Europe is once again at war. The Ukraine-Russia war is part of the same geographical context of the last two great European wars, the intersection of Central and Eastern Europe, where Germans, Russians, and others have fought over the lands of smaller groups in the lands that we know today as Poland and Ukraine. Today’s conflict shows little sign of abating, despite the call to peace that Christmas brings.
The first World War, what its survivors knew as the Great War, drew all of Europe in, from Russia to England. But the real start of the bloodshed was Germany dramatic invasion of France via the Low Countries in August 1914. By the autumn that initiative became bogged down in that soggy and ugly zone of barbed wire, trenches, and destruction we all know as the Western Front. Despite the devastation, as Tim Demy relates in his new book, Silent Night, Silent Guns: The 1914 Christmas Truce, a Christmas miracle occurred, a fleeting, yet beautiful, moment of peace on earth.
Demy, a former Navy chaplain, Naval War College professor, and author tells a tale that is simple yet complex. At posts along the front lines, it appears that German troops began to set up Christmas trees and sing carols. It was not long before both sides began to lower their weapons, with a few brave souls making overtures of Christmas amity. Greetings halloed across the trenches turned into meetings in the No Man’s Land between the barbed wire. Rations were shared, such as German beer and English biscuits. In one section a friendly choral competition ensued as the Germans would belt out a favorite hymn, to be answered by British carols. Of course, among all the glad tidings was the simply German carol, “Silent Night.”
Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright…
Demy’s compelling book suggests many of the practical reasons such an informal ceasefire could occur on December 24-25, 1914. As TIME records, the trenches were near freezing and full of water. What better way to get out of the muck than to take the chance that one’s opponents were equally miserable and might have a shred of Christmas spirit? Much of the fraternization seems to have happened between British units and German units of Saxon, rather than Prussian, origin. The French and Belgian troops were the most aggrieved parties and far less likely to look on the German aggressors with charity. So, too, there were many among the Germans who had worked as waiter, cooks, and drivers in London only to be called home from the war. One famous account is of a German barber, lately of Britain, who provided a haircut for one of his former English customers during the truce!
By December of 1914 the fighting and the weather were rough, but the war was still just a few months old. Most soldiers had been civilians just a few months before and they could reflect easily on calmer times. Many also believed what the newspapers and politicians had said, that this was to be a short war. Surely they would all be going home soon after one of Europe’s many political settlements occurred.
Whatever the reason, imagine the frosty Christmas night lit by German Christian trees on the trenches’ ramparts, the end of incessant gunfire for a spell, and then the rising sound of carols and laughter. One could easily see the common humanity of one’s opponents. The foe was to be fought, but he was only a foe, not a devil. How could he be a devil when he prays to the same God and sings the same carols on this sacred night?
The moment of solace and consolation only lasted a day or so. It was not to be repeat in 1915, 1916, or 1917. Indeed, the war itself lasted nearly three long and tragic years. 7 million men died. Three empires – Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman – disintegrated. Poverty and disease swept the continent, and the Spanish flu followed returning troops around the world.
What are we to make of this enigma? First, the story reminds us of the common humanity of the antagonists in this little drama. The Tommies and the Jerries fighting in the trenches did not know one another, but they recognized that their foes were men, flesh and blood, like themselves. Christmas has a way of reminding us of our common humanity because it was God himself who took on flesh and dwelt among us.
Second, as Demy reminds us, despite several months of war, there was a tremendous hope for peace in the hearts of the troops and their families at home at Christmas 1914. We know this to also be true today: despite 10 months of bloodshed, the people of Ukraine and many of the Russians under the iron grip of Vladimir Putin long for an end to war. This Christmas we are called not lose hope while praying for peace.
Third, nothing expresses peace like the coming of the Prince of Peace and the cycle of his life: birth, life, death, and resurrection. The spiritual power of Christmas was conserved in the hearts of some of the fighters and found expression as they embraced the joy and meaning of that one sacred day.
Finally, the Christmas truce should give us hope. Hope that soldiers do not lose their humanity, nor their sense that there is a larger peace that they are fighting for. We see this in the approach that many Ukrainians have taken to this war. The Christmas truce provides hope that there is a peace beyond the ugliness of warfare and sorrow, and even the fraught peace of our sinful world is a harbinger of a much greater peace when the Prince of Peace himself returns.