Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Celebrating the Christmas Truce of 1914

This week marks 100 years since the Christmas truce of 1914—which is usually dismissed as a minor episode of the First World War, sanitized as a celebration across all the ranks, or used as a commercial to sell chocolate. But the accounts of soldiers themselves show that it was widespread and in some places long-lasting, driven by rank-and-file soldiers and only stopped through repression from the higher command.

A century ago the imperial competition that had produced a scramble for colonies drove Western powers against each other. They each demonized the other side and claimed it would be a short war over by Christmas. But over the new few months the soldiers sent to die for the Empire experienced the brutal reality of trench warfare. Knee deep in mud, fighting frostbite and trench foot, soldiers shot and were shot at by people just like them, at close quarters. 

Governments had ignored the Pope's call for a one-day truce, and when it came it was not a “Christmas miracle” that simply materialized on December 25. Instead the truce emerged from the trenches themselves in the weeks leading up to the holiday, as minor episodes of fraternization amongst ordinary soldiers began to multiply—including breakfast truces, shooting matches, exchanging items and sharing songs. As one soldier wrote, “On a quiet night we used to sing to each other…Then an officer of one side or the other would come and stop it by ordering a few rounds of fire. We used to be sporting and fire high with the first round.”

As early as December 2, General Smith-Dorien wrote about the “danger” of the emerging friendship: “Weird stories come in from the trenches about fraternizing with the Germans. They shout to each other and offer to exchange certain articles and give certain information…There is a danger of opposing troops becoming too friendly…I therefore intend to issue instructions to my Corps not to fraternize in any way whatever with the enemy.”

A few days later he wrote instructions trying to prevent an outbreak of peace, so the slaughterhouse of war could continue: “Troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a ‘live and let live’ theory of life. Understandings—amounting almost to unofficial armistices—grow up between our troops and the enemy, with a view to making life easier, until the sole object of war becomes obscured, and officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises…Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistice (eg ‘we won’t fire if you don’t, etc) and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.”

But, contrary to military orders, that’s exactly what happened—though in an unorganized and uneven way that shaped its outcome. As Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton document in their detailed account, Christmas Truce, “It was possible for a battalion to be completely unaware as to whether its near-neighbours were or were not taking part in a truce, so that what happened on Christmas Day was not, so to speak, a contagion of goodwill spreading along the line, but a series of individual initiatives at a very considerable number of places and times…The Christmas truce held—to a greater or lesser extent—over more than two-thirds of the British-held sector; but elsewhere Christmas came and went leaving little trace.”

As early as December 20 in some places, soldiers used the holidays to put down their weapons and bury the bodies littered across No Man’s Land. By interacting with each other, working class soldiers discovered they shared much in common. As a British soldier wrote, “one of the two Germans jocularly remarking that he hoped the war would end soon, as he wanted to return to his former job as a taxi-driver in Birmingham.” Some remarked that “the papers had been responsible for the whole war,” and that “the Germans are just as tired of the war as we are, and said they should not fire again until we did.”

At its height 100,000 troops participated in the truce. German, French, Belgian and British soldiers (including troops from India) exchanged music, gifts, played games and took photographs, and held up Christmas treesa German tradition that was in the process of spreading across Europe. “We achieved what the Pope himself could not do and in the middle of the war we had a merry Christmas,” one soldier wrote.

Restoring “order”
While some officers were ambivalent about the truce, others quickly tried to stop the “dangerous” peace. As one officer wrote, “Hearing of the fraternization I hastened to the scene to investigate, and found the whole of No Man’s Land crowded with our men and the Germans amicably intermixed…For a moment I gazed at the curious sight, and then realized how absolutely wrong and dangerous it was, and decided to stop it.”

But the truce did not end so easily. As a frustrated General Smith-Dorien claimed, the only path to peace was more war: “Any orders I issue on the subject are useless, as I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is intercourse to be allowed between the opposing troops. To finish this war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly intercourse. I am calling for particulars as to names of officers and units who took part in this Christmas gathering, with a view to disciplinary action.”

