Mind Matters — 1914 to Now

I write this from Canada after attending All Is Calm, performed by the Chor Leoni Men’s Choir. This was a musical version of the 1914 Christmas truce that occurred in the trenches of World War I. Earlier, the book and movie, Joyeux Noel (2005), poignantly depicts the same event where French, British, and German troops spontaneously initiated their own ceasefire by joining in the singing of Silent Night.

Christmas 2014 is the 100th Anniversary of this memorable truce where enlisted men stopped killing each other to share their common humanity in song, stories, food, and play, and, most of all, peace. For a brief period in time, the trenches were calm—in some battle areas even until the New Year. Perhaps these soldiers would never have lifted their weapons again if it were not for their superiors forcing them to do so.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a novel about World War II, also renders a story where humanity transcends the inhumanity of war. Here we see, counterpoised, the lives of a young blind French girl and an almost equally adolescent young German soldier.

Although, in the true story of World War I, the troops were more inclined to consider the enemy as similar to themselves, knowing each other’s language, having traveled to each other’s countries prior to the war, the devastations and depredations of World War I in some part led to the atrocities of World War II, where human interconnectedness became incomprehensively broken.

Doerr narrates a story of how Hitler’s Youth Corps were inhumanly treated while at the same time propagandized to accept authority blindly. This is not an unusual recipe for molding children into unquestioning followers of orders, even when those orders are evil or immoral, whether it’s the “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Central Africa, where young boys were also brutalized in order to brutalize others, or even where seminarians are whisked away on their journey to priesthood at age thirteen. This is all in the service of forming the young brain into unwavering obedience to whatever cause.

In All the Light We Cannot See, the young German keeps returning to his childhood time when he connected by radio to a Frenchman telling wondrous stories. His sister and her letters keeps this memory alive and his heart and soul alive too—enough so that he saves a young French girl from her demise.

So at this one-hundredth anniversary of the 1914 World War I Christmas truce, what is the connection to a World War II novel? Perhaps it is about how the heart can hold close to its humanity and transcend blind acquiescence to the powers that be. To the question “What’s a person to do?” this may be the answer.