The Christmas Truce of 1914 – Remembered in 2005. The staging of European similarities in the movie Merry Christmas – Joyeux Noël
The film Merry Christmas/Joyeux Noël by Christian Carion depicts the “war Christmas” of 1914 in the trenches of a German, a French and a Scottish division. While the film starts out as just another war film with genre-stereotypical requisites and narrative structures, the story takes a twist when a soldier begins singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve. Through the music and its religious content, the soldiers begin to leave their trenches and fraternize with their supposed enemies. The Christmas party sparks the realization that the bond between the soldiers – regardless of their origin – is stronger than their ties to the generals sitting by the firesides. Made in 2005, Merry Christmas tells us about remembrance and the amnesia of the First World War in recent times. The film adjures Christianity, classical music, and comradeship as common European roots at a time when the EU is failing to deepen its collaboration. Furthermore, the paper asks how far the film’s backward viewpoint goes to activate European cohesion.
When inquiring into collective memory or recollections, we should examine not only what eyewitnesses have reported, but also how the public has made sense of this reporting. Sites of memory (lieux de memoires, Nora 1998), which should be understood not only in a spatial sense, are created as anchors for memories. Observers who took part in World War I are no longer with us; memory has turned into history. Events that have just become history – and are therefore already subject to mythologizing narrative extension, iconographic depiction/representation/processing and ritual staging1 – these can be used to commemorate the commonalities of identity while reducing contingencies.
Merry Christmas/Joyeux Noel by the French director Christian Carion, which was released in cinemas in 2005–2006, is discussed below, and forms the subject of this paper. The subject of the film is the “Christmas Truce of 1914,” a historically verified event during which French, British, and German soldiers emerged from their bunkers for a short-lived truce. The extraordinary circumstances of this real event have resulted its mythologization in the collective memories of the countries that took part, even if to varying degrees and in various forms. It was the clear wish of the director to use the extraordinary circumstances of this event in order to narrate the events of World War I through a different lens, and to interpret the Christmas Truce as a glimmer of hope, a sign of the return of humanistic ideals believed to have been forgotten in the wake of the world wars (Paletschek 2008: 218). In doing so, he seizes on a mythic romanticization of the idea of integration and repackages this into a European narrative of shared values amid the divisive evil of World War I. In the late 20th and early 21st century, the war has acquired a reputation as a conflict of a changing nature, as once postulated by Carl von Clausewitz. At the latest since the second Gulf War (1990–1991), the asymmetries (as defined by Münkler 2003 and 2006) show their effects in warfare, of which reportage and media coverage are important elements. Whereas we note some symmetrical uniformity in the typology of real wars – from the classic battles of the Thirty Years’ War to the interstate wars of the 20th century – and compare them to asymmetrical conflicts (Münkler 2003 and 2006), we do not make the exact same differentiation in war movies. In the category of films with “war” as their main subject, the two world wars belong to the same category and form the basis of the classic war film genre.2 The First World War is a classic inter-state war, even if the bunkers and high numbers of casualties in this war – soldiers and civilian alike – brought with them a change in how war is represented and processed visually, as compared to, for example, the battle paintings of the 19th century (Jürgens-Kirchhoff 2007: 445). Asymmetrical new wars have developed their own forms of media rehabilitation in fictional films (Greiner 2012; Bächler 2013) that have almost become a new sub-genre of war film unto themselves. By way of contrast, classic war films remain focused on inter-state wars rather than civil wars, wars leading to state disintegration, and terrorism. Furthermore, such films preserved elements typical of the genre. Merry Christmas is deeply rooted in the classic war film genre (see the IMDb entry for Merry Christmas) and features emblematic aspects of the genre, as can be seen, for example, in the scenes that take place in the trenches. However, it also contains elements of historical drama set in World War I, as well as elements of a romantic film.