Far from being a “war for freedom and democracy,” WWI was not only launched to defend colonialism but it only continued by repressing the troops sent to fight. It was not human nature but military discipline that enforced the war. French officers replaced some of their soldiers who refused to shoot, while German officers threatened some of their soldiers with the death penalty. But even then, some soldiers did what they could to resistin a tragic last effort to maintain peace. According to one account, “The difficulty began on the 26th, when the order to fire was given, for the men struck…Finally, the officers turned on the men with ‘Fire, or we do—and not at the enemy!’ Not a shot had come from the other side, but at last they fired, and an answering fire came back, but not a man fell. ‘We spent that day and the next,’ said Herr Lange, ‘wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky.’”

On December 29, the German army issued an order forbidding all fraternization, which would be considered high treason (which carries the death penalty). But still ordinary soldiers tried to maintain peace with their real comrades on the other side of the trenches. As a German message to the British trenches said, “Dear Camarades, I beg to inform you that is forbidden us to go out to you, but we will remain your comrades. If we shall be forced to fire we will fire too high.”

As Brown and Seaton document, “In certain sectors the mood inspired by the events of Christmas lingered on with incredible stubbornness… It can reasonably be claimed that the Christmas truce lasted in places almost to Easter, but there is also little doubt that by Easter it was over and done with, consigned to history, a thing of the past. The long truce was finally broken, after a little over a hundred days.”

From spontaneity to organization
The Christmas truce came only five months into a 52 month war that killed 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians; if soldiers had succeeded in maintaining the peace they would have saved millions of lives. But they were unorganized and up against a military command that used threats of execution to restore order. As the German army commanded in the lead up to Christmas 1915: “Any attempt at fraternizing with the enemy (agreement not to fire, mutual visits, exchange of news, etc) such as occurred last year at Christmas and New Year at several points on the Western Front, is strictly forbidden; this crime will be considered as verging on high treason. General HQ have issued instructions, dated the 12th December, that fire will be opened on every man who leaves the trench and moves in the direction of the enemy without orders, as well as on every French soldier who does not make it clear that he is a deserter.”

It took three more years of slaughter for the spontaneous instinct of the truce to become an organized opposition to war—including mutinies in the French army in April 1917, a revolution in Russia in October 1917 and a revolution in Germany in November 1918 (which gave us Remembrance Day). Similar organization—outside and inside the military—ended the Vietnam War, as a panicked US Colonel wrote in the Armed Forces Journal in 1971: By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse… Widespread conditions among American forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by the French Army’s Nivelle mutinies of 1917 and the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.”

The centenary of the Christmas truce reminds us of the real roots of war, the potential resistance from rank-and-file soldiers, and the importance of an organized anti-war movement. This holiday season support war resisters and the campaign for Peace & Prosperity not War & Austerity. And for a holiday movie watch Joyeux Noel

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Breaking the code about WWII

Building support for the latest US war, Hollywood seems bound by a code to produce at least a movie a year glorifying World War II by portraying the Allied countries as bastions of human liberation. By telling the true story of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game has broken the code.

Turing was a British mathematician who worked at Bletchley Park, a secret centre for cryptographers who were trying to break the German Enigma code—allowing the Allies to read Nazi military communications. By designing a machine that could rapidly process information, Turing broke the code—which ended the war an estimated two years sooner, saving millions of lives—and through the process laid the foundation for modern computers.

How was Turing rewarded? The British state drove him to suicide, and wrote him out of history, for being gay. He was persecuted in 1952 with the same law that destroyed Oscar Wilde, avoided prison only by agreeing to be chemically castrated, and ate a cyanide-laced apple in 1954 (urban legend claims Apple’s original logo of a rainbow apple is an homage to Turing).

Reviving Turing
The Imitation Game intertwines Turing’s early life as a schoolboy, his work breaking the code, and his post-war persecution. Benedict Cumberbatch could win a well-earned Oscar for his portrayal of Turing, and took the role in order to restore Turing’s place in history. As he explained, “The feeling you have for the man after getting to know him through the duration of the film is really exacerbated by the frustration and anger, not just at the injustice served him, but also at the fact that, why don’t I know this story? It seems unbelievable that someone who is a war hero, someone who is the father of the modern computer age—and a gay icon—could remain in such relative obscurity to the scale of his achievements in his brief time on this planet. One of the main reasons I was really attracted to playing him was to try and bring his story to as wide an audience as possible.”

