The Christmas truce of 1914 not only saved lives, but also affirmed life in the midst of a hell.
Author: Patrick Malone
Last December marked the hundredth anniversary of the Christmas truces of 1914 of the First World War. Briefly put, fighting ceased spontaneously over Christmas at various locations on the Western Front. It is important to preserve the memory of these events, even though everybody present has since passed away, because as Queen Elizabeth II said in her Christmas address, it is “a reminder to us all that even in the unlikeliest of places, hope can still be found.” Unfortunately, ‘hope’ seems to have popularly degenerated into a vague, almost meaningless word denoting a general good feeling about the possibilities of the future, whatever they may be. Because I suspect that the Queen will not have used the word in such a way, I want to expand more concretely on what hope we can find in the Christmas truces.
One of the most common ways of describing war is to call it a type of hell. This tends to denote the physical torture of fighting, the foetid conditions, the mental anguish and pressure of ubiquitous death, and the possible degeneration of men. However, this comparison reminds me also of the more subtle definition of hell developed by C.S. Lewis, a veteran of that war.
In The Problem of Pain, he says, “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of Hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good.”
While I do not intend to argue that war has this same theological significance, I think that this passage offers a profound understanding of war as hell. War must always somehow involve the utter rejection of the other person’s humanity and a radical self-centredness that has concerns only for one’s own objectives at the expense of the other’s good, if not among individuals then among larger societies. It is a refusal to abandon oneself in order to love another person. One has locked oneself in a prison that no one else may enter, even by force.
The Christmas truces are important because they are the moment at which the participants prevailed against the gates of this hell, if only for a moment. Their physical conditions may not have improved over Christmas, and they were still far from their homes and families, but they left their self-interest behind and welcomed their enemies, meaning that their hell ended briefly. They abandoned themselves and accepted the risk that in laying down arms, their enemies would exploit their openness in order to conquer them; the human need to embrace the other was higher than the selfish fight. If humans are truly social animals, this was the moment at which the participants asserted their fundamental essence against the dehumanising hell of war.
It is hard to imagine how this truce could have come about, except in response to the basic social qualities of human nature. Unfortunately, there are still many hells in our present world, and it is just as hard to see how their prisoners might be released from a concern that does not extend beyond oneself and one’s group. This is why the Queen emphasised how the truces are a sign of hope: because “as the Christmas truce a century ago reminds us, peace and goodwill have lasting power in the hearts of men and women.”