I was curious to know why Weintraub wrote a book about a brief period prior to Christmas in 1914, on the battlefields of Flanders, when German and British soldiers spontaneously agreed to declare a truce and suspend fighting, thereby defying their commanding officers. The answer to that question, in my opinion, has profound significance 87 years later. No doubt the book's impact on me is explained, at least in part, by the fact that I read it during the holiday season, following the events of September 11th, as a war on terrorism continues. But also because, as an eager student of military history, I am intrigued by isolated situations in which humanity (for lack of a better term) at least temporarily prevails over death and destruction. Centuries ago, knights and their attendants would work with their enemies to clear a field for combat the next day. Such cooperation had an obvious practical value. That's not what interests Weintraub as he examines a temporary truce during one of the bloodiest wars ever fought. It had little (if any) practical or tactical value but it did (and does) suggest a human need which transcends military obligations.
Weintraub draws upon a wealth of primary sources (e.g. letters and diaries) in which firsthand accounts comment on the shared misery created by "shells, bombs, underground caves, corpses, liquor, mice, cats, artillery, filth, bullets, mortars, fire, and steel." I am reminded of movies such as All's Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory in which the human misery portrayed is almost unbearable to watch. I had the same reaction when seeing more recent movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down.
As Weintraub explains in this book, at least some of the opposing forces decided to call what we today would describe as a "time out." Several displayed signboards and banners which said "You no fight, we no fight" (by the Germans) and "Merry Christmas" (by the British). Messages and holiday greetings were exchanged, sometimes conveyed by trained dogs serving as intermediaries. Weintraub credits the Germans with taking the initiative but not all of the German soldiers and few of their officers condoned the truce. (The choice of the book's title is apt. More than 200 years ago, Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics and Franx X. Gruber the music of "Stille Nacht," a German carol.) Nor did all of the Allied forces. Everyone involved correctly understood that battle would soon resume but at least for a very brief time, everyone involved (to varying degrees) experienced "peace on earth, good will toward man." For many of them, death had merely been delayed. How welcome it must have been to have a silent night or two after enduring deafening bombardments. And no doubt an opportunity to reflect upon loved ones far away and to recall happier Christmases in the past.
It is possible but highly unlikely that there will ever again be a land war of the nature and to the extent of the two World Wars. Never again will opposing warriors in near proximity exchange Christmas greetings and gifts. This is part of the significance of what Weintraub has recreated in his book: Warfare in the 21st century will mostly be waged by high-tech systems to deliver weapons of mass destruction to achieve global and regional military objectives. At least to this reader, Weintraub seems to ask: Why not eliminate war in any form so that the world can have a "silent night" every night? Why not indeed?
on July 11, 2003
Let me open by saying that the book is not all that well written. However the story is amazing. I am shocked that I have never really heard about this prior to reading this book. Everyone should read this book especially those who think peace will never happen. Very good lesson.
on May 30, 2008
Three or four years ago there were a number of features on NPR and elsewhere about The Christmas Truce of 1914. The story is amazing and simple at the same time. I wondered what more could be added in a full book. The author fleshes out the story with lots of detail added from many sources.
While the story is amazing, I found the book to be a broader study of fraternization between opposing soldiers. That has been going on through the centuries. In the Battle of Chattanooga during the US Civil War opposing soldiers sometimes crossed the Tennessee River for card games and dances together. This book explains how and why enemies can share time together in friendly pursuits.
I had always wondered about the language barrier in The Christmas Truce, but many of the German soldiers had worked in London as waiters and had learned English. One English soldier met his old barber among the German soldiers in the other trenches, and even got a haircut from him on the battlefield!
The book is very interesting to read and worth the time, although, I found the "What if..." chapter not that useful.
on January 13, 2003
This is one of the most poorly written books I have read in years. You either have to know German or the entire geography of Europe to understand what Weintraub is taking about. No German or French words (sometimes whole paragraphs) are explained in english. This book is long-winded, redundant and out of order, it may be 50 pages before Weitraub gets back to something he was in the middle of writing about. Steer clear and read the synopsis on the back cover of this one. Well-researched for the families of those who fought in that batlle, but not for me.
on December 3, 2002
The author has clearly done his research homework, compiling an impressive array of contemporary accounts of a remarkable, even inspirational, event. Especially impressive was Weintraub's ability to mix German accounts in with the more customary allied ones (after all, by W's account, it was the Germans who began the truce).
