Lessons from the Christmas Truce of 1914


Trench warfare, WWI (dailymail.co.uk)

As Christmas approaches, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on an unlikely event from military history. During the First World War, a spontaneous, temporary truce was brokered between German, French, and Scottish officers on Christmas Eve, 1914. On that night and on Christmas Day along the trenches in Flanders, soldiers who recently had been shooting at each other used the ceasefire to bury their dead, then shared food and drink with their ‘enemies,’ played soccer, and even exchanged gifts and addresses in order to write each other after the war ended.

The details leading up to the ceasefire are a bit murky, but eyewitnesses reported that German and Scottish troops took turns festively singing carols in their own trenches. A few brave officers then seized the spirit of the moment to risk their safety, leave their trenches, and negotiate a respite from the brutality. The remaining soldiers then followed, leading to the amazing scene.

It is tempting to view these events as mythic or miraculous, but that assessment may be overlooking some important pieces which can provide general lessons for breaking cyclical violence. These include: (1) the human potential for empathy, (2) a selfish desire for self-preservation, and (3) the slippery issue of trust.

Empathy

As social primates, the capacity for empathy is built into our brains as a means of reading others’ emotional states. Some degree of emotional contagion can be provoked subconsciously, from mirror neurons to laugh tracks in sitcoms (a laugh track can change everything!). We are also fortunate that as all humans belong to a single species with a recent common origin, we know that aside from sociopaths everyone is equipped with the same basic range of emotions. The anthropologist Franz Boas referred to this as the ‘psychic unity’ of humanity. Obviously, culture is an enormously important prism through which we see the world, but it is reassuring to know that at a fundamental level we really are all biologically the same. For example, it’s not true, as General William Westmoreland once asserted, that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.” Grief is a human universal (and may even be found in apes as well).

Grief. Clockwise from top left: Bosnia, Vietnam, Sudan, Afghanistan.


The religious context during the Christmas Truce must be acknowledged, but perhaps just as important was the soldiers’ ability to find commonality through culture, including song. For instance, troops in both trenches were reported to have sung ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ in English and ‘Adeste Fideles’ in Latin, which would have been easily identifiable across enemy lines, thus making troops on the other side seem less alien and more human. As the historian Modris Eksteins said about the truce: “You don’t exchange courtesies with an abstraction.” By the way, a similar event occurred at the end of Ramadan in Yemen in 2009, when the government called a ceasefire against rebels during the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, thus allowing humanitarian aid to reach civilians in affected areas. Religion and culture can, at least occasionally, serve as reminders of shared humanity.

However, it is regrettable that the converse is also true. Cultural differences are often a barrier. Although Christmas provided common ground for European soldiers on the Western Front, that option was not available everywhere, such as for Australian and Turkish soldiers fighting at Gallipoli. It is much easier to feel indifference or animosity toward an ‘other’ who is nameless, faceless, and mysterious, or who has values and beliefs deemed oppositional to one’s own.

Similarly, racial bias has been shown to block empathy. Ed Yong described a study conducted by Alessio Avenant which asked black and white Italian volunteers to watch videos of someone’s hand being pierced by a needle. Sadly, the ability to empathize with someone else’s pain, measured neurologically, was limited to situations when the observer and the person in the video were similar in pigmentation. However, observers showed a strong physiological response when watching video of a digitally enhanced image of a violet-colored hand (and thus not belonging to any existing ethnic group) being pierced. The upshot is that empathy was not automatically confined to one’s own ethnicity by default; rather, empathy was likely impeded by historically constructed racial biases.

