Book Review: Stanley Weintraub’s Silent Night
Reviewed by Stephen Wunderli
The patriotism of our day seems to reach back only as far as World War II. Books like: Flags of our Fathers, and The Greatest Generation, tell a profound story of American sacrifice, honor and courage that established our freedoms more so than any other conflict since the Revolution. But WWII, was really only an extension of WWI. The treaty of Versailles can be seen as a pause, a respite from gunfire, yet the beginning of political maneuvering and racism that drove the world back to war again.
So I, like many others, am weak on WWI history. It’s as if the sequel is better than the original. And for Americans, it was. The only outcome of WWI was the beginning of WWII. And that is where Americans really made a difference: as liberators, as heroes, as constructors of the future.
But long before Iwo Jima, there were millions of lives lost. Ten million men died in WWI. More than one soldier from the Western Front described the dead as “stacked like cordwood,” after each battle. The Great War ushered in a new form of battle: mechanized warfare so inhuman that it changed not only our view of death, but also our disregard for life. Wars would simply be different after Flanders Fields, where old school Generals pushed infantry into charges against the new technology of machine gun fire. The results were disastrous.
But before the war took root, one of the most amazing war stories ever recorded rose from the trenches. It was not an isolated incidence, nor a quirk in some insane war. For some reason, peace broke out during the Christmas of 1914.
Stanley Weintraub, Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, has captured the chain of events in his book Silent Night.
Based on first-hand accounts, this book takes us from the depth of horror in the trenches to a vast field, dotted with the lights of hope that were the Christmas trees alight with candles. It is a remarkable account for its juxtaposition of war and peace. For two full days, both sides of the line stopped their shooting, exchanged gifts, played football, even buried their dead together. Had it been up to them, the peace would have been permanent. As one German soldier said of the anomaly: “It was a day of peace in war. It is only a pity that it was not a decisive peace.”
It began with a tentative cease fire. And ended with both sides singing carols together, the climax being “Silent Night”, in German and English.
In a time of uncertainties, this is a book filled with hope. We can stop the wars if we are willing to fight for peace.
If you are looking for something different to read this Christmas, something true and not imagined, pick up Silent Night.
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