Genuine patriotism seeks the glory of God and the good of fellowmen in every clime and nation. There are no national boundaries for the truly enlightened child of God. — Daniel Kauffman, 1914
A hundred years ago, on June 28, 1914, Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo, Bosnia, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand (and his wife, Sophie), heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. It was the spark that lit the inferno that became World War I.
In response, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, and within weeks, other nations and empires allied by treaty were drawn into the conflagration.
Daniel Kauffman, editor of Gospel Herald, the Mennonite Church magazine, found words to deplore the war and to redefine patriotism. In his July 9 editorial, Kauffman defined genuine patriotism as “a loyalty which seeks the glory of God and the good of fellowmen in every clime and nation.” For “the truly enlightened child of God,” he wrote, patriotism has “no national boundaries.”
A month later on Aug. 13, Kauffman editorialized about the “monstrous institution of murder” that had erupted “in all its savage fury.” By this time, Germany had declared war on Russia (allied with Serbia) and France and had invaded neutral Belgium. Britain came to the defense of France and declared war on Germany. Soon after, Russia invaded East Prussia, and Japan declared war on Germany. President Woodrow Wilson announced the United States would remain neutral.
But if the United States were drawn into the war, Kauffman asked his Mennonite readers whether they would be strong enough to withstand “trial, persecution and insults.” We must be willing to choose “suffering rather than to inflict sufferings,” he concluded, “and to be killed instead of killing.”
The United States joined the fray in 1917, with Wilson ironically declaring that it would be the war “to make the world safe for democracy.” At home, democracy took a hit when Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. These acts made it a crime for pacifists and antiwar activists to speak, teach or advocate opposition to the war.
Wilson also railed against hyphenated Americans, such as Italian-Americans or German-Americans. In a 1919 speech in Pueblo, Colo., the president declared, “I want to say — I cannot say too often — any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”
By the time the war ended, 20 million people — civilians as well as soldiers — had been slaughtered. Also sacrificed was the notion of progress, the belief that the human spirit was evolving into ever-higher levels of knowledge, wisdom and morality. Twentieth-century humanity demonstrated a brutality on par with the most barbaric of its primitive ancestors. Rarely had there been so little to gain and so much to lose. Never had there been such a war of attrition as that on the Western Front — stretching from the Swiss border to the English Channel — where 5,000, sometimes 50,000 lives a day were sacrificed to gain 10 or 20 yards.
Of the war’s consequences, foremost for those who fought and survived was disillusionment. Barbara Tuchman, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Guns of August, quoted D.H. Lawrence as saying, “All the great words were canceled out for that generation.” Grand words and noble ideas had been shattered.
Nevertheless, some great words and ideas lived on. During the war and after, hyphenated American conscientious objectors practiced the noble words of Jesus and Menno Simons and “clothed the naked, fed the hungry, comforted the sorrowful, sheltered the destitute and bound up the wounded.” Such noble and patriotic actions transcend national boundaries.
John Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College.