The Point
Last updated: 26 March 2017.

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Joyeux Noel - an antidote to World War 1 jingoism

It might be summer, but Jimmy Haddow argues its a film about a different time of year altogether that reminds us - amongst all the rewriting of history in the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War - of the real class and imperialist nature of that great human tragedy.

 

It is the year of the 100th anniversary of the World War One and the British ruling class and its scribes in the media are releasing a nauseating avalanche of jingoistic propaganda to hide the true realities of the war. "Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)" is a 2005 semi-factual film about the World War One Christmas truce depicted through the eyes of French, Scottish and German soldiers will be a small antidote to the misinformation we will read and see on our screens during 2014 and after.

The film centres mainly on six characters; Gordon, an officer in the Royal Scots Fusiliers; Audebert, a reluctant French officer who is also the son, and grandson of the French General staff; Hortsmayer, a Jewish German officer; Palmer, a Scottish priest working as a stretcher-bearer; and a German Opera Singer who is a soldier and his Danish lover who is also an opera singer. The Scottish actor who plays the priest, Father Palmer, is Gary Lewis and is the actor who played the striking miner father of "Billy Elliot". Before he became an actor, he was a member of Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party Scotland, and was heavily involved in the 1984 miners' strike and the other class battles of the 1980s.

On 28 June 1914, a Serbian nationalist student assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, during a state visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia. Five weeks later, starting 4th August, Austria, Russia, Germany, France and Britain were all at war and with all the belligerent countries capitalist politicians and their kept press saying it will be over by Christmas. But instead it persisted, with an estimated figure of 10 million dying, during the next four year industrialised bloodbath.

The actual trigger, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, was almost inconsequential. The real reason for the war was economic – the struggle for raw materials, colonies and markets in Asia, Africa and elsewhere by imperial domination, Britain, Germany, France and even little Belgium, that developed through the latter part of the 19th Century and the early part of the twentieth That combined with the growth of capitalist development in eastern and south-eastern Europe raised the question of national self-determination of the Balkan people as a national state made a very complex and explosive social composition by 1914.

In the space of four decades, Germany passed from a position of relative backwardness in western Europe to the world's second most powerful industrial economy. Already, by the end of the 19th century, it had outstripped France and challenged Great Britain in significant areas. The very expansion of the German economy posed new problems – access to raw materials, in particular iron ore for the expanding steel industry – and the need to secure new markets. Moreover, the very industrialisation process itself generated social and political tensions inside Germany between the rising industrial elite and the Junker landowning classes, and between the rapidly growing working class and the propertied classes as a whole.

Paradoxically, on the other side of the social equation was the growth of the European working class and their organisations. The explosive growth of European capitalism from 1870s onwards had created an industrial proletariat of tens of millions by 1914; mass strikes, and revolution in 1905 Russia, had welded this working class into a combative labour movement across much of Europe. This in turn created a mass electoral base for workers parties when they came into being, such as the Social Democratic party, SPD, in Germany and eventually the Labour Party in Britain at the turn of the 20th Century.

Along with the carving up of the world into colonial empires during the 40 years before the first world war led to a long period of relatively rapid growth in Europe, including Britain, and the labour movement was able to take advantage of this. Political and social reform was achieved through hard class battles and struggles and a layer of the working class, above all the more skilled and educated workers, raised its living standards. Previously they had been at the forefront of the class struggle, but now for them the class struggle had lost some of its sharpness and they reduced their pressure on the leadership of the workers' parties and trade unions.

The material basis of the European and British capitalism raking in profits from the colonies had in turn an ideological effect on the leadership of the trade union movement and the workers' parties, specifically the SPD in Germany. There were battles, sometimes hidden, sometimes open, to revise the basic ideology of the revolutionary Marxism of the SPD. The leadership and their supporters acquired the habit of compromise and negotiation within the framework of capitalism; not a sharp break but the 'inevitability of gradualism' was the way to achieve socialism.

The SPD was the leading socialist party within the Second International who had developed a pro-working class anti-militarist programme from 1907 onwards. Even during the 'July Crisis', as the events after the assassination was called, the Second International organised anti-war demonstration in every major city of Europe with millions of trade unionists and workers demonstrating. Then things came to ahead on 4 August 1914 and these leaders barely hesitated a minute before siding with the capitalists. Under the strategy developed by the Second International, transforming the anti-war struggle into a struggle against the capitalist system as a whole, they would likely have been accused of treason and imprisoned for opposing the war, as John MacLean in Scotland and Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany actually were. The Socialist leaders in Germany, Austria, France, Britain and many other countries were no longer prepared to expose themselves to such risks and instead abandoned the class struggle.

The German social-democratic leadership had shamefully abandoned their class and international duty by voting for 'war credits' on the infamous 4 August 1914, therefore supporting the ruling class and taking part responsibility for the carnage that followed. This was followed in the other European Socialist and Labour parties who declared a class truce and collaborated with the capitalist governments and royalist rulers. They pledged to put the class struggle on hold for the duration of the war and acted as recruiting sergeants for the ruling elite, but deprivation and death was all workers got out of the war.

Every belligerent country wrapped itself in patriotic colours and 'Joyeux Noel' begins with scenes of schoolboys reciting patriotic speeches that both praise their respective countries and condemn their enemies. In Scotland, two young brothers join up to fight, followed by their priest, Father Palmer. In Germany, an opera singer is interrupted during a performance by a German officer announcing a reserve call up. The French officer is looking at a photograph of his pregnant wife whom he has had to leave behind in the German occupied part of France.

