Is God on Our Side? Morality in World War Two

How does one fight a "just" war when warfare deranges human morals? And how does this square with one's faith?

Michael Burleigh

Atrocities: Up to 15 million died in the Sino-Japanese war

In July 1940, Christopher Seton-Watson, then a subaltern in the Royal Horse Artillery, wrote a letter to his parents. That morning, he had heard “a fiery sermon from the local vicar, a splendid old Tory”, for there were such beings in the Church of England at the time. 

The 22-year-old Seton-Watson commented: “I wish there were less talk of the righteousness of our cause, and less crude simplification of the issue into a struggle of good versus evil. Believing as I do in the existence of a God, I cannot believe that Hitler could have achieved so much without the assent of God. The righteousness is not all on one side….Don’t let us assume that God is automatically on our side. We have got to make ourselves worthy of his help, to show our worth.” 

And indeed Seton-Watson did, both in service which won him a Military Cross with Bar, and as a bachelor Oxford don who wrote about modern Italy and tipped Oriel undergraduates for our secret service. 

The Old Testament presumption that God was on one’s side was universal during the Second World War, although the churches toned down the sort of militancy they had espoused in 1914-18. Just consider Churchill’s account of divine service aboard HMS Prince of Wales on August 10, 1941, where he and Roosevelt agreed the Atlantic Charter. It is fashionable among biographers of the Prime Minister to omit or dismiss his religious views, which were admittedly idiosyncratic. 

But here is what he wrote about the service: “I chose the hymns myself — For those in Peril on the Sea and Onward Christian Soldiers. We ended with O God, Our Help in Ages Past, which Macaulay reminds us the Ironsides chanted as they bore John Hampden’s body to the grave. Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live.” Similarly, most of us know about the variant communiqué Eisenhower carried in his wallet on June 5, 1944, the unread one admitting blame for the failure of the D-Day landings. Few can probably recall the wording of the D-Day Prayer which the Episcopalian President Roosevelt broadcast as the invasion got under way: “Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavour, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilisation, and to set free a suffering humanity…With thy blessing we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances.” 

“For atheism and Stalin” does not have much of a ring to it, though I suppose Professor Richard Dawkins might enter the lists for the first part of it. He’d be delighted to learn, one suspects, that a US Marine Corps chaplain in Afghanistan — a Seventh-Day Adventist — has a formerly Baptist bodyguard who has Dawkins’s books in his backpack for use when the two men argue, as one does, about the power of angels. But I digress. 

The third element of the Grand Alliance, the Soviet Union, was forced by necessity to abandon militant atheism and to allow a deeply nationalist Orthodox Church some slack as part of the drive to mobilise Russia’s resources. It is well known, for example, that the Dmitri Donskoi monastery raised funds for a tank brigade, but maybe less familiar that the last issue of Bezbozhnik, the paper of the League of the Militant Godless, was devoted to denouncing Nazi persecution of the Protestant and Catholic Churches. Bezbozhnik disappeared on the grounds of “paper shortages.” 

Over on the Axis side, one belligerent nation could most sincerely claim to have God on its side, for Japan was ruled by a living deity — a lineal descendant of the Sun Goddess. The Japanese believed that the reason why they had never been defeated in the 2,600 years existence of the Yamato race was that: “We are guarded by the god above.” Of course, in a sophisticated modern society like Japan, the precise mix of Buddhism, Shinto and Confucius was highly individual, but one thing was not a matter for agnosticism. Hirohito was the focus for the kokutai, the unique virtues which bound Japanese society and which elevated the Japanese above all other races. This belief was central to the mentality of men who suffered the greatest proportionate casualties of the war, 1,600 bullets being required to kill each one of 10,000 Japanese defending Peleliu in September 1944, men who believed that as they died they became martyrs for their divine emperor. “I shall fall smiling and singing songs. Please visit and worship at Yasukuni Shrine this spring. There I shall be a cherry blossom, smiling with many other colleagues. I died smiling so please smile. Please do not cry. Make my death meaningful,” wrote one 20-year-old kamikaze pilot before his premeditated suicide.  

Every German soldier (except for the SS) had “Gott mit uns” inscribed on his belt buckle. Himmler preferred his men to be God-believing for without belief there could be no fanaticism, while atheism would elide Nazism with communism in ways that were politically unhelpful. 

