Op-Ed

Civility: true lesson of World War I’s 1914 Christmas truce

Allied and German troops took a break from fighting in 1914 during World War I to celebrate Christmas.
Allied and German troops took a break from fighting in 1914 during World War I to celebrate Christmas. Smithsonian Museum

Demonizing our enemies is something at which Americans excel. Hurling invectives at foreign countries, religions and cultures is so common that no one seems to notice it anymore.

Not content with demonizing the rest of the world, however, we have now decided to turn our rage upon each other. In the December 2015 Republican debate, New Jersey governor and presidential candidate Chris Christie called President Barack Obama a “feckless weakling.” Strong words, but no one batted an eye. What is even more striking is that no one assumes that this was merely political theater. Many Republicans really do believe that the president is a coward, an apologist for America, and a Muslim whose secret agenda includes allowing terrorists to attack our country.

Many Democrats, on the other hand, believe that the current Republican candidates are selfish, shallow, uneducated buffoons who will destroy our country through ignorance and fear.

Some of the insults thrown by both sides are true. Some of them are not. What is self-evident, however, is how polarized our country is, and how much we seem to hate each other.

Abuse we used to save for people who are truly evil we now unleash upon neighbors whose yard signs demonstrate that they belong to a different political party. People who have another view of the world. People who disagree about the best way to solve the problems confronting our country.

The easy vilification of those with whom we differ brings to mind some of the letters written by British soldiers fighting in the First World War. Major Daniell of the Second Royal Irish, for example, wrote about how well German soldiers treated the British wounded whom they had captured. “We have direct evidence repeatedly of the extreme kindness extended to our wounded,” he said in a letter home. “Many of the Germans said you English treat our wounded well and we do the same for you.”

British soldiers wrote letters about how the two sides shared jokes shouted across No-Man’s-Land during lulls in the fighting. M. Holroyd, a subaltern in the First Hampshires, wrote about a battalion “who had a fine singer among them, whom both sides delighted to honour: so the Germans just shouted ‘Half time, Wessex,’ when desiring music, and everyone stopped firing. The songster climbed on the parapet of the trench, and both sides joined in the chorus.”

Did this mean that the British were not determined to win the war and drive the Germans out of Flanders? Hardly. Captain Dillon, who served with the Second Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, fully expected to die in the war. “I don’t care one farthing as far as I am concerned,” he wrote to his sister in September 1914, “but the whole thing is an outrage on civilization. The whole of this beautiful country devastated. Broken houses, broken bodies, blood, filth and ruin everywhere. Can any unending everlasting Hell fire for the Kaiser, his son and the party who caused this war repair the broken bodies and worse broken hearts which are being made?” As his own words attest, Dillon didn’t hate the German soldiers whom he fought, only the leaders who had started the war.

I was speaking about the 1914 Christmas truce in Paducah recently, and discussing why the myths about that event are so pervasive. “But the truce really was wonderful,” someone in the audience protested. Yes, it was, but not in the way it’s usually portrayed. During the truce, everyone believes, the soldiers broke through the hatred to meet with their enemies and shake their hands.

That’s not what happened. What is wonderful about the truce is that it demonstrates that the soldiers didn’t hate each other. The British troops certainly were opposed to German militarism and the Prussian-influenced leadership who had started the war and who wanted to conquer France and Eastern Europe. They had no trouble, however, in perceiving the difference between German soldiers and German policies.

A world war is an odd place to find civility, when it seems we can no longer manage it in even our most casual contacts. I’m not suggesting that we try to turn the clock back a century — I’m no fan of a world that doesn’t include gender equality, antibiotics, iPods and general access to sushi. I am suggesting that we remember that it is possible to dislike political ideas without assuming that everyone who holds them is evil. The British and Germans were able to manage it in 1914, even in the midst of the First World War. Maybe the memory of the Christmas truce could help us to think more charitably about our neighbors — even those who support a different political party.

Terri Blom Crocker of Lexington is author of The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory and the First World War (University of Kentucky Press).

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