I’ve previously written about the Christmas Truce of 1914 amid World War I when both sides of the war ceased fire (unofficially) for the holiday, and played soccer and ate food. But that was in 2014 on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary, so I believe it’s time to revisit one of my favorite stories to think about on Christmas Day.
All along the Western Front, the main theatre of war, both sides dug thousands of miles of trenches from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier with France, and the machinery of war grounded to a war of attrition. Between the trenches of each side was considered “no-man’s-land” where you’d surely be killed if you so much as poked your head within that zone.
“At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some 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,” according to History.com. Naturally, given that this was a war, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans were unarmed, History.com said the soldiers climbed out of the trenches to shake hands. They exchanged presents, like cigarettes and plum puddings (ew), and sang songs.
Let me stop right there. There is something enduring about music. Music breaks across all boundaries and is translatable into any language (since it is language, obviously). But there’s something beautiful and freeing and lovely about how much music permeates the human species, even when the human species is engaged in its most awful of acts (war). It seems to me there’s something about the human spirit that needs music to be able to fully breathe and exist.
Related to my previous post about the 1988 Japanese anti-war anime film, Grave of the Fireflies, war is hell, and like all wars, the “Greatest War,” was sold to the citizens of each country as if glory was wrapped up in serving (and likely dying by machine gun fire or awful poison gas) and as if the war would be swift and easy. War is hell, and the gas that ignites that hell is the poison (to mix metaphors) of nationalism. Nationalism makes Germans think they are doing something glorious by shooting their British brothers and sisters, and vice versa. That they are to hate their brothers and sisters merely because one is called British and the other German. It was propaganda nonsense then and it’s propaganda nonsense now. That such a sentiment still seems to pervade our politics today, not just in the United States but throughout the world, sickens me. It’s that whole, learning nothing from history, doomed to repeat itself, yada yada line.
“Never … was I so keenly aware of the insanity of war,” noted one soldier, according to his diary as quoted by historian Stanley Weintraub.Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.
There are no “winners” in war. Even the “winners” still lose greatly, as war touches everything, including those back home. It lingers as long as those trenches dug out on the Western Front.
Which is why I’m grateful that despite it at all, there was a moment of sanity, of levity, of good cheer and love on Christmas Day between the Germans and the Allied forces. Proving that what they were all fighting for was imaginary, arbitrary borders and grievances over power. And indeed, was insanity.
What’s wild to consider is that this happened only five months after war started in Europe. In other words, after this beautiful moment suspended in time like poisonous gas over the land, the vast majority of the 9.7 million soldier deaths (yes, million, with an additional 10 million civilian deaths) occurred after the truce. Ugh.