The Christmas Truce (Yet Again)


A couple of years ago around this time, I wrote a post titled Lessons from the Christmas Truce of 1914,” which is by far the most read thing on on this site.  Last year I had a lesser viewed follow-up about a man named Julio Diaz, a New Yorker who responded to a teenage mugger with compassion, which led to a conversation at a diner and the teen voluntarily handing over his weapon. 

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Together, the two posts address some attributes we have as a species that facilitate cooperation,  even in times that are enormously challenging. These include, but are not limited to: empathy, the benefits of mutualism, and trust. We can find certainly find many counterexamples lately, with people inflicting great pain and suffering on each other. In recent memory, these include the horrific shooting deaths in Newtown, Connecticut  or the use of cluster bombs against civilians in Syria. This makes examples of cooperation all the more necessary.

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To continue with this late December tradition, here is the story of a German fighter pilot from World War II named Franz Stigler and an American bomber pilot named Charles Brown:

On Dec. 20, 1943, a young American fighter pilot named Charlie Brown was on his first World War II mission. Flying in the German skies, Brown’s B-17 bomber was shot and badly damaged. As Brown and his men desperately tried to escape enemy territory back to England, a German fighter plane pulled up to their tail. It seemed certain death. Instead of shooting the plane down, however, the German pilot, Franz Stigler, escorted the Americans to safety.  (source)

Stigler later moved to Canada, and was reunited with Brown in 1990, when they became friends. Stigler described why he spared the lives of the defenseless Americans, noting that it was not completely selfless and altruistic. Instead, it was also a way for Stigler to maintain his own sense of compassion during a time of brutality. “For me it would have been the same as shooting at a parachute; I just couldn’t do it.”

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He was even warned by his commanding officer, Lt. Gustav Roedel: 

Honour is everything here,’ (Roedel) had told a young Stigler before his first mission. The senior airman added: ‘If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself. ‘You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.’ (source)

 

Brown later said that he recognized that Stigler’s act of mercy was also an enormous risk. By approaching the bomber so closely for  inspection, he became vulnerable to being fired on, not knowing the plane’s capabilities. And by sparing Brown and his crew, he could have been sentenced to death by the German military for allowing the enemy to go free. Yet he took the risk anyway.

Some, such as the primatologist Franz deWaal, have suggested that our long evolutionary history as a prosocial species has made committing violence difficult for us, or at least not without costs. For example, deWaal argued that high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans shows that lethal violence does not come easily to most of us:

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“If warfare were truly in our DNA, we should happily engage in it… Yet soldiers report a deep revulsion to killing, and only shoot at the enemy under pressure. Many end up with haunting memories and disturbed social lives. Far from being a recent phenomenon, combat trauma was already known to the ancient Greeks, such as Sophocles, who described Ajax’s “divine madness,” now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

In the case of Franz Stigler, he made an qualitative assessment that Brown’s hapless bomber was not a legitimate target, comparing it to a pilot in a parachute. But the critical element in that scenario would not be the parachute; it would be the intent of the person in it.  An enemy pilot who had ejected from a downed plane would be in a different category than an invading paratrooper, with only the latter being a threat. That capacity for empathy requires us to make a mental leap in order to decide whether another human being is a legitimate target of being harmed. For most of us, crossing that line even accidentally would result in grave psychological trauma (though we do have the ability to deceive ourselves). Stigler chose not to cross that line, therby maintaining his humanity. The two men even became friends after being reunited, referring to each other as ‘brothers’ (see the video below). 

Finally, I’ll end with a quote from Julio Diaz, the man described above who talked his mugger into choosing a different option: “I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”

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Further reading: Makos A, Alexander L. 2012. A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II. Berkley Hardcover. Link

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3 thoughts on “The Christmas Truce (Yet Again)

  1. Sorry but I don’t like the idea of ‘legitimate targets’. To me all are illegitimate. I can imagine that Stigler was the shooter who happily attempted to destroy the bomber — which had the only purpose of killing Germans by dropping bombs on them. Talk of ‘honour’ and ‘legitimacy’ between killers I find hard to take.

    • Hi Robert, I know what you mean. Just to clarify, I was using ‘legitimate target’ not in an absolute sense, but more in a psychological sense, as when people in a conflict situation put others into categories.

      • I realise that Patrick. You’re not the kind of chap who finds much to praise in war — thank heavens. I still feel this is a very different scenario to the Christmas truce where ‘enemies’ came briefly together in defiance of those who would have preferred them to carry on killing each other. I don’t doubt that combatants are also human — but this one pilot is rather an exception to what other pilots would probably have done. The example you gave is one of those in-between situations: it’s not okay to shoot somebody if they have surrendered or otherwise fit one of the Geneva rules of war, it is okay in all other wartime situations. In this case the German pilot made an individual decision that did not fit any clear rule of war. The bomber could still have jettisoned any remaining bombs and killed people or followed another course that placed human lives at risk e.g. if its going down anyway, why not ditch into a populated area? The German pilot was presumably not in radio contact with his enemy — he responded in an exceptional way and was lucky in that he guessed right. He could have been wrong. I certainly don’t think war has to be total blitzkrieg — but I have problems with an institution that sets rules on how to kill people in a human way. Faced with any bomber, I would shoot it down.

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