The good news is that while the biases we have (national, racial, cultural, political) may be formidable, they are not insurmountable. It might take some degree of mental effort, but the ability to empathize with an ‘other’ is possible when consciousness is raised and hidden commonalities are brought to the forefront. The arts and humanities have had some success at doing this. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare made English Christian audiences more empathetic (though this is debatable) toward the Jewish Shylock in his famous soliloquy: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” In A Time to Kill, the closing arguments of attorney Jake Brigance lead a white jury to feeling the pain of a brutally raped black girl, largely by having them imagine she was white, and thus more like them. A brilliant video campaign accomplishes something similar by simply asking heterosexual adults “when did you choose to be straight?,” forcing them to consider whether their own sexual orientation is a simple matter of choice and whether this same logic might apply to homosexuals as well.

For the Christmas Truce, fighting resumed by the morning of December 26 in most locales along the front, though in some places the truce lasted until New Year’s Day. However, soldiers were reluctant to fire on the men with whom they had just fraternized, as they were no longer amorphous enemies, but personalities with emotions and backgrounds.

Self-preservation: Live-and-let-live

In addition to empathy, there is a more basic motive to avoid fighting: self-preservation. Besides the Christmas Truce, other bottom-up ceasefires were negotiated throughout the first half of WWI, though these seem to have largely disappeared after 1916. According to Simkins (2002):

Hardening attitudes, as the war became increasingly bloody and impersonal, ensured that such incidents on this scale would not recur, but ‘live and let live’ understandings – accepted by both sides – frequently prevailed in quiet sectors until the Armistice.” (p. 43)

At the national level, ceasefires were an obvious impediment to winning the war. British General Horace Smith-Dorrien was described as being ‘irate’ over troops fraternizing with the enemy: “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.” As an interesting historical footnote, Corporal Adolf Hitler was also disgusted:“Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honor left at all?” (It sounds eerily like satire, like something out of Dr. Strangelove: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!”).

However, at the local level, adversaries in nearby trenches learned quickly that attacks only invited counter-attacks. Therefore, mutual restraint was preferable to mutual punishment. To counteract this, officers broke up truces by transferring troops up and down trench lines to prevent them from getting too familiar with their enemies, fostering anonymity and eroding the chances of détente. The reason for this is simple. As Matt Ridley wrote in The Origins of Virtue: “one-shot encounters encourage defection; frequent repetition encourages cooperation” (p. 65).

In other words, the prospect of retaliation acts a deterrent. The same rationale applies anywhere from office politics to the prospect of nuclear war and “mutually assured destruction,” as was the case between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Trust

Another crucial issue is trust. We all have some level of trust that the people we pass on the street are not out to harm us (though that may not be true in every instance). It is much more difficult to achieve that critical threshold of trust for two individuals or groups who have been recently shooting at each other. The question is how that cycle of distrust can be conquered, even when one party desires peace. In the words of Malcolm X: “I believe in the brotherhood of all men, but I don’t believe in wasting brotherhood on anyone who doesn’t want to practice it with me. Brotherhood is a two-way street.”

At some point, one side must make a leap of faith to trust, with no assurance that it will be rewarded. The officers during the Christmas Truce obviously took a huge risk by acting upon a moment of inspiration and leaving the safety of their trenches, but it paid off. Peacemakers may be punished for taking risks, sometimes even by their own side out of fear that they may have conceded too much (e.g., Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin). However, consider the alternative – the status quo and a downward spiral of tit-for-tat. Sometimes risks are necessary.

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References

Ridley, Matt. 1998. The Origins of Virtue.  Penguin.

Simkins, Peter. 2002. The First World War: The Western Front 1914-1916. Osprey.

Related Post: The Christmas Truce, Revisited (Dec 1, 2011)

Related Post: Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War (Mar 11, 2011)

 

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3 thoughts on “Lessons from the Christmas Truce of 1914

  1. Pingback: Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock

  2. True, the Christmas truce offers some hope. But it occurred within the ‘War to end War’. It stands unfortunately as the exception that proves the rule. A rule that is proven every day almost every place in the world. Goebbels said it: No normal man will join an army where he has to agree to follow the orders of a man he doesn’t know to kill or be killed by another man he doesn’t know. Sensible words from a mass murderer.

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