Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Last night I rewatched the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) which is one of my Christmas traditions. When I watch it I cannot stop. I don’t look at my social media, I don’t tweet. Although it recounts an incident that occurred over a century ago, I am drawn to it out of a feeling of camaraderie, and a hope that people of good will can, and maybe will someday put and end to the scourge of war. I guess one reason I have to put down everything else is that I cry through most of the film.
I do not think that end of war will happen anytime soon, for as Henry Wordsworth Longfellow wrote some fifty years before this incident, “for hate is strong, and mocks the song, of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
But I dare not, even in the age of a madman in the White House and warmongering dictators and despots wreaking havoc on the world, give up the hope of peace. I tend to watch it before or after reading Stanley Weintraub’s book: Silent Night: the Story Of the World War One Christmas Truce.
It was a book that I refused to read until after I returned from Iraq in 2008. Of course as a military historian I knew of the Christmas Truce, but it was something that I tried to keep a distance from after September 11th, 2001. After my experience of Christmas on the Iraq – Syrian Border In 2007 I could no longer ignore it.
Christmas 1914 evokes the stubborn humanity within us, and suggests an unrealized potential to burst its seams and rewrite a century.
I say that my time in Iraq did that to me. I cannot forget the Masses that I celebrated on the border and my time with Americans, Iraqi Soldiers, and local Bedouin during those days.
In the film, one of the main characters is the Chaplain of the Scottish battalion played by Gary Lewis tells a Lieutenant:
“Tonight, these men were drawn to that altar like it was a fire in the middle of winter. Even those who aren’t devout came to warm themselves. Maybe just to be together, maybe just to forget the war.”
The war was supposed to be over by Christmas, or so the planners had said. Instead after a series of massive battles that produced unprecedented number of casualties the war settled into a stalemate. As the sides exhausted themselves in a series of meeting engagements throwing the flower of their idealistic youth into the great maw of the front to be torn apart by massed artillery and machine gun fire the planners sought new ways to find military victory.
In December 1914 with neither side having the ability to force the issue and casualties already running over a million dead and wounded the armies dug in. Massive trench networks were constructed in the mud of France and Belgium as the artillery continued its impersonal work of destroying men, machines and the homeland of millions of civilians.
Despite the stalemate the high commands of the various nations continued to through their troops into meaningless attacks to gain a few yards of their opponent’s trench networks. The attackers always suffered the worst as they went “over the top” and were cut down by well sited machine guns and networks of defensive redoubts.
As Christmas neared individual parties of British and German troops began to fraternize exchanging gifts and attempting despite the wishes of their commanders to maintain an attitude of live and let live. On Christmas Eve German troops began to decorate their trenches with Christmas trees and lights, carols were sung and Christmas greetings exchanged as the local truces became widespread and soldiers met in no man’s land to talk and give each other gifts of cigarettes, alcohol, food and souvenirs. In some places the sides helped each other collect and bury their dead and some Chaplains even led Christmas services in which men of both sides worshipped.
The truce would not last as the high commands of each side issued strict orders against them and within days had moved the units that they believed most “infected” by the Christmas spirit to other locations and replaced them with units inculcated with the message of the inhumanity of their enemy. Such messages often included the religious understanding of this being a “holy war” against enemies of God and humanity. It is funny that though Muslims are frequently demonized for committing Jihad, that Christians have a terrible record when it comes to finding theological reasons to kill those that they believe, even other Christians to be the enemy.
This really wasn’t surprising, after all for in the years leading up to the war many school children, especially in France and Germany had been propagandized. Churches and ministers cooperated in the carnage.
In the movie Joyeux Noel the British Padre who had cooperated in the Christmas truce is relieved by his Bishop and sent home. The Bishop then preaches to the newly arrived soldiers, those replacing the men who had found peace for a moment. The sermon is not a work of fiction, it is actually part of a sermon that actually was given in Westminster Abbey in 1915. It was a sentiment that fit the mood of the high command who sought to minimize the danger of peace without victory. It was a sermon, the likes of which were preached by ministers, preachers, priests and bishops throughout that terrible war. It is a sermon that many preachers, Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Hindu even today mimic with terrible consequences.
“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”
Unfortunately I have met and heard men preach the same message against those they hate, a message that twists the words of Jesus in a diabolical way to justify the worst acts of nations and peoples. In the year 2018 wars rage around the world. Some are conducted by well organized professional militaries but many by militias, paramilitary and terrorists groups. In some cases the brutality and inhumanity exhibited makes the industrialized carnage of the First World War seem sane. Even now preachers of various religions, including Christians, Moslems and Jews advocate the harshest treatment of the enemies of their peoples all in “the name of God.”
Eleven short years ago I was traveling up and down the western border of Iraq with Syria. I was visiting our Marines that were advising the Iraqi Army and Border Forces, conducting Christmas services for them and also visiting Iraqi soldiers as well as civilians. In a couple of instances Iraqi and Jordanian Christians working as interpreters came to the Eucharist services, for one it had been years since he had received the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion. While out and about visiting Iraqis we were hosted by Iraqi troops and well as Bedouin tribesmen and their families. The warmth and hospitality and faith of these wonderful people was amazing.
T.E. Lawrence wrote that “the Bedouin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God.”
I think that for me that Christmas week was the one that will remain with me more than any and despite being in a war zone, it for me was a time of peace on earth and good will toward men. Some people cannot imagine how a career military officer could feel that way. In the movie the French company commander is confronted by his father after the truce, and after the military postal censors had reported the many incidents of fraternization with the enemy to the various high commands in France, Germany, and Great Britain.
The Country? What does it know of what we suffer here? Of what we do without complaints? Let me tell you, I felt closer to the Germans than to those who cry “Kill the Krauts!” before their stuffed turkey… no, you’re just not living the same war as me. Or as those on the other side.”
“To many, the end of the war and the failure of the peace would validate the Christmas cease-fire as the only meaningful episode in the apocalypse. It belied the bellicose slogans 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. A candle lit in the darkness of Flanders, the truce flickered briefly and survives only in memoirs, letters, song, drama and story.”
During World War One there were men who retained their conscience and tried to mitigate the effects of the war and suffering. Likewise there were those who could not let go of their hate. One such Soldier was Adolf Hitler, whose story is recounted in Weintraub’s book:
Although he was out of the line in reserve, discussion arose about crossing into Niemandsland to share Christmas with the British. He refused. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” Hitler argued. “Have you no German sense of honor left at all?” More than patriotic scruples were involved. Although a baptized Catholic, he rejected every vestige of religious observance while his unit marked the day in the cellar of the Messines monastery to which they had retired on the 23rd. “Adi” was distinctly odd. He received no mail or parcels, never spoke of family or friends, neither smoked nor drank, and often brooded alone in his dugout. In the ruins open to the sky, Corporal Frobenius, a Lutheran theology student also decorated with the Iron Cross, read the Christmas gospel to a joint congregation of Catholics and Protestants, but not to Corporal Hitler.
Hitler’s Nihilism, racist nationalism, and unrepentant rejection of his religious heritage while gaining the support of the most religious Christians in the Reich would be part of his life until he took it in his Berlin Bunker In 1945, and it would be shared by all too many men since the First World War until the present.
I will not be one of them.
Maybe someday we will begin to understand, until then, like so many others in so many wars before, I am still dreaming of home.