The 1990s saw a renaissance of classic war films, the last being Saving Private Ryan (USA 1998, directed by Steven Spielberg). This is even more surprising in light of the wars waged in the 1990s and early 2000s: the war in the Balkans, the “War on Terror,” and the wars against Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden should be considered rather as new, asymmetrical conflicts. What accounts for this return to the old, classic approach of the war film, or, in the case of Merry Christmas, to the historical drama within the war movie? When we think of war films, movies like Rambo (USA 1982, 1985, 1988 and 2008), Platoon (1986) or Saving Private Ryan spring to mind. In popular culture, war films produced in the USA dominate the genre; what could have motivated Carion and his European film team with its cast of well-known actors and actresses of various nationalities to shoot this particular film in 2005? What follows below is an attempt to answer such questions, with the greater goal of understanding what this film about World War I is trying to tell us about 21st-century Europe.
What to a large degree connects Europe today is its common experience of two World Wars, which, no doubt, are rather negative elements of Europe’s collective memory. Merry Christmas embodies this commonality: it seizes upon various myths and tries to establish the Truce during the war as a positive European memory. Its narrative of cultural similarities and origins in 1914, when the film is set, offers a new interpretation of what/who was perceived as the concept of the enemy, and adjusts it to the European 21st narration. The peace in the midst of the war introduces a European dimension, whereas, in fact, it would be better described as peace because of war. Only the experience of the two world wars led to the creation of an interdependent Europe that has rendered war between European states in the 21st century highly improbable, to say the least. The idea of setting the narrative about a common European identity (see, among others, Schmitt-Egner 2012) during World War I, in which European states faced each other as foes, raises certain problems. In order to resolve these, Merry Christmas focuses on four specific topics and narrative devices that attempt to dissolve this conflict-ridden moment in European history, all of which figure prominently in the present analysis.
The first device that pervades the film is Judeo-Christianity as a transcendent religion found in all the nations across Europe. A second, also dominant, theme concerns music as an integrative force in old Europe which also assumes the role here as placeholder for a common (high) culture heritage. These two narrative devices inform the entire structure of the film and serve as the main focus of the movie’s view of European similarities. To borrow Carl Schmitt’s terminology, they tell the story of the friend who became an enemy during the war. According to Schmitt, the friend-enemy narrative – the narrative of the internal homogenization of possible heterogeneous entities – always requires an outer force. In the film we can observe the recast concepts of the enemies (Schmitt 1933).
A third theme that falls into the category of the “creation of the concept of the enemy” establishes a dichotomy between dominator and dominated as it relates to political, religious, and military policy-makers on the one hand, and front-line soldiers on the other. In doing so, it touches upon questions concerning the social stratification of all the parties involved in the war. A fourth theme to be mentioned does not concern narrative in any real sense, but rather focuses on what is not narrated. The film describes the comradeship between Britons, Frenchmen, and Germans, while other nations are excluded. Belief in a strong old Europe occurs during the absence of the USA (which entered the war later on). The USA and other European allies remain missing from the positive collective memory of the 1914 Christmas Truce mostly because an attempt was made to render authentic historical events in the film. All the same, questions of “inside” and “outside” should also take the year of 2005 into account – the context of the film production. Not least, an observation of the outside leads us to ask whether war itself is portrayed in the film as the enemy, and whether we should understand the film as another “anti-war” film.
Religion, music, and Christmas – a celebration primarily based on a sense of community (see Maurer 2004: 44–46; Bausinger 1997: 169–183; Bausinger 1983: 390–404) – are intimately related. One would not exist without the other, and, as result, these three elements are meshed in the film in the name of collectivity and sociability.
