After Christmas, exchange ideas

Unhealthy sterotypes pose a new existential risk.

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Monday, December 27, 2021 11:54pm
  • Opinion

By Rich Moniak

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.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

More in Opinion

An array of stickers awaits voters on Election Day 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The case for keeping the parties from controlling our elections

Neither party is about to admit that the primary system they control serves the country poorly

Voters fill out their ballots at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai, Alaska on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Voter tidbit: Important information about voting in the upcoming elections

Mark your calendar now for these upcoming election dates!

Larry Persily (Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: State’s ‘what if’ lawsuit doesn’t much add up

The state’s latest legal endeavor came July 2 in a dubious lawsuit — with a few errors and omissions for poor measure

The entrance to the Homer Electric Association office is seen here in Kenai, Alaska, on May 7, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion file)
Opinion: Speak up on net metering program

The program allows members to install and use certain types of renewable generation to offset monthly electric usage and sell excess power to HEA

Gov. Mike Dunleavy signs bills for the state’s 2025 fiscal year budget during a private ceremony in Anchorage on Thursday, June 25, 2024. (Official photo from The Office of the Governor)
Alaska’s ‘say yes to everything’ governor is saying ‘no’ to a lot of things

For the governor’s purposes, “everything” can pretty much be defined as all industrial development

Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. board members, staff and advisors meet Oct. 30, 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The concerns of reasonable Alaskans isn’t ‘noise’

During a legislative hearing on Monday, CEO Deven Mitchell referred to controversy it’s created as “noise.”

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: Crime pays a lot better than newspapers

I used to think that publishing a quality paper, full of accurate, informative and entertaining news would produce enough revenue to pay the bills

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo
Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom addresses the crowd during an inaugural celebration for her and Gov. Mike Dunleavy at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Jan. 20, 2023.
Opinion: The many truths Dahlstrom will deny

Real conservatives wouldn’t be trashing the rule of law

Gov. Mike Dunleavy discusses his veto of a wide-ranging education bill during a press conference March 16 at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Governor, please pay more attention to Alaskans

Our governor has been a busy guy on big issues.

Priya Helweg is the acting regional director and executive officer for the Region 10 Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Happy Pride Month

This month is dedicated to acknowledging and uplifting the voices and experiences of the LGBTQI+ community

A roll of “I voted” stickers sit at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Juneau in 2022. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Strengthening democracy: Native vote partners to boost voter registration

GOTNV and VPC are partnering to send over 4,000 voter registration applications this month to addresses and P.O. boxes all over Alaska

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
Former President Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower after he was found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial in New York on May 30.
Opinion: Trump’s new fixers

Fixers from Alaska and elsewhere step in after guilty verdict