The Christmas Truce of 1914

A century ago, before the start of World War I (referred to in the history books as "The Great War" or, navely, "The War to End all Wars"), warfare as a means of settling disputes between nations was often regarded as an honorable undertaking. Military officers, which came from the aristocracy, were respected and honored because of their impressive uniforms and the medals and ribbons on their chests. Military veterans, dead or alive, were regarded as heroes and the acts of war they participated in were considered to be glorious. Many of the males on the planet seemed to look forward to the exciting act of going off to war.

A century ago, little French and British schoolchildren, not yet the age of military conscription, were indoctrinated in the belief that Germany was evil incarnate and deserving of death, and German schoolchildren were taught to believe the same things about the French and the English.

The peace that had existed for decades in Europe since the Franco-Prussian War had resulted in tremendous progress in culture, commerce and international relations. Europeans of all stripes crossed borders freely, despite the significant class and wealth disparity. There was very little homelessness or chronic hunger.

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Jews and Christians intermingled and intermarried with few eyes being raised. The majority of people were basically content, despite the knowledge of the excess luxury wealth of the ruling classes. Non-democratic empires ruled by kings, emperors, capitalists, generals and the bureaucratic hangers-on of the ruling elite seemed to have everything going for them in order to stay in power.

Despite their wealth and power, many of the ruling classes were still looking for ways to enrich themselves or further secure the ill-gotten gains that they had already accrued. Some of these elite were also hoping to expand their colonial empires by the use of military force directed against innocent peoples who were weaker or otherwise less able to defend themselves.

Some of those in power desired to recapture or maintain control of disputed territories (ex. Alsace-Lorraine), but they all bound themselves by a complex web of treaties that promised nations to come to the military aid of another if one of them was attacked.

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When Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the peace rapidly unraveled and, by a series of errors of judgment, bureaucratic inefficiencies, ineptitude, and a lack of communication skills and a refusal to risk the dishonor of "turning the other cheek" all the treaty nations declared war on each other in a domino effect and the first world war was on.

The momentum that had built up over the decades by the propaganda in the schools turned out to be unstoppable and the indoctrinated boys, ignorant of the tragedy of past wars and looking for glory and a way out of their boredom, rushed to the recruiting offices to sign up for war. And the war was on.

The war ultimately destroyed four empires, chemically poisoned the earth and water supplies with the massive application of military toxins and killed off 14,000,000 people, 90% of whom were young naïve combatants.

An entire generation of young French, British and German men was wasted, either killed, wounded or rendered insane or criminal. Virtually all of the casualties had been brain-washed to believe that war was glorious rather than satanic.

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Predictably, the Christian churches chimed in with their nationalistic blindness and refused to teach what Jesus had taught his followers about violence. The pulpits on all sides, British, Scottish, French, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Russian, Italian, etc, all rang with patriotic fervor and flags waving, telling their doomed sons that it was their Christian duty to obey their secular leaders and to go off to war to kill the fingered enemy on the other side.

Five months into the mass slaughter of trench warfare, the Christmas holiday came, holidays that reminded them of the safe home they had foolishly left behind. The physically exhausted, spiritually deadened and combat-traumatized soldiers on each side of No Man's Land sought some respite from the cruelty of the frozen trenches.

The frontline soldiers were at the end of their rope because of the unrelenting sleep deprivation, hyperalertness, bad food, rats, lice, frostbitten toes and fingers, deadly artillery bombardments, machine gun massacres and suicidal assaults that were stupidly ordered by the commanding officers in the rear. The horrors of No Man's Land were punctuated by the screams and pleas for help of the wounded soldiers who were helplessly hanging on the barbed wire or lying in the bomb craters, each one dying an agonizing death that often lingered for days.

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So, on Christmas eve, December 24, 1914, the troops on either side of the front line, settled down to special food, special liquor, special rest – and the singing of Christmas carols. Kaiser Wilhelm had ordered that 100,000 Christmas trees be delivered to the German trenches for Christmas eve, thinking that the expense of such an irrational act was justified because, after all, the war was soon to be won by the superior German army and so using the supply lines for such unnecessary items seemed to be an acceptable expense.