2.1. The Religious Integration of Europe
Merry Christmas opens with a Scotsman declaring the beginning of the First World War to his brother in the Church of Palmer, the Anglican Priest; he has enlisted them both to serve as volunteers. The contemplative work of the quiet brother, Jonathan, who is restoring wooden figures in the church, contrasts with the boisterous reaction of Williams, who enthusiastically greets the outbreak of the war by ringing the church bells. This dichotomy between war and religion, violence and peace, noise and silence, persists throughout the film and manifests itself in several respects. Thus, after the main characters are introduced in their local settings, the first twenty-five minutes of the film foregrounds the events of the war. As in most war films, the depictions of hostilities in the bunkers features loud artillery shells and rifle gunshots and quick cuts. In most “real” war films, Christmas and birthday celebrations serve to disrupt the death-filled battle scenes with soldiers, in order, or so it seems, to create a short-lived break in the action for the soldiers, when in reality the break chiefly serves the viewer. However, in Merry Christmas the break from the battle becomes the main topic of the movie. In a war film, pauses in the combat are, as a rule, employed to show the bonds between the protagonists and their respective homelands, and, in doing so, to individualize them. To this end, films usually use props, such as photos of family members or – in the case of Merry Christmas – show the quirks of the individual soldiers. Thus we see, for example, the French Adjutant Ponchel setting his alarm for ten o’clock each morning to remind himself of his mother and the coffee he would share with her at that time (Merry Christmas, min. 0:27:34 and 1:10:27). He wants to safeguard the comforts of home, which seem odd amid all the fighting, from the war. In so doing, his character undergoes an individualization in the film that is essential in forming an empathic bond with the viewer. It is by such means that the viewer comes to know the characters, and through which a sense of identification is enabled. This is of intrinsic significance in the course of the film, when a character dies. Merry Christmas begins like a classic war film, with the depiction of the deplorable conditions inside the bunkers among all three combatant nations. It focuses on at least one person from each nation, whose story is uncovered over the course of the film and offers a point of contact with the public: the French lieutenant will be a father soon; the Scot Jonathan loses his patriotic brother Williams soon after the beginning of the movie and, as a result, rejects the whole notion of comradeship; the German is Jewish and talks repeatedly about his stays in Paris and, at practically the end of the film, confides to the French officer that he actually has a French wife. These highly personal snapshots are connected to individual stories through various ephemera (photos of the pregnant wife, food packages from the mother, letters that cannot be received due to precarious war conditions), and by technical means, achieved through close-ups of each character.
The individuality of the stories prefigures the possibility of identifying religious commonalities. Of course we – the viewers in 2005 – know that Europe neither was religiously homogenous during World War I, nor is today. Even though non Judeo-Christian traditions are absent here, we can assume that there are Anglican, Catholic, and Protestant soldiers on the battlefields, and – significantly – a German Jew.3 Faced with the inhospitality of the war and the need for a sense of the homeland on the front, this religious pluralism is reinterpreted as a diversity of traditions, which might differ in form, but not in substance: they all share a firm belief in peace and reconciliation. Notions of reconciliation, which in the Christian tradition are connected with the birth of Jesus Christ, become a common religion – Christmas, in spite of its various traditions, can be understood as a “core pillar of European culture” (Schmelz 1999: 583). The multiplicity of individual stories and props all come together in the midnight mass where the Germans can be seen carrying their Christmas trees, the Scots their bagpipes, and the French their champagne and coffee. With this we witness a veritable potpourri of different, yet similar Christmas traditions.
Of course, the notion of the common Christian roots uniting Europe is in no way a new one, as Giovanni Reale has emphasized, pointing out to Benedetto Croci and Frederico Chabod. As early as in 1942, they argued that a modern united Europe could draw from its common roots: Christianity and the intellectual heritage of Antiquity (Reale 2004: 16). For many years, scholars have attempted to map out the contours of a united Europe through its shared roots, especially in the context of the “EU’s eastward expansion” of the predominantly Christian Baltic States, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia, which demonstrates the suitability of these countries for integration (Angenendt 1999: 482).4
2.2. Adeste Fidelis
“We will be home again for Christmas, laughing recruits called out to their mothers in August of 1914 [...] the victims went to the slaughter drunk and rejoicing, crowned with flowers and wearing oak leaves on their helmets, while the streets echoed with cheering and blazed with light, as if it were a festival.”(Stefan Zweig)
As soldiers went off to war, Christmas clearly marked the end of the adventurous war in their minds. The desperate narrative of a quick victory was connected to the notion of a return home by December 24, 1914, at the latest.
