Thursday, December 18, 2014

Postcard From Berlin: The Christmas Truce

Editor's Note: this article was originally published in 2007 on the now-defunct website.

World War I was entering its first winter, as soldiers from both sides huddled together in the muddy trenches that lined the western front through Belgium and France. The “No Man’s Land” between them was already filled with bodies of the fallen, soon to be frozen because it was too dangerous to retrieve them for a proper burial. But that Christmas, something quite unexpected happened: the soldiers who had been trained to kill each other suddenly laid down their weapons…and played games.

I was unaware of this well-documented Christmas truce until a friend gave me a copy of the 2005 film, ”Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas).” The Oscar-nominated cinematic version of the story is depicted through the eyes of French, British and German soldiers, and is appropriately presented in three languages. Although it is a romanticized version of the actual events, its message made it a tradition in our household alongside some of the better-known holiday film classics. 

In comparing the film to the documentary included with the DVD and information on the internet, the true story is still a moving one. It began on Christmas Eve, when the Germans decorated their trenches with Christmas trees lit by candles. They began singing traditional carols, which were heard by the British troops not more than a hundred yards away. The British then responded by singing English carols, and soon officers from both sides were arranging an unofficial ceasefire in the spirit of the moment. The opposing trenches were emptied, and enemies formally seen only at a distance through the crosshairs of their weapons were now up close, exchanging things received in their Christmas care packages like chocolates and schnapps. Time was taken to bury the dead, and often soldiers from both sides worked together to do so.

Then they played games—not board games or war games, of course. Instead, someone produced a soccer ball and the sides, dressed in their long military trench coats, played a true international “friendly.” German soldier Kurt Zehmisch recorded the event in his diary: “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

Unfortunately for the millions who would die in the years to come, the truce was not widespread nor did it last. The warring governments, their militaries—even some of their priests—would not allow either side to be deterred from their victory conditions. And though the soldiers were ready to leave the dismal trenches to return to their families, most were convinced that eliminating their demonized opponents was the only way to get back home.

Some of them, however, saw the real faces of their enemies, and it changed them forever.
The story touches me even more because of my own personal experiences. Before my senior year of high school, I had the privilege of being part of one of the first student groups allowed to tour the Soviet Union, thanks to an adventurous history teacher and Gorbachev’s new openness to the western world. As a child of the Cold War, it was difficult to look past the missiles the Russians had pointed at us to see the humanity that actually lived and breathed across those eleven time zones. When arriving in Moscow, my group visited all of the important architectural sites and museums, but what I most remember are the faces.

There was the old couple at the shabby, out-of-the-way snack bar who scurried about, trying to be as hospitable as possible with the little means they had. When they looked up at me, the eyes in their wrinkled faces were filled with warmth, kindness—and a touch of fear.

Much later on the eight-hour train ride to Leningrad, I befriended a pair of young men not much older than me. One, who was in full military dress, offered me a cigarette. I did not smoke, but we traded music cassettes instead, which the other boy stored in the young soldier’s hat. And as we listened to each other’s music on our Walkman’s, I looked into their faces, and I saw myself.

After that trip, the world was a different place for me. It was still a dangerous one, but I knew that I loved the people in it, and I wanted to understand them better. And I came to understand the true meaning of the Christian Christmas as well, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” (John 3:16). If God could sacrifice so much for humanity, would it be too much for me to risk exposure to a hostile world, the way those soldiers did in 1914? I can think of nothing more disarming.

I wish our governments would desire the same thing. Instead, lack of understanding and fear seem to be the order of the day. Fear plays a great part in plunging nations into war, and fear also now drives the Germans to crave isolation. In fact, many of my German acquaintances believe that we should just build a wall around the problem areas of the world—or build a wall around ourselves. I’m sure many people back home would support this proposal as well. But it was the wall breaking down that finally showed me the true faces of ordinary Russians. And it was only this summer that my new friend, who grew up on the opposite side of the Iron Curtain in East Berlin, was holding the hands of my eleven-month-old son in the park, and as he looked up at me in amazement, said, “I can’t believe I’m doing this—I can’t believe I’m walking with a little American boy.”

I live on his side of the wall now—or rather, where the wall used to be. There is no more propaganda between us, no more barriers of concrete and barbed wire to keep us at an impersonal distance from each other. Our families have picnics together, our wives exchange baby clothes.

And we, of course, play games together.

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