condensed version of Denton-Borhaug’s review essay through the Library of Social Science Newsletter—and received a fabulous response. The mailing went out to 23,299 people. 8,212 people opened this email (a total of 10,181 times): a astonishing open rate of 35.2%.
Book by Kelly Denton-Borhaug
U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation

For information on ordering, please click here.
In her review essay of Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, Kelly Denton-Borhaug argues that the “sacrificial war narrative”—profoundly embedded in American culture, historical memory and national consciousness—is our (the American) national story.

The sacrificial metaphor at the heart of citizenship—inextricably tied to war—has “incredible power.” Our deeply religious war-culture “profoundly shapes our understandings of citizenship and the nation.”

David Weddle summarizes the argument of Denton-Borhaug’s book, U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation, as follows: Deaths in battle are often “designated as sacrifice,” and therein a “powerful motivation for warfare lies.”

References to combat deaths as “necessary sacrifices,” Denton says, are drawn from centuries of Christian interpretation of the “Death of Jesus as required for salvation.” Warfare thus is transformed into a “sacred enterprise.”

Religious institutions, according to Denton-Borhaug—perpetrating uncritical portrayals of Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for human salvation—“feed into war culture.” The model of the heroic offering of oneself for the salvation of others (by Christ) inspires the view of those who die in battle as “redemptive sacrifices.” Fervor for war is sustained by the pervasive “use of sacrifice to name the loss of life in battle.”

Just as Christ died to save humanity, so does the soldier die in order to save the nation. Like Christ, soldiers die so we may live. By associating Christ’s death with the deaths of fallen warriors, the wars that took their lives also became “sacred enterprises;” as valuable to patriotic piety as “the cross upon which Christ gave himself.” Jesus’ sacrifice “bleeds into and informs the meaning of the sacrifice of soldiers in war.”

In The Gospel of Nationalism (1986), Arlie J. Hoover writes about nationalism as a religion. He theorizes that the “fluidity of the religious sense” makes it easy for human beings to switch the object of religious veneration: from the church to nation; from God to country.

Focusing on the sermons of German pastors during the First World War, Hoover demonstrates that the sacrificial soldier lay at the heart of religious nationalism. Far from being sinful, German pastors agreed, the life of the soldier was one of the most exemplary lives one could choose, a life of “moral courage, devotion, and self-denial.” The soldier, like Christ, was ready to “place his earthly life on the altar of love;” to “die for family, brethren, or country.”

German pastors looked upon the warrior’s death as the “most beautiful of all deaths.” The hero’s death—death of a German soldier—resembled the “free-will offering of Christ himself, who left his life voluntarily for his brethren.” Walter Lehmann expressed it as follows: “German nationality and Christianity agree at their very core in heroism—nothing is greater than to leave your life for your friends and your brethren. Both are fulfilled in the hero’s death.”

German Lutheran theologian Adolf von Harnack stated that soldiers can claim the promise of scripture: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (I John 3:14). Whoever dies in battle “dies in the Lord”. Because he has “subordinated his bodily good” and has “offered his life for the good of the Volk.” The nature of war, Hoover observes, makes it easy for the soldier to understand the essence of Christianity: heroism, love, sacrifice, and devotion to duty.

It would appear that the German ideology of warfare that governed the First World War—described by Hoover—does not differ substantially from the American ideology of war described by Denton-Borhaug.

Perhaps we are dealing with a single idea, which began two-thousand years ago with Christ, and his crucifixion. According to the ideology of Christianity, Christ died on the cross to save humanity. According to the ideology of warfare, the soldier dies on the battlefield to save his country.