“As one stresses the community component of Christmas, celebrating proves to be a mechanism of inclusion and exclusion, an identifying force and the full realization of history, a mechanism of the participation in the whole or in a certain socialization and collectivization in all corners from the state to the family.” (Maurer 2010: 9)
In Merry Christmas, Christmas is interpreted according to Michael Maurer’s view: as the reenactment of the reality of the religious and the political nature. For this reason, the integrative and exclusionary functions of celebrating are employed in order to contrast the diametrically opposed functions of fighting and death in war. For Maurer, the life-affirming significance of celebrations looms in the foreground (Maurer 2004: 7). This significance appears especially relevant given the stark environment in which the 1914 Christmas was celebrated at the front; here, Christmas is tied to the will to live.
Celebrations and wars both reside outside the realm of everyday experience. In the excerpt from Stefan Zweig, war and celebration are connected with one another: the positive war expectations in the First World War should become a celebration, a rite of passage for young men who want to prove themselves (Turner 1982: 24–27). This paradoxical connection is foreclosed upon in Merry Christmas where Christmas is, again, associated with peace and unity at the home of Europe, which stands in opposition to the war. Instead of portraying the coming of age of young recruits through war, as can be found in classic war films, the war fever of young men is explained as a catalyst for war, whereas the conservative, level-headed men are critical of the war.
The religious and musical integration of Europe are inextricably linked in the film. Of particular note, we find the singing of Christmas carols, especially those known in all three countries. The impetus for the truce, according to the film, comes from the performance of the German opera tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), who first appears as a celebrated performer of the Berlin Opera, and later is depicted as a simple recruit in the trenches. His superior, Horstmeyer (Daniel Brühl), is rather bothered by him because he prefers to give orders to artisans rather than to artists from the “Hautevolée” (min. 0:27:01). Later on, he is called behind the front lines to sing for the Crown Prince – his lover, the opera singer Sörensen, had organized this. However, during this performance Sprink comes to feel a sense of kinship with his comrades to whom, after all, he returns on Christmas night accompanied by Sörensen. As the Scots unpack their bagpipes, melodies wash over the no man’s land and Sprink sings Silent Night, Holy Night, a song familiar in all three countries and languages. This song actually appears to have been sung in several trenches in 1914, as is the case of common prayers said in all three languages. This seems to be an attempt to confer a greater sense of authenticity to the film (see Eksteins 2012: 149f). Sprink leaves the trench and is then accompanied by Scottish bagpipe players who launch into the 18th-century song Adeste Fidelis. He sings the song in Latin, and not in one of the three languages spoken among the nations at war. Adeste Fidelis means “Here now you Believers” [Eng.: “O Come All Ye Faithful”]; it once again establishes Europe’s common religious roots. There is, in fact, much to be said about music and language in this film. At the beginning, everyone speaks his own native tongue. Over the course of the film, understanding becomes more important and the characters no longer limit themselves to their native tongues. Song is defined as a universal language. Religious unity is suggested through the use of Latin, for it is the use of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church in its beginnings that symbolizes – at least to all outward appearances – the unity of the Christian religion. As Figure 1 shows, Sprink crosses into the no man’s land singing, with a Christmas tree in hand. This deliberately emotional moment is, nevertheless, also somewhat comical in its representation; this comic element sometimes creeps into the the film’s serious aspirations, and turns it into – as one film critic has put it – a “multilingual Europudding with its pacifistic mentality of the 21st century (to function) as a retroactive homage to the historically unique founding of the European Union” (film review of Merry Christmas).
