The funny thing about Christmases and history is that, at least mathematically, there have been an awful lot of them (2008 so far), but not a lot happens on them. After the first one, many of them are sort of a letdown, assuming they don't miss the message entirely. Just off the top of my head, there's not much of a Christmas homily to find in the Romanian government executing the Ceauşescus.

Most people consider it a positive that Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas in AD 800, but it's really hard to upload any footage of it for blog purposes, so that's out. Someone crashed the ARPANET during Christmas, 1973, but by now enough of us have goofy little brothers overly obsessed with the internet who've done something embarrassing on Christmas, so I imagine this story has much less traction for most of us than it would have even ten years ago.

Now, a lot of historically relevant people were born on Christmas, but I'm not sure there's a valid link there. I mean, they weren't the ones doing the real work, were they? Even if they seem like the types who might force the issue and choose their hour of birth — Karl Rove, looking at you here — they're such conversational hot potatoes that it's not worth it. Some famous people have died on Christmas: W.C. Fields comes to mind. A committed atheist, Fields shocked friends by flipping through the Bible on his deathbed. "What are you doing?" they asked. "Checking for loopholes," he replied.

Historically speaking, one of the most momentous things ever to happen on Christmas (and to stay within the sprit of the day) was the Christmas Truce of 1914, a fully spontaneous cessation of the First World War. The story possesses all the elements of a classic bittersweet truthful tale, yet many people don't know it ever happened. This may be due to the story's removal from official histories immediately following the war. A mutual gesture of humanity and kinship simply didn't fit the historiographical narrative of brutal heartless Germans and perfidious Englishmen. What's interesting is that it didn't fit that narrative at the time, either. Almost from the moment it happened, there have been those interested in dismissing its importance in the record, an aberrancy that lies outside the necessary digestible story of the war. Stanley Weintraub's

Silent Night returns Christmas, 1914, to the war narrative in the words of the men who attended the impromptu truce.

Here's what happened: on Christmas Eve, at various points along the western front, German soldiers asked their allied counterparts to humor their putting up Tannenbaums, the traditional German candle-lit Christmas tree, along their own lines. At other points, Germans asked the English not to fire during a celebration for a German officer. At others, they sneaked Christmas food into British lines. At still others, allied troops were astonished to hear the Germans singing "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night"). From here, rapprochement proceeded haphazardly and along different lines, but with the common result of an informal armistice across large portions of the front.

By Christmas Day, some parts of No Man's Land saw soccer games between soldiers from both countries. Men exchanged gifts and souvenirs, discovering the similarities between them. By Boxing Day, men on both sides wanted to stretch the truce to New Year's Day, but staff officers were already working to eliminate these insubordinate eruptions of humanity. Beginning on December 26 and going forward, generals ordered artillery bombardments (controlled by soldiers far behind the line) to interrupt gatherings in No Man's Land, while line inspections led to fired shots that ended the pleasantries. "Be on guard tomorrow," read one French warning sign to the Germans. "A general is coming to visit our position. For reasons of shame and honor, we shall have to fire." (p. 150) Meanwhile, regular troop replacements removed those who'd just bonded with their adversaries, filling the lines with those who had no reason to humanize the man on the other side. Within a few days, the accidental peace was over.

The unsure and varying series of events presented here stems from several factors. For one, essentially not a lot happened. Weintraub recognizes this, and rather than repeat himself, gives the story over to the letters and journal articles of those who were present. Not only is each man's story different, but depending on his place along the line, the events he experienced might have occurred a day later than at other places, never blossomed into open amity, might have involved voices raised in harmony or might even have occasioned a court-martial. That last item involves the second factor contributing to the unevenness of the story: so much of what happened was never officially recorded.

Weintraub needs to use letters as his sources because the men engaging in this spontaneous peace knew at the time how outraged their superiors would be by any of it. After all, humanizing the enemy makes him harder to kill. If Germans don't have faces, it's a lot easier to believe nauseating propaganda like, "Brutal Boche Bayonet Belgian Babies." Socialists at the time had no problem noting the most dangerous aspect of the peace — that the longer any conversations went on across the lines, the more obvious the enemy would become: the generals. Often a properly trained soldier from one army resembles a properly trained soldier from another army more so than the top brass or the politicians of his own. The other soldier sleeps in the same dirt, has the same duties, worries about the same things. Even as the Germans, English and French resumed firing at each other after Boxing Day, they did so with apologetic acknowledgments of brotherhood.

The ending of the Christmas Truce story can't help but be sad. (It's a hard book to read without having to choke back emotion.) Weintraub even includes a what-if chapter whose scholarship and conclusions aren't especially rigid, but enough of them are so probable that they inspire pity. But that shouldn't take away from what happened. Just weeks into the most horrifying war yet experienced — a war that uprooted and annihilated the previous 40 years' conception of civilization while destroying an entire generation — men who'd been goaded, prodded, bullied and trained to kill each other voluntarily ignored everything they'd been told in order to acknowledge their mutual humanity and to share gifts, carols and a moment's peace.


by on ‎12-29-2009 09:25 AM

I'd heard these stories, but thanks for this blog to remind us, Monty.

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