Silent Night
The Story of
The World War I
Christmas Truce

Stanley Weintraub
(Plume)
By Christmas 1914, the World War had fallen into stalemate. There was a trench --- the earliest symbol of the new viciousness of war --- that ran from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Or rather two trenches: one on the German side, the other on the Allied side.

One doesn't want wars to go on too long; each side stiffens into the bitterness born of horror stories; it makes truce impossible. But a few months after the start that hardening of the heart had not yet taken place among the common soldiers.

"The Christmas Truce" was precipitated on December 24, 1914 by the Germans and Austrians and quickly welcomed by the English : soldiers and officers began to emerge from their hiding places, meeting together in No Man's Land to bury the dead, exchange gifts, complain to each other that the war was silly, (something that took their leaders four more years to discover).

Soccer games were played between the barbed-wire fences, tobacco and tea and cookies were handed back and forth, improvised races were organized, and there was a joining together to chase after (and cook) the rabbits that survived in the near-by cabbage patches. Some ventured far into "enemy" territory --- in one case, an Englishman was entertained with beer and good conversation in a distant house that his side was said to have destroyed weeks earlier. It was a strange, brief joining: imagine the Iraqi and Americans soldiers taking a night off from murdering each other to celebrate their commonality and smoke a couple of joints in defiance of their gimlet-eyed commanders.

It was a strange moment in the annals of warfare, one that, back at headquarters, reeked of, at best, cowardice, at worst, treason. Dispatches were quickly sent out from the high command to stop at once --- to make war, not love --- and within a matter of days, the friendship between the two sides was a thing of the past, never to be repeated during the subsequent brutal years.

§     §     §

I woke up the other morning with Wilfred Owen's lovely lines going through my head:

    What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
         Only the monstrous angers of the guns.
         Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
    Can patter out their hasty orisons.

World War One is fascinating for many of us because for Eastern and Western Europe and America --- indeed, for much of the world --- it was the break-point. It was called "The War to End All Wars" --- and yet it was a most destructive conflagration, skewing an entire political and social system that we think of as "Western Civilization," fomenting Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini, creating in its wake, over the next thirty years, some 60,000,000 dead (of starvation; of bullets; of mass murder). "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster," said Nietzsche. The monsters both won and lost --- and two generations of English, German, French, Russians, Spanish, Polish, Italian, Hungarians and those of countless smaller nations had to yield up their best and their brightest. We are still stuck with the consequences.

§     §     §

Mr. Weintraub has produced a light-weight historical document. His tale would fit nicely as a short reportorial article in The New Yorker, or Harper's. It is a wonder when common folk erupt from their trenches (the author calls it "a populist uprising") and play together for a few hours and make up songs to go along with their escapade:

    Living it up, living it up
    The best way that we can,
    On bully beef and biscuits
    and pots of Tickler's jam,
    Machonochie's and Bovril ---
    It really will be grand.
    Doing the military two-step
    With the Boche in No Man's Land.

But once you have gotten through the singularity of it, what more is there to say?

The author goes into a long discourse of what might-have-been if the truce stuck.

    Germany might have become a prosperous, mildly socialist, constitutional Wilhelmine monarchy --- in time, a republic --- with Hitler an obscure demobilized corporal in a sea of discharged soldiers for whom the industrious nation would have found postwar work. The catastrophe of post-Versailles inflation need not have happened, not its devastating economic political aftermath.

This is trivial speculation, on the order of wondering what would have happened had Hitler's wound received in the trenches been serious enough to kill him. I would suggest that determinism is not to be thwarted: the anger of those who survived the war, especially on the German side, would, in one way or another, have produced a Hitler, one perhaps more ghastly (if such is possible) --- one who may well have had the sense to push for the development of atomic weapons that would have finished the war early on, with a completely different outcome. This diddling about with the crapshoot of history (what Faulkner called "the dark diceman") is good fun, but it is no more than idle sport.

The real tragedy to be found in Silent Night is not the might-have-been, but the pictures. The photographs of British and Germans together in No Man's Land stir feelings of powerful regret. It was a moment when men --- mostly the same age, with mostly the same backgrounds --- were united, not as bitter enemies, but as humans, mourning together the folly of nation-states who then, as now, have nothing better to do than send their youngest flower out to murder each other in the field --- their elders looking on, nodding their approval of the carnage.

--- Lolita Lark


Mygale
Thierry Jonquet
Donald Nicholson-Smith,
Translator

(City Lights Noir)
Mygale is a plastic surgeon in Paris. His daughter gets raped, so he spends a couple of years tracking down the perpetuator. After nabbing him, instead of turning him over to the police, he (yuck!) operates. Vincent Moreau becomes Eve, and is required to perform certain acts behind a one-way mirror with pick-ups for the delectation of Mygale, also known as Dr. LaFarge.

