Tag Archives: Germany

The 1914 Christmas Truce

December 24, 1914

Memorial for the 1914 Christmas Truce in Flanders, Belgium, where soldiers may have played soccer.

Memorial for the Truce in Flanders, Belgium, where soldiers may have played soccer.

“About five o’clock on Christmas Eve the Germans started lighting up Christmas trees in their trenches. We took no notice of them until they began to sing. Then we began to cheer them and to talk to one another as we are only about 80 yards apart.” -Rifleman C. Ernest Furneaux, British Rifle Brigade, January 4, 1915.

Along the Western Front in France and Belgium, soldiers waited in their trenches on Christmas Eve. British troops enjoyed puddings and cigarettes from home. Across the fields, sometimes only yards apart, German troops decorated small Christmas trees with candles. Both sides had started singing carols, and could hear their sworn enemies singing familiar tunes. French and British soldiers peered out of their trenches and saw hundreds of lights across the fields when curiosity took hold of them. Despite the language barriers and the months-long war, soldiers crawled out of their trenches, walked into the open air, traded gifts, and sang together. Some even played soccer, with a reported German victory of 3-2. They drank, sang, and celebrated Christmas on the battlefield. Later, many soldiers wrote about these events in letters to their friends and families.

“At dawn the Germans displayed a placard over the trenches, on which was written Happy Christmas, and then leaving their trenches unarmed they advanced towards us singing and shouting ‘comrades!’ No one fired.” -Unknown Belgian soldier, January 4, 1915.

The Great War began in August, 1914, and was expected to end before Christmas. By December, it was clear the war would drag on. Soldiers found themselves in appalling conditions. Sanitation was poor, food was scarce, and enemy gunfire was frequent. So, far away from home, threatened with death and disease, cold, hungry, and probably confused, many German, French, and British soldiers decided to stop fighting.

“The British burst into a song with a carol, to which we replied with ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.’ It was a very moving moment, hated and embittered enemies singing carols around the Christmas tree. All my life I will never forget that sight.” -Josef Wendl, German soldier, January 1915.

In some places, the Truce lasted until Christmas morning. In others, it lasted until New Year’s Day. Soldiers shared whatever food and drink they had, took the opportunity to bury their own dead, and befriended the men they were expected to kill. Some even joined together in a Christmas Mass on the battlefield. Suddenly, the Germans were no longer monsters trying to dismantle civilization; suddenly the French and British were not the greatest threat Europe had ever known.

“Friend and foe stood side by side, bare-headed, watching the tall, grave figure of the padre outlined against the frosty landscape as he blessed the poor broken bodies at his feet. Then with more formal salutes we turned and made our way back to our respective ruts.” -Unknown British soldier, January 15, 1915.

The ceasefire was spontaneous, informal, and technically illegal. Soldiers were forbidden from fraternizing with the enemy, which was relatively easy when trenches were so close, and such interactions sparked sympathy. Though common then, such fraternization is rare today.

In contemporary wars, it is easier to dehumanize the enemy because there are broader cultural differences. American troops during the Korean and Vietnam wars were told they alone prevented the spread of communism, and those Americans who celebrate Christmas now find it difficult to share that holiday with the mostly Sunni Muslim communities of Iraq and Afghanistan. Propaganda dehumanized communists as the negation of American values and contemporary media frequently call Muslim societies the antithesis of western culture.

“Further, they agreed that if by any mischance a single shot were fired, it was not to be taken as an act of war, and an apology would be accepted; also that firing would not be opened without due warning on both sides.” -Unknown Irish soldier, January 2, 1915.

But dehumanization is only a process of denial. No matter how well we deny it, everybody in the crosshairs is a human being. They all have families; they are all lost and confused and angry and shaken. It’s easy to deny the humanity of an Iraqi or a Korean whose language and culture we do not understand. But just like all Americans, they work like us; they make music like us; they bleed and yearn and gasp for one last breath like us.

The trenches were hell on Earth. Nevertheless, people chose to celebrate Christmas in hell. They chose to recognize their mutual humanity and stop their mechanized slaughter. We can learn from the Truce that peace is actually quite simple. All we have to do is realize that, no matter who we’re fighting, all we really want is good food, good music, and good company. If we all stopped listening to the propaganda and acknowledged how much we long for home, maybe we can stop the nonsensical industry of warfare. It may sound preposterous, but the letters prove that such an act, however brief, has a historical precedence. Who’s to say it can’t happen again?

Joyeux Noël.

Schöne Weihnachten.

Happy Christmas.

The Berlin Wall and Kristallnacht

Twenty-five years ago today, in 1989, on an East German news conference Politburo Günter Schabowski of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) announced that East Germans would be allowed to cross over into West Germany that evening. The Berlin Wall had divided the city since 1961, and crossing from one side to the other was strictly enforced. Schabowski had, in fact, made a mistake; he was not supposed to announce to the public that they could cross the border immediately. The border guards were supposed to have been informed first so they could prepare. Instead, an enormous crowd gathered at the Berlin Wall. The guards, not knowing what to do, first prevented them from crossing, but eventually gave in opened the gates.

Berlin Berlin

The Berlin Wall coming down, piece by piece.

Toward the end of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall became a popular symbol for the war itself: it divided an otherwise united people, an otherwise united city, along arbitrary lines. It represented the division of people because of politics, though in reality it divided families, friends, and colleagues. Its fall only illustrates the futility of the Cold War, the unneeded division of society between the communists and capitalists with nothing between. Some see its fall as miraculous; others attribute it to the political efforts of western leaders such as President Reagan and Soviet reforms from Mikhail Gorbachev. For many Germans, it was a sign of positive change.

