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Second World War, 80 years ago: Looking forward

02 September 2019

From the Church Times of 8 September 1939


Filling sandbags in London on 1 September 1939

Filling sandbags in London on 1 September 1939

AS MR CHAMBERLAIN claimed in the momentous broadcast statement on Sunday morning, in which he announced that Great Britain and the German Reich are at war, this country has no need to fear the verdict of history. Mr Chamberlain has done everything possible to avoid war. Indeed, he and Lord Halifax have shown a patience which has been mistaken for pusillanimity. Unable to understand the bases of Christian and democratic statesmanship, Herr Hitler persuaded himself that Great Britain would never tire of turning the other cheek. He did not realize that there is a limit to patience, and that compromise may mean the surrender of national duty as well as national security. So war has been forced on Great Britain and many other nations by the insensate and wicked ambition of one man.

This country is not fighting for Danzig. It is not fighting for Poland. It is fighting for the independence of nations, the liberties of mankind, vital ideals of the Christian religion, a good life. The world is menaced by what the Times called on Monday “the hoariest and most illusory aspirations of pagan nationalism”. If Hitlerism is not destroyed, Europe first, and the whole world afterwards, will be forced back into an era darker than the dark ages.

With the instruments of modern warfare, its incidents must necessarily be terrible. Herr Hitler has apparently already broken his pledge to the President of the United States, that his aeroplanes shall drop bombs only on military objectives, and open towns and villages in Poland have already been attacked with a heavy loss of civilian life. So long, indeed, as these air attacks are an essential part of warfare, so long must civilians remain in danger, for it is obviously possible honestly to aim at an arsenal and hit a hospital. It is therefore to be expected that death and destruction will riot in devilish indiscrimination. Other wars have taken their heavy toll of young and vigorous manhood. It is not only the soldier and the sailor who will pay for Herr Hitler’s reckless attempt to dominate a continent.

We are suggesting these probabilities, not with the idea of stimulating apprehension, but because they emphasize the tremendous responsibility that now falls on the Church and on the individual Christian. Never were greater demands made on the men and women who proclaim their allegiance to Christ the King. He remains the immortal Pattern of calm courage. In the extremity of suffering, He remained unconquered; and trusting in His never failing help and encouragement, His followers may attain a measure of His serenity. The Christian must set an example to his fellows of confidence and courage. He must not allow the loss and suffering that may come to him to damp down the sympathy and help due to those who are equally tried. He must be ready to smile if his possessions are destroyed, to bear pain with Christian courage, to face death without fear. Confident of the support of the everlasting arms, firm in the faith that after the warfare of the world there will dawn the peace of God, there is no victory for death and no sting in the grave.

But in this crisis there is an obligation on the Church beyond that of encouraging Christian fortitude in the individual. The war will destroy. It will destroy many good things. It will destroy some evil things. It will clear the ground. So far as this country and her allies are concerned, there is no question of the righteousness of the cause for which they are fighting. They are in arms in defence of principles taught by the Catholic Church, as Charles Martel was centuries ago when he stayed the Moslem conquest of Europe at the battle of Tours. But it is unfortunately true that, while many wars have been waged for idealistic causes, the ideals, as Mr Leonard Woolf suggested last week, have often perished as soon as the first gun has gone off. This has often happened. It need not happen. It will not happen, if the Church is true to its mission and if it effectively uses the immense influence with which it has been entrusted.

Certain fundamental facts must be kept clearly in mind. This week we are leaving a world behind. What will the new world be that, sooner or later, will come into existence in its place?

Eras in human history vary in length. The sixteenth-century age of dreams, clash and constructive achievement began with the gay hopes of Erasmus and finished with the grey disillusionment expressed by Shakespeare in “The Tempest”. The Victorian age of material and self-satisfied progress lasted from the Reform Bill to the Boer War. Then came the few years before 1914, the years of escape from the thraldom of Victorian convention, of release from Kipling jingoism, of many constructive attempts to establish a better social order. These years were the epilogue to the Victorian drama.

The war of 1914-18 might have settled many things. It settled nothing. The idealism of the armies was destroyed by the short-visioned national selfishness of the men who made the peace treaties. There has never been real peace in Europe since 1919; only resentment, fear, suspicion and hatred. Now the devil’s brew has boiled over, as it was bound to do. Whatever may happen, things will never be again what they have been in the last years.

Everywhere this week there is the entirely justifiable claim that because of its attachment to freedom and of its care for righteousness, Great Britain can do no other than oppose force with force. If any good whatever is to come out of evil, this must be a real deep religious conviction, and not the mere repetition of smooth sentences. Europe may be destined to be battered into destruction. Then the work of reconstruction must begin, and something must be created more seemly, more just, more Christian than any social system that man has hitherto contrived to devise. Wars always beget revolution. It is for the Church to use, with unfailing persistence and unbroken faith, all the spiritual strength with which it is endowed to see to it that the next revolution is a Christian revolution. If this is secured, the suffering and the sorrow will not have been in vain.

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