Silent Night: The Remarkable Story of the Christmas Truce
© 2002 Stanley Weintraub
One of the most extraordinary stories to come out of the Great War is that of the Christmas Truce, a spontaneous outbreak of caritas in which English, Scottish, and German soldiers decided to stop fighting in observance of the holiday. It’s a bit difficult to sing about peace on Earth, and goodwill towards men while lining up artillery shots on them. The peace was not one ordered or condoned by leadership, but one that stemmed from the fighting men’s own moral convictions, and recognition of the insanity of this conflict that was only a few months old. Why should an English machinist want to murder a German baker, or a German longshoreman do violence to a French carpenter, just because some old ass with a mustache said? Let the Asquiths and Wilhelms live in the mud and dodge rats and kill each other if they want war.
Silent Night is replete with heartwarming anecdotes about men recognizing one another as fellow Christians and laying down their arms, sometimes advancing into the unknown middle ground with gifts in hand and only sweet hope defending them from the other side’s bullets. As such, it makes splendid Christmas reading for those who enjoy history: as a history book in its own right, however, it’s short on context and general narrative. We just read about one instance after another until at the end, Weintraub goes into an interesting bit of alt-history speculation, pondering what might have happened if Christ had triumphed over Caesar and the Christmas Truce had led to a general armistice and peace talks. There’s no connections drawn to Christian pacifism or anything like that, just the record of instances. What I most appreciated about the history, though, was recognizing that the Christmas truce was spontaneous and bottom-up: fighting simply petered out, and as different sectors fell quiet and began to get chummy with the other side, other units took inspiration from that and observed the spirit of Christmas as well. (And observe they did, with singing, drinking, and gift-giving!)
Two titles exploring resistance to the war from the front: