Perhaps the most remarkable events of World War I were "dismissed in official histories as an aberration of no consequence," according to Stanley Weintraub, the author of an extraordinary book entitled "Silent Night."
The events were the Christmas truces of 1914, which interrupted the fighting in France and found soldiers of the opposing armies singing to each other, exchanging gifts, and playing soccer games in the mud between their respective lines of trenches and barbed wire. According to Weintraub, it was no secret why the brief respites from the gruesome war were covered up and denied by the commanding officers on both sides. First, the truces were spontaneous. Men charged with killing each other decided to stop trying to do so during Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The authorities couldn't tolerate humble soldiers taking matters into their own hands like that. Discipline was at stake. Beyond that, the truces were subversive of the greater purpose of those calling the shots in the war, for whom "it was imperative to make even temporary peace unappealing and unworkable, only an impulsive interval in a necessarily hostile and competitive world."
Mr. Weintraub recreates in Silent Night the grotesque and foul circumstances of the trench warfare between 1914 and 1918, where men waist-deep in water, mud, and excrement shot at and were shot at by other men in similar circumstances to the apparent advantage of neither side. When small, lit Christmas trees appeared above some of the trenches on the German side and the English soldiers recognized that the faint tune they were hearing was "Silent Night," the blasted, infernal landscape was temporarily transformed. In broken English, the Germans offered to stop fighting if the Allies would do the same. English soldiers looked at each other, shrugged, and figured, "Why not?" Private arrangements to suspend the war took precedence over politics and propaganda. During soccer games and discussions on Christmas day, the opposing soldiers discovered, as Weintraub writes, "that they didn't hate each other."
I wanted to include a conversation with Stanley Weintraub in our Christmas show in part because I like the idea that when the English and German soldiers pulled the plug on the war, some of them played soccer. Obviously more significant, especially in these days when we are being prepared for battle by "leaders" who would have us think of war as morally, philosophically, and tactically desirable and inevitable, is the message Weintraub takes from the Christmas truce. "It belied the bellicose slogans," he writes, "and suggested that the men fighting and often dying were, as usual, proxies for governments and issues that had little to do with their everyday lives."
This program aired on December 21, 2002. The audio for this program is not available.