Still, despite the book's strengths in its core of solid primary research, I have to agree with several previous reviewers that it is poorly presented, poorly arranged, and at times methodologically challenged. IMHO, the book screams for some sort of analytical framework around which to hang the impressive data that W has collected. Instead, the reader is presented with a series of partly-chronological, partly topical chapters that contain no internal consistency. For instance, the chapter on the infamous football/soccer game(s) does not limit itself to that subject, nor does it adduce any compelling thesis or argument about the nexus of sport, warfare, the truce - or anything else, for that matter. It is a jumble of anecdotes, many of which touch on the soccer game(s?), but many of which do not. The rest of the book contains similar organizational problems: a surfeit of wonderful anecdotes without any controlling narrative or argument.
Yet I would not complain as much about the book were it not for what I found to be some serious methodological flaws. Weintraub introduces into each chapter anecdotes drawn from pop culture sources (plays, literature, songs, children's books, etc) composed, by and large, many years after the fact. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and, indeed, in the hands of another scholar might well have provided the basis for an entirely distinct monograph. Yet here, they are interwoven into W's narrative in ways that make it seem as if they confirm, support and expand the more historical evidence (letters, diaries, official regimental histories) for the truce. I find this extremely disturbing. Why should RObert Graves' second-hand (he made it to the front in 1915) fictional account of the truce be considered alongside the accounts of the soldiers who participated? This is not to denigrate Graves, or even to deny that Graves may well have garnered oral histories of the truce from his fellow soldiers. But still, the simple fact is that a fictional representation of the truce written up in the 1940s (if I remember correctly) cannot be treated as primary evidence for the facts of the truce. Similarly, while I am old enough to remember and love the Snoopy and the REd Baron song, I don't find it particularly revelatory of actual events from 1914 (the same goes for the English rock band, The Farm, of whom I am unfamiliar).
I am not, I should make it clear, accusing Weintraub of anything untoward - his every use of such later sources is firmly annotated and clearly identified. What I do find confusing is why Weintraub feels that such account should be placed alongside the more 'historical' accounts, and why he should allow the reader to think that they offer any insight into the real events of the truce and not simply insight into what was later _perceived_ about the truce.
Finally, as others have commented upon previously, I found the final chapter, in which Weintraub speculates about what might have happened had the truce been allowed to continue, to be simply silly. We all favor peace, and to seriously (I gather?!) suggest that the truce would have a) stopped the war; b) prevented fascism; c) impeded lots of other bad stuff, strikes me as 1) bad history and 2) emotional pandering to our p.c. sensibilities.
As this review suggests, I was seriously disappointed by the book. While Weintraub is to be commended for rescuing it from obscurity and for emphasizing the humanity of (some of) the common soldiers, there is a much better book still to be written on this subject. That book will take a more analytical tack and will, I hope, more clearly separate the events of the truce from the later imagining of those events.
on December 21, 2001
I really wanted to love this book. The 1914 Christmas truces have always fascinated me (although, as you'll see, I'm no WWI scholar) and a full book treatment promised the kind of detail and insight I had always craved into this incredible incident.
Unfortunately, while well-researched, I think this book suffered from weak editing. The nature of the information is anecdotal (letters and newspaper accounts are used here effectively; fictional accounts less effectively), but the chapters are essentially unstructured compendiums of these anecdotes and observations, grouped by timeline (i.e. all the football anecdotes are grouped together, all the reports of how the various truces ended are together, etc.). The characters only come alive in half-light and then shuffle offstage (or die). I found it difficult to follow and ultimately frustrating and unfulfilling. Sub-headings or better transitions would have helped me follow along a lot better.
Also, the author assumed a relatively high level of knowledge about WWI, foreign languages, history, etc., often stating a person's name or a town or a German word or phrase, without explaining what it was or why it was important in context. I bought this book to learn; I ended up feeling dumber after I read it.
Also, opening a book by quoting yourself seems a little conceited.
Mr. Stanley Weintraub's, "Silent Night", documents the exceptional events of Christmas 1914 amongst the trenches of World War I. This war was the conflict that revealed the true horror that modern warfare made possible. This was a war that killed 6,000 people every day for nearly 52 months. This was trench warfare when men died by becoming consumed by the mud that was routinely knee deep, and often deep enough to consume a soldier entirely. The book is very good; the only reason for the missing 5th star was due to the counter-factual history the author offered at the book's close. What if scenarios are always a dicey leap to make, and I found several of the author's entirely implausible.
