Dear Global Self-Reggers,
The Christmas Truce is one of the most haunting of all stories from the First World War and without question one of the most profound. On the evening of Dec 24th, 1914, something extraordinary happened. German soldiers on the front had been sent thousands of Christmas trees to warm their spirits. They began singing Christmas carols. A few of the English soldiers began to join in. Soon the soldiers from the two sides were meeting in the middle of No-Man’s Land, sharing food and wine, telling stories, playing football, and even lining up to have their hair cut. The Truce quickly spread along the lines; according to some estimates, as many as 100,000 took part.
The above photo says it all: two young men, looking into each other’s eyes, the war is forgotten, their shared humanity suddenly remembered. And then the Generals on both sides, alarmed by the effect this might have on their soldiers’ morale, ordered the shelling to recommence. More than 20 million soldiers and civilians were to die as a result, and 21 million were to be wounded (watch: Silent Night: The Story of the Christmas Truce).
Until 1900, the relations between England and Germany had been peaceful, even cordial. They had fought together to liberate Europe from Napoleon and were united in their ongoing fear of the Franco/Russian alliance. Hanoverians had ruled England from 1714 to 1901 and King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II were first cousins. Even the two languages are closely related – as are Ukrainian and Russian – in both cases sharing approximately 62% of the same vocabulary. Yet within a decade, mounting trade tensions led to “the war to end all wars” (and the name change from Saxe-Cobourg and Gotha to Windsor!).
Here we are yet again with a war being fought between two imperial powers, and the entire country of Ukraine the No-Man’s Land between them. Or Russian territory, according to Putin. Last summer, in what was clearly intended to presage what was soon to come, Putin wrote about what he sees as the “historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” “One people – a single whole” sharing “the same historical and spiritual space,” “descendants of ancient Rus’.”
In other words, Putin sees this as a civil war, the consequence of a subversive democratic element that must be vanquished and if necessary obliterated for the sake of the Rus’. Just as an earlier tyrant spoke of destroying the elements that would sap the strength of the Volk. But first, you must destroy that spark of humanity that eats away at soldiers’ morale. Even if it takes bombing civilians celebrating Easter.
If Putin and his generals don’t see the humanity of those whom they are killing, what do they see? This:
The Ancient Greeks called it the Inhospitable Sea and the Turks called it the Black Sea, perhaps because of the black sludge that forms as a result of the high concentration of hydrogen sulphide. It contains two layers of water with little movement between them, the lower level so anoxic that no marine life can survive. What’s more, bodies don’t decompose, leading to the macabre belief that the dead live there, like the Inferi in the lake where Voldemort hides Salazar Slytherin’s locket. What more fitting symbol of the carnage that Russia is wreaking.
The Black Sea is an area of enormous geopolitical importance to the Russians: a bulwark against the NATO-dominated Mediterranean. And, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a source of considerable anxiety as both Bulgaria and Romania joined NATO, rumours of Georgia and Ukraine, and now Finland and Sweden wishing to do the same. Russia sees the Black Sea region as vital to its interests, economic as well as military. Hence all those countries surrounding the Black Sea are both appalled and terrified by what is happening in Ukraine.
The greatest threat to democracies today is that political leaders look at maps, and never in the eyes of those whose lives they are destroying. GOP politicians in the US study the Red/Blue map of states.
They don’t see individuals, like the two young men above. They see electoral college votes, state assemblies, governors, congressmen, and senators. They see civil war as the only way to serve an ideology that cannot stand a variegated map or a multicultural society. Even if this means pitting cousins against cousins, neighbours against neighbours, races against races.
There is only one way to get all those who lust for power to see the same thing as the rest of us. They must set aside their maps. They must join their subjects in singing Christmas carols, national anthems, “Peace in the World,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and Raffi’s “Take a Breath.”
There seems to be a pattern here. I wrote about singing two weeks ago. Today I want to have us all listen to this group of Ukrainian children singing “You Raise Me Up.”
– Stuart Shanker
Looking for more learning with Stuart Shanker?
- Read Stuart’s previous letter to Global Self-Reggers.
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