Last year marked the centennial anniversary of the infamous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914. Just five months into World War I, the fighting among European powers had already taken the tragic and deadly shape that we now popularly associate with it: trench warfare. Total casualties from the fighting (military and civilians combined) would climb into the tens of millions by war’s end. In the backdrop of what was considered to be a “war to end all wars,” it is particularly remarkable to reflect upon the events of Christmas Eve, 1914. Although evidence is incomplete, records indicate that German soldiers, while singing Christmas carols, slowly and with hands raised, approached British soldiers, who reciprocated by doing the same. Spontaneously, and at risk of treason for fraternization with the enemy, frontline soldiers were able to briefly look past their coalitional imperatives in order to, at the very least, enjoy a respite from the hell of war. They exchanged stories, gifts, allowed each side to recover fallen comrades, and allegedly even engaged in a game of soccer.

This short idyllic interlude in an otherwise long and gruesome war helps to emphasize some obvious yet profound features of warfare. First, it is made possible by a deeply ingrained coalitional psychology. In Matt Ridley’s words, humans are inescapably ‘groupish,’ and social life is defined across most if not all dimensions in terms of group identities. Second, and seemingly as a by-product of these group affiliations, we seem to find it easy to derogate and dehumanize outgroups whose success or vitality seems to come at the expense of our own. The flip side of this intergroup competition is that it can have the by-product of enhancing good feelings about our own group, which can manifest as anything from a ritual dance to xenophobic nationalism. Third, however, humans display a nearly unsurpassed entrepreneurial ability to redraw and redefine the boundaries between coalitions. History is replete with examples of peaceful communities being torn overnight into civil war, and also with examples of enduring enemies uniting under shared goals or beliefs.

Research on the evolution of war has begun to shed light on some of the more puzzling and enduring aspects of warfare. For example, researchers examining motivations for war have made gains in understanding the role of anger, hatred, revenge, and sacred values. This research suggests that humans possess psychological adaptations designed by natural selection that shape our beliefs and motivations between and within groups in the context of warfare. In parallel, research has begun to take seriously the human capacity for cooperation, forgiveness, and peacemaking. So where does this leave us and where are we going?

As we deepen our understanding of the many aspects of warfare, we must simultaneously give attention to the dynamic relationships among these aspects. For example, we have improved our understanding of the conditions that precipitate hatred and revenge, and have a clearer understanding of the conditions under which forgiveness and reconciliation can occur. But how do we get from one to the other? How and when do warring societies lay down their arms and forgive? Why was a ‘Christmas Truce’ possible in the winter of 1914, one of the bloodiest wars in history, but such a truce would seem laughable in the context of international terrorism or insurgency? How do coalitional enemies come to see themselves as part of a larger whole? These challenges reflect a distinction economists often draw between statics and dynamics. Scientists have made great strides toward understanding the sets of conditions that precipitate certain outcomes (statics), but the next challenge is to explain movement from outcome to outcome over time (dynamics).

This effort would be particularly helpful for bringing certain debates to an end that have long outlived their relevance, such as the question of whether we are ‘wired for war’ or ‘peacemaking primates.’ Instead, a dynamic approach to coalitional phenomena would ask about the interaction of psychological mechanisms for fighting and reconciliation, and reveal the processes by which a slide in either direction is likely. We have the evolved capacity for both fighting and reconciliation, and neither is inevitable. Just as the soldiers of the ‘Christmas Truce’ lived the experience of their psychological plasticity, modern behavioral scientists must give greater attention to the dynamic interaction of evolved mechanisms for war and peace, rather than studying each in exclusivity. Indeed, a truce between advocates of war in human evolution and advocates of peacemaking in human evolution can open the door to deeper understanding of the dynamic slide between war and peace, rather than falsely presupposing the timeless dominance of one over the other.

Published On: November 18, 2015

Anthony Lopez

Anthony Lopez

Anthony C. Lopez received a Ph.D. from Brown University in Political Science and is Assistant Professor of International Relations and Political Psychology at Washington State University. His research investigates war as the product of an evolved coalitional psychology, and examines the relationship between inter-group conflict and intra-group cooperation from an adaptationist perspective. Anthony also received training as a Research Affiliate with the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

One Comment

  • Colin Hendrie says:

    There is a commemorative marker of the 1914 Christmas Truce near a place called Frelinghien on the French/Belgian border. The British troops manning that part of the line at that time were the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (2nd RWF), which as chance would have it is one of the most written about British regiments of the Great War. The 2nd RWF’s part in the 1914 Christmas Truce is detailed by a Company commander and the Quartermaster in ‘The War the Infantry Knew 1914-1919’ by Capt JC Dunn. The company commander says that all the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers obeyed orders to stay in their trenches and that the extent of the truce was just a few hours without shots being fired and exchange of a few gifts between officers of food and cigars. The Germans were occupying the brewery and also passed over some beer for the men. The Quartermaster and a letter by a 2nd Lieutenant included in the 2nd RWF war diary say much the same thing is. These officers’ accounts contrast however with the account given in ‘Old Soldiers Never Die’ by Frank Richards, a private in the same battalion writing about the same events happening in the same place and at the same time. Frank Richards says that whilst the officers tried to prevent it the whole company left the trenches and met with the Germans in no-man’s land. The officers of both sides having had no choice but to accept this made an understanding that firing would resume again at midnight. The ordinary soldiers had different ideas however and they agreed between themselves that neither would be the first to open fire. Hence the truce continued all the way through Christmas Day and well into Boxing Day – until such point as the 2nd RWF were (much to their surprise) relieved at about 5 in the afternoon. This was because the High Command had issued orders for all the troops that had been engaged in The Truce (nearly the whole of the British Expeditionary Force) to be rapidly moved to different areas where they would not be facing troops they had fraternised with. The 1914 Christmas Truce is spun these days as being a brief moment of sanity during a time when the world seems to have gone mad – but it certainly wasn’t seen like that at the time and Frank Richards reports that the 2nd RWF were berated and spat at by the local French population when they got back into Armentieres later that night. And far from being a brief moment of sanity – the reality is that the war on the Western Front was very nearly brought to an end by the common consent of the soldiers fighting it. Thus, if you’re looking for in-group/out-group explanations of the 1914 Christmas Truce it must be understood that at that stage of the war ordinary soldiers on both sides had more in common with each other than they did with the officers that were ordering them to kill each other. Reading these accounts also makes it crystal clear that very few British soldiers felt any actual animosity towards the Germans – Therefore the way to understanding the 1914 Christmas Truce in my view is to regard this as a mass mutiny by soldiers all along both sides of the line who wanted the war to end because it was apparent to them even at that early stage that what they were doing was futile. Siegfried Sassoon, the famous war poet who also served in the 2nd RWF at a later stage in the war picks up this theme in his 1917 declaration against the war, which got him committed to a psychiatric institution, even though, or perhaps because, he had been decorated for bravery in the field

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