In Prague castle, General Reinhard Heydrich of the SS. SD. RSHA, Interpol as well as Reichsprotector of Bohemia-Moravia recounted the following story of the Christmas truce to the assembled guests on the morning of the 24th of December 1941. In attendance were Prime Minister Emil Hacha and his entire cabinet as well as distinguished members of the business, industrial and cultural elite in the protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia. High-ranking members of the SS. SD. RSHA, Interpol also were present.
Heydrich then mounted his motorcycle and alone and unescorted rushed to his estate Panenske Brezany, just outside Prague to be with his family. That meant Lina, his wife; children Klaus, Heider and Silke; mother, Elizabeth; sister, Maria with her husband and family; brother Heinz with his wife and brood of five. It was 1941. He never lived to see another yule.
In December 1914, the western front became the most dangerous and bloodiest place in the history of the world. Death struck someone every two seconds. For the first time, industrially advanced nations, Britain France, Russia and Germany fought to the death. Two armies stretched 600 miles, from the north sea to the Swiss border - the famous Western Front - immortalized by German writer, Erich Maria Remarque in his book "All Quiet On The Western Front" and by Lewis Milestone, the director of the film by the same name.
Remarque won the Nobel prize for literature and Milestone the oscar for best director. Millions wept in movie theaters at the horrors of war.
As I write this, the eve of Christmas 2007 is fast approaching. More than 50 million books of Remarque’s "All Quiet On The Western Front" have been sold, second only to the Bible.
Back to reality. Young soldiers lay cramped in trenches one meter wide, the opposing armies were thirty meters apart. They attacked each other with a savagery they did not know they possessed. They used high explosives, grenades, poison gas, machine guns, bayonets, and daggers. They discovered their hands could gouge an enemy soldier's eyes out. Their teeth could ferociously tear into flesh.
The Germans and the British were shocked as well as disgusted by the hundreds of thousands of dead. Their youth in the flower of manhood blown to pieces, sliced in half, mangled or abandoned to bleed to death slowly in the mud, snow, and cold. Wounded soldiers returned home blind, burnt, crippled, and drug addicts with shattered lungs and souls. They raged at their impotence, helplessness and humiliation. This was a new type of war, with new kinds of suffering. The young soldiers in the battlefields became tough and hard. They forced themselves to step over the corpses of their friends, towards the enemy in an orgy of killing. They turned into automatons with no hearts and no souls.
Then came Christmas. Since the guns of August 1914, over 800,00 young corpses had been mourned, buried, abandoned, denuded, despoiled of clothes and boots, and totally ignored in the heat of hellfire.
On the 24th of December at midnight, German time, an eerie silence settled over the Western Front. There was no hissing, cracking and whining of artillery. No screams, moans, and gasps rent the air. Tannenbaum appeared on the parapets of German trenches. The tannenbaum is a special fir tree sacred in teutonic lore.
The Germans began to sing in cracked and tremulous voices "stille nacht, heilige nacht" (silent night, holy night). It is now universally accepted that the German fighting men led by junior officers initiated the famous truce on the western front. On that Christmas eve, these young men found their hearts and souls, which they though they had lost forevermore. Without realizing it, the British soldiers joined in singing "silent night" in English.
A young German officer, lieutenant Kurt Zermisch, gifted with a fine baritone voice stepped out of his trench, alone and unarmed. He turned to face his comrades in the trenches, and sang as loudly as he could in Latin "Adeste Fidelis". The climax was all the German and British soldiers singing and crying out "Adeste Fidelis" together in Latin.
On Christmas day, the German officers invited their British counterparts to meet in no man's land (the space between the trenches). The British refused. No comment needed. Three German officers, including Zermisch, the baritone who sang "Adeste Fidelis" on Christmas eve, walked weaponless, into no man's land, under the sight of British guns. A few Germans fell mortally wounded on the orders of English officers to fire. There were too many young German soldiers coming at them, singing, arms outstretched. The British tommies disobeyed orders and rushed to meet them.
“Criminy! It’s Christmas! Stop firing!” Foes no longer, just men celebrating Christmas.
No man's land quickly filled with mortal foes, swapping cigars, photographs, cigarettes, and beer. They sang happy songs for Christmas and mournful songs for their dead. They buried German and British soldiers together, held hands and recited prayers in their respective languages. In no time, football matches were organized in a spirit of sportsmanship. Where there were no balls, they improvised. Bundles of clothes were tied into balls, branches and twigs twisted into circlets.
The British and German commanders ordered their men to fight, on the 26th of December, on the feast of steven. They sang instead:
“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Steven,
brightly shone the moon that night,
though the frost was crue-l,
When a poor man came in sight,
gathering winter fu—el.”
Their respective generals were outraged, as generals so often are when the soldiers dared to ignore orders. For once, their political leaders, in Berlin and London, safely enconsed in their warm and luxurious settings agreed. “God damn! Herr gott!" the killing must continue immediately! These orders are unequivocal!"
And so under threat of immediate executions, the young men reluctantly resumed their slaughter. But some refused and in some areas of the Western Front, peace continued for up to six weeks.
The majority of German and English soldiers who participated in the Christmas truce were Christians, of all denominations. Almost all the assimilated Jews joined the truce. An Austrian corporal, who took great risks and was noted for his constant\bravery under continuous fire, loudly protested the truce.
“The English are going to defecate and urinate on us when they get the chance.”
The world would know him as Adolf Hitler.
Eighteen-year-old Alfred Anderson, a Scotsman, died on the 21st of November 2005, at the age of 109. He was the last survivor and witness of that moving truce on Christmas eve of 1914.
"In the midst of the horror, I remember the silence, and then the Germans sang Silent Night and all of us joined in, not caring if we were enemies. Ever since that night, I no longer believe in war," said Anderson.
The Christmas truce proved to the soldiers who had all become killers by now, that the spirit of joy, love and peace: the spirit of Christmas, can be felt everywhere by men of goodwill.
Violence is not imprinted on the DNA of man. That is a deception of the most malevolent kind foisted on us by the dogs of war and the money men who reap riches from military and civilian casualties.
Fifty million human beings died in the so called great war - World War I. Millions more left homeless, destitute, mutilated, blind and hopeless. Seventy million souls perished in World War II. I hasten to add there were many holocausts. The shoah was but one.
How many of humanity will be left in World War III?
It is up to us to carry the torch of hope, pronounced by the angel on the birth of Jesus.
"Glory to god on high ... And on earth … peace to men of Goodwill!"
Gloria in excelsis deo et in terra pax hominibus voluntatis.
Heydrich was a Catholic. He had been a diligent altar boy. In 1936 he left the church. The Bishop who listened to him felt a mixture of regret and sadness, when Heydrich told him,
“I can no longer and in good faith remain a good Catholic as a high ranking member of the NSDAP.”
The popular historical view is that Heydrich was a monster. Was he? In my upcoming book "Checkmate" I look at the enigma of Reinhard Heydrich.
For many men in those trenches in 1914 - this was the most special Christmas.