Synagogue

Photo of a burned synagogue in Munich, November 1938.

On this same day, in 1938, the Nazi SA Paramilitary force and numerous German citizens instigated a massive pogrom against Jews in Germany and Austria. Known today as Kristallnacht, Reichskristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, it was a collective assault against Jewish communities. Citizens and paramilitary members burned and destroyed synagogues and businesses owned by Jews, and attacked, arrested, and in some cases killed Jews. German police and military authorities did nothing to prevent, mitigate, or bring justice to the event. As World War Two broke out the following year, Nazi atrocities only grew and became worse.

Commemoration is an important part of history, but it can also be one of the trickiest parts. Public history plays an important role in commemorating twentieth century German history not only for German historians but for world historians as well. For many Americans, remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall is both easy and popular. Americans can look to President Reagan’s famous challenge to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and can look to President Kennedy’s declaration of unity with the German people when he said “Ich bin ein Berliner.” The US had direct political connections to the Berlin Wall, namely an interest in seeing it collapse. Americans do not have a similar connection to Kristallnacht. The US did not have an invested interest in protecting the Jews of Europe or in preventing the Nazis from committing ruthless persecution and extermination of minorities in Europe. That itself is the problem. The US government did not make a concerted effort to stop the Holocaust until Allied forces stumbled upon concentration camps in 1945, so for many Americans, remembering the Holocaust also forces them to remember that the US government, at one point in its history, was firmly silent.

Berlin Wall

A piece of the Berlin Wall on public display at Northern Arizona University.

While today, many Americans will feel good about the collapse of the Berlin Wall and think fondly of Reagan and Kennedy, very few Americans will think of the Holocaust at all. It is important to remember the advances toward justice in human history, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall represents the literal and figurative destruction of barriers separating nations and peoples. However, it is also critical to remember the moments in history when humanity failed, moments when people created divisions rather than dismantle them. November 9 marks both kinds of events, and they deserve equal commemoration in public spheres and private meditations.

-jk

 

 

The War to Start All Wars

August 4, 1914

Political cartoon by Walter Trier (1890-1951).

Political cartoon by Walter Trier (1890-1951).

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of two major events in the First World War, Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium to gain strategic access to France, and Britain’s declaration of war with Germany.

France was allied with Russia in 1914 through the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892. Germany had declared war with Russia on August 1, 1914, to retaliate against Russia’s military organization and its allegiance with Serbia, which was in conflict with Austro-Hungary, Germany’s ally as part of the Triple Alliance of 1882 between Austro-Hungary, Germany, and Italy.

The conflict began with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Throne, on July 28, 1914 in Sarajevo. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was one of six Slavic nationalists whose plot was intended to cut ties between Austro-Hungary and Serbia in order to create Yugoslavia as an independent, pan-Slavic state incorporating Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and other south-Slavic regions.

As the conflict escalated from a reactionary political crisis to a military conflict between powerful alliances, other nations entered the war, including Bulgaria, Italy, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States.

WWI

An estimated 9 million people died in the First World War. It brought to light outdated imperial agendas and alliances, introduced horrendous new military technologies including the tank and chemical weapons, and put on hiatus intellectual movements pushing for women’s rights, minority rights, and worker’s rights. Multiple nations are responsible for atrocities, including the German treatment of Belgian civilians and the Ottoman implementation of the Armenian Genocide.

Empires collapsed during the war. Irish and Russian political revolutionaries took up arms during the war, partially motivated by the appalling death toll by 1916 and 1917. As a result of subsequent events, England partitioned Ireland, the USSR replaced the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman empire dissolved along with the centuries-old Caliphate.

In a desperate effort to prevent another such war, the League of Nations was formed. So too was the Treaty of Versailles, which placed astronomical debt on Germany and fueled radical parties left and right. The aftermath of the War led to numerous other conflicts: civil wars, partitions, decolonization, and the Second World War. As a result of World War Two, superpower nations entered the Cold War, accompanied by the Space Race, Arms Race, nuclear proliferation, and military intervention in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Arab World.

The War influenced Modernism and ultimately obliterated popular perceptions of war as romantic. It changed art, literature, music, popular culture, and even cinema with the adaptation of Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

The First World War was a humanitarian calamity; almost all conflicts today can be traced to the War. The exact causes are still contested. Some point to imperial allegiances; others point to an interest, especially by Britain, to suppress political activism from suffragists and socialists. Others point to a moment of panic among imperial leaders. Regardless of the causes, it repeatedly defined and redefined the twentieth century. Today, as Russia enters Ukraine, as Israel assaults Gaza, as complex networks of allegiances overlap and the U.S. flails when asked about whom it considers its allies, the conditions for a world conflict are strikingly similar.

The Great War mutilated the twentieth century, but it is not yet clear if it will do the same to the twenty-first. If political leaders panic in a moment of crisis and declare war within a month, world conflict may continue. Alternatively, we could all take a moment and consider the dangers of reactionary retaliation and ask ourselves if we want another century of war and genocide, if we want to see 9 million more dead for a war that can so easily be avoided. I hope that commemorations such as this one in London will motivate nations to pause before considering military action. One day, I hope military action will no longer be perceived as an easy option, because for the victims and survivors, there’s nothing easy about it.

-jk