Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Christmas Truce

Ninety-eight years ago, at various points along the Western Front, a remarkable thing happened. On Christmas Eve, German and British troops put down their guns, sang Christmas carols--both responsively and together--and eventually crawled out of their trenches to meet in no-man's land to share cigarettes and drinks, to play soccer, to celebrate Christmas, and to bury their dead. The truce was spontaneous: no officers or political leaders authorized it and some, in fact, were incensed by it. And yet it happened, and was deeply meaningful to many of the 100,000 or so soldiers who participated in it. (Consider this sampling of recollections of the Christmas Truce drawn from diaries and memoirs.)

What exactly happened on Christmas in 1914? Was it a sign of the disconnect between raison d'etat and the beliefs of those who were forced to fight in the name of the state? Was it a brief breakthrough of humanity in a war that came to demonstrate the most extreme inhumanity? Was it an act of insubordination by common soldiers? And how could those soldiers so easily return to the fight the day after Christmas? How could men sing together "O Come, All Ye Faithful" one day and kill each other the next?