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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Silent Night: The Centennial of a Christmas Miracle

     The year was 1914 and the world had gone mad. Since 1815 the long balance of power between the the nations of Europe had been eroding. The deal struck by dusty old monarchists and aristocrats in the halls of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic wars was on it's last legs. Many of the old giants of continental Europe were rotting. The Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, and the Romanovs were overseeing empires in decline. New nations had arisen in the Balkans, and a new giant, the German Empire came into being in 1870 upsetting the order of things. Between the 1890 and the 1913 all out war nearly nearly came a handful of times as old and new powers positioned and postured to gain or maintain their places in the sun. When a teenager shot the heir apparent to the once great Hapsburg throne in the summer of 1914, the war that so many were eager for came. But it was not the easy and quick war many anticipated. The eagerness of a war that would be over by Christmas was quickly stamped out as both sides dug in from the Swiss border in the south to the English Channel in the north.

   The war was ugly and a bloodbath. While major wars had broken out between some powers in the years since Napoleon, much had changed since the last one in 1870-1871 when the Prussians defeated the French. In that war men were armed with single shot bolt action rifles, men still charged into battle on horses, and cannons still ruled the battlefield. By 1914 the average soldier could now fire anywhere from 5 to 10 times the amount of ammunition in a minute as repeating bolt action rifles utilizing nitrocellulose powders game them better range and accuracy. The machine gun had been invented in the 1880's and perfected in the following decades, replacing the manual black powder crank guns such as the Gatlings. The new guns were more accurate, practical, and durable. And all the powers were eager to use them(with the exception of the British at first). Cannons of the old era were gone. New field artillery was more accurate, quicker to reload, and in some cases utterly massive. The second surge of the industrial revolution had made the modern army a meat grinder of humanity. And no one knew how to counteract it as the bodies began to pile up in number not seen in living memory.

    For months, the youth of Europe flung itself upon the defenses of the other side only to find injury and death in this first truly industrialized war. It seemed as if civilization was dying at its own hands. Modernity had not lead to progress, but to chaos and death. In this environment it is easy to think that patriotism and such death and violence would breed hate and contempt...but then Christmas came. As both the sides of the line settled in on a cold Belgium night, civilization came back. Humanity pulled itself out of the madness and both sides started singing carols to each other. Then one side got out of its trench and then the other. They met in no mans land and buried their dead. They exchanged gifts, played games, and talked as friends, not mortal enemies. While their respective governments had tried to demonize the other side, the men on that section of the line overcame the will of the propagandists for a short time. Indeed it was incredibly difficult to get them to go back to being enemies. Only under the threat of court martial and execution did the war start again. And so afraid of a repeat of the Christmas Truce, each side ordered artillery bombardments for 1915, 1916, and 1917.

     And now 100 years later, we remember those good men. The ones that lived through the madness of the First World War have all gone home now. They know only peace, but we are left with their memory and their valuable lesson. They taught us that even in the worst of times our nobler angels of the human condition can overcome the encroaching darkness and despair of the world we live in. Sometimes it only take a bit of light to chase away the blackness, just as the candles on the tannenbaums did on that evening a century ago.

A German soldier lights a British soldier's cigarette.

The famous soccer match between Germany and Britain. Sources conflict on who really won. Apparently the score was 3-2.

German and Brits hanging out at the soccer game



They are gone. Their empires are gone. But their lesson remains. 

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