When the reader learns about the cessation of the fighting that took place by the soldiers on the field, in spite of orders to the contrary, and you read of their posting mail for one another, helping to bury the dead together, and sharing Christmas dinner in genuine friendship, for a moment you think, "how exceptional an event". This is after you accept these interactions took place, that the men who had killed each other's comrades then buried them together, broke bread, and played soccer. The photographs in the book show the men who had been doing their utmost to kill each other standing together and sharing the holidays.
These were the men on the front lines, the men who did not decide to wage war, rather they fought for their nation, their own sense of duty, and because that was what they were sent to do. Those higher placed in the chains of command wanted the fighting to continue, they feared that the men would not fight after treating each other as humans, as people, as men who had no desire for more war, whether German, English, French, Irish, and many others. Simple signs saying, "we no shoot, you no shoot", literally brought the war to a halt along long stretches of the front. However it did not last, because it could not last, and measures were taken by the officers to see that this fraternization with the enemy would not happen in 1915, 1916, 1917, or 1918. Soldiers on either side were threatened with a court martial and a firing squad for treason, subsequent Christmases had planned constant shelling so no one would repeat the moments of humanity that took place on that first Christmas of the war.
I expect that there will be a variety of opinions about what took place, how important it was, and why anyone bothered. For the reality is, that this was a brief respite when sanity held sway, when the human foundations of these countries made their own decisions, the generals and the politicians had nothing to say, they were ignored. In the end it was like when a cancer falls into a remission. There is no question it will return; it is only a matter of how soon. This was the case with these soldiers. For a brief moment of the war they put down their weapons and treated each other with mutual respect and conducted themselves with honor. But even as the improvised soccer matches took place, both sides improved their fortifications, and brought up additional war material knowing that the interlude was just that.
As horrible as the war had been, the fighting resumed and decimated a generation. When enough time had passed and a new generation was born, arms were once again taken up, and the slaughter began again, and the second world conflict was even more repulsive than the first. Humanity found new methods to plumb the depths of evil. What these men did was and is admirable, however it was an exception to longstanding rules. For just as the fighting was stopped, it once again began, a generation was slaughtered, so there was a pause, and then the slaughter began again.
This is a fascinating story, however in the end what should we take from it? What is more difficult to comprehend, that men will slaughter strangers, or that they will come to see their commonality, their sameness, and then shake hands, return to the trenches and slaughter faces that have names?
on January 2, 2003
I must agree with other reviewers who commented that the rather extensive re-telling of fictional accounts of the truce do little to portray the events as they actually happened. Perhaps the author borrowed from the fictional accounts because he himself was not able to adequately describe the events of the Christmas truce from an ordinary soldier's point of view? I wonder if a lack of primary source material could have caused the author to rely significantly on fictional accounts?
While I find the topic quite fascinating, unfortunately the author's disjointed presentation of the subject matter did little to provide the reader with comprehensive insight into the historical event.
on February 12, 2013
Everyone has their personal taste in literature, & each taste is unequivocally 5 stars. What works for you, works for you. And, by rights, the opposite must hold true.
This book disappointed me on many levels and, therefore, I give it a 3 stars rating. I was hoping for a cohesive accounting of the Christmas Truce of 1914. What I got was a series of isolated personal anecdotes of events that took place along the Western Front. My first hint that something was amiss occurred early in the book when the author discusses the 1960's novelty song "Snoopy and the Red Baron." In retrospect I should have stopped right there.
Mr. Weintraub's final foray into foolishness occurs at the end of his book when he states that it is a dangerous practice to try to predict an alternative history if the Truce had actually ended the war. He then proceeds, for the next 10 pages, to do just that.
In summary, I consider this is as a lightweight, throw-away book. Just the opposite of what I desire in good non-fiction. However, it is apparent that the Mr. Weintraub conducted considerable research judging by the numbers of anecdotes from all combatants &, for that, I cannot give this book less than 3 stars.
on January 7, 2002
Weintraub is a good researcher. He has compiled enough ancedotal evidence that will assure that the Christmas truce of 1914 will never again be regarded as a "myth" of WWI.
On the other hand, this is a plodding, fairly lifeless read. Perhaps I am unfairly comparing this book to some of the excellent first hand accounts to come out of the war (e.g., Vaughan's Some Desperate Glory). I found myself skipping paragraphs to avoid the constant repetition. Maybe there is not enough material here for a full length book-- a ten page article could probably do this event justice.