The Christmas Truce, Revisited


I wrote this piece on the Christmas Truce during WWI about a year ago now, and it is far and away the most visited post on this site. Some of that comes from people looking for information on trench warfare, but the post is really about some basic tools we have as a species that facilitate cooperation, even in times that are enormously challenging and emphasize aggression.

The latest example of this comes from the Bronx and the uplifting NPR story of Julio Diaz, who confronted his mugger with compassion, and had inspirational results. Highly recommended.

….

Something similar to the story of Mr. Diaz actually happened to me when I was a teenager. Each summer from the ages of 16 to 21, I worked six days a week on a ferry boat in order to save enough money for college. It was a great job at that age, but the 12-hour days were long and monotonous, and left little time for much else.

One evening in my first year on the job, we arrived back in port, got the passengers off, then cleaned up the boat. As I rode my bicycle home after a long day to eat dinner, maybe watch some TV and go to bed before doing the whole thing all over again the next day, a woman asked me for the time. I stopped my bike to talk to her, but after a few seconds I felt a blow to the back of my head. After stumbling and being disoriented for a few seconds, I realized I had been set up, and the woman’s male accomplice had crept behind me and sucker-punched me pretty hard. 

From there, the story is not nearly as tidy as the one of Julio Diaz, who was able to talk to his mugger in a clear and coherent manner right from the start. For me, it was much messier. As the woman rode off on my bike (which in fact belonged to my brother), my initial reaction was rage, and I probably let out every curse word I knew. But I really wanted my brother’s bike back so I chased the woman for some distance, caught her, and grabbed the handle bars. Meanwhile, the man who had hit me was chasing us, and as badly as I wanted the bike I couldn’t bring myself to hit the woman before he arrived … even though, understandably, a part of me really, really wanted to.

We then entered into a standoff that lasted probably around a half hour. Maybe longer. It’s been a while, and my memory of that evening becomes more hazy as time elapses. What I do remember clearly is entering into a dialogue, interspersed with the woman throwing rocks at me, which I deflected with my backpack. She was a lost cause. However, the man seemed more empathetic to me, and I thought I could reach him, despite the obvious thorn in our relationship that that he had hit me earlier. He was also much larger than me, and I knew that he probably could have hurt me a lot worse than he did if he really wanted to. But he didn’t, and from the woman’s level of aggression, I sensed the whole scheme wasn’t his idea. Most likely, he had been put up to it in order to make some relatively easy money. All it would take would be to hit some unsuspecting stranger in the head. 

At this point, I cannot remember exactly what I said, but I talked to him for a while, asking something along the lines of how he felt about hitting me and taking my brother’s bicycle, and whether he was raised to hurt and rob people.  On the other hand, the woman was pretty cold-blooded, and continued to throw rocks, telling me to shut up and that I couldn’t talk them out of the bike.

But something got through to the man. He relented, reconsidered what he had done, took the bike away from the woman, and handed it to me. I said ‘thank you’ (really!) and rode home.

If something similar happened to me today, I don’t know if I would react in exactly the same way. Circumstances definitely affected my actions that evening. One of the lessons from that experience was that decent people can do shitty things, but empathy – as seen in the examples of the Christmas Truce and Julio Diaz – can go a long way to bring them back. 

Related: Reconciliation, Biology, and the 2nd Indochina War (Mar 11, 2011)

Related: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (Dec 23, 2010)


7 thoughts on “The Christmas Truce, Revisited

  1. I definitely would have hit the woman when I was that age. I wouldn’t now because I don’t ride a bike, suspect she would have hit me harder than I hit her, and now know that a man hitting a woman for stealing a bike (and theft would have to be proven when she says in court you lent it to her) would be considered over-reaction — to justify hitting in defense you would need witnesses to show she was coming at you with a meat-cleaver or equivalent. The complicating factor is whether the man who struck you was acting as her accomplice or without her knowledge. If there was collaboration between the two, this is a serious offence in itself — even if you recovered your bike or any other stolen property. But you have to prove it.

    The guy who hit you definitely committed an offence. It sounds from the story like he knew the girl and possibly considered her his property. This is no extenuation, had the sheriff ridden up at that moment, he would have been for trial.

