This past year, we have heard a great deal about the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. Throughout that commemoration, though, we have rarely paid due attention to the religious language of Holy War and crusade deployed by all combatants.
Think, for instance, of the great historic moment that many will remember this month—namely, the Christmas Truce of 1914. British and German troops emerged from their trenches to fraternize, drink, and play friendly games of soccer. This has become one of the war’s best-remembered moments, an event frequently depicted in films, fiction, and popular songs. The Truce sends an optimistic message about wars and ideological struggles, which supposedly result from rows between governments and elites, while ordinary people maintain their basic human decency.
There is a great deal wrong with the Christmas Truce mythology, not least that it was a strictly limited and localized affair. Plenty of other people at the time had radically different and uncompromising ideas, and they counted far more.
That very season was the setting of Paul Claudel’s dream of divine vengeance in his violently anti-German play La Nuit de Noël de 1914 (Christmas Eve 1914). At the time, the famously pious Claudel was one of France’s most esteemed writers, beloved especially by Catholics. The play was hugely successful,...