Review Essay of Contesting Sacrifice
Contesting Sacrifice traces the political theology of sacrifice in France. Ivan Strenski shows that the idea of sacrifice was an exposed nerve of French political culture. Pointing out that every major theorist of sacrifice is French, including Bataille, Durkheim, Girard, Hubert and Mauss, Strenski argues that we cannot fully understand their work without first taking into account the deep roots of sacrificial thought in French history. Drawing on meticulous research, this study will prove indispensable to intellectual historians, historians of France, and scholars of religion and its relationship to politics.
Ivan Strenski is the Holstein Family Community Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside.
Ivan Strenski suggests that French behavior in the First World War grew out of a sacrificial ideology. He observes that nations are sacred objects—“meaning-making entities”—that transcend the individual. As such, nations routinely require that individual citizens sacrifice themselves.
Strenski shows how the ideology of French Catholicism informed and reinforced French nationalism, helping to shape the First World War. As Christ “poured out his being in death for the sake of all humanity in an act of sacred annihilation,” so French soldiers absorbed bullets and shrapnel in the name of France.
For French Catholic nationalists, death in warfare was viewed as a “gift to God in exchange for the gift of life.” On the front, soldiers sought to be “active martyrs.” Novelist Jean D’Arnoux declared that French soldiers at Verdun (who died in massive numbers) were “victims on an altar, like Christ on the cross, the altar of the world.” War for them was an “immense Good Friday.” The blood of the sacrificed French soldiers would bring “renewed life,” refreshing the nation as “spring rain would renew the good French earth for the benefit of all.”
The First World War was welcomed by some French Catholics, who lamented that individualism had “run amok in France.” Captain Antoine de Quéré, a representative of Catholic ideals, thrilled to the changes war would force upon an unruly nation, glorifying in the blessings it would bring. Everything had been “liberty, disorder and anarchy”—things that the Catholic “party of order” abhorred. War represented the return of “rigor, discipline and authority.”
Nationalists attacked the deplorable state of French morale.
Intellectuals were derided for “egoism” and “lazy melancholy,” workers for small-minded localism and lack of enthusiasm for collective causes. War represented a spiritual force that would “bind citizens into common service for the nation,” as it had always done, incubating a spirit of national unity. Just as Jesus’ death cleansed the sins of humanity, so common soldiers’ self-sacrifices were seen as expiation for France’s sins. Soldiers were enduring an “enforced Lent.” Sacrifice constituted a “gift of self for the common good.”
As German soldiers in the Second World War were asked to be obedient unto death, so French First World War soldiers were required to radically subordinate themselves to the nation-state. One French soldier explained his role to a confused comrade:
The day that you put on that uniform, while the bells of all the villages of France and the drums of all the town criers announced the general mobilization, you were at that very moment given totally over to the nation. She owns you completely. We don’t think things over anymore: it would be futile. We are cogs in an enormous machine. We aren’t even ourselves any more. The country has absconded with your soul. Now, do you get it?
Social scientists once interpreted warfare in terms of “male aggression.” Quite to the contrary—as the above passage suggests—the posture of the soldier in war is one of absolute passivity and submission. The soldier in battle becomes the property of his nation. He offers himself to be slain—to abandon existence when required to do so.
From this perspective, one may comprehend the First World War’s strategy of the “offensive at all costs,” which focused on the “psychological battlefield” as the key element of warfare. This strategy derived from the idea that morale and discipline were the crucial determinants of success in battle. A nation could achieve victory only if troops had the courage and will to cross the fire-swept zone (“no man’s land”), suffer heavy casualties—and still keep going. “War,” British General Ian Hamilton declared, is the triumph of “one will over another weaker will.”
Of course, this strategy proved anything but successful or triumphant. On the contrary, it generated monumentally disastrous results: 9 million dead and 21 million wounded. Yet France—along with other nations—persisted in this bizarre battle strategy. For four years, troops were required to get out of trenches and run toward the opposing trench, only to be cut down by machine gun fire and artillery shells. How are we to comprehend this fanaticism of the First World War—the persistence of a futile battle strategy that resulted in massive destruction?
To attack, Strenski observes, is to open oneself to risk and loss, most critically to loss of life. Advancing this strategy of the offensive was to accept the need for soldiers to prepare themselves for probable death. Indeed, French General Joseph Joffre admitted in 1913 that the results he sought in pushing this strategy could be obtained only “at the price of bloody sacrifices."
This policy of unleashing Gallic furor, Strenski concludes, wasted swarms of men in futile assaults on well-entrenched German lines. In maximizing the heroic, sacrificial and even metaphysical values that informed the strategy of the offensive at all costs, the French command virtually ensured “the massive slaughter of its own infantry.”