“Once, New Year’s Day had dominated my life…Once, I had believed profoundly that upon one solitary deed of mine, one solitary prayer, depended the salvation of the world. This day I ceased to plead…My eyes were open and I was alone-terribly alone in a world without God…without love or mercy” (Wiesel 65)
In many works of literature regarding war, the ubiquity of God as well as the question of His unwavering mercy are both prevalent themes often found throughout these compositions. Elie Wiesel’s autobiography Night is no exception to this theory. In this novel, Elie, a young Jewish boy of fifteen, is thrust into the world of concentration camps, as he becomes yet another victim of World War II. The horrors of Hitler’s “death camps” begin to destroy the faith of the once pious Elie, and he begins to question God’s existence. While suffering amongst the horrors of the camps, Elie is conflicted with a debate of prayer during the holy day of Rosh Hashanah, and must choose to pray or not to pray to his God. Ultimately, the devastation he has experienced in the camp leads Elie to state, “Once, New Year’s Day had dominated my life…Once, I had believed profoundly that upon one solitary deed of mine, one solitary prayer, depended the salvation of the world. This day I ceased to plead…My eyes were open and I was alone-terribly alone in a world without God…without love or mercy” (Wiesel 65). Elie, who had once been a devout believer in God and His steadfast compassion, is now an atheist, filled with anger and remorse for his oppressed people.
When experiencing or simply viewing the devastation of war, one is often led to ask themselves, How can God exist in War? How can the Merciful allow his people to suffer in unthinkable ways? Elie Wiesel touches on these questions in Night through a conversation between a rabbi and young Elie. The rabbi states, “I’ve got eyes, too, and I can see what they’re doing here. Where is the divine mercy? Where is God? How can I believe, how could anyone believe in his merciful God?” (Wiesel 73). The fact that even a rabbi, a man who devotes his life to God, is led to question His existence further emphasizes Elie’s atheistic beliefs in Night. Due to his life in the atrocious concentration camps, Elie ultimately shuns his former belief in God, and concludes that God must not exist in a world capable of such evil.
Night is not alone in the debate of God’s existence in war. Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is yet another work in which God’s omnipresence is questioned. In this novel, the character of Anselmo discusses God and war with the protagonist, Robert Jordan. When Robert Jordan asks “You have not God here anymore?”Anselmo answers, “No. Man. Certainly not. If there were God never would He have permitted what I have seen with my eyes…”(Hemingway 41). Anselmo, too, like Elie, believes that God cannot exist in war.
Though both Anselmo and Elie agree that God must not exist in war, their relationships with the Almighty as they are experiencing war are entirely different. For example, in Night, Elie has turned his back on God, as he believes God has abandoned him and his suffering people. Elie asks, “Why, but why should I bless Him?…Because He in his great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death? (Wiesel 64). In young Elie’s mind, God is at fault for the creation of the war and the evil instilled in the heart of Hitler and his Nazi sympathizers, and he blames his Creator for this unconditionally. Elie’s anger towards God echoes a poem written by World War I soldier Issac Rosenberg, who, in his poem “God”, depicts the Almighty as the “rotting” evil villain of war, with man as His helpless pawn, subject to God’s mercilessness. However, in contrast to this image of a pitiless deity, in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Anselmo does not blame God for the destructive war, and unlike Elie believes that man should be begging God for His forgiveness. Anselmo believes that man must repent at the end of the war stating, …”I think that, after all this is over and we have won the war, there must be a penance of some kind for the cleansing of us all” (196). In Anselmo’s opinion, though God cannot exist in the horrors of war, He does exist in other aspects of life, and is entirely capable of expressing mercy. Anselmo’s God is entirely too pure and compassionate to be associated with the profound villainousness of war.
Yet another novel that discusses the existence of God in war is Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. In this novel, the protagonist, Henry Fleming, has just fled from battle, and seeks solace in a nearby forest. Crane depicts this scene writing, “At length he reached a place where the high, arching boughs made a chapel. He softly pushed the green doors aside and entered. Pine needles were a gentle brown carpet. There was a religious half light.” (Crane Chapter 7). In using such words as “chapel” and “religious” in association with “gentle”, one will come to associate God with tenderness, a stark contrast against the harsh brutality of war. In reading The Red Badge of Courage, one will come to the conclusion that God does in fact exist during war, as God survives in the simplicity and innocence of nature. This view of God is much like Anselmo’s own belief of the Almighty, as in both For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Red Badge of Courage, God does exist, however He is separated from the demonic savagery of man in war.
Throughout the literature of war, the question of God’s existence will always be a commonly employed subject matter. Whether the authors of these works believe that while in war God may still exist in the innocence of nature, or that God simply cannot exist in any aspect of life during the horror of battle, the prevalent theme of God’s presence in war will continue to be widely used and explored.