The regime grew out of a political movement which had significantly mobilised north German Protestants, despite its leader being an Austrian lapsed Catholic who had become a German citizen only in 1932. That is not to say there were not Catholic Nazis, but merely that the latter were more heavily invested in Weimar through the Centre Party, which was vital to all the Republic’s coalitions. Popes Pius XI and XII deplored all forms of totalitarianism and practised neutrality in wartime, with a pronounced tilt to the Allied side as Nazi barbarity became unmistakable. 

Much of the Nazi movement’s domestic political pitch derived from its claim to be remoralising German society after the decadent Weimar Republic. Hitler repeatedly claimed to be “doing the Lord’s work” or to see God’s Will in his own actions. In fact, like communists, the Nazis deified an historical mechanism, in their case pitiless racialism rather than dialectical materialism. This was camouflaged in a redemptive national myth, with Hitler, rather than a saviour social class, at the centre of an idolatrous Führer cult. Although the Nazis gave full vent to anticlericalism, they were also certain that sooner rather than later science would triumph and abstained from physically wiping the churches out. None of which should excuse clergy from both major German denominations for blessing, from afar or in the field, the invasion of the Soviet Union as a crusade against godless Bolshevism, a task made easier by Hitler’s restoration of religious institutions in the occupied territories.

God is only one aspect of the wider subject of moral combat, which means not only what people fought for but how they fought. There are many ways in which one could write about morality and warfare, the most traditional, in Christian (or Islamic) culture at any rate, being concerned with just war or issues of proportionality. The idea that war deranges human morals is also venerable. In the Georgics, Virgil wrote in 29 BC: “Here, right and wrong are reversed; so many wars in the world, so many faces of evil.” We know that too, albeit in the language of newspapers or psychology rather than epic poetry. In 1946, around 12 million GIs came home, causing a Stateside moral panic. Papers ran such headlines as “Veteran Beheads Wife with Jungle Machete” or even ‘Veteran Kicks Aunt”, while stories about a civilian triple axe murderer were buried inside on page 17. A study highlighted several paradoxes: “Veterans had lost their moral sense in battle, yet they returned home highly critical of the nation’s peccadilloes.” “Veterans were physical and mental wrecks, yet they threatened to set up a reign of terror through cunning and brawn.” “Veterans were returning ‘vicious and godless’, even though there had been ‘no atheists in foxholes’.” 

Were one so minded, it would be possible to write a moral history of the Second World War in terms of increased divorce rates (in the US and Britain they doubled), illegitimate births, a rising incidence of crime and delinquency attributable to absent authority, or, in the German case, the two million illegal abortions resulting from women — a term one uses liberally — being raped by Red Army soldiers.

The insistent fact which requires explanation is why more civilians than armed combatants were killed in the Second World War than in any previous conflict — 34 million civilians to 21 million forces personnel, if you regard 55 million deaths as an approximate global total. By contrast, in the Great War there were 10.5 million military casualties, but only 100,000 civilian deaths attributable to military action, with a further 4.5 million victims of starvation and disease.

The concept of total war erased a simple distinction between combatants and civilians, as did the dependencies between modern warfare and modern industrial production. The ways in which all countries advertised the total mobilisation of the civilian population was akin to pinning a target disc on them. “The worker attached to a war industry must be considered to be like a soldier who, in the face of the enemy, has the requirement and obligation to remain at his proper combat post,” announced the Italian war production commissariat in 1940. These were what British or US air war strategists called the “vital centres”, without which men in the field would have no uniforms, guns and ammunition. Ironically, it was all too vivid memories of the mass slaughter in the trenches which heightened the attractions of delivering a knock-out blow, whether through mobile Blitzkrieg in the German case, or saturation bombing in the Allied one, for one of the abiding memories of the RAF’s Arthur Harris was of flying over scenes of carnage at Passchendaele as a young pilot. 

Ideology and science contributed to the belief that modern wars involved fundamentally antagonistic systems, which would fight for their survival in ways that resembled the implacability of natural organisms. This was not just Hitler’s view, but rather something shared by those who planned future conflicts. “War,” a German military planner wrote in the 1920s, was “no longer a clash of armies, but a struggle for the existence of the peoples involved.” War was not about nations manoeuvring armies for advantage on tightly circumscribed battlefields but a fight to the death to preserve civilisation, democracy, the Bolshevik revolution, the “master race” or in the Japanese case, the ancient values which made Japanese society unique. 

