25-Dec-17 World View — Remembering the 1914 World War I Christmas Truce

Originally published in The Illustrated London News, January 9, 1915. The Illustrated London News's illustration of the Christmas Truce: "British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches" The subcaption reads "Saxons and Anglo-Saxons fraternising on the field of battle at the season of peace and …
Wikimedia Commons

This morning’s key headlines from GenerationalDynamics.com

  • Remembering the 1914 World War I Christmas Truce
  • The ‘anti-war movement’ in World War I
  • World War I vs World War II and World War III

Remembering the 1914 World War I Christmas Truce

Christmas truce drawing from the London News of January 9, 1915. The drawing's caption reads, in part, "British and German soldiers arm-in-arm and exchanging headgear: a Christmas truce between opposing trenches. Drawn by A. C. Michael."
Christmas truce drawing from the London News of January 9, 1915. The drawing’s caption reads, in part, “British and German soldiers arm-in-arm and exchanging headgear: a Christmas truce between opposing trenches. Drawn by A. C. Michael.”

An almost-forgotten event in an almost-forgotten war.

One of the most remarkable occurrences in modern warfare occurred just a few months after World War I had begun.

On December 24, 1914, the German and British soldiers laid down their arms, crossed into the “No Man’s Land” separating their trenches. They sang Christmas carols, played games, and shared jokes and beer with one another. They also used the time to bury their dead.

Hundreds and perhaps thousands of men on the Western Front experienced the informal truce. The war had begun only months earlier, and there was probably more curiosity than hatred between British and German troops. Once the soldiers began receiving Christmas presents from home, the mood in many areas became more festive than warlike.

This story illustrates how different World War I was from World War II.

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, World War II was a generational crisis war for America and Western Europe, but World War I was a non-crisis war. (World War I was a generational crisis war for Eastern Europe, Russia and the Mideast.)

Can you imagine Hitler’s German troops and Churchill’s English troops singing Christmas carols and playing games at the beginning of World War II? That would have been impossible.

World War I is now an almost completely forgotten war in America, except for its name. Because of the similarity of names between World Wars I and II, and because Americans fought Germans in both wars, most Americans believe that WW I and WW II were similar to one another.

Today there are few people, even among historians (as I’ve discovered), who have any idea what the Great War (WW I) was about. Most people seem to believe that WW I was the same as WW II — some pre-Hitler Hitler-type decided to invade France and started a world war. First World War – Christmas Truce

The ‘anti-war movement’ in World War I

In fact, World War I was much more similar to our Vietnam war than it was to World War II.

World War I was very politically divisive for both America and Germany. America actually remained neutral between England and Germany for several years, and only entered the war in 1917, to much political dissent. To this day, many historians still consider America’s entry in WW I to have been unwise. In a 2004 survey of historians’ views on the “greatest” and “least great” presidents, the two presidents voted the “most controversial” were Bill Clinton and Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was considered controversial because he was the President who entered America into World War I, despite enormous political opposition. I have personally interviewed older men who are still absolutely furious at Wilson for getting America into that war.

Antiwar writings began appearing in both Britain and Germany. In England in 1917, Wilfred Owen, a 24-year-old soldier, wrote “Anthem for Doomed Youth”:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Ironically, Owen died in 1918 in the same week that WW I ended. The “Doomed Youth” that he described have become known as the Lost Generation, in the same generational archetype as today’s Generation-X. (See “Politicians commemorate Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916.”)

World War I was just as politically divisive for Germany. Germany did not start WW I, as many people naïvely believe. WW I started in the Balkans and spread to Russia. Germany was “accidentally” forced into the war because of a long-standing treaty with Austria which obligated Germany to invade France because France was an ally of Russia. England was pulled into the war because of a previous agreement with France.

By 1918, the German people were sick of the war, and when the Americans joined the war, that was the last straw for the German people, who forced their country’s leaders to capitulate. Germany’s incredible capitulation, long before it was necessary, occurred because the German people were so politically angered by the war. Essentially, Germany capitulated in WW I for exactly the same reason that America capitulated in the Vietnam War — because of enormous political opposition back home during a “generational Awakening” era.

