Perhaps lefties can be forgiven for being quite cynical about Xmas. The unrelenting din from the advertising industry infuriates us. We choke on our sprouts when inveterate warmongers lecture us on ‘peace’. One-sided shouting matches ensue when our TV screens feature an obscenely privileged hereditary monarch emoting over the plight of the Grenfell victims – while her majesty’s government presides over a vicious austerity regime that threatens more nightmares like that inferno and a neo-Victorian/liberal ethos that “poverty is caused by poor people”. Xmas sucks, right?
Well yes, but …
Without getting too ‘Alastair Sim’ about it, there is another side to this time of year. The Xmas of solidarity across frontiers; of the havens of love people create within families and friends against a cold and alienated world; and of the slightly anarchistic authority meltdown that affects many workplaces around this time of year and which can produce genuinely kind interactions (and some scandalously inappropriate snogging, of course). Yes, Xmas can be subversive, comrades!
Take the numerous surveys that indicate that, for many, the abiding images of the 1914-18 war are the unofficial Christmas day ceasefires along the Western Front and the fraternisation between German and British soldiers – featured in our ‘Working Class History’ calendar. (The poignant last Blackadder episode also rates highly in similar polls.)
But remember, these spontaneous outbreaks of civilised humanity in the WWI charnel house necessarily took the form of rebellions against the military discipline of the German and British military commands. The British High Command reacted quickly to the first stirrings of these breakdowns of military discipline on December 14, alarmed that their spread could “destroy the offensive spirit in all ranks”. Quickly, but too late …
German soldiers stubbornly insisted on being subversively festive. Late on Christmas Eve, the sound of Germans singing ‘Stille Nacht’ (‘Silent Night’) drifted across no man’s land. After a few puzzled minutes, the Brits joined in. Then shouts came - in English - from the German trenches. “Tomorrow is Christmas; if you don’t fight, we won’t!”
So a wonderful, unofficial ‘peace from below’ broke out. Men clambered out of their trenches. Gifts of booze and food were exchanged; carols sung, and chaotic football matches arranged. “We were with them about an hour and everybody was bursting laughing,” wrote one Brit private. Another met his German barber by coincidence – and was given a shave and haircut by his ‘enemy’. “What a sight; little groups of Germans and British extending along the length of our front,” wrote Corporal John Ferguson of the Seaforth Highlanders. “We were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”
For the rest of the day, barely a shot was fired along the entire front. Alarmed, the top brass issued an unequivocal order against fraternisation. Officers were warned this yuletide madness could “destroy the offensive spirit in all ranks”. Hitler, then a lowly corporal somewhere near Ypres, was outraged by this internationalist solidarity and blustered that it “should not be allowed”. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien agreed, reminding his subordinates that “friendly intercourse with the enemy … [is] absolutely prohibited.” That callously indifferent butcher, General Douglas Haig, even threatened that soldiers caught fraternising would face a firing squad.
The slaughter of WWI represented an unmitigated politicaldisaster for the Europe’s ruling classes. It became common sense for millions of proles worldwide that this was a conflict fought over lines on maps and the ‘right’ to exploit the peoples and resources of colonised continents. (The fact that Theresa May suggests the conflict was “fought for freedom” tells you all need to know about her debased version of ‘freedom’ …). The slaughter also led to rebellions and revolutions in many countries, most famously Bulgaria, Germany, and, of course, the 1917 Russian Revolution.
"Clearly, fraternisation is the revolutionary initiative of the masses, it is the awakening of the conscience, the mind, the courage of the oppressed classes; in other words, it is a rung in the ladder leading up to the socialist proletarian revolution. Long live fraternisation! Long live the rising world-wide socialist revolution of the proletariat!"
Over 100 years later, this mini-mutiny has been gutted of its real political content. A sanitised version can now be used to flog groceries, or provide fading pop stars with a video narrative for facile ‘isn’t-peace-nice’ ditties. Like so many of the truly inspiring moments in human history - (don’t even get us started the birthday boy himself, Jesus the apocalyptic revolutionary, not the pro-Roman creep!) – it was a rebellion from below that belongs to us!
Working class history calendar 2018
With lots of interesting and inspiring facts, anniversaries and pictures from the struggle in this country and around the world.
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