Christmas in the Trenches

John McCutcheon tells the story of his ballad and the dedicated band of German followers it won him.


The Christmas Truce of 1914 really happened, and I often wonder what would have happened if only that spirit had prevailed. If only all the soldiers in the trenches had simply disobeyed their commanding officers on both sides, and no one fired another shot again–except maybe at the commanders, to tell them to back off.

For it was the commanders, far behind the lines, that got the shooting started up again–go figure, the troops had a hard time working up the animosity to shoot at people they’d been singing carols, sharing candies and playing pick-up soccer with just hours before. Indeed, the average footsoldier had trouble understanding just what was so evil about the other side, because those other guys looked just like him. The language and the uniform might be different, but the spirit was the same. The Germans and the British were of the same religion. And the fact that their religion centred around a Prince of Peace, whose birthdate they all celebrated the same way (and to the tune of the same hymns!) could not have been lost on a single one of them. And it wasn’t.

Nor was it lost on the commanders, who ordered artillery bombardments on Christmas Eve in all subsequent years of the war to prevent just such truces from happening again. It’s very hard to sing “Silent Night” with gunfire erupting all around.

I often think that the Germans and the British have more in common than just religion and holidays and traditional songs. There’s another element of spirit, a more pernicious one, that they share. Kurt Vonnegut once asked the great German novelist, Heinrich Böll, what was the worst thing about the Germans, and Böll promptly replied that it was obedience. Suddenly, that phrase “the dogs of war” takes on a new meaning: obedience, vicious obedience, trained in by hard drilling. Bark, lunge and bite on command, like a junkyard dog.

In the Nazi era, a new noun came into use, a chillingly appropriate one: Kadavergehorsamkeit. Literally, cadaver-obedience. Obedience unto death, because corpses can neither rebel nor complain.

What might the world look like today if that canine obedience-unto-death had been circumvented or ignored? Would there have been another war? Would the Kaiser have lasted in power until 1918? Would Adolf Hitler have risen to power with as little challenge as he faced, if Germans had grown used to being disobedient and independent-minded in the intervening years? And what would Britain have looked like if its own troops had decided that an empire wasn’t worth getting politely and obediently killed over, let alone politely and obediently killing someone else who looked and acted remarkably like them?

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