The following reflection is taken from a speech I gave in Columbus, Ohio on November 11, 2016, titled The Humanity in Large Numbers. Though presented before our current crises emerged, it serves as a reminder of the suffering experienced by earlier generations. May your holiday season be memorable and, most important, bring you peace.
With best wishes,
Reflections on the Christmas Truce
This season of hibernation and gathering offers us both light and joy—Christmas and Hanukkah—and a time of needed reflection.
As this season reaches its crescendo, my mind inevitably turns to my family, as well as the great sweep of history—and in that context the times in which we live. There are days I am optimistic that the world is more civilized than it has ever been before—and it has never been a better time to be alive. Then worries overcome me about the size of our problems and the capacities we have now gained to impose our will on those abroad, to invade our citizens’ privacy and to deny the nature of the difficulties so many of our American neighbors face.
Absorbed as we are, it is useful to remember that hardships greater than those we now experience have been widespread in history. For instance, seventy-seven years ago—just before Christmas 1944—Allied forces under Dwight Eisenhower’s command were engaged in the largest American battle in history. Sixty thousand American servicemen, along with a smaller contingent of British comrades, were in an existential fight to save themselves from envelopment by German Panzer divisions in what we call the Battle of the Bulge. It was the last German offensive of World War II.
So much was at stake: the outcome of the war and the fate of the Jews in concentration camps. We were also in a race against time, as Germany pushed hard to develop and deploy an array of exotic weapons that would turn the tide of the war—including the atomic bomb. All these factors were joined in the snowy frozen land of Luxembourg and Belgium.
One need only read accounts and watch films on World War II to be impressed, indeed horrified, by the scale of it—as well as the brutality and destruction of it. It was both the extension and a divergence from the Great War, and the world of 1914—only thirty years before.
In August of 1914, war started in Europe—a conflagration that would be later known as World War I. It was the 20th century’s first pivot point, whose aftermath brought down most of the European royal dynasties and ushered in Bolshevism, the Soviet Union, Turkey and many other splintered states.
Even by December 1914, the war—which was predicted to be short when it started just months before—had turned into a bloody affair. By Christmas, losses were already high. According to British historian John Keegan, nearly 600,000 troops on both sides had already been lost (including 45,000 teenagers). The first German air raid in history had already taken place over Britain, with the Germans attacking Dover on the southern coast of England. The western front had settled into trench warfare. The first battle of Ypres had just yielded its carnage in the month before. Sometimes enemy trenches were only 60 yards away.
In preparation for the impending religious days, the German government sent thousands of small Christmas trees and candles to the front. On the other side, British troops received 355,000 brass boxes containing candies and cakes or tobacco products from King George V.
Then, on Christmas Eve, something extraordinary happened—something unanticipated and unsanctioned. Something spontaneous, even miraculous.
“It was a beautiful moonlight [sic] night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere,” wrote Private Albert Moran of the Second Queens Regiment. “About seven or eight in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights—I [didn’t] know what they were. And then they sang “Silent Night”—“Stille Nacht.” I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life.”
Rifleman Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade also remembered how it started.
“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until we started up ‘O come all ye Faithful.’ The Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words: Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really the most extraordinary thing—two nations singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
These unofficial contacts began to multiply all along the 400-mile front:
“I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce,” recalled Captain Josef Sewald Germany’s 17th Bavarian Regiment. “I said I would come from my side and we could speak to each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, inviting them. And the British shouted: “No shooting!” Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came and shook hands—a bit cautiously.”
By Christmas Day both sides were meeting and conducting joint burials. On Christmas Day near Fromelles, members of the 6th battalion of the Gordon Highlander Regiment met their German enemies in No Man’s Land and buried about 100 bodies. A service of prayers and the 23rd Psalm was arranged.
The so-called Christmas Truce—a spontaneous act of humanity by sworn enemies—never happened again. New regulations on “no fraternization” were issued on both sides of the conflict, and the war turned in a long nightmare of suffering. By the end of the war both sides had found new, more lethal, ways of killing the enemy.
By the end of the war, 1 million soldiers of the British Empire, 2 million Germans, 1.7 million French, 1.5 million from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1.7 million Russians, 1 million other soldiers from Turkey and elsewhere, and 50,000 Americans—all perished in “the war to end all wars.”
That war and its settlement were to open the way for another more catastrophic one a generation later.
“The Christmas Truce was the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals where the opponent was a gentleman,” said Modris Ecksteins, a cultural historian at the University of Toronto. As the war went on, “the enemy [became] increasingly abstract. You don’t exchange courtesies with an abstraction.”
World War I and World War 2 are now just events for the history books. Their legacies however live on, and they challenge us today to avoid turning our neighbors and people of different cultural and political beliefs into “abstractions”—into statistics—into people without similar attributes.
Most people we confront are driven by the emotions we all experience in our own lives. Fear, the desire to protect and nurture family, love, apprehension, insecurity, and courage.
In many of our interactions—except among those closest to us in background and religious beliefs—we have an increasing tendency to dehumanize our adversaries, thereby underestimating the psychology of the people we confront at home and abroad. In our increasingly depersonalized contemporary life, we have minimized the driving power of strong emotion: humiliation, the desire for respect, and the centrality of pride.
As we share the season’s joy with our loved ones let us take a moment to reflect on the plight of our less fortunate neighbors and those with whom our country is engaging abroad. The New Year is about to dawn, and the days will grow longer. It can be a time of renewal. And it can be a time for us to think afresh.