This year marks the anniversary of more than one significant event, including the four-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Calvin. But the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of what is variously called the Great War and the First World War holds special significance for many of us, because, on a personal level, it affected our own families and, on a global scale, inaugurated a protracted period of nearly unprecedented horrors that uprooted and eliminated entire populations.
After the boundless optimism of the post-Napoleonic period, in which even many Christians were caught up, the old order came crashing down in an orgy of blood-letting and hatred that would last, in some fashion, until 1989, with the opening of the Berlin Wall. Prior to 1914, my father’s family were nominal subjects of the Ottoman Sultan in Cyprus, albeit under British administration from 1878. (In fact, the first appointed British High Commissioner to Cyprus, Sir Garnet Wolseley, had commanded the expedition in Canada to put down Louis Riel’s Red River Rebellion eight years earlier.) When Britain and Turkey became combatants at the outbreak of the Great War, Britain was compelled to annex Cyprus outright lest its residents, including my relatives, become enemy aliens.
On my mother’s side of the family, my nineteenth-century ancestors were subjects of the Russian Tsar in his capacity as Grand Duke of Finland. A remote ancestor even fought for the King of Sweden against Russia’s Peter the Great three centuries ago. They came to America, probably via Halifax, Nova Scotia, for a variety of reasons, one of which was to escape conscription into the Russian-controlled military.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the world was presided over by an interlocking network of the descendants of Queen Victoria and Denmark’s King Christian IX. Although this made Europe appear on the surface to be a big cozy family, such blood relationships did little to curtail the increasingly intense rivalries amongst the major powers of the day.
In fact, by 1914 this grand European royal clan looked more like a dysfunctional family, with tensions bubbling furiously below the surface. It took an assassin’s bullets to bring it into the open, and by August of that fateful year Europe, and much of the world, was at war.
There is, of course, no need to recount here the history of the twentieth century, whose contours are familiar enough to us. But it is worth pointing out that the outbreak of war in 1914 unleashed a decades-long chain reaction that left millions who survived two major global conflicts uprooted and exiled. Greek Orthodox Christians and Armenians were forced to leave Asia Minor after nearly two thousand years of residence. Ethnic Germans were compelled to leave East Prussia and other eastern provinces where they had lived for centuries. And, of course, many Europeans decided to leave their troubled continent altogether to seek better lives in far-off Canada, the United States, or Australia. The very existence of Christian Courier, Redeemer University College (where I teach) and the Christian Labour Association of Canada is a testament to one such migration. And my own presence in this world would not have come about were it not for at least three migrations over the last century and a third. The Great War played a pivotal role in two of these.
How then do we mark this tragic and momentous anniversary? By remembering. Remembering, among other things, the dangers of rampant nationalism, of reckless arms races, of political orders that neglect the lives of the poor and vulnerable. But also by remembering with humility that many of us might not have existed at all apart from the events unleashed by this conflict.
Platitudes are of no help at this point. We cannot, and perhaps dare not, try to fathom the mystery of evil, which has puzzled humanity down through the millennia. Yet I myself am grateful that God’s grace has come to us even in the midst of a less-than-perfect world. When next I attend our family’s church, and see the tattered century-old Union Jack mounted under glass on the wall in the entryway, I will thank God for his faithfulness and then pray that we who live today will have learned the lessons of that terrible conflict of a century ago.
David T. Koyzis has taught politics at Redeemer University College in Canada since 1987 and is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions. This is a slightly modified version of an article that appeared in the 10 February issue of Canadian periodical Christian Courier.