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The 1914 Christmas Truce and the Possibility of Peace

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A new French film, Joyeux Noel , brings the 1914 Christmas truce, that moment when a world of peace could be imagined, to a wider audience.

An article on the truce and the film from the Telegraph has this nugget:
Some viewers might find a certain sentimental excess in the scene in which a Scottish bagpiper spontaneously joins in when German soldiers began singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night). There are records of such an event. "All the acts of fraternisation had one thing in common: music and song," says Carion. "I loved the idea that these could stop a war for a few hours."

Perhaps we should learn something from this experience about the importance of music to peace. After all, the 60's peace movements were infused with song, whereas today's movements are silent. Music and song can unite, they can inspire, but they also can soothe. Movements for peace need all three.

The Telegraph article continues to point out that the reality of peace is beyond what audiences can believe:
The film also features a foraging ginger cat adopted as a mascot by both the French and the Germans. The cat existed, and, in real life, it was arrested by the French, convicted of espionage and shot in accordance with military regulations. "It was an era of madmen," says Carion, who filmed this scene - to the great distress of his extras - but decided not to include it in case his audience didn't believe it.

A Scottish bishop's sermon, which includes references to a "crusade" and a "holy war", seems like a thumpingly obvious effort to find parallels with more recent discourses about Iraq. In fact, these words were, Carion says, taken directly from a sermon preached by an Anglican bishop at Westminster Abbey. Here, too, the truth was toned down: Carion excised the real bishop's references to German soldiers "crucifying babies on Christmas Day" in order to make it credible.

Perhaps the propensity toward war is aided by our unwillingness to imagine the depths to which people can sink when captured by the lure of war, the fantasy of perfect union with the state, that idealized perfect mother, and the ability to extrude all evil onto the enemy, that poisonous cannibalistic bad mother. As Christopher Hedges points out in War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, in more normal times we disown this desire for union and extrusion and cannot remember or imagine how destructive it can be.

Perhaps this dynamic also helps explain people's passivity toward the threats to democracy facing us in the United States today. For those identified with their country, to truly accept the danger puts the evil, the bad, inside the union, where it is especially terrifying.

A resolution for many is the demonization solution, to view George W. Bush and his administration as absolute evil, destroying the country and the world. While tempting, and certainly not without evidence, the problem with this outlook is that it is the mirror image of that attitude which leads us into the nightmare. To those adopting this view, evil resides in Bush, in Cheney, in the Republicans. If only they could be removed, impeached, tried, the world would be saved. The problem with this notion is that it encourages only destruction of the enemy, not construction of something better. History has repeatedly demonstrated that movements guided by hatred do not end up producing a better world.

The Christmas truce, in its magnificence, gives us a tiny glimpse of a true alternative, a world in which we are all simply human, in which that which we have in common is greater than that which divides us. For the brief moment of that truce, lasting days or weeks, the soldiers on all sides embodied the wisdom of peace through union, a union without an all-bad enemy (though the officer class trying so hard to restore their respective killing machines surely could have qualified). A union of fun, of games, and of song. A world dominated by eros.

The challenge, so far unsolved, is how to take such a moment and make it last, or at least not turn into its opposite, a renewed carnage of destruction. This challenge, as pacifists and nonviolent activists have repeatedly discovered, requires us to find a way to accept and tame the capacity for destructiveness in each of us, so as not to need to attribute it to an enemy. At the same time, we need to find a way to continue peace and unity in more normal, less extraordinary times, beyond the moment of fusion. For eventually the excitement fades and we remember all our irritations, our gripes and our fears. To bring peace into daily life is the need upon which the future of the human race may well depend.

This is the utopian challenge for our day.

Peace on Earth! Goodwill to Men and Women!

For more information on the 1914 truce, see the book Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub.
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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
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