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Military chaplains: a rich history of more than just blessing the cannons

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[The role of the chaplain] remained contested. [In our book "Sword of the Lord," the historian, Anne Loveland] talks about the notion – the question of what is the chaplain's role? Is the chaplain the moral counselor, the conscience? If it isn't simply to be blessing the weapons and giving people the comfort of religious tradition under the terrible pressures of war, what is it? And I think that question really has been contested both inside and outside the chaplaincy.

The importance of the chaplaincy from very early on was not only about boosting morale, but also lending legitimacy to a particular war effort. And generally chaplains [were] selected on the basis of whether they were willing to play that role. But you don't run into conflict so much until you have large numbers of chaplains who are trained and supported from outside the military, so they have a position of some independency vis-à-vis the military and then you do begin to get those kinds of dilemmas.

The case I'm most familiar with is chaplains in the Wehrmacht during World War II, and those chaplains were very carefully selected. There were some cases of chaplains who questioned an individual practice: For example, the murder of the Jewish children in a Ukrainian village in 1941. But they didn't question the fundamentals of the war itself – they wouldn't have lasted very long if they'd done so.

Another interesting example is the case of chaplains in South Africa. Chaplains there were implicated in the apartheid system, and also in the aggressive use of military against neighboring countries. After the war, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one of the points of focus was the chaplain in the military.

After World War II ended … when new militaries were established in West Germany and East Germany, the roles of the chaplains were completely revised. In the East there were to be no chaplains; they didn't really fit in [to Communism].

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