The scale of what was at stake was made clear by Churchill when in June 1940 he sombrely explained: “If we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science.” Hitler made it clear too in 1945 when he decreed that a Germany which had failed its existential test should completely perish in an apocalypse of his own making. The idea of fleeing elsewhere to fight another day was alien to him.

Wars which fuse civil with international conflicts in a mutually escalatory fashion are notoriously vicious. They would include the disasters experienced by the Spanish, and depicted by Goya in the early 1800s, or the 1915 Turkish genocide of the Armenians, which was related to fears that they were a Russian fifth column. 

Both the Russian Civil War and the Spanish Civil War were more recent harbingers of total systemic conflicts, for the atrocities often commenced after formal hostilities had ended. The war in Spain was not only construed as a crusade against Godless heathens but, as George Orwell showed, as one against heretics on one’s own side, the fate of Catholic Basques as well as Barcelona’s Trotskyists. Barbarism of this kind was reflected in the German policy of deliberately starving three million or more Soviet prisoners of war to death, and the cold-blooded decision to deny “x million” more civilians food which was “subtracted” for the benefit of the Wehrmacht. 

On the other side, a society which had undergone famines and purges — and whose leaders were inured to violence by revolutionary struggle — waged war with a callous indifference to suffering: 158,000 Soviet soldiers were executed for cowardice or desertion by the NKVD, including 13,500 at Stalingrad alone. War did not halt a pervasive suspicion. Millions of repatriated PoWs — virtually all of them victims of the leadership’s own military ineptitude in 1941 — were imprisoned or shot for having glimpsed the improbable sight of prosperous peasants in Romania, or the real one of houses with electric light bulbs and flush lavatories in Germany. 

Finally, throughout occupied Europe, and indeed South-East Asia, the Second World War also entailed non-uniformed combatants waging war on uniformed occupiers, sometimes with methods that might be called terrorism. It was certainly treated as such by the Germans and Japanese. The British SOE, which instigated much of this activity, took the IRA of the 1920s as a positive exemplar. 

While much of this activity is rightly celebrated, we need to acknowledge that resistance groups sometimes used torture against collaborators and spies, and that the ranks of wartime resisters included Kim Il Sung as well as the heroic cosmopolitan ladies we hear so much about. In some parts of Europe, resistance also spiralled off into vicious civil wars between rival groups of partisans, in which the Poles or Ukrainians, the Croats or Serbs, were the real enemy, rather than the Germans or Soviets. Because religion was such a marker of identity in these conflicts, it played a correspondingly large role, with clergy disgracing themselves on all sides.

I want to turn now to the moral contest which lay at the heart of a conflict often described in terms of good and evil. It is quite erroneous to believe that the Nazis abandoned morality as such. Law, which in liberal societies is supposed to protect our rights against the state, was redefined as the will of the racial collective, renouncing “its claim to be the sole source for deciding what is legal and illegal”. On a less technical level, they stripped away what they reflexively called sentimental humanitarianism, in favour of a more limited ethno-sentimentality, themes already put into practice in pre-war campaigns to sterilise the disabled, mad or feckless. War enabled this to turn murderous, starting with the elimination of “ballast existences” in asylums and concentration camps. A modern nation’s ethics were supposed to revert to those of the Spartans. This was extended into a genocidal assault on European Jews once US participation made the war global as well as total, bringing as it did the shadow of possible defeat. Speaking to his inner circle a day after declaring war on America, Hitler said: “The world war is here, the destruction of the Jews must be the inevitable consequence.”

Perverse though it may seem, retention of a sense of right and wrong was as essential to that process as the scrupulous legal documents and receipts which accompanied expropriation, ostracism and deportation.

The retention, and redirection, of a sense of right and wrong was essential to the commission of appalling crimes. This was not just a matter of prosecuting individual SS men who stole the watches, jewellery and gold teeth of their victims, even though the entire Holocaust involved systematic theft. The existence of what SS courts called “excess perpetrators” was essential to the majority who killed in a more robotic fashion. What else is one to make of the ten months’ sentence received by a member of the Dortmund Gestapo who lurched drunkenly through Bialystok shouting that “he was Lord of life and death….if he was ordered to shoot 300 children, he’d shoot 150 of them himself”. 

