The German Imperial Army Motto: Blasphemy, Hubris, Hope, or Prayer?

· Mottos
Authors

One sometimes needs years to connect strands of facts, especially if there is no overpowering reason to do so.  Today was an exception.  I remembered that the belt buckle of the German soldier, as I have been told, and as can be verified through due diligence on the Internet, or the perusal of a relevant publication, contains the words, “Gott mit uns”, which just happens to be “God (be) with us”.

This automatically led to the question of the intent of the words, or the objective of the designer of this motto.

Until other evidence comes to the fore, we will take it that the slogan was used during what we might call, in English, the Second and Third German Empires, with the certainty being that it was used in the two world wars.  For the moment, we do not know if it was used by the navy, or of the WWII Luftwaffe. Based on the size of the army alone, the words were valid for the majority of the armed forces of the German nation.  It was definitely not used by the most notorious of the military forces (see Wikipedia on “Gott mit uns”.)

A number of what we might call philosophical questions arises.  What God was this, a seemingly bloody God of War, Mars or Aries, perhaps?

Was this the Christian God, whom at least nominally Christian nations prayed to, for success in their military campaigns?  In an age in which even the existing democracies had little of valid input from those under the burgher and noble classes, the common man who would do the fighting had but to believe that his “better” knew that he was fighting on the side of right, and the opposing party was in the wrong.

Since wars were primarily a European thing, (while not necessarily confined to the “Old Continent”) as far as the Europeans were concerned – histories of tribal wars unbeknownst to Europeans hardly exist – and since European upper classes, even without unification, were interrelated; to say that one nation was in the right, and another is in the wrong, is to ignore that wars were, in a way, family feuds, until emperors, monarchies, and aristocrats could no longer decide which of their relatives had to be punished.  The last Russian Czar, the last German Emperor, and Queen Victoria were all related. Even a few years ago, a prime minister of Bulgaria, Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, was of a former royal house of Germany – and again, this branch of royalty provided the husband to Queen Victoria.  As pointed out in my article on Conspiracy Theory, even some of the U.S. presidents have the genes of royals.

In the case of Germany, it might be argued, (though no offence is meant of any practitioner of the religion in question), that Lutheranism was more acceptable of both divine will, and the will of the ruler.  Almost paralleling contemporary thinking by the pastor’s daughter, Angela Merkel, the founder of her religion, Martin Luther, did not feel that protecting Europe from a Turkish (read “Moslem”) invasion was important – it was the will of God.  With the Divine Right of Kings, with the inculcation in the minds of the citizen that authority must be obeyed, can an American citizen, or British subject, complain that the Germans did no more than what they themselves were obliged to do – obey authority? [Biblical reference, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 13, 1-7.]

So, all authority comes from God, in that world-view.  Hence, the ruler could rightfully plead that God is with him and his people.  Gott mit uns!  God with us!

If the preceding analysis allows us to be indulgent with the common man, what, on the other hand, is to be said of the ruling classes?  If the ruling classes, at least at the highest levels, were relatives by marriage to past and possible future opponents in other countries, were they not able to see that God could not possibly be invoked in the same way by both sides of a conflict?

For this, I have two answers.  One is that the individual, as pointed out in my article on the Correct Formation of Conscience, may, under certain conditions, be entitled to follow the dictates of his or her own conscience.

The other possibility is that a decision considered sanctioned by the Divinity, in favor of martial action, is the result of pure hubris, or hubris in forming one’s conscience.

In that case, we have a double sin, hubris and blasphemy.  How can the ruler call upon God to protect his endeavors when he is too busy competing with the attributes of the Divine?

At least one of the parties in such a conflict is guilty of violating the commandment, or earthly rule, about not killing.  Even on the side with a valid argument, it is known that not all warriors will act honorably.

Were the ruler truly religious, we could see the motto as a prayer, or at least a wish.

In the case of a Europe where Christianity is on the wane, we might still have the remained Christians sing out

  O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.

There is an obvious disconnect between people who sing this hymn and who persecute their minorities.  Nevertheless, we might say, it was another way for Christians to say, “God (be) with us (but not with others[?]).

Just before uploading this, we find that the origin of “Gott mit uns” goes back to the late Roman Empire and its Eastern counterpart, with both Latin and Greek counterparts.  We also see that Imperial Russia had the same slogan in its language.  A final point, in West Germany, the motto was used by the police until the 1970s. Below we see a the words as shown on a belt buckle of the Prussian Army, until 1918.

By The original uploader was Christlicher at German Wikipedia (Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGott_mit_uns_1WK.jpg

The original uploader was Christlicher at German Wikipedia (Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGott_mit_uns_1WK.jpg

It has also occurred to us that the long history of these words, this God with us in Latin, Nobiscum Deus has it counterparts in  Dominus vobiscum, or Deus vobiscum.  Less religiously, this was expressed in Latin as pax vobiscum (peace be with you), which has an Arabic equivalent, which we might transliterate as as-salam alaykoom. Considering that the version which names God has extended over 20 centuries, over the territory of the later Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, the German and Russian Empires, it would seems to have been much more inclusive than the Dieu et mon droit – God and my right – an expression so exclusive that it does not even bother to use the royal “we”.  It may be well less known than “Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité“, but how many of us know the inclusive motto for the European Community or for the United Nations?

December 18 and 19, 2016, modified June 20, 2017.

© 2016, Paul Karl Moeller

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