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Rethinking the Great War

by Ronald R Johnson (

I mentioned last time that Douglas became so caught up in the Great War (WWI) that he began to hate everything German, including the Lutheran Church and its parochial schools. (And that was saying a lot, because Douglas used to be a Lutheran minister.)

I’ve also mentioned more than once that Douglas did his best thinking at the typewriter, and that allows us to trace the development of his thought. In this case, I can cite two prominent examples of how he talked himself down from the ledge (so to speak), and worked his way back to a gospel of love and forgiveness, even for Germans. The first is a Baccalaureate address he gave at Indiana University in June, 1918 (later circulated in booklet form), and the other was a 1918 Christmas booklet entitled, The Dilemma of Santa Claus.

The title of his speech at Indiana University was “Leased Lives,” so-called because he concluded by saying that that was the proper attitude for us all to have now: to realize that our lives have been “leased” to us, and to offer them back in service to society. The war was still being fought, and Douglas was still very much wrapped up in it. That’s why his message is so interesting: because, in spite of the fact that he was still very much a hawk, he was already thinking ahead and – more importantly – being critical of the very things he had been saying for the past year.

As I’ve mentioned before, this was one of his strengths: his ability to step back from his sermons and published articles and to criticize what he had said before – even using the very same words and phrases. We should all be so self-critical! As you read the following excerpt from “Leased Lives,” realize that it’s himself he’s quoting and paraphrasing:

In a frenzy of indignation, we have shouted that our enemy is a nation of madmen, stark staring lunatics, for organizing such an infernal institution as that with which they wage their ruthless war, forgetting that madmen do not organize, and that only yesterday we had sat at their feet to catch up the crumbs that fell from their feast of wisdom.

In our hot anger, we have spluttered out the charge that they are but a massed mob of soul-less brutes, dead to all finer feelings, oblivious to the fact that no musical program of ours has ever seemed complete without a rendition of their inspiring and uplifting harmonies, preferably interpreted by performers who had found their training in the native habitat of the masters by whom these exalted songs of the soul had been wrought.

In tearful rage, we have declared that the despicable philosophy of The Superman was responsible, which enjoins the strong to press on toward greater strength, leaving the weak to their fate; forgetful that for half a century we have considered the exponents of that cult pioneers in the science of rebuilding broken lives and had rushed with our sick, in moments of dire extremity, to the counsel of men whose training was had in Vienna or Berlin.

Perchance it was their outrageous religion that had killed their national soul, an argument rendered somewhat difficult when we remember that modern theological sholarship has recommended a knowledge of the German language to an understanding of its most important textbooks, and that recent sainthood has fed its aspirations on the mystical dreams of Euken.

Now, it is not expected of us that we shall be able coolly to reason this out, in these tempestuous days. Whoever can think calmly and dispassionately about this crisis may choose among such charges against him as cowardice, paresis, moral lassitude or overt treachery. Nothing matters just now but the winning of this war; and if we lose it, none of us cares to live for another ten minutes in such a state of society as must inevitably ensue. But to the end that there shall be no recurrence of a like disaster to the world, they who are to assume leadership of us in the coming days must give themselves to patient and painstaking analysis of the conditions which have brought all this to pass.

Lloyd C Douglas, “Leased Lives,” Baccalaureate Address, Indiana University, June 1918

This is still anti-German. The “conditions” that had caused the war, in his view, came down to this: that the entire Western world, including the United States, had been marching so steadily toward greater efficiency that those at the head of the pack (the Germans) had finally done away with human sentiment and kindness. Douglas’s remedy was to follow Christ’s teaching that, if we want to be great, we must serve. “There is no other way!” he said. This is still an anti-German sentiment; he still maintains that the Germans have become heartless; but he now sees that we’re all in it together and that the Germans have just gone farther than the rest of us in their pursuit of efficiency. He’s stepping back from his earlier inflammatory remarks and moving in the direction of a calmer, saner analysis of the situation.

His 1918 Christmas booklet, The Dilemma of Santa Claus, also recognizes our debt to German culture, even for some of our most cherished Christmas traditions. The “dilemma” is the fact that, even though the war was now over, it’s hard to forgive. It’s going to take some time. Douglas doesn’t admonish his readers to stop hating Germans. He admits that he himself isn’t ready to do it yet. But he reminds us that children don’t care what nationality Santa Claus is. And he goes one step further: he asks us to think about children living in Germany right now, in the aftermath of defeat. What will their Christmas be like this year?

On the one hand, he says he’s not ready to forgive; on the other hand, he invites us all to think about what life must be like over there… at least for the little ones.

This is how Lloyd Douglas lived his whole life. He was a man of passion who got caught up in world events and stated his positions boldly; but he was also a thinker, and he was capable of honest self-criticism after the fact. That’s one of the main reasons why I’ve spent so much of my life reading his writings. It’s good to “hang out” with someone like that, don’t you think?

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below: