The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis
A brief synopsis of a book that will be published by Oxford University Press in (God willing) 2018.
On January 14, 1943 most of the leaders of the Allied nations met at Casablanca to determine a strategy for the remainder of the war. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill attended, along with leaders of the Free French, and many military officers. (Stalin, occupied with the presence of the Wehrmacht in his country and especially with the siege of Stalingrad, declined to participate.) When the parties arrived, they expected to plan a multi-front invasion of the Continent that would drive the Germans back into their own country. After debate, they decided to postpone the vast project of sending armies across the English Channel — that would not happen for more than a year — but they agreed to a full-scale assault on Italy. Still more ominously, they began to plan the “strategic bombing” of Germany. And even before the conference had ended, the Combined Chiefs of Staff composed a directive to their generals that began with a blunt order: “Your primary object will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial, and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”
Such a comprehensive program could only be articulated by leaders certain of their ultimate victory. The key underlying assumption of this memorandum, titled “The Bomber Offensive from the United Kingdom,” was that the Luftwaffe was incapable of offering serious resistance to the bombing campaign. (This did not prove to be true.) Of course, the congenitally optimistic Churchill had possessed such confidence since December of 1941: when an aide came into his office to say that, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany had declared war on the United States, Churchill blandly replied, “So, we have won after all.” But now, more than a year later, all parties involved agreed that the tide had turned, that the era of the unstoppable Blitzkrieg was over, and that Germany would hereafter be on the defensive. The tone of the leaders’ public pronouncements changed accordingly: whereas earlier in the conflict their emphasis had been on the need for fortitude and hard work, now Roosevelt, in reporting to the American people on Casablanca, spoke of “inevitable disaster” for the Axis powers, and not just for the Germans. “There are many roads which lead right to Tokyo,” he said. “We shall neglect none of them.” Most telling of all was Roosevelt’s insistence that official statements from the Conference include the proclamation that the Allies demanded nothing less than the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers and would not end the war on any other terms.
One result of this newly absolute confidence — the Allied leaders had of course long prophesied victory, but not in such uncompromising terms — was that, on the home front, thoughts began to turn to life after war. What kind of world would be left to us when the Axis powers had suffered that “inevitable disaster”? There would be much re-making, re-shaping to do: Who would do it, and what principles would govern them? Such thoughts were on the minds of many, and some of the more ambitious and provocative ideas emerged from a small group of Christian intellectuals. This was a time — it seems so long ago now, a very different age, and one that is unlikely to return — when prominent Christian thinkers in the West believed that they had a responsibility to set a direction not just for churches but for the whole of society. And, stranger still, in that time many of their fellow citizens were willing to grant them that authority — or at least to listen when they asserted it.
Boswell tells us that Dr. Johnson once said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Throughout the world a similar concentrating of minds had been intensifying for some years — beginning no later than Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 — but it was in early 1943 that this intensification of focus produced some especially remarkable work.
In the months following the Casablanca Conference, Christianity and Crisis, the magazine founded in 1941 by Reinhold Niebuhr and his colleagues at Union Seminary, published a series of articles endorsing and explaining a document called “Six Pillars of Peace.” The document itself had been produced by something called the Federal Council of Churches’ Commission on a Just and Durable Peace, chaired by John Foster Dulles, then the chief foreign policy adviser to Republican Presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey. The emphasis of this document, and of the responses to it in Christianity and Crisis, was on the creation of a body of international law-making to replace the failed League of Nations, autonomy for nations then under occupation, and a repudiation of the draconian and punitive measures taken a quarter-century earlier in the Treaty of Versailles.
But the thoughts of certain other Christian thinkers followed a different course. On the very day that the Casablanca conference began, Jacques Maritain gave the first of his four Terry Lectures at Yale University. His subject: “Education at the Crossroads.” The next day, January 15, W. H. Auden delivered a lecture to the students of Swarthmore College called “Vocation and Society.” His concern was to explore the power of liberal education to prepare young people to assume responsible and meaningful callings in a world that needed their skills. At the same time, in Newcastle, C. S. Lewis was preparing to give a set of lectures which would soon be published called The Abolition of Man: or, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools. This emphasis on education was shared by the French refugee Simone Weil, who in London devoted the last months of her life to an impassioned plea for the reconstitution of European culture, a plea to which she gave the title Enracinement — Rootedness, or, as it would later be called in English, The Need for Roots. And elsewhere in the great English metropolis, the American-born poet T. S. Eliot had just completed his poetic testament — in “Little Gidding,” the last of his Four Quartets, and, having sought the spiritual peace that comes from the faith that “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” now turned his attention, in a series of essays published in that January and February, to what he called “the definition of culture.”
In a time of unprecedented total war, these thinkers concerned themselves primarily with a renewal of Christian thought and practice, especially in the schools of the Western world. Collectively they developed a response to the war that could scarcely be more different from the political pragmatism of the “Seven Pillars of Peace.” Their absorption in theological and pedagogical concerns, which reached its highest pitch just as the war pivoted towards an Allied victory, may seem inexplicably unworldly, at best quixotic. But there is an underlying logic to such thoughts, and this book will explore that logic and its often surprising implications.