Meanwhile, the other rapist, Alex, still at large, shoots a policeman, and decides he has to get his face changed over to a nicer, more loving visage. Who does he want to do it? Right --- Mygale. So he kidnaps Eve, not knowing that she, or rather, he, is his old side-kick. Eve gets chained up, and Alex informs Mygale that "his wife" is going to stay in chains until he gets rid of Alex's double chin and beefy nose. The good doctor puts Alex under and, guess what? --- chains him back where Eve neé Vincent used to whimper and beg and befoul himself like an animal.

I guess this one is good for an evening's entertainment. The writing is of a style made popular by the likes of Mickey Spillaine and Ian Fleming. The author, when he isn't making us nauseous over the sex-change operations, writes books for kiddies. We would hope they are somewhat more gentle than this ... what we used to call (in the old days) ... "pot-boiler."

--- S. J. Raskin


Choosing
The Right
College

The Whole Truth
About America's
Top Schools

Winfield J. C. Myers, Editor
(Eerdmans)
This fat directory --- almost 800 pages --- concentrates on the hundred or so top colleges in America. This means we get Yale and Princeton and Harvard and Smith and Stanford, but, too, Bates, Bowdin, Hillsdale, Grove City College and Hampden-Sydney College.

Each institution gets six or seven pages, including location, total enrollment, SAT ranges, deadlines, tuition, and contacts. There is an introductory paragraph, then a page or so each on "Academic Life," Political Atmosphere," and "Student Life."

The writing is lively and opinionated. The best teachers are listed, along with information about the various departments, with details on whether the departments are "politicized." The emphasis seems to be on "traditional" or "core" education; the editors aren't very keen about "multicultural" curricula. For example, out of the thousands of courses available at University of California (Berkeley), they choose to highlight "Interpreting the Queer Past," "Cultural Representations of Sexualities: Queer Vision Culture," and "Sexuality, Culture and Colonialism."

The notes on Middlebury College praise "a rigorous curriculum" but complain about "fluffy, upper-level options in sociology and anthropology." The conclusion: "Middlebury is a rarity in higher education today in that multiculturalist talk seems to be waning rather than gathering strength." Pepperdine gets high marks, but one student complained about having to watch the film Roger and Me.

Princeton is praised for offering "a valuable degree along with plenty of intellectual and moral challenges." However, it "harbors a small yet vocal faction of radical students who can rely on the 'tolerant' ethos of the modern university to bully their colleagues into silence."

    One professor says, students who "seek out small courses, of which there are plenty, and departments that are not overburdened" will "get an absolutely first-rate education." The key is to know where to look, what to avoid, and what to expect. The place is, after all, Princeton.

The editors devote several paragraphs to Princeton's controversial bioethicist Peter Singer, and the various demonstrations that greeted his appointment. But they note that, despite his believing that "humans are not privileged creatures," Singer wrote "a positive review on a book about bestiality... claiming that 'mutually satisfying activities may develop' between owners and their pets." In case we're too dumb to get it, they add: i.e., bestiality.

§     §     §

Some of the entries here can be grating. Reed College, a fine institution, is pilloried in puzzling language:

    Reed seems more interested in providing students with raw material that can later be consumed in the fires of the ideological furnace... If Reed has a characteristic fault, it is that there is too much learning for learning's sake, and not enough for the sake of truth.

Eh?

Even so, if I knew someone who had a chance to get into one of the better colleges in the United States, I would recommend this book to him or her without hesitation. I like the expansiveness of it, the fact that each of these 109 colleges has been visited, students and faculty and staff interviewed, and that there are opinions --- no matter how tart --- on each of them.

I even like their emphasis on traditional university teaching. I am one of those people who went to college fifty years ago (my school is here described as "a small, elite institution"). I have come over the years to value the traditional courses I was forced to take, classes in Shakespeare, Locke, Biology, Chaucer, Hume, Comparative Religion, Dickens, Economics, Homer, and Sociology. Our required courses were equally balanced between the humanities and science.

It was tough sledding for someone as ill-prepared as I was, but looking back on it from this mountain of years and experience, I value the fact that the school showed me how to look for the gimmicks, to ascertain how to do anything I wanted to do with my life: to become a stockbroker, doctor, lawyer, professor, scientist or --- in my case --- a general layabout.

Most of this multiculturism business leaves me cold, as it does these editors. By my lights, the wrongs of America do not have to be yanked out of context and shoved in our faces to make us aware of the intolerance, bigotry, and cant that were part of the early history of this country and Western civilization.

If Eerdmans plans to put out a new edition of this book anytime soon, I do have one suggestion. I'd recommend that they drop the Introduction by William J. Bennett --- yes, that William J, Bennett --- like a hot potato. Unless they plan to include an entry for College #110: the University of Nevada.

--- Ignacio Schwartz