It was one of history's most powerful -- yet forgotten -- Christmas stories. It took place in the improbable setting of the mud, cold rain and senseless killing of the trenches of World War I. It happened in spite of orders to the contrary by superiors; it happened in spite of language barriers. And it still stands as the only time in history that peace spontaneously arose from the lower ranks in a major conflict, bubbling up to the officers and temporarily turning sworn enemies into friends.
"Silent Night," by renowned military historian Stanley Weintraub, magically restores the 1914 Christmas Truce to history. It had been lost in the tide of horror that filled the battlefields of Europe for months and years afterward. Yet in December 1914 the Great War was still young, and the men who suddenly threw down their arms and came together across the front lines -- to sing carols, exchange gifts and letters, eat and drink and even play friendly games of soccer -- naively hoped that the war would be short-lived, and that they were fraternizing with future friends.
It began when German soldiers lit candles on small Christmas trees, and British, French, Belgian and German troops serenaded each other on Christmas Eve. Soon they were gathering and burying the dead, in an age-old custom of truces. But as the power of Christmas grew among them, they broke bread, exchanged addresses and letters and expressed deep admiration for one another. When angry superiors ordered them to recommence the shooting, many men aimed harmlessly high overhead.
Sometimes the greatest beauty emerges from deep tragedy. Surely the forgotten Christmas Truce was one of history's most beautiful moments, made allthe more beautiful in light of the carnage that followed it. Stanley Weintraub's moving re-creation demonstrates that peace can be more fragile than war, but also that ordinary men can bond with one another despite all efforts of politicians and generals to the contrary.
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History is peppered with oddments and ironies, and one of the strangest is this. A few days before the first Christmas of that long bloodletting then called the Great War, hundreds of thousands of cold, trench-bound combatants put aside their arms and, in defiance of their orders, tacitly agreed to stop the killing in honor of the holiday.
That informal truce began with small acts: here opposing Scottish and German troops would toss newspapers, ration tins, and friendly remarks across the lines; there ambulance parties, clearing the dead from the barbwire hell of no man's land, would stop to share cigarettes and handshakes. Soon it spread, so that by Christmas Eve the armies of France, England, and Germany were serenading each other with Christmas carols and sentimental ballads and denouncing the conflict with cries of "Á bas la guerre!" and "Nie wieder Krieg!" The truce was, writes Stanley Weintraub, a remarkable episode, and, though "dismissed in official histories as an aberration of no consequence," it was so compelling that many who observed it wrote in near-disbelief to their families and hometown newspapers to report the extraordinary event.
In the end, writes Weintraub, the truce ended with a few stray bullets that escalated into total war, and that would fill the air for just shy of four more Christmases to come; further, isolated attempts at informal peacemaking would fail. But what, Weintraub wonders at the close of this inspired study, would have happened if the soldiers on both sides had refused to take up arms again? His counterfactual scenarios are intriguing, and well worth pondering. -- Gregory McNameeAbout the Author:
Stanley Weintraub is Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities at the Pennsylvania State University and the author of numerous histories and biographies, including MacArthur's War, Long Day's Journey into War and A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War. Weintraub is a book reviewer for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. He lives in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.
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