Thursday, January 11, 2007

# Posted 3:29 PM by Patrick Porter  

BETWEEN PATRIOTISM AND PACIFISM: I was lucky enough recently to see the French film Joyeux Noel about the famous ‘Christmas Truce’ on the western front in 1914.

Amidst the carnage of the opening months of World War I, the film depicts the fraternising and mutual affection of enemy troops on Christmas Eve. It depicts a triangle of cultures: the Germans appear with their opera singer, fir trees and Pickelhaube on one side, the nostalgic and laconic French, and cheeky bagpiping Scots on the other.

On Christmas Eve and Day, the antagonists and allies sing, play football, smoke cigars, pose for shared photographs and generally affirm their common humanity.

In the ‘No Man’s Land’ between trenches, the film revisits some classic folk memories about the war: a naïve rush to the colours by uninformed youth who are deluded that it will be a bloodless jaunt over by Christmas; the young versus the old; nationalism versus internationalism; warlike ideology and certainty against irony and iconoclasm.

In all three sides, they show a nostalgia for a prewar life that is being dismantled by the apocalyptic nightmare. Against the world view of their military superiors, who insist on rigid discipline, and of their national populations, who were driven by hate and ignorance, the combatants are presented as figures of pathos, who mostly refuse to indulge in hysterical jingoism against the enemy, and want to resist the war’s brutalising nature.

It’s a sad film with the lineaments of tragedy. The men who want to lay aside hostilities will ultimately be powerless to maintain their humanitarian posture, let alone stop the war itself. The war and the hatred that powers it are both incomprehensible and irresistible.

The main problem with the film is that for artistic effect, it presents rather too sharply two contrasting visions of the war: the hate-filled, culturally blind and dehumanised aggression of nationalism on one side is pitted against the pacific gentleness and culturally enlightened alternative, embodied in the ‘poor bloody infantry’ of western Europe.

One way that it presents these two conflicting stances is through two characters. A senior clergyman who arrives as a chaplain, whose murderous war theology is contrasted with the fraternal spirit of a Scottish priest and First Aid Worker, who takes a combined field service and preaches peace and brotherhood.

(Incidentally, the field service actually did happen, but not exactly as the film suggests. Regiments that probably statistically were all bi-confessional are Catholicised by the film into unanimously repeating the Latin Liturgy!)

In reality, there was in fact a Scottish padre who conducted a join field service, a funeral, for opposing soldiers. He was a Presbyterian, Esselmount Adams, Chaplain to the Gordon Highlanders.

But Adams was not the one-dimensional non-belligerent that the film suggests. In fact, he would write a pamphlet about the purpose of the war, in which he gave the war a very high meaning.

He made a point of finding an alternative cause than simple racial hatred. For him, the war was about dismantling Prussian militarism, whose predations were on display in the ruin, violence and humiliation that he saw inflicted on Belgium and north-eastern France. Not a Germanophobe, he believed the essentially advanced German civilisation had been led astray by a cabal of militarists who had overtaken the Kaiserreich.

He also believed the war was about transforming British society into a ‘New Jerusalem’ – through the return to sacrifice for the common good, he hoped it would develop social solidarity and piety that would be translated into alleviating poverty and strengthening piety in the post-war period.

A few years later, Adams wrote an account of the atrocities committed by German armies in Belgium and north-eastern France, atrocities which suggested that there was a serious threat to civilisation that had to be resisted.

In other words, Adams demonstrated something that I found often in my own research about the war, that participants could fraternise and empathise with the enemy while believing in the cause.

Consider the other character, the belligerent priest who turns up at the end calling for holy war. His sermon towards the end of the film proclaims that the duty of the British is to kill the Germans indiscriminately, young and old, soldier and civilian, so that it would never need to be done again.

This was derived from an actual sermon by the Bishop of London. But again, his own evolving attitude to the war was a more crooked path. The same Bishop regretted his sermon, and went on to vote against bombing German cities in the House of Lords. And his bloodthirsty sermon calling for indiscriminate killing was atypical of many of the sermons that we have on record.

That the war was often conceived in more morally complex terms than outright racial hatred is supported by the fact that the combatants who were most publicly proclaimed in the popular press, books, public monuments and pamphlets were usually praised not only for their courage but also their civilised qualities - their mercy, Christian valour and compassion. Enthusiastic killers were not usually as intensely revered.

