Saturday, December 25, 2010

"A spontaneous peace broke out": Remembering the Christmas Truce of 1914


Plus: Was the Christmas Truce a threat to national security? (See below)

"With great advances made in technology in the years between World War I and II, opposing forces no longer had to face each other in the trenches, and thus an informal truce on the scale of that seen in 1914 never happened again."

My friend Paul passed along this entry for today from the UK History Channel website's 'This Day in History.' It's one of those truisms that's pretty much true: World War I changed everything. Or maybe: The massive sociopolitical changes that were taking place all over accelerated and came to an explosive head in World War I. Somewhere in there the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 seems worth remembering. -- Ken

25 December 1914 : The Christmas Truce

Just after midnight on Christmas morning, the majority of German troops engaged in World War I in the region of Ypres, Belgium cease firing their guns and artillery and commence to sing Christmas carols, including 'Stille Nacht' ('Silent Night'). At certain points along the eastern and western fronts, the soldiers of Russia, France, and Britain even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing.

At the first light of dawn, many of the German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man's-land, calling out 'Merry Christmas' in their enemies' native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of football. The truce also allowed both sides to gather and bury their dead with honour. At one funeral, soldiers from both sides gathered to recite a passage from the 23rd Psalm.

The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. There is anecdotal evidence of an informal armistice observed by both sides along the Western front, especially in the latter stages of the war, where artillery shelling was conducted at precise points and at precise times so that casualties were limited. With great advances made in technology in the years between World War I and II, opposing forces no longer had to face each other in the trenches, and thus an informal truce on the scale of that seen in 1914 never happened again.


The above is the provocative title of a post today on HuffPost by Robert Naiman, policy director of Just Foreign Policy, who looks back at the Christmas Truce of 1914 in the contexts of its own time and of our own.
The idea that there is something especially offensive about prosecuting war during Christmas is longstanding. On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV called for an official Christmas truce in the war in Europe, "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang."

The Pope's call was rejected by the warring governments, and two words he used suggest a reason: "at least." The Pope's remarks strongly suggested that he objected to the slaughter on the other 364 days as well. And so, the generals may have argued, it was a slippery slope. Allow the troops to have a Christmas holiday from killing each other, and they might begin to get even funnier ideas. Next they'll be demanding Easter, then Yom Kippur and Eid al-Fitr. Soon you won't be able to have a war on any day of the year. So there was no official truce.

However, in what was arguably one of the most morally compelling acts of spontaneous mass civil disobedience in recorded human history, German and British troops took matters into their own hands, negotiating their own Christmas cease-fires in their opposing trenches on the Western Front, exchanging Christmas carols and gifts, and even playing soccer. . . .

Naiman relates the Christmas Truce to our present time, when --
TV talking heads repeatedly pontificate without a shred of evidence that the WikiLeaks disclosures "threaten our national security," because in its time, as Stanley Weintraub reported in his 2001 book "Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914," not only was the Christmas truce considered a threat to "national security" in the warring countries; even the knowledge that it had taken place was initially suppressed. The New York Times finally broke the press blockade on December 31, 1914, after which the British press followed suit.

Doesn't it seem ridiculous today that news media initially tried to suppress reports about the Christmas truce of 1914, apparently in the belief that such information was a "threat to national security"?

Won't it seem ridiculous someday that people who knew better once claimed that WikiLeaks was a "threat to our national security," and were taken seriously?

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