Do people have an evolved predisposition to kill members of other social groups? Do they have an inner predisposition to violence? In other words, are we born to fight? An incredible Christmas miracle could let us think about the answer.
1914, Ypres, Belgium, Christmas Eve. “Come out, English soldier; come out here to us”: this was the sentence screamed by the German to the English, while an odd and rare moment of joy and hope during the WW1 was going to happen: few brief hours during which men from both sides of the Western Front laid down their arms, emerged from their trenches, met up with enemy soldiers in the so-called “no Man’s land” (the area between the two lines) and started to exchange gifts, souvenirs and singing together their own carols.
In early December an attempt was made to reach an official truce for the holidays. Pope Benedict XV had ascended to the papacy just a month after the outbreak of war, and on December 7 he issued an appeal to the leaders of Europe “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” Benedict’s hope was that a truce would allow the warring powers to negotiate a fair and lasting peace, but there was little interest from leaders on either side. This did not stop soldiers at the front from seizing the initiative, at least, not all of them; the famous Christmas Truce, in fact, could be considered as an unofficial and illicit act. Many officers disapproved, and headquarters on both sides took strong steps to ensure that it could never happen again. Orders came down from the commanders on both sides that the soldiers should not “fraternize” or communicate with the enemy. The generals were afraid that this would cause the soldiers to be less aggressive in future engagements, for example, in an attempt to stop the truces and communication with the German soldiers, British High Command issued a warning to officers that the Germans were going to attack on Christmas.
The phenomenon took different forms across the Western Front in general; one account mentions a British soldier having his hair cut by his pre-war German barber, another talks of a pig- roast. Several sources mention also an organized match between German and English soldiers finished 3-2 in favor to the German team, while some soldiers used this ceasefire for a more somber task: the retrieval of the bodies of fellow combatants who had fallen within the “no man’s land” between the lines.
In most places, up and down the line, it was accepted that the truce would be purely temporary. Men returned to their trenches at dusk, but for the most part determined to preserve the peace at least until midnight. There were reports from some sectors of hostilities remaining suspended into the New Year. And it does not seem to have been uncommon for the resumption of the war to be marked with examples of mutual respect between enemies, but, for the majority of the soldiers, fighting erupted again the next day.
In a later interview (2003), Alfred Anderson, the last known surviving Scottish veteran of the war, vividly recalled Christmas Day and said: “I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence. Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening. And, of course, thinking of people back home. “All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire, and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas’, even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war”.
To give an answer to the real question of this article, maybe it would be impossible to claim that we are not made for fighting, the horrible WW1 and all the other nowadays conflicts show us that violence is tragically part of our world. Maybe that odd 1914’s day was just caused by the magic of Christmas, and as every magic trick it was just an illusion. However, Martin Luther King once said “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word” and this wonderful story of peace, in spite of being not enough to have claimed the final word, it’s enough to make us doubt on our real inner origin, and so our hope leaves the question still open: are we really made for fighting?
- Dash, M, 23 December 2011, Smithsonian.com
- A&E Television Networks, 27 October 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/christmas-truce-of-1914