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Reexamining a century-old Christmas truce

By Adam Hochschild Go to war, and every politician will thank you, and they'll continue to do so - with monuments and statues, war museums and military cemeteries - long after you're dead. But who thanks those who refused to fight, even in wars that turned out to be tragic mistakes?

By Adam Hochschild

Go to war, and every politician will thank you, and they'll continue to do so - with monuments and statues, war museums and military cemeteries - long after you're dead. But who thanks those who refused to fight, even in wars that turned out to be tragic mistakes?

What brings all this to mind is an apparently heartening exception to the rule of celebrating war-makers and ignoring peacemakers. But it turns out to be not quite as simple as it first appears. Let me explain.

Today is the 100th anniversary of World War I's famous Christmas truce. After five months of unparalleled, industrial-scale slaughter, fighting on the Western Front came to a spontaneous halt. British and German soldiers stopped shooting at each other and emerged into the no-man's-land between their muddy trenches in France and Belgium to exchange food and cigarettes and gifts on Christmas Day.

That story - burnished in recent years by books, songs, a feature film, and an opera - is largely true. They sang carols, barbecued a pig, played soccer, posed for photographs together, and exchanged German beer for British rum. Officers up to the rank of colonel greeted their counterparts on the other side. (Refusing to join the party, however, was 25-year-old Adolf Hitler, at the front with his German army unit. He thought the truce shocking and dishonorable.)

Unlike most unexpected outbreaks of peace, the anniversary of this one is being celebrated with extraordinary fanfare. The British Council has helped distribute an "education pack" about the truce to every school in the United Kingdom. An exhibit of truce-related memorabilia has been on display at City Hall in Armentières, France. And a commemorative youth soccer tournament, with teams from Britain, Belgium, France, Austria, and Germany, is taking place in Belgium this month.

Given the rarity of peace celebrations of any sort, what has made the Christmas truce safe for royalty, mayors, and diplomats? For one thing, the event - remarkable and genuinely moving as it was - did not represent a challenge to the sovereignty of war. It was sanctioned by officers on the spot; it was short-lived (the full fury of shelling and machine-gunning resumed within a day or two); and it was never repeated. It's safe to celebrate because it threatened nothing.

But here's one thing you can bank on: The government officials and high dignitaries who have embraced commemorations of the Christmas truce won't be celebrating the anniversaries of far more subversive peace-related events that came later in the First World War.

For example, although soldiers from both sides on the Western Front mixed on that first Christmas of the war, the most extensive fraternization happened later in Russia. In early 1917, under the stress of catastrophic war losses, imperial Russia finally collapsed, and the impact rippled through the Russian army. An American correspondent at the front watched as Russian and German enlisted men met in no-man's-land. The Germans thrust their bayonets into the earth; the Russians blew across their open palms to show that the czar had been swept away.

And here is another group that won't be celebrated, although it was crucial in helping bring the war to an end: deserters. An alarmed British military attaché in Russia estimated that at least a million Russian soldiers deserted their ill-fed, badly equipped army, most of them simply walking home to their villages. This lay behind the agreement that halted fighting on the Eastern Front long before it ended in the West.

In the final weeks of the war in the West, the German army began melting away too. The desertions came not from the front lines but from the rear, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers either disappeared or evaded orders to go to the front.

Likewise, don't hold your breath waiting for official celebrations of the war's mutinies. Nothing threatened the French army more than the most stunning of these, in the spring of 1917 following a massive attack hyped as the decisive blow that would win the war. Over several days, 30,000 French soldiers were killed and 100,000 wounded, all to gain a few meaningless miles of blood-soaked ground.

In the weeks that followed, hundreds of thousands of troops refused to advance. This "collective indiscipline," as the generals euphemistically called it, paralyzed the army. To this day, the subject remains so touchy that some archival documents on the mutinies remain closed to researchers until the 100th anniversary, in 2017.

And with all the plaques and statues around the world honoring the war's heroes and fallen warriors, nothing similar celebrates those who served the cause of peace.

The Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg spent more than two years in a German prison for her opposition to the war. The eloquent British philosopher Bertrand Russell did six months' time in a London jail for the same reason. The American labor leader Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for urging resistance to the draft.

Against the opposition of their own governments, pioneer social worker Jane Addams and other women helped organize a women's peace conference in the Netherlands in 1915 with delegates from warring and neutral countries.

There is every reason to celebrate those who tried to prevent the First World War from starting or worked to end it. But there's an even better way to honor and thank veterans of the struggle for peace: Don't start more wars.