In scenes of sharing food and drinks and collective singing, a keen sense of cultural bonds is expressed. Last comes the exchange of addresses, which the soldiers hope to put to good use when everything is over. In a curious way, one finds in this film the depiction of contact between alien “cultures,” which results in the portrayal of a homogenous European cultural community. The Latin language, which was taught in high schools among the “cultured nations,” and still is, though to a lesser degree, connects peoples by means of a historical bond passed down from the Roman Empire. They are connected here not only through melody – they can sing in the same language, and even if the words themselves are unintelligible, the unifying element is there. In addition to music and language, similarities are found in the way holidays, and, more specifically, Christmas, are celebrated by the three nations. Christmas is invested with similar attributes in all three countries: good food and drink, harmony, peace, family, and Christmas trees.
During the evening mass, the sole female protagonist of the film, Anna Sörensen (Diane Krüger), sings the Ave Maria, and functions as the embodiment of Virgin Mary herself. In Merry Christmas, the individual symbols serve – alongside the rites and the classic times of Christmas past – as a means to fraternize with the presumed enemy. The men eat, sing, and pray together, and speak of things like their families. The similarities outweigh the enmities that divide them and disrupt the neat dichotomy between friend and foe. It is in the midnight mass and the song sung by Anna Sörensen that differences in religion and traditions become irrelevant (min. 1:04:44), as shown by Figures 2 and 3. It is through the shared iconographic exaltation assigned by the men to the person of Mary (Fig. 3) that these soldiers find themselves united in belief and devotion alike (Fig. 2).
2.3. The external, inner enemy: Generals and Crown Princes
The function of Christmas in this film is the initial provocation of a sense in which one finds a greater emotional attachment to enemies in the field than to the “generals safely removed from danger.” This deep-rooted sense of social equality with the declared enemy is underscored through the shared equality before God (as seen in collective reading of the mass), as well as through the sense of common European roots. The interweaving of religious motifs and class affiliations is taken even further, when another external person is contrasted with the connection between the simple soldiers: a bishop of the Anglican church transfers the preacher, Palmer, to another sector of the front and reprimands him for reading the mass (min. 1:30:00).
Contrary to the experience of the soldiers during the truce, the Anglican bishop tells them:
“Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade. A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you, the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us. For they are not like us, children of God. [...]” (min. 1:32:38–1:33:21)
What is meant here is that the war, and the division of Europe which will follow in its wake, is caused only by the power hungry rulers of Europe: both the political rulers, represented here by the German crown prince, and the religious rulers, represented by the Anglican bishop. The “simple masses,” on the other hand, remain committed to the military ideal of comradeship, even among the enemy nations. For this reason, the Scottish preacher Palmer removes the cross from around his neck after he has heard this speech from his superior – not because he no longer feels tied to Christian belief, but rather because he feels detached from the ruling classes within the Church. For the same reason, the German opera singer Sprink returns to the trenches – against his orders – after he sings before the crown prince. He feels strangely alien before the ruler, sitting by a fi replace in a clean uniform – although he should have been well accustomed to performing in front of the upper classes during his time with the Berlin Opera – and in spite of the fact that he has himself had been identified as a fellow member of the upper class by his superior Horstmeyer. Horstmeyer himself, along with the officers from the Scottish and French ranks, are shown to be men of cultivation, as evidenced by their multilingual conversations. In this way, the distinction between ruler and ruled is evident, rather than that distinguishing members of different social strata from one another.
Moreover, fighting in a war in which he did not voluntarily enlist changed Sprink, who turns himself in to the French as a POW at the end of the ceasefire. Over the course of the Christmas Truce, he came to understand the senselessness of the war. Though the fraternization of the “simple soldiers,” the Christmas Truce has a high potential for emotion, which makes it possible to introduce the positive connotation of European solidarity (Paletschek 2008: 216). Here the film ties together the commemorative cultures of the participating countries, insofar as the importance of the Christmas Truce can be seen as lying in its function as “symbols of the ‘little man’s’ yearning for peace” (Brunnenberg 2006: 49) and – for that reason – develops a politico-symbolic significance for a community that lay outside the war-obsessed powers.