Essential too was the belief that this generation of Germans had been given an historic opportunity and mission to purify the world of a cosmic evil in human guise. As one perpetrator exclaimed after shooting 200 people: “Man alive, damn it, a generation has to go through this, so that things will be better for our children.” By the same token, criminalising their innocent victims was integral to these events. Jews were responsible for the scenes of torture and murder which German troops encountered in Latvian or Ukrainian jails the NKVD had vacated. They were partisans. Indeed, on December 18, that is what Himmler wrote after a meeting with Hitler: “Jewish Question: to be exterminated as partisans.” In a further twist of logic, might not even an infant grow up to visit that sort of vengeance on the people who had killed its parents? And don’t forget that the word “Anständigkeit” (decency) is as easy to find in the annals of the major perpetrators as “Ausrottung” (extermination).

Over on the other side of the world, Hitler’s Axis ally waged what was depicted as a war of liberation so as to free their fellow Asians from European and US colonialism in South-East Asia and the Pacific. Churchill specifically excluded that sort of liberation from the terms of the Atlantic Charter. The Japanese message had considerable purchase among nationalists in these regions, many of whom indirectly benefited from Japanese mobilisation of populations with the slogan “Asia for the Asians”. Sukarno in the Dutch East Indies would be a good example of an Asian collaborator, or a nationalist who exploited the Japanese, but it also applied to much of the Filipino elites and Wang Jinwei in Nationalist China. 

While none of these people objected to the white man being slapped around, things went awry when the Japanese slapped around Asians too, or requested Malay Muslims to bow towards Tokyo once a day rather than to Mecca. 

The Japanese found themselves fighting counter-insurgency wars, to which the victorious imperialists after 1945 were indebted for the term “winning the people’s hearts” (“minshin haaku“, in Japanese), as well as the strategic hamlets and other tactics used in Indochina, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaya in the following decade. In some cases, the Allies used captured Japanese troops to reimpose the colonial power — Gracey in Indochina being an example — or, as in South Korea, found their Military Advisory Group advising men who had served in the Japanese armed forces.

In this minor attempt to reclaim the history of morality in warfare from the philosophers and theologians, or at least men in white coats who bloodlessly scrutinise impossible real-time decisions, perhaps I should conclude by reverting to the world of the young Christopher Seton-Watson. He fought in three very different theatres — northern France, North Africa and Italy. 

Physical context often determined how wars were fought, for in this respect the Second World War is an umbrella term for several types of conflict. In North Africa, there were few civilians, no partisans and the fluid nature of the fighting in featureless terrain militated against the more intimate violence troops went on to experience in Italy and France. 

It may have helped that neither Hitler nor the Americans regarded the desert war as much more than an unwelcome detour, forced on them by their Italian and British allies. What one might call the circumstantial spiral of violence took off in the altogether trickier terrain of Italy and northern France with its opportunities for booby-traps and close-quarter combat. Seton-Watson recorded in April 1945 that after a Polish officer disappeared, only for his mutilated corpse to be found later, orders were published to accept no German paratroops as prisoners, and to shoot even those retained for interrogation. “Cold-blooded” Poles may have done the shooting, but British officers also tacitly sanctioned activities which lessened the possibility of enemy surrenders. 

The pre-ordering of the legal framework, a high degree of ideological investment, and a relentless spiral of violence, explain why the German-Soviet war was fought with appalling brutality on both sides, or rather all sides, since Romanians were responsible for some of the worst massacres. Even the Einsatzgruppen affected professional disdain for what they saw the Romanians do in Odessa, the largest single massacre of Jews in Europe. In 1944, what was normative behaviour on the Eastern Front leeched on to the Western Front: SS divisions did things in France which they had done every day of the week, month in month out, in the Soviet Union. That habit rebounded on the perpetrators. 

In the Pacific theatre, the Allies waged war with tremendous ferocity. Initially, they believed that the Japanese were myopic weeds with big glasses and buck-teeth, evidently being unfamiliar with atrocities in the Sino-Japanese war which may have killed up to 15 million. 

Allied troops rapidly revised their opinion as Yamashita’s troops ran through them in Malaya, and forced a much larger Dominion force to surrender Singapore under humiliating circumstances. They discovered that the Japanese attitude to prisoners of war had evidently undergone a sea change since the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War, in which the enemy had been treated with conspicuous decency. 

