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             07 May, 2021

Category:  Articles » Reference & Education » Psychology


What are the Lessons of the Christmas Truce of 1914?

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2006-07-28 22:03:33     
Article by David A. Crenshaw, Ph.D.

A Scottish man, Alfred Anderson died in November of 2005, at the unbelievable age of 109. But perhaps even more remarkable is that he was apparently until his death the last survivor of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Only 18 years old at the time he was on the Western front in the early stages of that awful war that claimed the lives of 31 million people. On the front lines the enemy soldiers were only about 50 feet apart in some instances so they could easily call out to one another. In what appears to be the most unlikely of all circumstances the British, German, French, and Belgian soldiers left their muddy and bloody trenches, assisted each other in burying their fallen comrades, sang Christmas carols together, smoked cigarettes, drank whiskey and beer together, played soccer on Christmas eve and Christmas Day before returning to their trenches and resuming their deadly battle.

Now that there is no longer any living person to tell the story it is vital that we learn and never forget the lessons of that remarkable temporary halt in the bloody, savage battles of war that invariably claim the lives of some of the finest and bravest youth of the warring nations. According to some accounts of what happened on the front lines, after the men drank together, ate together, played soccer together, and sit around the fire together, when they returned to their respective trenches some men could no longer fire their guns at the “enemy.” According to these reports these men had to be replaced with new combat soldiers to carry on the war. I find this report of events that, of course, I have no way of verifying, so interesting because of recent research on empathy that has suggested that we have trouble empathizing with people we can’t identify with. In war the enemy is demonized and dehumanized and this reduces the inhibition to kill since when inducted into this view of the enemy it does not feel like you are killing another person in many ways just like you. I have heard combat veterans describe how difficult it was to pull the trigger when an enemy soldier’s face was revealed by close proximity, often a young kid with the look of fear if not terror in his eyes. A young scared kid not that different from oneself. That’s what the soldiers in 1914 discovered in their brief joining together to celebrate Christmas. They discovered they could identify with those men on the other side. They were men like themselves with families back home praying for their safe return, soldiers who entered into battle for patriotic reasons, young, idealistic, and brave. They were men at the beginning of their adult lives knowing full well they were on the frontlines and could be at the end of their lives within an instant. What a wonderful tribute to the courage and bravery of these men that in the midst of the horrible conditions of war they could risk putting down their arms and risk getting to see up close the face of the enemy, for that short period of time to help each other, to celebrate with one another, to break bread with one another. The most important lesson of all that these wise and brave soldiers taught us is that in the end we are all human, we share this planet together, and we are more alike than different.

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