On Christmas Day in 1914, many soldiers on both sides of the western front put down their weapons for a day. According to the German infantryman Rubert Frey, “It was miraculous! These were Englishmen, English soldiers of whose existence we only knew based on their iron-wrapped missive and now, here we were face-to-face … exchanging gifts. … At that moment we were friends, no longer German and English — we were human beings!”
Sadly, it took Christmas for the soldiers to recognize that.
Anthony Richards explains that until recently, the story of the unofficial truce described by Frey had been “a very British-centric one.” Now, hundreds of diaries like the one kept by Frey have provided “a wealth of rarely seen German accounts of the Christmas Truce,” proving it was truly “a shared experience between two opposing sides.”
Richards is a British historian and the author of 46 books. Most recently, in an effort to understand the German perspective of that day, he examined hundreds of diaries, “many never before translated into English and some not previously published.” The work resulted in his latest book titled “The True Story of the Christmas Truce: British and German Eyewitness Accounts from World War I.”
Otto Hahn was one of those eyewitnesses. He recorded being “profoundly happy about this peace lasting one day.” But the German officer also thought it shouldn’t be allowed, “not even for the one Christmas Day” because soldiers might find it “hard to shoot at people, or knock them dead with our rifle butts, or pierce their bodies, if one had exchanged cigarettes and food items with them just before.”
British officers feared the same thing. Both sides issued orders to prevent anything like that from happening again. The war lasted four more years. More than 8 million soldiers and 7 million civilians were killed.
If there are lessons for us in those diaries, it’s that the failure to recognize our common humanity has deadly consequences. That was proven again a few decades later when an even deadlier war erupted in Europe.
In the aftermath of World War II, Sen. J. William Fulbright proposed funding an international exchange program. The goal, he said, was to “bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.”
A few years after Congress established the Fulbright Program, the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience was founded.
There are now more than 20 government and privately funded programs in the U.S., including the Kennedy-Luger Youth Exchange and Study. Created by Congress in the aftermath of 9/11, its mission was to bridge to the cultural divide between Americans and citizens of predominantly Muslim countries.
In between, President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed cultural acceptance could be improved through an exchange of information and ideas between residents of cities around the world. Sister Cities International emerged from that vision.
I’m not naïve enough to believe these programs alone can prevent wars. But as officer Hahn observed, hostilities are less likely between people whose goodwill has been exchanged.
However, given how polarized American society has become, does it make sense to focus all such efforts on foreign nations? Wouldn’t Seattle liberals better understand rural conservative values if some of their children attended school in Woodward County, Oklahoma. And vice versa.
Would Juneau benefit more right now from a sister city relationship with Chattanooga, Tennessee, than Vladivostok, Russia? Should we add Wasilla to our neighboring sister city of Whitehorse?
The answer lies in the stereotypes we hold of peoples from other places. They were easier to form and harder to break during the two world wars. Exchange programs helped change that. But through the emergence of cable news, Facebook and Twitter, unhealthy stereotypes of people who share different versions of the American dream pose a new existential risk.
The 1914 Christmas truce was indeed a miraculous moment in the middle of a brutal war. But it wasn’t enough to change the course of history. If we use it wisely, we have time to redirect ours by recognizing New Yorkers, Texans, Juneauites and Wasillans are all Americans and human beings at heart.