When the First World War began one hundred years ago this month, heralded as “the war to end all wars,” it ushered in a century of violence.
Following the armistice, four years and sixteen million deaths later, the League of Nations was founded, built on the belief that diplomacy and self-determination could right the world’s wrongs. This measure could not, however, prevent the Second World War and the conflicts following it.
While noble ideals failed to change the course of nations, there are many individuals who, after experiencing the horrors of the First World War, vowed “never again,” and starting with themselves, worked to build a world in which war would be impossible.
One of these was Adolf Braun. Born in Germany in 1893, he was already in military service when the war broke out. He was sent immediately to France, and later to Russia. A year later, in July 1915, he was critically injured by a piece of shrapnel that entered his head. He was sent home to recover, but in 1917 the German army was so desperate for troops that he was drafted again and sent to France. Farewelled with patriotic marches, Adolf was confident that his holy cause, for God and country, was sure to prevail. During this second tour, however, he had two experiences that completely reversed his convictions about war. His sister recounts what he told her after he returned:
Adolf was stationed with his men in a wood which was destroyed by all the shooting and explosions. . . . He was up in a tree, observing and trying to direct his men. At intervals, when the fog lifted a bit, he could see the French observer opposite him in another tree, not far away. It was a heavy attack and the shooting came thick and fast, whistling around them. Adolf thought of the Frenchman up in the tree, and he thought: “My bride and my beloved ones at home are praying for me; are his beloved ones praying for him too?” That thought shook him very much. He knew: “If I ever get out of here alive, my life has to be completely new.” When this horrible attack was over, the losses on both sides were terrible. Of Adolf’s company, he was the only one left.
After another heavy attack (he was with the heavy artillery) they were very fatigued. In the night there was a pause, and they fell asleep right there by the cannons. He and a comrade were awakened by moaning. They followed the sound and found many badly wounded French soldiers in a little wood very close by. They tried to help and give them water to drink. Leaning against a tree was a solder with his hands folded. Adolf talked to him and tried to make him comfortable. The Frenchman indicated his pack. In it was a bloodstained Bible and a photograph of the man's family. The wounded man asked Adolf to write down the address of his family. Then they prayed together. The man gave Adolf the Bible to keep, and he always treasured it. Later he was able to send the message to the man's family.
These two incidents convinced Adolf of war’s insanity, and on returning he rejected a promotion that would have been awarded by the kaiser himself. Adolf spoke out against the war and tried to alleviate the suffering of post-war Germany. Eventually his search for social justice and peace led him and his wife Martha to the Bruderhof, a Christian community modeled after the early Christians.
Due to their pacifist stand and their refusal to expose their children to Nazi ideology, all Bruderhof members were forced to leave Germany by the Nazi government in 1937. They emigrated to England, where they were joined by English people who also sought a way of peace.
One of these new British members was Victor Crawley, who had been drafted and sent to France at age eighteen, and who, like Adolf, had returned from the front convinced that war is wrong. Victor and his wife Hilda became members of the British Peace Pledge Union, but they felt that wasn’t enough: their “no” to war required a reciprocal “yes” to a life dedicated to peace and brotherhood.
When Victor and Adolf met and shared their war experiences, they discovered that they faced each other at Marne, and again at Verdun.
In the next few years, as the ideals of the League of Nations collapsed under the rising tides of war, and as their own nations went to war against each other again, Victor and Adolf remained firm in their commitment to Christian brotherhood. Adolf later wrote:
When I think of the so-called peace efforts which the whole world professes, I am strongly reminded of my personal experiences during and after the 1914-1918 war. In 1914, as a young Christian patriot, I went into the battlefield “with God for king and country.” Like hundreds of thousands of my compatriots I was completely unaware of the true powers that are active behind world events, how poets make brutality appealing, how the representatives of religion bless the weapons with their propaganda for a Christian state. [After I saw the reality of war] the religious, romantic veil fell away. I said “No” to war. But the “Yes” to life, with all its demands, I only found after I had recognized that it was quite impossible to separate this question from an investigation of the social question.
Ceremonies for the First World War centennial will be full of flags and flowers, and will end at memorials where the dead are commemorated. The centennial should also be a time to celebrate the lives of men and women who, after the war, beat their swords into plowshares and fixed their eyes on a kingdom where “they will not hurt or destroy” (Isaiah 11:9).