One hundred years ago this past December 24, many soldiers in the trenches of Western Europe started singing Christmas carols and stopped killing one another for at least a day. Despite the different uniforms that they wore, they knew that the birthday of the Prince of Peace was no time to engage in gruesome slaughter. Popular enthusiasm for a quick, decisive victory had given way by then to a stalemate that would continue for years, take millions of lives, and sow the seeds of even worse conflicts. The spontaneous Christmas truce was surely not in keeping with military discipline and did not happen again on such a large scale, but it has gone down in history as a sign that the way of Christ contradicts the ways of worldly powers.
With the exception of the Ottoman Empire, the major players in the Great War were thought of as Christian nations, whether primarily Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. It was not their theological disagreements that led to the senseless conflict; nonetheless, their leaders did their best to use the faith to support their respective war efforts. The late American entry into the war in 1917 had the flavor of a messianic crusade as a war to end all wars and to make the world safe for democracy. Wilson learned in France, however, that America’s allies had not fought for such high-minded ideals, as though any nation in any war—including the United States– ever had. It is one thing finally to take up arms after the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping, for example, but quite another to do so in order to usher in a western democratic millennium of peace. One would hope that nations influenced by even mildly historic forms of Christianity would see the folly of secular salvation by warfare, but the crusading spirit apparently does not die easily.
The Swiss Calvinist theologian Karl Barth was profoundly disillusioned when his German theological mentors supported the Kaiser’s war effort. He saw the global conflagration as the end of the easy identification of God’s Kingdom with the advance of modern western culture. Barth was among the first to recognize an even more perverse idolatry in the rise of the Nazis, whose heretical distortion of Christianity made pagan nationalism and racism their true lords in the aftermath of the Great War and its resolution at Versailles. Before the collapse of imperial Germany, the Russian Revolution had led to a separate peace on the Eastern front and the rise of a bloodthirsty and godless Communist regime that made countless martyrs and confessors, eventually played a leading role in destroying the Nazis, and then enslaved Eastern Europe for decades.
The Great War’s impact on the Middle East was no less profound, as the victorious European powers dismembered the Ottoman Empire, sometimes creating nations out of whole cloth. If you have ever wondered why jihadist terrorists hate western influences, why certain Middle Eastern nation states have so much trouble holding together competing ethnic and religious groups, and why brutal dictators often seem fairly successful in that part of the world, the answers lie at least in part with the legacy that the outcome of World War I left that region. Contradictory promises to Arabs and Zionists concerning Palestine are part of the story also, as is the West’s thirst for oil. The Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides at the hands of the Turks, as well as many other humanitarian disasters, find their place in the trajectory of the Great War.
The deadly conflicts of our time have their roots in the deadly conflicts of earlier times, which is nothing new. It is has been that way since Cain and Abel. Nations and cultures often place these conflicts—and the sacrifices they require– in the context of happy narratives about progress or virtue. Yes, things can get relatively better in various ways due to the outcome of a war in this way as opposed to that. While some people display the worst human qualities in these tragic situations, others display the very best. However, our Lord’s teaching that those who live by the sword will die by the sword remains all too true. And the sins of the parents are visited upon the children for many generations, as the resentment and vengeance sparked by past outrages—whether recent or ancient—bear witness to this day
We live in the tension between the heavenly peace that we celebrate in the Divine Liturgy and the broken, imperfect peace of a world in which we must also pray in the Liturgy for the tranquility and salvation of our civil authorities and armed forces. That is not because politicians and armies will ever save us, but because those who bear the spiritual burdens of sustaining a tolerable level of peace in the world as we know it especially need our prayers for guidance, healing, and mercy. The risks to the soul in these matters are great and the more realistic we are about them, the better. We cannot undo World War I or any other historical event, but we can learn what not to do from its many bad examples and draw inspiration from the prophetic witness of the Christmas Truce of 1914.
Had the Great War not sown the seeds of so many later conflicts, surely some other course of events would have done something similar. But near the beginning of that paradigmatic catastrophe of this age, soldiers on different sides of the trenches paused to praise a King Whose peace is of a different kind than that of an uneasy armistice between powers exhausted from years of pointless slaughter that in turn sowed the seeds of countless other blood baths. In memory of the men in the trenches who broke out spontaneously in Christmas carols a hundred years ago, we must pray and work for ongoing epiphanies of Christ’s peace that provide ways to prevent mass slaughter in the name of ideologies of whatever kind, for even the best among them so easily become false gods that require unholy sacrifices from generation to generation.