Bringing Turing to the big screen is a process that has taken decades. In 1983 Andrew Hodges wrote his biography, Alan Turing: the Enigma, which was adapted for the stage—and portrayed by the brilliant Derek Jacobi in the 1996 BBC film Breaking the Code (available on Youtube). In 2011 the new screenplay was voted the top of the Hollywood Black List—representing the best unproduced films in Hollywood—and was finally released this year.

Bringing Turing’s life to film has been part of a campaign to challenge his persecution. In 2009 the British government issued a posthumous apology but in 2012 refused to pardon him—and the other 49,000 gay men criminalized under the former law. Justice Minister, Lord McNally, claimed, “A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offense.” The Queen issued a royal pardon to Turing last year, but as Cumberbatch said, “It’s an insult for anybody of authority or standing to sign off on him with their approval and say, ‘Oh, he’s forgiven.’ The only person who should be (doing the) forgiving is Turing, and he can’t because we killed him. And it makes me really angry. It makes me very angry.”

The film also has a strong performance from Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, who worked at Bletchley and was briefly engaged to Turing. (The BBC mini-series The Bletchley Circle is another recent attempt to recount the role of women cryptographers, including the sexism after WWII that drove them back into the home.) The Imitation Game has been criticized for over playing their relationship and not showing Turing’s relationships with men (unlike the 1996 film). The film also reinforces the myth of the solitary genius, ignoring the role of Polish code-breakers in providing their initial work on Enigma to the British.

WWII: the good war?
As Cumberbatch said, “To think that a society and a democracy—that Turing could save from fascism in the second World War—rewarded him with that (punishment) is the most sickening irony of all.” But this irony pervades the history of WWII. Films that glorify WWII use the horrors of Nazism to obscure an understanding of how fascism arose, whitewash the history of the Allied countries, and pave the way for more Western intervention.

Fascism did not emerge from the deranged mind of Hitler but from the economic crisis of capitalism (which has reappeared and giving rise to new fascist parties across Europe), and the defeat of the workers’ movement in challenging it. Before WWII it was clear what the Allies thought of Hitler: Ford and General Motors collaborated with the Nazis, Hitler was Time Magazine’s “man of the year,” and Germany was rewarded with the Olympics. When Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King met Hitler in 1937 he described him as “one who truly loves his fellow man.” While many on the left supported the fight against fascism in Spain in the 1930s, the future Allied powers had a policy of non-intervention—while those who went to fight fascism in Spain were labeled “premature anti-fascists.”

WWII has been called a “war for freedom and democracy,” but at the time the US was running it apartheid Jim Crow system, Canada has its concentration camps—the residential schools—and both countries interned families of Japanese descent, and turned away boats of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. Canada had the same homophobic laws as Britain, criminalized abortion and had eugenics programs in BC and Alberta based on forcible sterilization. Meanwhile Britain and France were repressing their colonies while sending their soldiers to die. (France belatedly acknowledged the role of Algerian soldiers, documented in the movie Days of Glory). The Allies refused to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, and carried out their own atrocities—from the firebombing of Dresden to the atomic bombing of Japan.

After the war the US recruited Nazi scientists like Werner von Braun, while Britain supported fascists in Greece. The WWII mythology around Churchill erases the rest of his career, including sending troops against British miners in 1910, using chemical weapons against Iraqis in 1920, and after WWII supporting fascists in Greece. As a recent article in The Guardian pointed out, Churchill “switched allegiances to back the supporters of Hitler against his own erstwhile allies.”

The Imitation Game leaves the impression that the persecution of Alan Turing was an isolated abnormality in an otherwise noble war effort—instead of a symptom of imperial rivals bombing each other while repressing their own citizens. But by breaking the official code of WWII, The Imitation Game encourages us to learn more, and to challenge the bigotry on which war depends.