    Letting anybody throw rocks at you for half an hour sounds rather dumb. No lasting brain damage?

    Whatever the reasons for the violent encounter, it does not really serve as analogy for the Christmas truce. Soldiers in the trenches were sometimes encouraged to hate the enemy before going over the top — but as often as not it was all routine nobody could break and survive, both sides had officers at the back to shoot any of their own who didn’t fight. Both my grandfathers died in the last days of that war, when nobody wanted to fight — my parents were told they died fighting the enemy but who the enemy was was presumed not stated. Two guys having a fight, even a one-sided one, with a girl involved is human enough — and when initial anger subsides both can feel some remorse (if still alive!). The war machines of WWI on both sides set up the matches regardless of the wishes or feelings of the combatants. Those who killed the most won the day. If the Truce epitomizes the little bit of good in Man, the organizers of war epitomize the whole lot of bad. The Soviet Union was possible because the Russians rose against their own Russian officers — this forced Russian leaders to make peace with Germany at any price.

    Your failure to direct anger against what sounds like the cause of the dispute between two men is relevant in that it relates to the failure of the many men in each army to say to themselves, “Hold on, there are more of us than those officers armed with pistols, and we have the real fire power. So let’s stop right here, turn around and shoot our own officers.” It’s called Revolution. The Russians sussed it out, the allies didn’t….yet.

    • Hi Robert,

      The larger point was that the above examples, while obviously very different, had the common property of empathy under difficult circumstances. I think the soldiers in the Christmas Truce, if only briefly, recognized that live and let live was probably the better way to go than tit-for-tat. Despite the orders from above.

      As for the rocks, it was not a constant barrage lasting half an hour. I’ve been told a few times in my life that I’m too nice, but you’re right that that would have been dumb. Rather, the rocks were intermittent and ineffective. Sort of like your taunts.

      I probably do have some brain to my damage, but not because of this episode.

      • Ah Patrick, if only we could identify the origins and causes of brain damage…Psychologists can (maybe) trace the origins of irrational action back to childhood, or even the womb. So we can never be quite sure how far the rocks (real or figurative) thrown by an angry young lady interact with all other aspects of each life experience to make each of us unique individuals (as far as that is possible for social beings). Damage is not always visible and to some extent all philosophies and ideologies regard Man as damaged goods.

        All action involving violence does presumably share some common feature. Comparing a fight between two young men over a girl and a bike with WWI is indeed valid. There are differences and similarities, whether we are talking about advanced war machines or rows of Papuans of different tribes or clans lining up in opposition and firing arrows at each other. Even the drawn out siege battles of the Middle Ages contained breaks to collect the dead. To me, your encounter with the couple nicking your bike follows a fairly predictable pattern: the violence at the beginning, physical and verbal, is by individuals who do not know each other in any way — anonymous individuals are scarcely human — and this relates closely to the way people see each other, or are trained to see each other, in a mortal combat situation. Once there was a pause in conflict and some communication, you both became human. Theft and violence directed to sub-human enemies is okay, directed to those of shared identity it is taboo. Thus when you and your adversary recognized each other as human — not necessarily as brothers or best friends — the violence was replaced with reparation: the bike was returned and something of an apology (even ‘thank you’ can be seen as apologetic). That ended a potentially dangerous conflict situation. Now… had both you and he had friends behind you egging you on — or a teacher who interrupts and says, ‘Let’s settle this like men — in the ring.’ the spontaneous peace might have been broken as in the Christmas Truce. Perhaps the important point to draw is that left to themselves and able to use some reason, men are animals that can live alongside their fellows in peace. Spontaneity can create conflict but also resolve them, if there is respect for the most basic human right — that to be alive and live without fear.

