A new finding of bloodshed in WWI’s “Christmas truce” on the cusp of its hundredth anniversary strengthens, rather than undermines, its example for peace.
The UK’s Telegraph reports (“Christmas truce of 1914 was broken when German snipers killed two British soldiers,” December 22) the incident, pieced together from historical records. On the front lines in France, British sentry Percy Huggins was felled by a German sniper; his platoon leader Tom Gregory retaliated against that sniper, only to be outgunned by another.
This may not fit the sentimentalized image of the truce, but taking it off such a pedestal makes it relevant to our messy world. Bertrand Russell noted that to “admit in theory that there are occasions when it is proper to fight, and in practice that these occasions are rare” yields far less war in practice than to “hold in theory that there are no occasions when it is proper to fight and in practice that such occasions are very frequent.”
The truce’s breakdown in this case remained an isolated flashpoint; it held on both sides, as close as under a mile away. The influence of an “incredibly professional” duty-bound Guards Brigade kept local tensions high from the beginning, with immediate rejection of Germans’ bid for a cease-fire.
Also instructive is the clear tit-for-tat aspect, driven by retaliation for specific aggressions rather than by general warlikeness. (One sniper indicating more made a third death inevitable.) Something needs to tip the balance to make hostility spread faster than toleration. That something, in one word: Politics.
Emma Goldman contended that without the socialist movement’s turn away from direct action and toward a reliance on political means, “the great catastrophe would have been impossible. In Germany the party counted twelve million adherents. What a power to prevent the declaration of hostilities! But for a quarter of a century the Marxists had trained the workers in obedience and patriotism, trained them to rely on parliamentary activity and, particularly, to trust their socialist leaders blindly. And now most of those leaders had joined hands with the Kaiser … Instead of declaring the general strike and thus paralysing war preparations, they had voted the Government money for slaughter.” And only the tripwire pitting of national leaders against each other could turn the assassination of an archduke into a feud that would multiply the tripling of Huggins’s death five-million-fold.
In his final letter, Huggins told his family: “I long for the day when this terrible conflict will be ended. You consider war a terrible thing but imagination cannot reach far enough for the horrors of warfare that can be seen on the battlefield are indescribable and I pray this may be the last war that will ever be.” A century of advance in global communications and commerce gives today’s Hugginses ample basis to coexist without politicians and the means to verify trust. It should not take another century to reach “the last war that will ever be.”
Joel Schlosberg lives in New York. He is a contributing author at the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org).