Weintraub is author of the new history, Silent
Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce (Dimensions,
224 pp., $17.50).
Jean Lopez: What led you to write a book about the 1914
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.
What was No Man's Land and how did it become a gathering place?
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.
Whose idea was the truce?
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.
What drove them to the truce? Was Christmas more important than
the cause of the war? Was it about religion?
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).
How did the respective governments manage to downplay the Christmas
truce and how did they keep it from spreading?
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
Were there any glitches?
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.
Why exactly was it that they trusted each other? And even enjoyed
each other's company?
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.
Could the truce have conceivably been used as an opportunity for
peace of some sort, a shorter war?
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.
Can you imagine circumstances where something similar might happen
again during such a bloody struggle?
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.