“Merry Christmas” – a film about the 1914 truce (France, 2005)

I personally find the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front remarkable for the following reason: using the famous image about the lamps going out across Europe, the Christmas truce can be viewed as the very last flickering of the dying pre-WW1-era. An era when borders were just lines on the map, when passports were limited to autocratic societies such as Russia (or rather, when autocratic societies were limited to places such as Russia). When money was worth its weight in gold and not in paper. When a word of honour still had weight. When the only contact most people in Britain had with the state was when they entered a post office. And when there still was – despite the rising nationalism and chauvinism – a strong sense of common European heritage. A large chunk of which being Christianity. Without it, the truce would not have happened.

Now, Sainsbury’s have discovered the power of this story – and that’s welcome news. It’s a good sign that a part of the ruling class is using images and ideas that run contrary to their beliefs and aims. It means they and their current religion of state idolatry are running out of steam. But I don’t want to talk about the advert. I want to talk about an earlier cinematic rendition, and about the truce itself.

In 2005, a feature film about this event was produced, entitled “Merry Christmas”, directed by Frenchman Christian Carion. It is of course not a precise record of what took place that evening and the following days. The narration has condensed, into one setting, events that took place at many parts of the front simultaneously. Altogether it is an adequate and fitting tribute to those soldiers who, defying orders and manipulations from above, and probably remembering the promise that it would all be over by Christmas, fraternised with the enemy, exchanged presents and even services such as haircuts.

As the film begins, three poems are recited, each by one schoolboy aged about 10. One French, one English, one German. The French poem talks about fetching back “the children of Alsace”. The German boy declares that Germany has “one enemy alone”, that being England. It is the English poem however that is really spine chilling and blood curdling. Here it is in full:

“To rid the map of every trace
Of Germany and of the Hun
We must exterminate that race
We must not leave a single one
Heed not their children’s cries
Best slay all now, the women, too
Or else someday again they’ll rise
Which if they’re dead, they cannot do.”

(See also this YouTube)

I have found no references to this poem other than in connection with the film. However, it looks authentic to me. It fits the propaganda, which in England was miles “better”, more effective, than anyone else’s in demonising the enemy. It’s also the kind of thing people said at the time, across Europe. “Gott strafe England” and all that.

Anyway, back to the film. I wouldn’t call it a great film. Neither is it bad though. If not great art, it is still the work of expert craftsmanship. It has a stringent story line. It has much good acting by good actors. It – mostly – avoids slipping into soppiness. Considering the subject matter, tragedy is balanced by some well placed doses of comedy that never tip into flippancy. It has a good score and fairly realistic images (although the mud is too dry) and sound. It is spoken in three languages: French, English and German. Actually, there is a fourth language, spoken by all during the Midnight Mass: Latin, which symbolises the dying common cultural/religious heritage. By the way, it is fitting that near the end a British (Roman Catholic) bishop preaches a very belligerent sermon (one which, according to Carion, was actually given in Westminster Cathedral in 1915). Outwardly a representative of Christianity, he is actually spouting chapter and verse of another religion, one that equates the state with God.

The film is well researched. In order to create more of a story, the narrative had to be exaggerated. But most elements are based on fact. For example in the film a woman opera singer has come to visit the German trench. She is the girlfriend of one of the soldiers, who himself is an opera singer. In the post-film interview available on the DVD, the director claims that some women, driven by love, actually made it to the fighting zone to meet their men (though not necessarily at Christmas). Also, there really was a famous – male – German opera singer (called Walter Kirchhoff) who visited the trenches that Christmas Eve and when he sang a French officer recognized his voice and applauded. The singer then went into No Man’s Land which is how in that section of the front the truce began.

Having said it is not a great film, it is so far the only feature film exclusively about the Christmas truce. Regardless of its qualities, it has one great merit: it brought the knowledge of this spontaneous peacemaking to modern day France and Germany.

It was the Germans who “started it” (the Christmas truce that is, because Christmas Eve is the big Christmas event over there), but – apart from the few participants who survived – they soon forgot about it, as did the French. It was the British who preserved the memory. And there is a very interesting reason for this, one pertaining to libertarianism. In the early months of the war, the press in Britain was not yet censored, and the soldiers’ letters were not spied upon by their superiors. (Or rather, in the words of film director Clarion, the British army was “not so efficient” in controlling the soldiers’ communication.) So, word got out. But only in Britain. France and Germany did not have a comparably strong liberal tradition and therefore found it easier to quickly drop any vestiges of it. So they forgot. The letters home to Britain, reporting the Christmas truce, were not intercepted. Once the families had received them, many got passed on to the papers, which ran the story.

