I recently saw the 2005 movie Joyeux Noel and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera inspired by the film: Silent Night. They both commemorate the unofficial World War I battlefield truce in the Christmas season of 1914. During the truce, soldiers from France, Germany, and Britain—who’d been trying to kill each other for years—sang carols, exchanged gifts, food, and addresses, and promised to visit each other when the war was over.
It’s likely you have never heard about the Christmas truce (I hadn't) and even more likely our students have no idea it occurred. As we approach the centennial anniversary of this little-studied event, opportunities abound for teaching about propaganda, politics and war, and common humanity that builds peace.
How did the soldiers involved go to war in the first place? Among other reasons, they had been taught to hate each other. Before cutting to the trenches, the film begins with three close-ups, in classrooms, in sequence, camera tight on a French child, an English child, and finally a German child, reciting poetry decrying their countries’ enemies:
“Enfant francais: Child, upon these maps do heed. This black stain to be effaced. Omitting it, you would proceed. Yet better it in red to trace. Later, whatever may come to pass, Promise there to go you must. To fetch the children of Alsace, Reaching out their arms to us. May in our fondest France Hope's green saplings to branch, And in you, dear child, flower. Grow, grow, France awaits its hour.
“Enfant anglais: To rid the map of every trace Of Germany and of the Hun, We must exterminate that race, We must not leave a single one. Heed not their children's cries. Best slay all now, the women, too. Or else someday again they'll rise, Which if they're dead, they cannot do.
“Enfant allemand: We have one and only enemy, Who digs the grave of Germany. Its heart replete with hatred, gall and envy. We have one and only enemy: The villain raises its murderous hand. Its name, you know, is England.”
In his 2001 book about the Christmas truce, Silent Night, Stanley Weintraub details hundreds of personal encounters conveyed in letters, interviews, and diaries at the time of the truce and years later. Numerous personal accounts include this one of German private Carl Muhlegg, ordered to procure a tree for his trench mates. “I handed the captain the little Christmas tree…. He lit the candles and wished his soldiers, the German nation and the whole world ‘Peace according to the message from the angel.’” Muhlegg recalls that around midnight the shooting stopped, soldiers climbed out of their trenches, and so-called enemies met each other in the middle of the battlefield. “Never,” wrote Muhlegg, “was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.” (p.33)
Weintraub reports that officers were sent to threaten soldiers to get back to the fighting. The soldiers replied, “We can’t—they are good fellows, and we can’t.” Finally the officers turned on the men with, ‘Fire, or we do—and not at the enemy!’ They fired, but at the sky. “We spent that day and the next wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky...” (p.141).
Years later, participants in the truce were still talking about it, according to Weintraub. In a House of Commons debate on March 31, 1930, British Cabinet minister Sir H. Kingsley Wood recounted his experience of the Christmas truce as a major in the “front trenches.” “[I] took part in what was well known at the time as a truce. We went over in front of the trenches, and shook hands with many of our German enemies…. I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired. For a fortnight the truce went on. We were on the most friendly terms, and it was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another again…. [We were] in the grip of a political system which was bad, and I and others who were there at the time determined… never to rest… until we had seen whether we could change it” (p. 169).
Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Abdul Ghaffar Khan
Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan, A Man to Match his Mountains by Eknath Easwaran (1999) details the fascinating evolution of the Pathan farmer, soldier, educator, and tribal leader, Abdul Ghaffar Khan into an advocate and practitioner of nonviolence before and during the time of the Indian independence movement and Pakistan’s subsequent split from India. A friend and colleague of Mahatma Gandhi, and well known among Indians, Pakistanis, and the British occupiers he faced with a nonviolent “army” of hundreds of thousands, Khan’s beliefs and work are little studied in the West.
Introduce your students to this Muslim proponent of nonviolence to shatter their probable stereotypes about the history of Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Muslim nonviolence. Begin with Khan’s own words: “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca.”
Students can research Khan’s Red Shirt movement and philosophy: “You see that the world is going toward destruction and violence. And the specialty of violence is to create hatred among people and to create fear. I am a believer in nonviolence and I say that no peace or tranquility will descend upon the people of the world until nonviolence is practiced, because nonviolence is love and it stirs courage in people” (p. 7).
Satygraha: Using passion to transform the world
In the Afterword to the Nonviolent Soldier of Islam, Timothy Flinders interprets the terminology of nonviolence in a way that may be helpful to students. The person who engages in nonviolence both transforms and is transformed in the struggle to change the world for the better—nonviolently.
“Dissatisfied with the hopeless inadequacy of the phrase ‘passive resistance’ to describe the innate power of nonviolence, Gandhi coined his own term in 1906: satyagraha. Satya means truth in Sanskrit, and agraha comes from a Sanskrit root meaning ‘to hold on to,’ which Gandhi used as a synonym for ‘force.’ Thus satyagraha carries a double meaning: it signifies a determined holding on to, a grappling with truth; while at the same time it implies the force that arises from that grappling, what Gandhi called ‘soul force.’ Satyagraha stands for both the means and the ends, the struggle and the force that is generated in that struggle….