Leaving behind one’s fellow soldiers is a definite no-go in the genre of war movies. The rule “no one is left behind” is repeated in war films and, not infrequently, even becomes the leitmotiv (Black Hawk Down. Leave No Man Behind, USA 2001, directed by Ridley Scott). Thus, just as no man should ever be left behind, nor should he ever leave his troops. But because Sprink decided to return to his comrades and now has to safely get Anna Sörensen away from the front – which equals the saving of a “participant” of the war, almost as if she was “one of them,” a comrade – Sprink does not betray the “ideal of comradeship,” but rather symbolizes the realization of the futility of the war. This situation is meaningful insofar as Anna Sörensen hardly embodies “comradeship or male bonding,” but rather femininity. Diane Krüger’s appearance as a blond, blue-eyed woman can be seen as the personification of the classic, northwest European ideal of beauty. Moreover, in the film she is meticulous about her make-up and lavishly dressed, as befits an opera diva. Up to her spontaneous decision to accompany Sprink to the front, she is cast as an assertive woman who can obtain things like a special permit to sing alongside Sprink before the crown prince at the front. Her role as seductress or – to use a religious metaphor – as Eve, is transformed in the mass when she sings the Ave Maria. Here, she looms as the embodiment of all women in an elevated position, such that no man in the film can subsequently mistake her for being the object of lustful desires. Correspondingly, there are also no more sex scenes with Sprink; they lie next to each other, but clearly separate, like brother and sister. With the metaphysical elevation achieved through her singing of the Ave Maria, she has bestowed upon the soldiers a magical moment of unity and reconciliation that, in turn, fully qualifies her to be saved according to the “no one is left behind” ideal.
Sprink and Sörensen’s predictable survival embodies all that they represent in the film, namely, the cultural unity of Europe as achieved through a shared sense of music, religion and language. Sprink’s deeds are representative of what the future holds; the deaths of most soldiers who participated in the Christmas Truce is very likely, as we know by looking at the high mortality rates in the First World War. Their survival integrates them and therefore does not betray the ideal of camaraderie. While the incorporation of women into war films is difficult as a rule, the character of Anna Sörensen unites at least three main motifs: the seductress, the saint and “the comrade.” If one speculates over the gaps the film deliberately creates – for example, the exclusion of other European nations and the USA – it is worth pointing out that the presence of a female character has been inserted on purpose, as no female participation in the Truce can be historically established. If the film is permitted a certain amount of artistic license in creating a female character for the film to avoid ostracizing fifty percent (every female) of the European population from the notion of European integration, then it should have the freedom to dedicate a word or two to the other nations which fought in the First World War. The fact that it did not could be explained by the strong roles that the three nations played in the war, were it not for the Scottish division. Rather than portray French, German and English fraternity, the Brits are replaced with the Scots. The participation of several Scottish divisions in the Christmas Truce is indeed authentic (Eksteins 2012: 150), though it would nevertheless have been just as possible to insert the Brits. However, the inclusion of the Scots makes it possible for smaller states and regions to feel that they are part of the integration process. As a consequence, the three nations involved function more like placeholders – all the other countries can feel that the film is about them, insofar as they can relate to the motives for integration and the religious, cultural, and linguistic roots that they share. The inclusion of a female character thus serves, primarily, to create empathetic moments between men, whose faces are shown in close-up and who – through Anna Sörensen – come to remember their own wives and children back home. It evokes “Scenes of Empathy” (Plantinga 2004: 213).
