World War II marked a turning point in the history of the entire world. Entire governments collapsed to be replaced by more liberal systems supported by the funds of the Marshall Plan. Europe was divided between the East and the West, setting the stage for international politics for the next fifty years and beyond in the form of the ideological Cold War of the United States of America and the Soviet Union. These radical changes came at a hefty fee. Millions of soldiers and civilians died across several different continents, and whole populations were murdered in the Holocaust, the most horrific campaign in recorded history. How did people respond and react to these atrocities? I will examine the role of faith in these reactions using two separate examples on two different continents: conscientious war objectors in the United States and the Existentialist movement in Europe.
During World War II, if a person was drafted, there were only so many ways to avoid joining the military. One of these ways was to claim to be a conscientious objector to war. This meant that one’s conscience forbade that person from killing. The claimant would then undergo a thorough and stringent examination by the local draft board to ensure the claimant was actually a conscientious objector and not just a draft dodger. The objection could come from a variety of reasons, such as political or ethical. Most objections, however, came from religious reasons. In lieu of military service, these individuals would work at Civilian Public Service camps, allowing them to provide support for the war effort without actually committing any violence, an option the vast majority was willing to take, conforming to the American bravado of the period while maintaining their religious beliefs. This work took the form of acting as park rangers, working in mental hospitals, planting trees, working on dairy farms, and even acting as subjects in medical experiments. Approximately 12,000 people worked in the Civilian Public Service camps, 7,000 of whom were members of the Church of the Brethren and other Mennonite groups (civilianpublicservice.org).
Many objectors volunteered to participate in this effort, another testament to how many of these people supported the war but felt they themselves could not commit violence. Norman J. Whitney was a conscientious objector who objected for religious reasons. He was a Quaker, a teacher, and a writer. He volunteered at several Civilian Public Service camps, primarily acting as a counselor for other conscientious objectors. Raymond and Helen Binford, both Quakers, were also objectors who volunteered with the Civilian Public Service. Raymond was the president of Guilford College in High Point, North Carolina. After working there for 19 years, he took a leave of absence to serve as the director of a Civilian Public Service camp and was accompanied by his wife (http://www.swarthmore.edu/library/peace/conscientiousobjection/c.o.list.htm).
This patriotic approach to the war and religion was very different from the European movement of Existentialism that followed the war. The war was far away from American soil but was often quite literally in the backyard of Europeans. The horrors of the war and the Holocaust had created a chasm in the perceived humanity of Europe. The beliefs of the past century were obliterated: that Europe was intrinsically unique and superior, the ideals of nationalism, and that humanity was on an upward trajectory towards perfection. Philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus provided answers in their world view called Existentialism. They claimed that all grand, transcendent ideas like God and religion were human inventions. If these things did not exist, then it was up to mankind to take personal responsibility for things such as ethics and meaning. Many Europeans, and soon some Americans, felt that this world view provided the answers to the questions that had been created by the sheer destruction and massacre that was World War II.
The civilian public service story: Living peace in a time of war. (2014). Retrieved from http://civilianpublicservice.org/
Manuscript collections in the swarthmore college peace collection that relate to conscientious objection. (2007, 03 19). Retrieved from http://www.swarthmore.edu/library/peace/conscientiousobjection/c.o.list.htm