But when Germany capitulated on November 11, 1918, German troops were still deep within Belgian and French territory. Writing in his 1931 book World in Crisis, Winston Churchill said that if Germany had continued to fight, they would have been capable of inflicting two million more casualties upon the enemy. Churchill added that the Allies would not have put Germany to the test: simply by fighting on a little longer, the Allies would have negotiated a peace with no reparations, on terms far more favorable to Germany than actually occurred in the peace dictated by the Allies.

Between the Christmas Truce and the early capitulation, it was clear that the German people had little interest in fighting World War I.

After the war, the young German soldier Erich Maria Remarque wrote “Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front)” depicting the heroic soldiers as becoming a “lost generation,” following a completely pointless war. Some consider it to be the greatest antiwar book of all time. Churchill – World in Crisis (full text PDF) and Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front (full text PDF)

World War I vs World War II and World War III

By contrast, WW II was a generational crisis war for Germany (as well as England and America). That war was no “accident.” Hitler planned his attack on France and England for years in advance, in secret, and Hitler kept on fighting long after it was clear that Germany would lose. There was no early capitulation.

As I described in 2008 in “The gathering storm in the Caucasus,” today’s international situation is much more similar to the prelude to WW I than to WW II.

World War II could almost have been anticipated by someone watching the murderous Adolf Hitler – and actually it was by Winston Churchill. But there was no figure like Hitler in WW I, which was triggered almost by a random event. When Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serb high school student, the war in Eastern Europe was triggered. Germany was as shocked by the war as anyone, and had no desire to invade France, but was forced to by a treaty with Austria.

Today, a new world war could be launched in the same way as either WW I or II. There are Hitler-like figures on the scene, including China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. And there are also deep xenophobic and nationalistic urges that are prevalent in many countries, especially in China and North Korea, directed against the US, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and India.

Furthermore, there’s a historical irony. After World War II, the United States took on the role of Policeman of the World, and in doing so, signed some sort of mutual defense treaty with many countries: Japan, South Korea, Israel, Taiwan, the Philippines, the Marshall Islands, the ANZUS agreement with Australia and New Zealand, a special treaty with Iceland, and the NATO agreement with all of Europe. The purpose of these treaties was to discourage attacks on any of these allies that would otherwise have the risk of spiraling into World War III.

So today, since those are mutual defense treaties, all of those countries actually have an obligation to defend the US in a war with China. Even if they stay neutral, any incident could trigger a larger war. Furthermore, the extreme xenophobia in China makes it more likely that the Chinese will interpret the mutual defense treaties in a way that will cause them to attack those countries. The irony is that these mutual defense treaties were supposed to prevent World War III, but instead they make World War III more likely.

Finally, with the US distracted in Asia, countries in the Mideast and elsewhere will feel free to launch their own attacks on their own enemies.

The most obvious imminent threat is North Korea. Two days ago, China and Russia both signed off on new extreme Security Council sanctions that N Korea calls a “total blockade” and “an act of war.” It’s becoming increasingly likely that a war with North Korea will begin soon, quite possibly starting with a preemptive strike by the US, and that China will tolerate it as long as US troops and S. Korean troops don’t remain in N. Korea, or come close to the Yalu river.

Analysts are hoping that any such situation will end in some kind of peace treaty, but from the point of view of Generational Dynamics, I would expect it to escalate in a much larger war in this generational Crisis era.

And so, a world war could be triggered today by any of a number of random events, even by a high school student who manages to assassinate some world leader. Any event like that could spiral into a regional war and then into a world war, as happened in 1914.

So, the Christmas truce of 1914 is a unique, sentimental story to think about in this holiday season, as we realize with sadness that there’ll be no Christmas truces in the “clash of civilizations” world war that’s just around the corner. BBC

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KEYS: Generational Dynamics, World War I, Germany, Britain, Christmas truce, Vietnam War, Woodrow Wilson, Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth, Austria, France, Russia, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Erich Maria Remarque, Im Westen Nichts Neues, All Quiet on the Western Front, Winston Churchill, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Vietnam, India, China
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