How does it happen that we can escalate from conversation marked by civil respect to one filled with mockery and derision? How do we bridge the gap between listening and disdain? And once we have demonized others, how do we get back to seeing the good in everyone?
Leading up to World War I, the media in Germany and England reflected a delicate balance of admiration and rivalry. They perceived each other as competitive yet civil rivals, eager to outdo one another in both business and sporting events like sailing races. Though diplomatic tensions simmered, they remained largely respectful.
However, with the outbreak of the war in July 1914, the tone of the media in both nations underwent a dramatic transformation. The English portrayed the Germans as barbaric “Huns,” amplifying stories of alleged atrocities such as spearing infants and hanging clergy. In contrast, German media cast the British as treacherous colonial oppressors, eager to dominate weaker nations. The hardships inflicted upon Germany by the British naval blockade, initiated in August 1914 when British ships began patrolling and mining the North Sea to block supplies from reaching German ports, became a focal point of their reports.
Even the arts became a battlefield of sentiments. The German poet, Ernst Lissauer, penned a song titled “Hymn of Hate Against England.” It rose to such popularity it was nearly as recognized as their national anthem.
Surprisingly, despite the mounting hostility in the media, the general populace in cities like Paris, London, and Berlin harbored a belief that any conflict would be fleeting. They optimistically predicted that the war would conclude before the New Year. After all, their frame of reference was rooted in recent history—conflicts like the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 that lasted just seven weeks, and the more drawn-out Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which spanned less than a year. This sentiment was reflected at kitchen tables across Europe, where parents comforted their soon-to-be-soldier children with assurances of their return by Christmas.
Yet, by Christmas Eve 1914, a swift end seemed impossible. The front line sprawled for five hundred miles from the Belgian coast to the Franco-Swiss border, with over 100,000 soldiers entrenched, sometimes mere meters apart.
On this tense night, Officer Walther Stennes recalled a surprising development:
“On Christmas Eve at noon, fire ceased completely – on both fronts. Initially, there was apprehension. But as hours passed, it became clear this wasn’t a prelude to an attack.”
Private Albert Moren of the Second Queen’s Regiment noted,
“It was a beautiful moonlit night…and they sang ‘Silent Night’. I thought, what a beautiful tune.”
Marmaduke Walkinton of the London Regiment shared,
“We began to pop our heads over the side…and then we saw a German standing up, waving his arms, and we didn’t shoot. The understanding gradually grew.”
Those small gestures of trust quickly grew, German Josef Wentzl recollects,
“What I had still believed to be madness several hours ago I could see now with my own eyes. Bavarians and English, until then the greatest of enemies, shook hands, talked and exchanged items.”
They traded gifts, chocolates, cigarettes, and stories with one another, and enjoyed impromptu kickabouts of soccer. In northern France, near the village of Fleurbaix, soldiers from opposing sides gathered in no-man’s land to hold a joint burial service. They stood side by side to bury their fallen comrades. With Germans on one side and the English on the other, officers at the forefront and every head bared in respect, they jointly laid the deceased to rest. Together, they sang, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ in English and ‘Der Herr ist mein Hirt’ in German, their voices harmonizing in shared grief.
However, this fleeting moment of shared humanity was not to last. Commanders, uncomfortable with the truce, acted swiftly. George Ashurst, a British soldier, reflected the sentiments of many in the trenches: “The generals behind must’ve seen it…‘Course that started the war again. We hated the sight of the bloody generals.”
The Christmas Truce remains a poignant example of humanity’s potential to transcend even the harshest of divides. In the throes of war, soldiers, mere meters apart, found a shared sense of humanity, if only for a brief moment.
We possess the capacity to truly listen, to assume the best in others, and to recognize our shared humanity. Let’s commit to reaching out, understanding that we are all here together, striving for the best and uplifting one another.
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