Noel Chavasse, who won the Victoria Cross twice, served as a medical officer, while the most celebrated martyr of the British war effort was Edith Cavell, a nurse who supposedly renounced narrow patriotism before she was executed by a German firing squad.

This also accords with some of my own research. There were many cases in the archives, in letters, diaries, censor’s reports, trench newspapers and other literature, of combatants who were neither mindless chauvinists nor disillusioned humanitarians.

Instead, the more predominant pattern amongst the combatants who appeared in the first months of the war was of people who had mixed, even contradictory responses to the war.

Many accepted in varying degrees the basic legitimacy of the cause, defining it as a war for higher principles than crude tribal patriotism.

For the French, their compatriots were under German occupation, or more distressingly in one view, under the jackboot of Prussian militarism. For Germans, the triple Entente was trying to encircle and destroy the Fatherland, and East Prussia had already been invaded and to some extent pillaged by Czarist armies.

For the British, conservatives and liberals united around the sovereign neutrality of Belgium, the survival of the empire and the popular view that the enemy embodied the belligerent spirit, so that to fight it was to serve the cause of peace.

And combatants in all three nations were widely persuaded that it was a war of self-defence, and that they were expected by their parent societies to do their duty in resisting an invading army. Even German soldiers in North-eastern France believed they were preventing an invasion and guarding Germany's outer defences. It was above all a war of consent.

At the same time, while the war evoked their hostility and hatred, they were often capable of being dismayed at the horrors shared by the other side. Moreover, they wanted often to believe that they represented a compassionate and humane cause, as reflected in their own rhetoric and propaganda. It was, after all, widely seen as a war that represented one of the ultimate liberal causes – not as a war of annihilation, but as the last war that would end war forever.

And there was another myth to be found in the film, the notion that the ‘generation of 1914’ and the societies that went to war were driven by a naïve enthusiasm for a short glorious conflict. This too has been shown to be a vast overstatement. The predominant reactions, at least in Germany and Britain, were a sense of stoic duty, uncertainty, and fear, sometimes mingled with excitement. Highly literate populations had read about the Russo-Japanese, Balkan and even American Civil Wars, and were aware of the potential destructiveness of industrial power. Volunteers enlisted more intensely after the first month or so, when it was becoming widely known that it was a desperate and lethal struggle.

It is also more helpful to decouple the two concepts, of a ‘short’ war and a ‘nice’ war. Those who expected a short war often did so not on the assumption of a jaunt to overwhelm the enemy effortlessly, but on the assumption that it would be so intense that its human and material costs could not be sustained for long. This thinking is understandable. Even if the war had ended by Christmas 1914, a million men would already be dead. Even the German Kaiser, who promised that German forces would be home by autumn, also openly predicted that the war would be a dark and destructive time for the nation.

So while it was moving at times, the film with its overly sharp dichotomies was a missed opportunity. It failed to capture the more ambiguous and fraught nature of many attitudes to the war, glimpsed in the paradox that men like Adams were drawn to the sacred peace of Christmas even while believing in the duty to keep waging a bloody and terrible war.

It was possible to hold both thoughts simultaneously, and to be aware of the paradox, in a mental universe which was often messier, and in a war whose history is richer.

PS: review of Victor Davis Hanson's book Ripples of Battle coming up. Sorry about the delay, work has been crazy.

(4) opinions -- Add your opinion

Survivors of ships sunk in combat are picked up by the ships that sank them. Put aside the hokey romanticism no movie can ever portray the horror that war is. David J.
Not really a dig at the film. But speaking of historical memory this sort of film reinforces the perception of WWI as being solely a German/French/British war. The very bloody battles on the Eastern Front between the three multinational empires (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia) have no resonance in popular culture, even in Germany.
hey vanya,

I agree, this does seem to dominate folk memory of the war in at least some countries.

I wonder if this relates partly to the stalemate of the western front as compared to the more mobile nature of the eastern front as it was in late 1914, with the Germans pushing back deeply after Tannenburg/Masurian Lakes?

rightly or wrongly, the distinctive nature of the western front seems to have captured collective memory in the Western European countries and America (see Paul Fussell!), which leads from xmas 1914 to the industrialised slaughterhouses of Verdun, the Somme and (from earlier) Ypres battles, etc.
Great Article.. Completely agree with the flow. Thanks for sharing. I am sure other too would benefit from it. Cheers…!!!
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