ast year, Stanley Weintraub spoke to NRO about his book Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce. The paperback edition of this history of the 1914 Christmas truce was recently released and we reprint the interview here, in case you missed it the first time around.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What led you to write a book about the 1914 Christmas truce?
Stanley Weintraub: In 1985 I published a book about the five days leading up to the Armistice in November 1918, A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War. While researching it I discovered the abortive informal armistice in 1914 that had bubbled up from the ranks on Christmas Eve. Although it clearly happened, and survivors had been on a BBC television documentary in 1982, the event had taken on the quality of myth. I determined to find out more, particularly to grasp the mythic power that the truce seemed to possess, and to examine it from both sides. I had begun my earlier book with the line, "Peace is harder to make than war," and as I worked on Silent Night that line became even more meaningful. Although I was working on other books at the time, including two on World War II and several biographies, every time I went to England or Germany on other research, I dipped into files of newspapers for January 1915, as troops mesmerized by the miraculous Christmas peace, a sort of waking dream they could hardly believe, wrote home about it. In those pre-censorship days, the letters were often sent on to local newspapers, which printed them. Then I went to the military archives. It was all real even the football games (our soccer) in No Man's Land. I even found some of the scores.
Lopez: What was No Man's Land and how did it become a gathering place?
Weintraub: The first reference I have found to the term is from 1320. In medieval England, Nonemanneslond was a waste beyond London jurisdiction used for executions usually beheadings. It gradually came to mean a killing field belonging to no side. In wartime it was the territory separating the two sides. When the war stalemated on the Western Front from the English Channel to the Swiss border, No Man's Land ran for more than 300 miles between the opposing lines then often trenches dug into the mud and muck created by autumn rains. Movement became nearly impossible. Yet the enemies were only 60 or 70 yards apart. No Man's Land was then an area for scouting and raiding parties to traverse, and in the weeks leading up to Christmas it became littered with bodies. Reclaiming them could cost more casualties. A man could not stand up and remain alive. It became a different kind of gathering place in the darkness of Christmas Eve.
Lopez: Whose idea was the truce?
Weintraub: Both sides were weary, frustrated, and dispirited. There was little sense of national purpose other than to defeat the enemy. The Germans were called on to defend their superior culture; the English to assist the Belgians and French (treaty obligations were involved) in recovering their territories occupied by the beastly Huns. To the Germans, one example of their superior culture was their alleged invention of Christmas. The English Christmas, complete with decorated trees and "Silent Night," was actually imported from Germany. So the Germans, for both morale and ideological reasons, shipped thousands of small tabletop trees to the trenches, including candles clamped to their branches, to be placed on the parapets about the trenches. Chancing shots, they sang "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht," and lighted their trees. Many curious Tommies crawled into No Man's Land in the darkness to watch, and listen. And soon they met the enemy out there, eager to make contact.
Lopez: What drove them to the truce? Was Christmas more important than the cause of the war? Was it about religion?
Weintraub: In part the truce came about as brief truces in earlier wars occurred as a respite to bury the dead. This was arranged for first light on Christmas Day. The joint ceremonies were especially moving. However they jointly realized that by clearing No Man's Land of its grisly dead, they had created a space to fraternize, and even to play football. The Germans held more formal religious marking of Christmas than did the other side. But it was football that was the working-class religion. And in sharing food, smokes, and play, each side de-demonized the other (if I can coin such a word).
Lopez: How did the respective governments manage to downplay the Christmas truce and how did they keep it from spreading?
Weintraub: The British reported it as a minor, scattered, phenomenon, quickly over. The French and Germans claimed it didn't happen, although their own unit reports reply that. No reporters were then at the front to observe the truce. And no photographers. But the news leaked back anyway. It was finally ended less by threats of court martials than by rotating troops that had participated back into reserve and replacing them with fresh troops not contaminated by peaceful feelings.
Lopez: Were there any glitches?
Weintraub: Yes, snipers are beholden to no one, it seems. And some units commanded by career officers continued to fire. The artillery to the rear were also ordered to maintain a rolling barrage, and some guns did continue firing. There was never a complete truce into New Year's Day, when the arrangements finally fell apart, but even the revengeful French (for the most part) participated.
Lopez: Why exactly was it that they trusted each other? And even enjoyed each other's company?
Weintraub: As one German put it to a friendly enemy, "We're Saxons; you're Anglo-Saxons." The enemies had cultural bonds, even religious affinities. As one later songwriter put it, in "Christmas in the Trenches," via his narrator, a private from Liverpool, "On both ends of the rifle we're the same." They regretted having to fire at each other again, but they were under military discipline and returned to it.
Lopez: Could the truce have conceivably been used as an opportunity for peace of some sort, a shorter war?
Weintraub: No. Governments would have fallen if a "revolution from the streets" had succeeded. Also, the Germans would not have given up their gains without the other side paying a price. Yet if they possessed a realization of the future nearly four more years of war, millions dead, and economies destroyed they might have come to terms. But given what both sides thought they knew, peace in-place was impossible.
Lopez: Can you imagine circumstances where something similar might happen again during such a bloody struggle?
Weintraub: I can't imagine such massive concentrations of troops again in a future war, nor can I imagine such collisions of similar cultures. Sadly, I can envision future conflicts with such culturally different opponents as Islamic forces. To see a common humanity in likely future opponents seems unlikely. A Christmas truce could not happen again without a mutual respect for the values of Christmas.