Most American families have some traditions they observe every Christmas, even Jewish families. It might be decorating a tree, singing Christmas carols, shopping for bargains on Christmas Eve, attending church services, reading the biblical account of the birth of Christ, taking the kids to see the grandparents, driving around and looking at Christmas lights, eating at a particular restaurant, or watching It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, or A Christmas Carol.
As fine as these things are, there is another tradition worth observing this Christmas and every Christmas: reading Silent Night (The Free Press, 2001). Not only is “Silent Night” the name of a Christmas carol, it is also the title of the book by historian Stanley Weintraub that tells the story of the World War I Christmas truce.
What makes the World War I Christmas truce even more relevant this Christmas is that we are once again at war on Christmas and it is the 90th anniversary of the famous truce.
The Christmas of 1914 was the first Christmas of the “war to end all wars.” The war would drag on through three more. The German, French, Belgium, and British troops engaged in killing each other did not just all of a sudden lay down their arms because it was Christmas. According to Weintraub, neither side had been “firing at mealtimes” and “friendly banter echoed across the lines.” The soldiers in their trenches were sometimes so close to each other that “they would throw newspapers, weighted with a stone, across to each other, and sometimes a ration tin.” In early December, a British general issued an order that forbade fraternization because “it discourages initiative in commanders, and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks.”
Yet, less than a week before Christmas, a British lieutenant wrote to his mother:
Some Germans came out and held up their hands and began to take in some of their wounded and so we ourselves immediately got out of our trenches and began bringing in our wounded also. The Germans then beckoned to us and a lot of us went over and talked to them and they helped us to bury our dead. This lasted the whole morning and I talked to several of them and I must say they seemed extraordinarily fine men. . . . It seemed too ironical for words. There, the night before we had been having a terrific battle and the morning after, there we were smoking their cigarettes and they smoking ours.
Brief and localized pre-holiday truces were springing up, usually initiated by the Germans. As Christmas Day approached, some German troops put up small Christmas trees on the parapets of their trenches. On Christmas Eve they began to sing Stille Nacht (“Silent Night”). Placards with Christmas greetings were set up by both sides. On Christmas Day, both sides buried their dead who had been lying in “No Man’s Land.” They chatted, exchanged souvenirs, shook hands, ate and drank together, played football, had joint religious services, and smoked each other’s tobacco. They also took pictures.
No one knows for certain where and how the truce officially began. What is known is that men from both sides up and down the front agreed on informal truces for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. A Bavarian captain recalled that he shouted to his enemies that: “we didn’t wish to shoot and that we [should] make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted u2018No shooting!’ Then a man came out of the[ir] trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands — a bit cautiously!”
An English captain wrote to his wife:
I was in my dugout reading a paper and the mail was being dished out. It was reported that the Germans had lighted their trenches up all along the front. We had been calling to one another for some time Xmas wishes and other things. I went out and they shouted “no shooting” and then somehow the scene became a peaceful one. All our men got out of the trenches and sat on the parapet, the Germans did the same, and they talked to one another in English and broken English. I got on top of the trench and talked German and asked them to sing a German Volkslied, which they did, then our men sang quite well and each side clapped and cheered the other.
A Scottish corporal relates his experiences:
We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years. We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans — Fritz and I in the center talking, and Fritz occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying. We stood inside the circle like street-corner orators. Soon most of our company . . . hearing that I and some others had gone out, followed us; they called me “Fergie” in the Regiment, and to find out where I was in the darkness they kept calling out “Fergie.” The Germans, thinking it was an English greeting, answered “Fergie.” What a sight — little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches. . . . Where they couldn’t talk the language they were making themselves understood by signs, and everyone seemed to be getting on nicely. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!
That last sentence alone shows the utter folly of war. It also shows that left to themselves, men would not naturally engage in such a senseless war like World War I. It takes the state to get men to hate and kill other men that have never aggressed against them and that they don’t even know.
After a silent night and a day, the war continued — the commanders saw to it. A British general who visited the front was aghast that “sufficient attention” was not being paid to fighting the Germans. In a memorandum to his commanders he stated:
I would add that, on my return, I was shown a report from one section of how, on Christmas Day, a friendly gathering had taken place of Germans and British on the neutral ground between the two lines, recounting that many officers had taken part in it. This is not only illustrative of the apathetic state we are gradually sinking into, apart also from illustrating that any orders I issue on the subject are useless, for I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is intercourse to be allowed between the opposing troops. To finish this war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly intercourse. I am calling for particulars as to names of officers and units who took part in this Christmas gathering, with a view to disciplinary action.
Weintraub closes the book with a chapter entitled “What If — ?” But amid all that the author proposes that might or might not have been, one statement stands out: “The butchery in which hundreds of thousands of bodies were ground into the mud of the Western Front, leaving not an identifiable bone, would not have happened. The more than six thousand deaths every day over forty-six further months of war would not have occurred.”
And now, ninety years later, we are again engaged in a war. The casualties may be less, but the state’s lies about the war have increased.
The president maintains that the United States and the world are safer now than before the September 11th attacks. But does the rest of the world real feel safer? The situation described by Lew Rockwell just after Christmas two years ago has not changed: “The US remains the only government in human history to have dropped nuclear weapons on people, it has far more weapons than anyone else, and remains the only country that reserves to itself the right of first strike.”
Instead of invading the world, the United States should declare a truce with the world. No more threats. No more bombs. No more troops or bases on foreign soil. No more spies. No more trade sanctions. No more embargoes. No more foreign aid bribes. No more foreign entanglements. No more simultaneously playing the world’s bully and policeman. In a word: non-interventionism; that is, the principles of our Founding Fathers. What is wrong with “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations”? What is wrong with avoiding “entangling alliances”? What is wrong with “having as little political connection as possible” with foreign nations? What is wrong with not going abroad “seeking monsters to destroy”? Can anyone honestly say that Bush’s principles are better than Jefferson’s principles?
Over 1,300 U.S. soldiers won’t be celebrating Christmas this year — or any year. They died in vain for an unconstitutional, immoral, senseless war while in the service of a reckless, imperial presidency. They will forever have a silent night.