“As heat is generated by friction, Gandhi contended, power is released from within the depths of the human spirit in its struggle toward truth…. ‘I have learned through bitter experience,’ Gandhi explained, ‘the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world….’ Thus in its transformative aspect nonviolence is not nonviolence at all, but violence transmuted, harnessed, used. We could more properly call it transviolence, where the power of passions like anger, hatred, and fear is reshaped into a potent fighting force…” (p. 196-197).
James Lawson and A Force More Powerful
"We do not have the world that we as people are capable of having," exhorted Reverend James Lawson in his keynote address to participants in The Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict in 2012. Lawson closed his speech by urging the audience to research—and learn to employ—the methods of nonviolence used creatively and successfully over the last 110 years.
So how do we study this powerful—nonviolent—force? Teachers at every level can have students explore the Global Nonviolent Action Database researched by George Lakey and students at Swarthmore College. Here they will discover practical evidence that nonviolence actually works as they read about creative, dynamic, powerful, and NONVIOLENT movements for peace and justice across the United States and world. Advance searching helps students find historical cases dating back to the year 300 when Catholics nonviolently defended a basilica in Italy. Or select 1619 when Polish artisans nonviolently protested for the right to vote in Jamestown, Virginia. They can search by types of nonviolent campaigns for civil rights or democracy. Or, they can search by case or geography for historical and recent nonviolent actions recently in the headlines.
In addition, students and teachers can read the book and view the movie: A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall (2000). These resources practically and compellingly teach about nonviolent strategies for social change. The powerful movie shows images of Gandhi's march to the sea to obtain independence for India and other non-violent movements in Poland, South Africa, Denmark, and Chile. Notably, one segment focuses on Reverend James Lawson organizing with student leaders and teaching college students the methods they would practice and practice until their anti-segregation lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee would become models of the successful nonviolent force for social change that highlighted the United States Civil Rights movement.
In addition to reading and researching, teachers can attend conferences and workshops to learn about nonviolence history. Among conferences offered are the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, the Peace and Justice Studies Association Conference, and other gatherings of educators and activists. Journalist Colman McCarthy developed an entire bibliography of readings for a Class on Nonviolence. Links for all resources are listed below, along with two readings from the Fletcher conference page that can help students and teachers understand that nonviolence is not practiced in a vacuum. Rather it requires “the trifecta of civil resistance: unity, planning, discipline. (Merriman)”
Why should we teach our children about the power of building peace through nonviolent, peaceful means? Colman McCarthy’s answer is chillingly plain: “Unless we teach our children peace, someone else will teach them violence.”
James Lawson echoes that concept, reminding us that the powers that be have an interest in maintaining a militaristic, unjust society of dominance and war. However, Lawson sees—and has experienced—another reality. “I am persuaded the issue is not activism or apathy, the issue is people discovering that there are—within the grasp of their hands—simple but complicated tools for social justice, social equality, for social change. That if we can adopt it in the human family in many different places and ways, we can change the course of history from exploitation and domination to the discovery of our common humanity and to the fact that these issues that divide us are issues that can be faced in a creative manner that can put them on the path toward solution. Look at the history and evidence that millions and millions of people have discovered a power, that if we use it together and discover how to use it best, we can put on the agenda of the human family the other world that is very possible.”
Teaching for peace and nonviolent change begins with the links below:
· Link to transcribed lines from Joyeux Noel: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0424205/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu
· Link to Joyeux Noel Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0424205/
· Link to 10-minute documentary about Badshah Khan: Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan 'Badshah Khan' - The Frontier Gandhi: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCTRs8_Bxbo
· Link to Pashto TV’s summary of Khan’s life and beliefs (with reference to contrast to Taliban ideals): http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=kFc8WLHdCAc
· Link to Global Nonviolent Action Database: http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu
· Link to A Force More Powerful Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uo4sSeoNvQI
· Link to A Force More Powerful website: http://www.aforcemorepowerful.org/
· Link to Reverend James Lawson’s 37-minute Keynote Address, June 24, 2012, The Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict http://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/index.php/learning-and-resources/educational-initiatives/fletcher-summer-institute/fsi-2012/2303-keynote-address-rev-james-lawson/#karjl
· Link to Peace and Justice Studies Association: http://www.peacejusticestudies.org/conference/
· Link to article by Hardy Merriman: The Trifecta of Civil Resistance: Unity, Planning, Discipline http://www.opendemocracy.net/print/56928
· Link to article by Jack DuVall: Civil Resistance and the Language of Power: http://www.opendemocracy.net/print/56917
· Link to Colman McCarthy’s Class on Nonviolence: http://salsa.net/peace/conv/
· Link to Teach for Peace: resources for teaching nonviolence and peacebuilding: www.teachforpeace.org