By Bonny Ibhawoh,
This Christmas marks the centenary of a remarkable event in peacemaking.
On Christmas day of 1914, amidst the ruins and devastation of the First World War, British and German infantrymen declared an unlikely truce. In a story that has come to represent the hope and generosity of the human spirit, soldiers on both sides took a break from war to sing Christmas carols. They left their trenches to exchange pleasantries and gifts in sub-zero temperatures. By some accounts, they even took time to play a soccer match before returning to their trenches to continue the fighting and killing. For a fleeting moment, peace was possible.
As a year defined by global conflicts and social upheavals draws to a close, the holiday season provides another opportunity to reflect on the proclamation “peace on earth and goodwill to all.”
The Christmas truce of 1914 holds 3 important lessons for peacemaking in our world today.
1. Peace is always possible. Even in the darkest moments of conflict and bitterness; even in the hostile and dehumanizing trenches of warfare peace is always a possibility.
2. Peacemaking stands a better chance at the early stages of conflict. Nothing like the Christmas truce of 1914 ever happened again throughout the course of the First World War. As the war progressed, annihilation rather than fraternization came to characterize the conflict. The Christmas truce could only happen at the beginning of the war, before attitudes hardened on both sides of the conflict. As one historian notes, “This was before the poisoned gas, before aerial bombardment … By the end of 1915 both sides were far too bitter for this to happen again.”
3. Ordinary people can be effective peacemakers. Peace initiative need not always be top-down; they can come from the bottom-up. The Christmas truce of 1914 was a spontaneous initiative of weary solders in the trenches who desperately wanted a break from war. Had the generals, monarchs and politicians any say in it, the truce would never have happened. After all, soldiers are supposed to be fighters not peace makers. But peacemaking cannot be the sole prerogative of politicians, statesmen and diplomats in conflict situations. The stakes in war are simply too high.
Coalitions of ordinary citizens, even common solders in war trenches, can be the engines of peace-making. Unfortunately, the truce of 1914 was short-lived. But the key lesson for all of us is that the possibilities for peace are often closer than we think.
For more on the Christmas truce see:
A handwritten letter from British soldier Gerald Blake, describing the event as perceived by a participant, one who would later be killed in action. The original letter is held at the McMaster University Library