So it was the Germans who set the truce going, rekindling once more, through ancient tradition, the extinguished lights of a more liberal, peaceful and civilised Europe. It was the British who preserved the memory of it, largely because it was here that liberalism lingered the longest. And it was a Frenchman who, with an entertaining and engaging film, opened up that memory to the world.

Some quotes from the film.

10 thoughts on ““Merry Christmas” – a film about the 1914 truce (France, 2005)

  1. Yes ordinary people were, mostly, decent in 1914 – the evil (not too harsh a word) taught by the intellectual elite had not yet become a dominant feature among ordinary people.

    Even in Russia (infamous for organisations such as the “Black Hundreds” as well as for ruthless terrorists on the other side). most people were basically decent. In the invasion of East Prussia in 1914 there were two rapes (both punished by the Imperial Russian Army themselves)- I am not seeking to make light of these crimes, but in the invasion of the same area in the closing period of World War II basic genocide of German civilians took place. Decades of Soviet rule had indeed produced a “new man” – a savage beast.

    There were German atrocities in Belgium (they are not a “myth” as is often claimed) for example 600 Belgium civilians were murdered in one small town alone (yes – including babies shot at point blank range), as well as famous libraries and so on (in great cities) being deliberately targeted to make people “respect” (read FEAR) Germany.

    But these cases were “top down” – the German high command ordered the murders, the ordinary soldiers did not think of them. Indeed some soldiers risked harsh punishment by refusing to murder the innocent and helpless. In spite of German (especially Prussian) education, since the time of Frederick the Great, being designed to crush the individual moral conscience (to “free” people from any burden of moral guilt) and to make them obey any order (any order at all) of the state (with the State being held to be in the place of God – a God whose “laws” were a matter of WILL).

    Nor would the average German have endorsed the pack of lies that was the German Declaration of War upon France in 1914.

    The President of France (the target of joint Weimar German and Soviet propaganda and disinformation campaign in the early 1920s) was correct – the German Declaration of War upon France in 1914 did transform the conflict from a war between countries, into a war between the German intellectual elite (whom, as a philosopher, he knew well) and the “universal principles of truth and justice”.

    However, these lies of the German intellectual elite were not the lies of the ordinary soldier. The ordinary German solider really believed that the French had bombed Bavaria and so on – believed that Germany was engaged in a just war (not a criminal effort to take over Europe – in order to expand outside Europe later).

    Even in 1939 Mr Hitler did not say “there is no such thing as right and wrong – apart from my will” (at least not PUBLICALLY) instead Concentration Camp victims were dressed up in German uniforms and then murdered – and then presented as a the victims of a “Polish attack on Germany”.

    The idea that the intellectual elite (not just the political elite – but the intellectual elite, from the village school master to the relativist Professor at the most prestigious universities) not only was lying (no human being is perfect – and governments are made up of human beings) but, far more radically, DID NOT BELIEVE IN OBJECTIVE MORAL GOOD AND EVIL (not only were sinners, we are all sinners, but rejected the very idea of the struggle to be decent) was too bitter a pill for the ordinary German soldier to swallow.

    In 1914 the “blond beast” was a creature of the universities and the dark corners of “intellectual” life – but the world was to experience him in full in 1939.

    Lastly on German culture.

    The Germans, and with some justice, claimed to be the most cultured people in Europe in 1914 – and that their culture, generally speaking, was more developed than other nations (even older nations such as Britain and France).

    All that may be true – but the elite (not the ordinary Germans – but the elite, or many of them) had forgotten that the arts (architecture, music, poetry) can not be a REPLACEMENT for basic decency (for the “universal principles of truth and justice”). “We do not believe in moral right and wrong – but listen to our beautiful music and look at our wonderful buildings” will not work, it is an effort to substitute “high culture” (or Kulture) for the basic (foundational) principles.

    In the end, with a corrupted moral base, even the “high culture” will go. One can not substitute “beauty” (even real beauty) for moral truth.

    Better an ugly, unshaven man in a dirty ill fitting uniform (with a smelly cheap cigar in the corner of his mouth and smelling of booze) who has never read anything more cultured than a “Superman” comic in his life – than a handsome man in a clean and well fitting uniform (clean shaven and immaculate) who has read every poem and listened to every piece of classical music ever written…….

    IF the first man stands (fights) for what is morally right and the second man stands (fights) for what is morally wrong – and regardless of what they say, BOTH men know what is right and what is wrong.

  2. By the way the writer is correct – there were signs of the same state worship and evil in the Allied countries also (even in the Churches).

