Christmas 1914

Socrates suggested that we do evil out of ignorance, because, if we truly understood the good, we would never choose against it.  Saint Augustine thought that sin could be explained as our lamentable choice for a lesser, rather than the greater, good.  Both struggled to explain humanity’s predilection for evil.  If Socrates and countless social reformers since him are right, education and human moral evolution are still humanity’s great hope.  Augustine, however, thought a savior was needed:  someone who could both teach us the greater good and give us the strength to choose it.  Both men saw beyond the actual to the possible.  They saw a human nature that didn’t exist but should.

The nineteenth century sides with Socrates.  In Europe and North America especially, life was changing.  The industrial revolution had brought unknown leisure and progress.  Science was finally conquering nature.  What wouldn’t we be able to accomplish once its insights were turned upon human nature itself?  Freud and Marx seemed to flow effortlessly from Darwin.  Evolution wasn’t simply a biological theory.  It became a moral imperative. 


The summer of 1914 shattered that world of hope, though, at year’s end, no one yet realized how thoroughly.  Germany had violated Belgium’s neutrality because its only hope to win the war had been to knock out France fast, so as to direct its limited resources to the vast territories, and seemingly unlimited troops, of Russia.  But at year’s end a line of trenches, from the North Sea to the Alps, was opening like a scar across the face of Europe.  No one yet understood that the trenches would remain, because technology had surpassed strategy. 

Something strange happened that first Christmas of the war.  Socrates might argue that it wasn’t so odd after all; that men are not naturally killers; that great forces of ignorance and prejudice must be brought to bear before they willingly slaughter one another. 

Certainly the commanders of warring armies understood this.  In 1914 a Brit was like a Yank today, typically unable to speak a foreign tongue.  But many Germans had worked in Britain.  They had been drawn there by economic opportunity and could speak English.  As in the American Civil War, orders against fraternizing were needed.  It’s hard to kill someone you don’t hate and fear.

Those commands were ignored the Christmas of 1914.  A Londoner on the lines, Private Frank Sumpter recalled:

We heard the Germans singing “Silent Night, Holy Night” and they put up a notice saying “Merry Christmas, so we put up one too.  When they were singing our boys said, “Let’s join in,” so we joined in and when we started singing they stopped.  And when we stopped, they started again.  Then one German took a chance and jumped up on top of the trench and shouted “Happy Christmas, Tommy!”  So of course our boys said, “If he can do it, so can we,” and we all jumped up.  A sergeant major shouted, “Get down!” But we said, “Shut up, Sergeant, it’s Christmas time!”  And we all went forward to the barbed wire…The officers gave the order “No fraternization,” and then turned their backs on us. They didn’t try to stop it because they knew they couldn’t (170).

In Christmas 1914 John Hudson writes, “In some sectors the truce began on 23 December and lasted more or less into the New Year when, as elsewhere, it ended in cheery farewells, random shooting in the air, and the scheduled replacement of the front forces by reinforcements to whom the conviviality meant nothing”(173).  Before it ended, however, Tommy and Fritz soccer matches had been played, foodstuffs exchanged, and the dead buried.  

Was Socrates shown to be right that Christmas?  Was human goodness growing, even if it suffered serious setbacks?   Augustine may have the better argument.  The men in the trenches had been motivated by the spirit of Christmas.  Someone had taken a chance on the carol being true.

Silent night, Holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin, mother and child
Holy infant, tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

Someone allowed himself to become vulnerable.  First one soldier and then another consciously imitated the one who came among us as an infant.  Augustine, that old champion of grace, would insist that a power greater than the human had come to our aid, and that it didn’t do so by denying human freedom, by simply sweeping away the effect of sin.  No, it happened as it did that first Christmas, as it still does for those who see and believe.  Love did what love must do in order to be love.  It became vulnerable.  Born in manger and dying upon a cross, it inspired men to enter no man’s land. 

Christmas 1914 would not be repeated.  Indeed, that was the year that both sides decided that war would enter the air and claim homes far from the front.  Though that winter the big guns could be heard as far away as London, no one could yet imagine that millions would die, that democratic Britain would begin to bring its dead home under cover of darkness for fear that knowledge of the war’s toll would lead to revolution. 

So many were to die, and, a century later, most have forgotten.  Socrates would urge us to remember so as to learn and grow.  Augustine would insist we drop to our knees, and reverence the vulnerable savior who lies shivering in the cold, asking us to risk, to love.

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David Smith
4 years ago
We don't learn because the "we" is constantly changing. When a child is born, she knows nothing of the history of her race. It all begins again. Especially today, when there is always an overwhelming amount of new stuff to learn, the past is pushed away, usually rejected as antique, occasionally - as in this essay - romanticized. People do not, on their own, untutored, read history. Every generation has to make the same mistakes, in one form or another, over and over again.
David Pasinski
4 years ago
Post World War II, Rogers and Hammrestein's iconic "South Pacific" captured a similar notion with "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught"... still a song I I've sung with my children about fear and prejudice
Henry George
4 years ago
Not sure Socrates and Augustine are being correctly interpreted here. Socrates makes it clear in the "Meno" that Virtue cannot be taught, but must be chosen, in other words you have to "want to be good". Why Liberals continue think you can be taught to be good - and thus will naturally choose to be good is their 'Achilles Heel'. It was not so much that we chose a "Lesser Good" as opposed to the "Greater Good" that led and leads to sin but that we, if left to our own devices, always chose our own selves, our ongoing selfishness, that guided our selves away from God. The Economic Elite of the 19th Century may have thought the World could only get better but for the 'Economic Slaves' of the Industrial Age - there was no reason why the World could not and was not getting worse.


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