And then a spontaneous event happened at various spots on the 700-mile-long trench line that stretched between Belgium and France. The singing of Christmas carols started a chain of events that resulted in an event that was never to be repeated in the history of warfare after that night.

The tradition that has emerged from this famous and true story was that the Germans started singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night) and the British responded with another carol. And the French and Scots joined in and all sides sang together in their own tongues, the Scots with their bagpipes, accompanying the German singing.

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And the sense of their common humanity, which had been driven out of them in the schools and in basic training, broke through to consciousness. Homesickness may have set in or perhaps the futility of the slaughter became clear or perhaps the realization that they would have had things if they had met in different circumstances. Or perhaps their sheer exhaustion took the fight out of them.

However it started, the soldiers disobeyed the orders to kill (their commanding officers were, after all, celebrating Christmas eve back where it was safe from the killing), dropped their guns and came out of their trenches to meet one another. The former enemies shared pictures from home, chocolate candy, wine – and soccer games were played. Friendships were made and every soldier who experienced the events was forever changed. The motivation to blindly kill a person who had never done them wrong suddenly vanished, never to return.

So powerful was the experience, that most of the affected men had to be withdrawn from the front lines, replaced with fresh troops who had never had the life-changing experience.

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Fraternization in time of war was an act of treason that was punishable by summary execution. Unexpectedly, the commanding officers, not wanting to draw public attention to this aberrant but potentially contagious episode, and knowing that such actions would threaten the war effort if it somehow became widely known, ordered no executions. There were punishments, however, with many of the German soldiers who refused to fight being transferred to the eastern front to kill and die in the war with Russia.

The prize-winning movie that beautifully characterizes the spirit of the Christmas truce of 1914 is Joyeux Noel (French for Merry Christmas). It is a moving tale whose basic story comes directly from surviving veterans who experienced the event and from letters from soldiers who wrote home about it, letters that somehow survived military censorship.

The story that is so beautifully told in Joyeux Noel needs to be retold again and again in this era of the cleverly orchestrated, bankrupting, perpetual "US-led" wars of empire that are being fought by our indoctrinated, soon to be exhausted young men and women, some of whom are doomed to a life overwhelmed by the horrendous realities of posttraumatic stress disorder, sociopathic personality disorder, suicidality, homicidality, loss of religious faith, permanent and virtually untreatable traumatic brain injury, and a host of other nearly impossible-to-treat problems that are eminently preventable.

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Militarists remain fearful about allowing their combatants to experience the humanity of their future targeted victims, whether they are average civilians from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or North Korea. Military chaplains, who are supposed to be nurturers of the souls of their soldiers, are also forbidden by their superior officers to talk about the Golden Rule or about love of enemies or about the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. They are a part of the apparatus that rejects all of the Ten Commandments, especially the one that says "thou shalt not kill." Military chaplains, in their defense, may themselves have never heard about the nonviolence of the gospels or the rejection of enmity because their home churches or their seminaries never emphasized those realities

Near the end of Joyeux Noel there is a powerful scene, a confrontation between the Christ-like chaplain and his Scottish bishop just as the chaplain was giving last rites to a dying Scottish soldier. The bishop had come to relieve the chaplain of his duties and abusively ordered him to return to his home parish because of his "treasonous and shameful" behavior (being merciful to the enemy) in a war zone.

The chaplain tried to explain to the authoritarian, pro-war, German-hating bishop that he had just performed "the most important mass of my life" and wanted to stay with his troops who were losing their Christian faith. On Christmas eve, German, Scottish and French Christian soldiers (and one Jewish German officer) had all gathered for the mass on Christmas eve, had prayed together and had listened to a powerful rendition of Ave Maria. The bishop denied the request.

The bishop then delivered a pro-war sermon (the exact words having been obtained from a sermon that was delivered by an Anglican bishop in England later in the war) to the troops who were being brought in to replace the suddenly reluctant soldiers. The dramatic response of the chaplain represents a serious warning to the Christian church in America and also to its war-justifying citizens and their political leaders.

This is a profoundly important and very moving film that deserves to be annual holiday fare, alongside Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

December 9, 2009