3. Collective Europe
The history of the Christmas Truce reached the home countries of soldiers through soldiers’ letters from the front. Contemporary newspapers also reported the events on the front lines (Paletschek 2008: 213). Many of these letters remain with us today; a few are cited and used as sources in works published in various countries with the subject of the history of the Truce alone, or of the entire First World War. In Belgium, where much of the Christmas Truce took place, we still find a strong commemorative culture, expressed through monuments and museums, of the event (Brunnenberg 2006: 20).
Since 1914, several works have been published featuring the Christmas Truce as one a central theme. At the turn of the 21st century, the pace of publication in the three countries involved (Great Britain, France and Germany) has increased sharply, though in different directions. In Great Britain, the website The Christmas Truce: Operation Plum Pudding was organized by two journalists who published part of the letters in a 2008 book entitled Not a Shot Was Fired. Here, war veterans and their progeny had an opportunity to offer their comments and reminiscences. In addition, academic and popular books have appeared in all three countries (Ferro 2005; Foitzik 1997; Jürgs 2003; Weintraub 2001). In 2005, two children’s books appeared in France on the theme of the truce in the trenches (Mopurgo 2005; Simard 2005). In Germany, renewed interest in remembering the event was only reflected in academic publications and popular science (Brunnenberg 2003; Bordat 2005). All this is deeply connected to the significance of the First World War in various commemorative cultures. While memory of the Great War still plays a large role in France and Great Britain, “in Central and Eastern Europe, continuities in memory and remembrance did not develop” (Korte 2008: 8). In Germany, the memory of the First World War has been completely superseded by the memory of the Second World War and the Holocaust (Korte 2008: 8).
The heightened number of publications might stand in connection to the 2005 appearance of Merry Christmas – though the swiftly approaching centenary and the ninety-year anniversary (2004) of World War I probably also played a role – yet, the striking number of publications on this theme is noteworthy. It remains to be seen what accounts for the buzz of activity surrounding the Christmas Truce of 1914 in film, scholarship, and literature. Korte, Paletschek and Hochbruck describe the rediscovery of the First World War as a new and increased “obsession with history” and surmise that the upcoming anniversaries and the gradual demise of eyewitnesses, that is, the transformation of memories into history, have something to do with it.
Films, and particularly historical films, tell stories about fates within a certain time and place, but often reveal much more about the particular contexts in which they were produced – in this case the first decade of the 21st century. Here, Europe’s core is newly defined. The film tells us of a community which has shared religious and musical roots and therefore can be understood as a form of culture that bears the stamp of Christianity. Both the recounting of the Christmas Truce via film and the newfound fascination for the event, which has found parallel expression in various literary works, show that the Christmas Truce has a narrative power. Two actual narratives can be told through this story: first, the narrative of a Europe that was always connected through its shared cultural roots, and was divided by the nationalisms of the 19th and 20th centuries, represented by the rulers in the European countries; and second, the story of the pivotal founding moment of modern Europe, reflected in the motto “no more war.”
Merry Christmas came to cinemas after “EU’s eastward expansion” of 2004, during which ten states were admitted into the European Union, and after the Constitution for Europe was vetoed by a hostile referendum, first in France on May 28, 2005, and three days later in the Netherlands. Since 2004, when the constitution was signed by the heads of government, discussions on the treaty took place, with a focus on the details of the document. A shared constitution could have resulted in an obligation for the member states to strengthen their common interests, and could have promoted a united representation of the EU through the planned creation of a European foreign ministry. Of course, the film’s creators could not have predicted the outcome of the referendum, though they were able to refer to the current discussions in the film, and to participate in them. The film contributes to cultural remembrance, and is focused on an intensification of Central European cooperation more than on expansion. To this end, themes that have long since been discussed in academic contexts are included in the popular discourse. Lucia Faltin has spoken of a “sabbatical from enlargement” in the European Union since 2007 that was necessary in the wake of the failed declaration of a common European Constitution. She also favors a return to Europe’s Christian roots (Faltin 2007: 5–9). The film suggests how commonalities in Europe might be better put forward: through a shared education in the service of the memory of Europe’s cultural roots. Merry Christmas opens with the recitation of propaganda poems by French, English, and German children. The propagation of poems about “childkilling Huns, and barbaric Frenchmen and Britons” (min. 0:01:33–0:02.34) should be replaced with education to provide a greater sense of a shared European identity. In this way, the film retains its function, with the “power to circulate” (Hardt/Negri 2003: 355) symbols and discourses relevant on a contemporary level. It not only picks up the discourses, but also serves to perpetuate them.
