Christmas in No Man's Land

IT was to be the war to end all wars. Seventy-five years ago, when soldiers in Europe marched out to the first great European war of our century, they said they would be home by Christmas to celebrate their victory. Men and women cheered them, young girls gave their heroes flowers.

And already people had a sense that the war then beginning would permanently change the face of Europe.

The young men were not home by Christmas. Nor did they return the next year, or the next, or even the one after the that. The war dragged on and on, exhausting and destroying Europe, and introducing the entire world to the horrors of modern warfare. The old continent was never to be the same again.

In December of 1914, however, a strange thing happened on the Western front. It was Christmas Eve, and the weather suddenly got cold, freezing the slush and water of the trenches in which the men were bunkered down, so it was possible for them finally to get dry after many weeks of rain and wetness. In the German trenches soldiers started lighting candles. They sang ``Silent Night'' and other Christmas carols. They ate a Christmas dinner.

At first the Germans' opponents on the British and French sides thought it was all a clever German trick. They could not understand the silence from the enemy guns. They fired shots. But finally in some sectors of the front the British and French joined in the Christmas spirit, singing carols and saying prayers.

The opposing sides with their tired, grimy soldiers came out of their trenches and fraternized in ``no man's land.'' They exchanged gifts and stories. There were reports of a soccer game between the opposing sides as military competition was exchanged for athletic competition. A state of undeclared truce had broken out spontaneously, against all orders and the rules of military combat.

For a short night the spirit of Christmas had descended upon the Western front, where the world was being destroyed and remade again in 1914. The incident was not to repeat itself in future years. By then distrust, weariness, and cynicism were too great for the kind of spontaneous joy that had descended unexpectedly and mysteriously at Christmas 1914. Future wartime Christmases saw pathetic little ceremonies with soldiers huddled around scrawny trees listening without belief in the Christmas miracle to officers and chaplains who had also lost their faith in God and in peace. The war was not good to men's faith in justice, human or divine, or in big words like love and brotherhood. By war's end Europeans believed that religion and morality had suffered permanent damage.

The last few months have, again, wrought massive change on the face of Europe. They have, in effect, begun to bring an end to the state of undeclared, frozen war that succeeded World War II. World War I had created the countries of Eastern Europe - Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria - bringing about either their formation or their independence. World War II brought about these countries' enslavement again after a short and elusive peace.

Now it seems that the effects of World War II are being peeled back like a scab that took decades to heal, bringing about finally a ``normalization'' in the abnormal state of affairs that has obtained for the last 45 years.

This peeling back makes it possible to focus on the war that was to be the crucible of modern Europe - the war that was supposed to end all wars but really wound up starting them. World War I brought an end to many decades of peace and prosperity in Europe. In a sense one can look at the period between 1914 and 1945 as one long European nightmare that was extended by the cold war: three quarters of a century of hot and cold, endless war.

This Christmas one can envision scenes of fraternization unimaginable just a short while ago: Germans dancing with Germans on top of the Wall, Hungarians and Austrians toasting each other at what used to be the Iron Curtain. The list of different kinds of fraternization could go on and on.

For the first time in many decades the hope for a real, lasting peace does not seem preposterous and illusory. It seems realistic. It may not be the end to all wars, but we will have enough to be thankful for if it is the end of this one. Could it be that Europe is finally beginning to recover from its horrible century of trauma? Let us hope that the fraternization continues, and that, in the future, aggression takes place only on the soccer field, and not in no man's land.

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