It may be that the intervening racial war the Japanese had fought in China lowered respect for Geneva Conventions the Japanese had signed “with amendments” but without ratification. Their own surrender was not prohibited, but it was highly stigmatised, not least by the audience of august ancestors watching the soon-to-be-dead. A projection of how Japanese imagined surrender themselves, combined with a need to advertise humiliating white men while putting other Asians in their “proper place”, may explain the appalling treatment the Japanese inflicted on their captives. Malevolent sadism, often by ethnic Koreans as well as Japanese, had its own grisly momentum. 

Allied troops waged their own war of extermination against the Japanese, with slogans such as “Rodent Exterminator” stencilled on their helmets. This was especially after they encountered (or heard about) cannibalism, torture, mutilation and faked surrenders, though sheer racism towards an incomprehensible enemy played its part. 

Since both sides knew what was going to happen to anyone seeking to surrender, the most prudent calculation was to fight to avoid fates worse than death. This translated in the Japanese case to men blowing themselves apart with hand grenades or being mown down in massed banzai charges. The normative view among their opponents was succinctly put by the US Marine sergeant who said: “We’ll have to kill every little yellow bastard.” In a reversion to practices used against the Apache, or during the US conquest and occupation of the Philippines earlier in the century, trophy hunting became commonplace, with US troops collecting bags of enemy ears and wearing bracelets of Japanese teeth. Critically wounded Japanese prisoners were not safe either, as George MacDonald Fraser noted when Indian troops surreptitiously buried them alive under rocks in a Burma field hospital. 

So far I’ve offered what you may like to think of as a moral map, rather than a compass. The implicit lessons are banal. Don’t elect governments which practise predation against other nations. Invest financial, moral and intellectual capital in defusing conflicts, before they accelerate into fighting. Fight existential wars implacably, but avoid those which are not of necessity. And accept that since wars are going to be around for a long time, we need to be prepared to wage them, while seeking to do so in a just and proportionate fashion, with officers in firm control of men who might be tempted to stray on to the dark side. 

God presents a particular problem in our current struggles with violent Islam. The job I’d like least is probably that of an armed forces chaplain. Some of his job is perennial: allaying anxieties among young men and women far from home, or dealing with grief over the loss of a comrade from within the closely knit units, which the memoirs of veterans of earlier conflicts such as George MacDonald Fraser have made so vivid. 

The status of religion within these campaigns is made difficult by the fact that our opponents go into battle shouting “Allahu akbar” (“Allah is Great”), while our own forces’ ranks include soldiers who are Muslims as well as Christians, and people of other faiths or none. One in 400 men serving in the US armed forces is a Muslim. The medieval crusaders’ cry of “Deus le veult” is obviously out of kilter with armies which are officially secular, as President George W. Bush discovered when he unfortunately used the word “crusade” in this context. Claiming that “we are fighting for Western civilisation” is difficult, since there are several other civilisations, from communist China via Hindu India to Muslim Indonesia, which are similarly engaged in fighting Islamist terrorism. The concept probably does not have much local purchase either among Protestant fundamentalists who regard much of our own civilisation as the work of the Devil. A large number of US military chaplains are drawn from this evangelical background.

If one concludes that God is too contentious in our present expeditionary travails, except as solace for individuals, then it is all the more important that we are clear in our own minds about the moral contest we are engaged in. We are rightly asked to admire the bravery of our young soldiers and airmen. 

But this conflict is not just about them, but also the organised will of civilian and secularised societies to sustain a struggle, not for four, five or nine years, but perhaps 50, often in the face of doubting or fashionable opinion. 

That is part of the military covenant too, along with boots, housing, rifles and armoured vehicles. The enemy is protean and may well strike from Somalia, Yemen, Mali or Mauritania by way of people who live in Bradford, Luton or Walthamstow as our fellow citizens. 

The moral universe (such as it is) of our opponents — one is tempted to say their moralised hysteria — is not a subject we are handling very well. Indeed, I am tempted to say that Liddell Hart’s equation of Nazism with bad manners anticipates many of our current problems in explaining why we are at war, for manners often include a reluctance to give offence, which I have endeavoured to avoid.

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