February 4, 2017
In reading the news today one can’t help but notice how entrenched we are. The left and right are entrenched in their positions and lob insults at each other via social media. In such an atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine how the divide can be bridged; but even worse divides have been conquered.
Christmas night, 1914. British and German soldiers face each other across a network of trenches outside a small town in France. One of the German soldiers is a celebrated tenor; as the men gather around a small campfire to warm their Yule rations, he begins to sing “Silent Night”. The sound carries across the trenches to the British side; when the song is over, one of the British soldiers yells “Bravo, Fritz!”
“Now you!” one of the Germans yells back.
A British soldier stands up and sings “Onward, Christian Soldiers”. When he is finished, the Germans yell “Bravo, Tommy!” A couple more songs follow. Finally, a bold German soldier stands up, makes a show of throwing down his rifle, and beckons the British into no-man’s-land. Warily, the British leave their trenches; groups of men meet in the middle of the war zone and begin talking, haltingly, in pidgin English and German. As the fear of a surprise attack fades, the fraternal bond of the soldiers becomes stronger; they exchange Christmas rations, coat buttons, pipe tobacco, hats.
As Christmas morning breaks over no-man’s-land, the informal and impromptu truce spreads along the front. First dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of men toss aside their weapons and cross into the neutral zone. Soccer games break out spontaneously; there are few proper soccer balls to be had, so the men use shirts stuffed with straw and wrapped in twine. Many commanders ignore the fraternization; since nearly all of their men are involved, there is little they could do anyway.
As Christmas afternoon fades, the men return to their trenches; but something has changed. On both sides, men refuse to fire on their new friends. The short-lived truce has brought the realization that human beings are more alike than they are different. Unfortunately, that realization does not extend to the leadership. The high commands on both sides order the units in the affected areas rotated out. There is a war to be fought, after all.
Some ninety years later, one of the last survivors of the Christmas truce was asked what he thought of Germans. He replied “If it had been left up to us in the trenches, there would have been no war. Just give us 10,000 footballs and let us sort it out.”
Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.
(For an excellent history of the events surrounding the Christmas Truce, I recommend “Silent Night” by Stanley Weintraub.)