Staunton, August 6 – In December 1914, as the first Christmas during World War I approached, German and British troops in various sectors of the line between them agreed to “local armistices” and even came together for soccer matches and religious services, an event that was brilliantly portrayed in the 2005 film, “Joyeux Noel.”
Some saw this fraternization as the basis for hope that the soldiers could come together and end the war either by transforming the war between countries into a civil war, as Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin hoped, or by forcing the governments to seek an armistice lest their own troops refuse to fight.
But that is not how things worked out. On the one hand, commanders on both sides suppressed information about these cases of fraternization and severely punished those involved by breaking up the units where such actions were most common. And on the other, the high commands promptly stepped up propaganda portraying the other side in the most negative way.
One involuntarily recalls this classic example of fraternization given a discussion of reported fraternization between Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow Russian forces in the Donbass that appears on the Svobodnaya pressa portal evaluating Ukrainian media reports about such contacts (http://svpressa.ru/war21/article/178421/).
The author, Dmitry Rodionov, interviews three Russian observers of military developments. The first, military correspondent Marina Kharkova says that such contacts have been taking place since the conflict began and “this is not news for anyone.” But she insists that these have no impact on the situation on the front as a whole.
At the same time, however, Kharkova says that “local armistices of course influence the situation but in a minimal way. These are not so much armistices as a war put on pause in a concrete place and in a concrete interval of time.” They aren’t firm or long-lasting because neither side can fully trust the other; but they keep occurring.
Igor Nemodruk, a fighter for the pro-Moscow Luhansk Peoples Republic, even recalls the Christmas truce in World War I, and observes that “then as now, people were tired of war, and standing in place only intensifies this weariness.” That is because those who remain in one section for a long time naturally become curious about their opposite numbers.
He says that in his view, “such contacts in the short term will have little impact on mutual understanding between the sides.” Unfortunately, the war will be resolved by others far removed from the battlefield. Those on the line of fire will be the victims of their decisions.
And Aleksandr Dmitriyevsky a journalist in Donets who edits the journal Novaya Zemlya, argues that such contacts show there are people on both sides interested in an end to the conflict. The pro-Russian side should take this into consideration.
The message of all three is that reported fraternization won’t have any real impact on the conflict. But there are at least three reasons to think that judgment is incorrect even if it is true that such contacts will not bring an end to the conflict on their own:
· First, commanders are going to be more concerned about such reports and to take more steps to prevent fraternization. They may shift troops more often or intensify supervision to prevent such moves.
· Second, both the Ukrainian and the Russian side are likely to copy what the Germans and British did in 1914, intensifying propaganda about the other to make it clear that no agreement short of complete victory is acceptable, thus making the conflict longer rather than shorter.
· And third, given that reports about such things are themselves of great propaganda value, each side is likely to read them as an effort by the other to weaken its resolve – and even to try to spin reports about fraternization in its favor.