    One does no good by casting down Sauron and putting Saruman in his place. For example Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge (and the others) were not being “unpatriotic” when the denounced Woodrow Wilson for using German methods in the struggle against Germany.

    Censorship, mass arrests, employing people to go around making “three minute hate” speeches (suddenly in a shop – or in a cinema) to encourage hatred and violence in Civil Society (yes George Orwell got this idea in “1984” from Woodrow Wilson) – which led to such things as a man being beaten to death for praying (in German) with an old women who had forgotten all but her native language.

    Certainly Woodrow Wilson got his depraved ideas (in part) from German academia – both indirectly via his education at Johns Hopkins, and indirectly via his mentor the German educated Richard Ely (also the mentor of the some-time Republican “Teddy” Roosevelt – and an ardent follower of the Godless “Social Gospel”). However Woodrow Wilson carried them further than they were, yet, being carried in Germany – just as he carried racial ideas further (only lunatics in Germany were yet demanding that people of different races use different toilets – no previous American President, including Southerners, had been interested in such folly).

    Richard Ely thought that America could carry “modern” ideas further than a Germany that was still “weighted down” with an aristocracy that was still interested in right and wrong (in personal honour) the “Progressive” America he dreamed of would be free of the “moral chains” of right and wrong – and would be act “freely” without guilt (without moral conscience).

    The future National Socialists hated Woodrow Wilson as an enemy of their country – but they ardently admired his methods (and said so – in their letters and journals and so on) and the Minister of Propaganda (Dr G.) directly copied them. The American Progressives had tried to make “German” ideas the core of a “new America” – but the “reactionaries” (Harding, Coolidge, Supreme Court Justice Pierce Butler and so on) had struck back against the Progressives in the United States.

    Now “true Germans” (the National Socialists) would take these “German ideas” (actually these ancient evils are far older than Germany) far further than people like Woodrow Wilson or Richard Ely had ever dreamed of.

  3. It should be pointed out that not all Progressives were beasts.

    For example the Governor of Wisconsin at the time was in favour of a bigger and more active government (he was a Progressive), but he believed this could be combined with basic common decency. Including for German Americans – and not just because there were a lot of German voters in Wisconsin (the Governor really did believe that Progressivism could be combined with moral decency – with basic personal honour).

    Richard Ely (leading the other Progressive academics, the bastard children of Plato, with his Orwellian named Academic Freedom campaign, which was dedicated to making all universities the same by crushing any with dissenting opinions) responded by organising a hate campaign against the Governor of Wisconsin.

    Similar to the hate campaign organised by Progressive academics today against a modern Governor of Wisconsin – but then (in the First World War) they were organising a hate campaign against one of their own (a Progressive) – but one of their own who “had not got the memo” that personal morality was “old fashioned” indeed “reactionary”.

  4. As an ex-adman myself, I was quite intrigued by the Sainsbury’s TV ad. At first, I wasn’t sure about it.

    Then I watched it again about three times to get to dissect the creative-strategy better, and then I couldn’t help but sit there weeping, each time. It’s unwatchable now by me, or else I can’t get any work done. But I strongly agree with Mustela that it’s brave and “outside the box” for a major joint-stock corp, that plans, discounts for and expects favours from British-State-GFNs, to make such an ad and have the balls to run it.
    It’s predictable that most of the complaints were from Guardian-readers. Apparently, it got “hundreds” of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, I am told.

    Sean and I are agreed that WW1 was the single largest disaster ever to affect the British and German People. I do apportion pretty-much most of the blame to poor tormented William II as an individual human and his distorted views of how “Welt-Politik” ought to have looked from where he sat, which in itself does not implicate anybody else, except perhaps some in the Austro-Hungarian government also.

    Here’s the Sainsbury’s one.

    I can’t write any more.

  5. It is a touching moment in history, demonstrating that the real British, French and German people had no quarrel with each other, as opposed to their respective elites. Such a barbaric and wasteful war could never have happened under a populist libertarian dispensation. That is the true lesson of this episode.

    Incidentally, the Sainsbury’s advert seems to be strongly informed by the music video to Paul McCartney’s ‘Pipes of Peace’ (1983), which also reenacted the Christmas 1914 truce.

  6. Pingback: 1914 | Michigan Standard

  7. It is rare that real people anywhere have any quarrel with each other esp in otherwise prosperous times. There is always some arsehole on one side or the other–and often both-working up trouble for their own benefit.

  8. Pingback: “Merry Christmas” – a film about the 1914 truce (France, 2005)

  9. Thanks very much for the review, Mustela Nivalis. I will try to see this movie.

    And thanks very much as always, Paul, for the history lessons.

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