In 1891 a ship was launched that caused worried whispering in the halls of the Admiralty. The German battleship Brandenburg was in some ways superior to the most recent warships of the Royal Navy, but what worried the Sea Lords most was the possibility of a new enemy. Up to that point, the imagined naval bogeymen had been France and Russia. So began a naval game of thrones as powers fought for the place in the sun of unquestioned supremacy.
The American naval theorist Alfred Mahan had recently published his book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 to great acclaim. His premise that a predominant battle fleet went hand-in-hand with global power found wide acceptance amongst the European powers, as well as in the United States itself and Japan. Great Britain responded to Brandenburg and her sister ships with a succession of evolutionary one-offs, including Hood, Renown, Centurion and Barfleur, attempting to find a winning design, before settling on the massive Majestic class of Battleships. Germany responded and the race gained momentum. A seemingly winning move was played when HMS Dreadnought was launched in 1906. Dreadnought famously made all other warships obsolete. Not only that, but she was built and launched within a year: a sign to the world of Britain's industrial supremacy. But the game continued and found new fervour when Germany launched its own Nassau class of Dreadnoughts. The United States were not immune to the lust for naval power. In 1907-9, two fingers were stuck up to the European powers as the Great White Fleet of US Battleships circumnavigated the globe, demonstrating the size, power and deployability of the US Navy. As the game continued, the Nietzschean will to power became incarnate and fear, pride, jealousy and suspicion increased in equal measure: more and more petrol was poured on the European bonfire – petrol poured with genius and imagination, carefully and meticulously. When the match was lit on the streets of Sarajevo on June 28th 1914, the explosion could only be horrifying.
Later this year, Christians will be placed centre-stage as the nation remembers the beginning of the Great War. What are we going to say about it? That's a challenge. When we speak about the beauty of peace, the futility of war, the nobility of sacrifice and other themes that emerge each year on Armistice Day, all of which are good, are we missing an opportunity? Are these the things our non-Christian friends and the public expect us to say and so listen with little interest?
The Great War, and particularly the way it came about, offers a unique opportunity to see what humanity is like. What are civilised and cultured people are capable of? What can people who believe in progress do when their pride and status is challenged? The Nineteenth Century saw the abolition of many great injustices and the growth of vibrant Christian culture in Europe. What is it about humankind that enabled this great century to be followed by a bloodbath in which all the fruits of scientific and technical genius were harnessed to cause pain and misery? What does the Great War tell us about ourselves?
How is it that the people and leaders of the major European powers were blind to the folly of a naval arms race? As Karl Barth famously saw, the Great War reveals the depths of human sinfulness and the myth of human progress. The problem with progress and the problem for civilisation is the human heart: the heart that strives for supremacy. For as the Lord Jesus said, 'out of the heart come...jealousy...pride and folly. All of these things come from inside a person and make them unclean' (Mk 7:21-23). As we remember the beginning of a catastrophe in human history this year, might we come face-to-face with our own sinfulness and our need for the saviour from sin: Jesus Christ.
The Revd Dr Benjamin Sargent is the Vicar of Bransgore and Hinton Admiral in the Diocese of Winchester and a member of the Latimer Trust Theology Work Group.
This article was first published in the CEN in March 2014
Picture: SMS Brandenburg, Chromolithograph by H. Graf.
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