This extremely conservative interpretation of the options available to Europe as revealed in the form of religion, culture (via classical music) and paternalistic education read like the party program of a Christian-conservative political party. The suggestion of a fraternization of the ordinary people instead of the “powerful” and the “rulers” can scarcely interfere with this narrative, even if the Europe signaled here is made up of men and women rather than institutions. The film is not able to offer a vision for the true union of diversity, a Union that lies in cooperation rather than assimilation. This certainly is caused by the historical event of the Christmas Truce itself, but maybe the First World War is better suited to remind us of the reasons behind and for European unity – to eliminate potential conflict between the member states – instead of narrating the story of a new Europe of the future. The kind of Europe envisioned by Merry Christmas is based on the past. It recalls common roots that are no longer feasible for many Europeans. Or, as Peter Rietbergen put it:
“Despite the nostalgia of many, Europe will be a world in which the church towers, the crosses and the ringing of bells will no longer most instinctively evoke a multitude of emotions and images which, all-encompassingly, describe culture and solidarity” (Rietbergen 1998: 463).
For the reasons described above, a classic war film which depicts war in all its cruelty, and which thereby becomes paradigmatic of the shared European slogan “no more war,” is in my opinion better served in reminding us of the reasons behind a European community than a film that attempts to conjure up a common Europe based on Christianity, classical music and (manly) comradeship. The Christmas Truce was an event that really took place, and one that harbors potential for mythologization, due to its inconceivability, which is why it should not be neglected. However excessively mythologized and iconographically burdened the Christmas Truce of 1914 might be, it is unique, and has the power to remind us of the human condition – one not necessarily inclined to violence, but rather capable of finding peace in the middle of a war. But then again, that is not a particularly European quality.
Maja Bächler. Has studied history, politics, and law in Freiburg/Breisgau, at the Freie Universität, and at the Humboldt University of Berlin, having written her Masters on French and German modes of reasoning in European integration. She wrote her doctoral thesis at the chair for Military History/Cultural History of Violence at Potsdam University, which was published in 2013 (Inszenierte Bedrohung. Folter im USamerikanischen Kriegsfilm 1979–2009 [ Staged Danger: Torture in American War Films 1979–2009 ], Frankfurt am Main and New York: Campus). Since 2012 she has worked at the Chair for Political Theory (the Humboldt University of Berlin) as a research fellow.
1 Herfried Münkler has explained these four levels in a seminar at Humboldt University in Berlin in 1998/1999 (personal notes).
2 The first war films were documentaries on the US civil war, as well as the fictitious 1915 film Birth of a Nation (USA 1915, directed by David Wark Griffith).
3 It is quite safe to assume that it is no coincidence that of all the characters, it is the German officer Horstmeyer (Daniel Brühl) who is of Jewish descent. It is a clear reference to the persecution of Jews during World War II. It is a known fact that even their participation in World War I could not save Jewish veterans from the concentration camps.
4 Angenendt takes this further, and states that the above-mentioned countries see each other as a part of a common religious and cultural “space,” which can be defined as “West European.” In order to prove this provocative thesis, I believe that we need to research this topic further by means of source studies and discourse analyses in the single member states. In addition to this, the argument of Christian-Jewish roots provides politically conservative parties with a supposedly good reason to deny the Turks admission into the European Union: they simply lack the common Christian roots.
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This article has been published in the second issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the European memory of the First World War.