I’ve heard the story. I’ve read the story. And I just watched the story on the History Channel while I was mortifying my flesh on the treadmill. The Christmas Truce of 1914 is truly a historical wonder, but not for conventional interpretation.
For context, a quick re-telling: On the Western Front, five months into World War I, British and German soldiers made enemies through no act of their own, found themselves staring across No Man’s Land at each other on Christmas Eve. Across that void, the British heard Germans singing, “Stille nacht, heilige nacht…” and some of them began to sing back, “Silent night, holy night…”
Peace broke out. Enemies met in that space between the trenches and exchanged food, chocolate, trinkets, buttons and other bits of memoriabilia. There was a small Christmas tree. They even had a soccer match. It must have been an absolutely miraculous moment.
The Christmas Truce so took hold that the British officers actually had a pretty hard time getting their troops back into a more bellicose posture. According to the History Channel telling, it took a British officer essentially murdering a defenseless German soldier to jump-start the war. Four long years of horrific bloodshed ensued.
Historians on the program opined that the “reason” such a moment could take place was because the combatants could – in the Christmas moment – recognize their common “humanity.” The narrator even used the word “fellowship” in describing how quickly and well these men bonded with each other.
Completely lacking was the historians’ recognition of the common faith of the British and German soldiers. What an astonishing blind spot! Recognizing the “humanity” in someone else does nothing to explain this moment and, worse, it positively ignores the obvious. These British and German combatants, in hearing the songs of Christmas, recognized their common Lord. Something bigger than France, Britain or Germany was revealed, if only for a moment – the governance of the Prince of Peace.
Now let’s play the historian’s game and think about counterfactuals – the “what might have happened” had event B taken place rather than event A. So, in my little scenario, let’s say that the troops – recognizing the implication of Christians killing other Christians – on both sides had refused to carry on with the war. What if they had realized that both British and German followers of Jesus had something in common that transcends national status? What if the moment had been permitted to develop (the History Channel program played out just this possibility that perhaps the war might have been permitted to stop right then), which might have dramatically foreshortened what became a long and bloody war?
A Christmas Truce of 1914 that led to peace would have prevented the humiliation of Germany in the Treaty of Versailles…and Hitler would not have happened. There would not have been the smoldering resentment in Germany that fed his demonic vision. The German economy would not have been shattered. The political situation would have been different. No Hitler, no World War II. Imagine a history without either World War I or II.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a historical marvel. We ought to scour history for other such moments. They show us the Prince of Peace ruling. If only we recognized him. Come, Lord Jesus.