      • Ah Patrick, if only we could identify the origins and causes of brain damage…Psychologists can (maybe) trace the origins of irrational action back to childhood, or even the womb. So we can never be quite sure how far the rocks (real or figurative) thrown by an angry young lady interact with all the aspects of each life experience to make each of us unique individuals (as far as that is possible or social beings). Damage is not always visible and to some extent all philosophies and ideologies regard Man as damaged goods.
        All action involving violence does presumably share some common feature. Comparing a fight between two young men over a girl and a bike with WWI is indeed valid. There are differences and similarities, whether we are talking about advanced war machines or rows of Papuans of different tribes or clans lining up in opposition and firing arrows at each other. Even the drawn out siege battles of the Middle Ages contained breaks to collect the dead. To me, your encounter with the couple nicking your bike follows a fairly predictable pattern: the violence at the beginning is by individuals who do not know each other in any way — anonymous individuals are scarcely human — and this relates closely to the way people see each other, or are trained to see each other, in a mortal combat situation. Once there was a pause and some communication, you both became human. Theft and violence directed to sub-human enemies is okay, directed to those of shared identity it is taboo. Thus when you and your adversary recognized each other as human — not necessarily as brothers or best friends — the violence was replaced with reparation: the bike was returned and something of an apology (even ‘thank you’ can be seen as apologetic). That ended a potentially dangerous conflict situation. Now, had both you and he had friends behind you egging you on — or a teacher who interrupts and says, ‘Let’s settle this like men — in the ring.’ the spontaneous peace might have been broken as in the Christmas Truce. Perhaps the important point to draw is that left to themselves and able to use some reason, Man is an animal that can live alongside his fellow in peace. Spontaneity can create conflicts but also resolve them, if there is respect for the most basic human right — that to be alive and live in harmony.

  2. Glad to see that it all worked out for the best. Nothing like that has ever happened to me thank god, so I’m not sure how I would react. At that age however, I don’t think I would’ve tried to talk to them, I definitely would’ve fought back. If something like that would happen to me now, I think I would just leave it alone. With so many people out there suffering from different sorts of mental illnesses I would not risk my life over a bike or even money. It’s nice to see that there are success stories like this out there.

  3. Julia. Good advice and frequently heard: if mugged or faced with aggression act first to secure one’s own safety. As you say, youth not only is more physically able to act differently by fighting back but would be more inclined to do so. Somebody with more experience intuitively knows a brother’s bike is not worth defending in a situation of unknown consequences — and two against one. It is a sad comment on society that this kind of action is likely to happen to most people at some time, and that when Patrick escaped without further injury and got the bike back it is considered that things worked out for the best. No doubt they did, but better would be for the incident not to have happened at all. Those who take or are given charge of society establish legal systems and forces of order, but cannot prevent such incidents in life. As a ‘pacifist’ only when it comes to fighting a war for an abstract concept like national welfare, I am often asked what I would do if I witnessed a thug try to rape a woman or injure a child (for some reason nobody has asked me what I would do if somebody tried to steal my bicycle!). When I reply that I would intervene to the point of violence, I receive the reply: ‘There you are then, you’re not a pacifist.’ To me, passive response is good sense but there are real limits. I don’t know if other people’s limits are different to mine, but I do know what I should do, even if I don’t do it. In the end, I think ‘moral-defense’ might be good subject to introduce at school-level — although some authorities might see it as subversive. It would not stop madmen like that in Norway recently, but it would support the overwhelming majority who are horrified by such violence and the reasoning that accompanies it.

  4. The 2-1 odds were certainly a factor. In actuality, there was a third friend – another woman – who just seemed to be tagging along. She said nothing the entire time. I just left her out of the story to simplify things.

    On pacifism, even Gandhi once wrote that sometimes it may be necessary to use violence, sometimes lethally. In his hypothetical example, it was to dispatch a lunatic running through a village with a sword. I think we all have the tools and personalities to be hawks or doves, but in different doses and we cannot be in a single mode all of the time in our interactions with others. Even Hitler had allies and comrades (I won’t call them ‘friends’). Preferably, things would be better with more doves around, but they are subject to being taken advantage of by hawks. Every once in a while, doves may have to “go hawk” if circumstances call for it, but when that is necessary is a fuzzy line. We can add another wrinkle, though, which is that doves can forgive an offense – or two – in the hopes that a light will turn on in the offender and they will convert of their own volition. It is the incorrigible, repeat offenders that are the problem.

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