In my Veterans Day column last month, I quoted free-market economist and World War II veteran Richard Timberlake, who wrote:
"Yet, any U.S. soldier or airman who thought even briefly about his job of trying to kill and destroy ‘the enemy,’ knew that he was not within range of damaging Hitler and other Nazi leaders. We could not reach their personal environments or influence their decisions; our activities were many magnitudes removed from hurting them. We could only chip away at the peripheries of their domain and hope that they would realize the futility and fallacy of their ways. To do so, we had to try and kill our enemy counterparts with whom we had no personal quarrel at all."
I thought of that these last few days as I reread Stanley Weintraub’s Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce. While Timberlake, a pilot of a B-17 bomber, realized that he had no quarrel with his German counterparts, it was difficult for him to act on that. He was dropping his bombs on unknown victims. But during World War I, troops on both sides of the front slicing through France and Belgium not only understood that they had no personal quarrel with the "enemy," but also acted on this understanding during the Christmas season of 1914. Silent Night is the detailed story of that amazing aspect of World War I. (An excellent movie, Joyeux Noël, was based on this event.)
Why We Fight
Weintraub, a professor emeritus of arts and humanities at Pennsylvania State University, explains early in the book why the Tommies (British soldiers) and Jerries (German soldiers) fought:
"Despite the efforts of propagandists, German reservists evidenced little hate. Urged to despise the Germans, Tommies saw no compelling national interest in retrieving French and Belgian crossroads and cabbage patches. Rather, both sides fought as soldiers fought in most wars for survival, and to protect the men who had become extended family."
Given the horrible conditions in the trenches in northern Europe in December rain, snow, cold, disease, wounds, etc. soldiers on both sides were ripe for a truce.
Interestingly, most of the initiatives came from the Germans, who, at the time, were winning and whose conditions in the trenches were not quite as bad. The Germans slipped a chocolate cake to the British lines with the message:
"We propose having a concert tonight as it is our Captain’s birthday and we cordially invited you to attend provided you will give us your word of honor as guests that you agree to cease all hostilities between 7:30 and 8:30. When you see us light the candles and footlights at the edge of our trench at 7:30 sharp you can safely put your heads above your trenches, and we shall do the same, and begin the concert."
The British accepted the invitation with an offer of tobacco, and the Germans started singing at the appointed time. They invited the British to join the chorus, and they did, until a British killjoy fired a shot.
Along the line, though, similar overtures were made. In the days before Christmas and on Christmas itself, there was much fraternizing among soldiers on both sides. In many cases, they came out into no-man’s land and exchanged gifts tobacco, chocolate, etc. and even traded some of the things each most coveted from the other. They even played soccer.
One highlight is how some German soldiers dealt with a threat from their officers. The officers had said, "Fire, or we do and not at the enemy!" "We spent that day and the next," said a soldier named Lange, "wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky." Apparently, no stars were harmed.
For years, economists have been saying that free trade reduces the chance of war, and story after story in Silent Night illustrates that. Also, many people have pointed out for decades, if not centuries, that information undercuts prejudice. Weintraub writes:
"But perhaps more important, many troops had discovered through the truce that the enemy, despite the best efforts of propagandists, were not monsters. Each side had encountered men much like themselves, drawn from the same walks of life and led, alas, by professionals who saw the world through different lenses."
The professionals in the officer corps worked hard to end this civilization that had grown around the trenches. Unfortunately, they succeeded. The result? Weintraub writes:
"On both sides in 1915 there would be more dead on any single day than yards gained in the entire year. And there would be nearly four more years of attrition not to determine who was right but who was left."
If you read Silent Night or simply this short article and find that you disapprove of such fraternizing among "enemies," then you are in famous company. Weintraub tells of one soldier who did not mingle with his comrades or their new friends. This man later wrote a famous book in which he reminisced about a medal that Kaiser Wilhelm had given him personally during the war. The day he was awarded the medal, he later wrote, was "the happiest day of my life." When this man refused to share Christmas with the British, he rebuked his fellow soldiers: "Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor left at all?" Interestingly, though, this soldier was not German. He was an Austrian corporal. The book in which he told the story was titled Mein Kampf, and the killjoy, who killed joy for tens of millions of people later in his life, was Adolf Hitler.
Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.