By Christmas the war had solidified to an "iron curtain" of trenches extending 350 miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea. A few days before Christmas, the Scots and French troops, in 'Joyeux Noel', lead a combined assault on the German trenches in France. The attack causes heavy casualties on both sides, but it also does not break the stalemate of trench warfare. One of the Scottish brothers is mortally wounded during the attack, and his brother, Jonathan, is forced to abandon him in no-man's-land as they retreat. The French officer loses his wallet, with the photograph of his wife, in the German trench in the confusion. Meanwhile because the Danish opera singer is well known to the upper circles of the German ruling class she gets permission to perform a Christmas recital for Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, and her German lover, Private Sprink, is taken from the front and is allowed to accompany her in the recital. They spend a night together and then perform. Afterward, Sprink expresses bitterness at the comfort of the generals at their headquarters, and resolves to go back to the front to sing for the troops. Sprink is initially against Anna's decision to go with him, but he agrees shortly afterward. This is where the Director and Writer, Christain Carion, used artistic license because there seems to be no records of female civilians being at the front in 1914.

The unofficial truce is instigated when the Scots begin to sing festive songs and songs from home, accompanied by bagpipes, led by Father Palmer. The opera singers arrive in the German front-line and Sprink sings for his comrades. As Sprink sings Silent Night he is accompanied by a piper in the Scottish front-line. Sprink responds to the piper and exits his trench with a small Christmas tree singing "Adeste Fideles". Following Sprink's lead the French, German, and Scottish officers meet in no-man's-land and agree on a cease-fire for the evening. The various soldiers meet and wish each other "Joyeux Noël","Frohe Weihnachten", and "Merry Christmas." They exchange chocolate, champagne, and photographs of loved ones and connect over pre-war memories. Palmer and the Scots celebrate a brief Mass for the soldiers (in Latin as was the practice in the Catholic Church) and the soldiers retire deeply moved. However, Jonathan remains totally unmoved by the events around him, choosing to grieve for his brother.

On Christmas Day the officers have coffee together and decide to bury their dead on the day Christ was born. Later, they play a football match against each other, which actually happened on that day. The following day, after sheltering each other during artillery barrages on both sides, the commanders decide it is time for all of them to go their own way. The French, Scottish, and German soldiers now must face the inevitable consequences from their superiors. As the Germans' return to their own trenches after the Allied barrage, the opera singers, Sprink and Anna, quietly remain with the French and ask the French officer to be taken prisoner, so as to remain together.

In the film, as in real life, the soldiers from the trenches wrote letters back to their loved one in their respective homelands and the military and political elite of each country had a crackdown. One letter from a soldier from the Gordon Highlanders to his parents said that the Germans were as fed-up of the war as they were and the German soldiers told him they were hoodwinked by the Kaiser about the reasons for the war. Another soldier from the Seaforth Highlander told his parents that they had a three day ceasefire over Christmas with Bavarian soldiers who told them were tired of the war and that it would not benefit them in anyway, as they were Socialists. The General Staff of all nations saw great dangers in fraternisation and directives from them came down to the front. A General Forrestier-Walker of the British army issued an edict forbidding fraternisation by saying because "it discourages initiatives in commanders, and destroys offensive spirit in all ranks...Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices and exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited".

Father Palmer is to be sent back to his own parish and his Battalion disbanded as a mark of shame. Despite emphasising the humanity and goodwill of the truce, he is rebuked by his Scottish bishop, who then preaches an anti-German sermon to new recruits, in which he describes the Germans as evil and commands the recruits to kill every one of them. Father Palmer overhears the preaching, and takes off his Christian cross necklace as he leaves. Back in the trenches, the Scots are ordered by a furious major (who is angered by the truce) to shoot a German soldier who is entering no-man's-land and crossing towards French lines. The soldiers refuse to kill him and shoot a warning shot above the German soldier's head, again many of the letters sent home spoke of this type of action on both sides of the barbed wire. However, the vengeful Jonathan shoots the German, mortally wounding him.

Audebert's, the French officer, punishment is being sent to Verdun, and receives a dressing down from his father, a General. In a culminating rant, young Audebert upbraids his father, expressing no remorse at the fraternization at the front, and also his disgust for the civilians or superiors who talk of sacrifice but know nothing of the struggle in the trenches. Horstmayer and his troops, who are confined in a train, are informed by the Crown Prince that they are a disgrace to the German Army and that they are to be shipped to the Eastern Front, without permission to see their families as they pass through Germany. He then stomps on Jörg's harmonica, and implies that Horstmayer does not deserve his Iron Cross. As the train departs, the Germans start humming a Scottish carol they learned from the Scots, L'Hymne des Fraternisés'/I'm Dreaming of Home. To me it tugged at my heart strings and brought a tear to the eye.

Let's leave the last word with Vladimir Lenin - one of the leaders of the Marxist Bolshevik party and co-leader, alongside with Leon Trotsky, of the 1917 October Revolution which through their political understanding and party-building methods ensured the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism in Russia - when he heard about the Christmas truce he articulated that if there were worker organisations prepared to fight for such a policy amongst the soldiers of all the belligerent nations there might be quick end to the war in favour of the working class and poor; that however did not take place until four years later.

Lenin wrote "Try to imagine Hyndman, Guesde, Vandervelde, Plekhanov, Kautsky and the rest [leaders of the social democratic and workers' parties that supported the world war] – instead of aiding the bourgeoisie (something they are now engaged in) – forming an international committee to agitate for fraternization and attempts to establish friendly relations between the socialists of the belligerent countries, both in the trenches and among the troops in general.

What would the results be several months from now?".

 

Jimmy Haddow is a member of Socialist Party Scotland. 

External links:

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