100 years ago, on Christmas Day, 1914, in the middle of World War I, British and German soldiers put down their guns and stopped killing one another. The terrible industrial slaughter had already taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men. But on that day, thousands of troops climbed out of the trenches in France and Belgium, sang Christmas carols, and exchanged food, gifts, and souvenirs. They traded German beer for British rum. They even played soccer. It’s a unique event in the history of modern warfare.
It’s unique in another way. Those who fought in wars—“the fallen”—are regularly remembered and honored, but remembering and honoring those who refused to fight is pretty much unheard of (except for commemorations sponsored by pacifist and anti-war groups). And yet, this season, the Christmas Truce of 1914 is being commemorated officially, especially in Europe, with a wide variety of government-sponsored memorial events.
“It’s quite remarkable,” Adam Hochschild said in an interview—he’s the author of seven books, most recently the award-winning history of WWI, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918. “The Christmas Truce has always been marked unofficially. But this year every school in the United Kingdom received a packet of materials about it—photos, eyewitness accounts, student worksheets. There’s a children’s competition in Britain to design a memorial to the Christmas Truce, and one of the judges was Prince William. In Belgium a memorial soccer field was inaugurated, the British and German ambassadors came, and they are holding a soccer tournament in memory of those Christmas Truce soccer games, with youth teams from Britain, Germany, France and Austria.”
Perhaps most amazing is the three-minute TV commercial running in Britain, featuring a high-budget reenactment of the truce, where, after a soccer game, a British soldier trades a chocolate bar with a German soldier. “It’s from the supermarket chain Sainsbury,” Hochschild said. “The commercial is for a commemorative chocolate bar. The proceeds from this chocolate bar will go to the Royal British Legion, the official veterans’ organization. It’s another kind of official commemoration of this startling outbreak of peace.”
What is it about this refusal to fight that makes it safe to be officially commemorated? “I’m curious about that,” said Hochschild, who wrote about the Christmas Truce for TomDispatch. “First of all, the Christmas Truce only lasted for a day or two. The war in its full fury resumed very quickly—and went on for another four years.
“Also the Christmas Truce did not represent a breakdown of military discipline. It was sanctioned by officers on the scene. Officers as high-ranking as colonels came out to greet their counterparts from the other side in no-man’s-land.”