In the days leading up to Christmas in 1914, soldiers from all sides began to realize that the war was going to drag on. It was not going to be all quiet on the western front for some time to come. Soldiers had dug into trenches, six to eight feet deep; and fired when the enemy sought to move forward from their own trenches. This trench-warfare of World-War I created a situation of perpetual physical proximity for enemy combatants.
The Christmas season triggered off unusual acts of reaching out to the enemy. Soldiers started shouting out tentative intents of venturing out of the trenches. The first ones to believe and keep the faith survived and soon got talking with each other. The initial confidence-building hurdle out of the way, there were spontaneous outbreaks of unofficial ceasefire all along the trenches! The Germans & the British started exchanging Christmas gifts & souvenirs. They recovered & buried dead comrades, lit candles, decorated their trenches, sang carols, and started chatting & bantering. They showed each other photos of dear ones, offered cigarettes, food, and alcohol. A war was going on but for a brief period, these men liberated themselves from its stranglehold.
Then, a football was kicked into No-man’s land. Soon after, men from both sides started kicking it around and the battlefield turned into a soccer ground! If Aliens from another universe would have chosen this place to figure out what the human species is all about, they would have been baffled no doubt. Creatures burrowing into holes, refusing to come out, getting destroyed by each other when they do. One fine day, these creatures are scurrying out of holes, mingling with each other in wide open spaces, & even playing with a round object- chasing it together, this after evading each other for so long! Who would have been at utter loss to comprehend- the aliens or war-weary humans; people who have been told a war is happening?
Generals from both sides got reports of this Christmas truce. Orders were relayed to discourage fraternizing with the enemy and resume fighting at the earliest. Recognizing the spontaneity of the goodwill fever, it took some time before sanguine field-officers asserted themselves around New Year’s Day by knocking some (non)sense into their own troops.
How the Christmas truce ended is itself a testament to the remarkable conduct of these soldiers. The leading officer on the British or the German side would walk up to their counterpart, clearly explain the orders they have received, and take great pains to confirm that the other side has got the message about the truce being over. They shook hands, wished each other good luck, went to their respective trenches, and fired a few shots into the air. The other side would fire a few shots in the air too. Both sides were deemed ready.
Soon after, soldiers who had greeted each other, swapped life-stories, shared a cigarette, exchanged gifts, played football & sang songs; got back to killing each other. The war dragged on for four more years and claimed more than nine million lives. The Christmas truce never took got a chance in the later years as the savagery of war overcame everything else.
What do we make of this Christmas truce? Anti-war activists seize upon it as proof of how the nobility of the human spirit can triumph over the madness of war. Pragmatists point to its short-lived nature & emphasize how the same soldiers got on with killing each other over four long years through all the Christmas seasons.
War is an overwhelming experience. It is very tough to understand what war does to human beings without experiencing it ourselves. We can let go of big insights. We can accept what happened in the midst of war and explore what possibilities it can open for us.
People in close proximity to each other for long develop a sense of connection, of being a part of the same soil. If enemy soldiers can connect, what does it mean for us? Can opponents of any type in any other situation claim to be more decisively arrayed against each other than soldiers-at-war?
The impact of sheer proximity or physical togetherness eventually loses out to systemic structure. The connect if not built upon will wither away. Soldiers were bound by the structures of their life- their nationality, the security of their state, the stability of their way of life, and their assigned duty to uphold it at the cost of their own lives. These structures bore down on the soldiers every single day. For permanent peace, the seed of change had to sowed into the core of systemic-structure (the decision-making space of top leaders)
A powerful shared belief can defy systemic-structure for a brief period of time. These soldiers shared the belief that they could live together in peace for a brief respite. Perhaps, what mattered was they knew it to be an inevitably short respite. And this liberated them to make the most of it. They created peace by delaying war. They created a potential space for change. This remarkable truce shows we can carve out the space for change in the worst times imaginable.