This is how one survivor, Dr. George L. Barry, who at the time was a 28-year-old surgeon in the 91st Division of the U.S. Army, which on the eve of Nov. 11, 1918, was ordered to the front for a possible move against the Germans, recalled the day:
"Dear Al, This day will go down in history, for at this hour, French time, all hostilities ceased."
Nobody fired a rifle. Nobody lobbed a grenade. Nobody sent off a mortar round.
Maybe it was quiet.
Maybe you could hear the young men in the opposing trenches talking.
The war was over. 20 million casualties, 40 million civilian and military deaths by some of the very gruesomest methods devised. Over. Done with. This was the war that would surely, surely end all wars. Let's go home.
It is probably not a coincidence that 11/11, 11:11 was chosen to stop fighting. Yes, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated two days earlier, taking with him once and for all the fashion of handle-bar mustaches. But 11/11, 11:11 happens to be the exact moment in that part of Europe, when preparations for Carnivale/Karnival/Fasching/Fastnacht, the pre-Lent time of celebration which culminates on Ash Wednesday, may begin. Only once the clock strikes that eleventh minute past the eleventh hour on this eleventh day of the elventh month, may you begin working on your costume or meet with your Carnivale club or prepare your float for the parade. Not one minute earlier.
The week of Carnivale in Europe, especially in Germany, has another function. It is a week when traditions and routines and biases and conventions are turned on their head. And in doing so, perhaps those traditions, routines, biases and conventions are also put into question. During that week, the formal "Sie" form of address is tossed aside and everyone is suddenly "du", a form normally reserved for only family and close friends. Other times of the year, the move from "Sie" to "du" can almost become an unwritten adoption agreement when you drink a shot of schnapps together with arms linked, called a "Bruderschaft" ("brotherhood"). During Fasching, you may call your boss by his first name, address your grumpy old neighbor like he was your high school chum, perfect strangers, and so forth and so on. This is a big deal: You simply do not call someone by their first name. During my yuppie years, when I was in meetings with Germans and Americans and the languages switched between German and English, while speaking German, the German managers would address each other with their honorific, Herr This, Dr. That, Frau Professor Doktor This and That. And when these same individuals switched to English, they would call those same colleagues Horst, Herman und Hildegardt. Don't ask me: It's a German thing. During Fasching, you are also supposed to lay aside your quarrels and squabbles, at least for that week. Those stodgy Lutherans tossed aside Carnival, because the celebrations do have pagan, pre-Christian origins. Martin Luther also enjoyed a good party any time of the year. Whatever the origins, Christian, pagan or otherwise, I think at some level the people would follow the moon during the coldest times, would look to their fellow villagers and say, well, it's the dead of winter. It's cold and it's difficult. If we're going to make it to spring, we'd better try and get along, at least for a little while.
I can imagine that the French, Belgians and Germans on that battlefield, young, young men who likely hadn't shaved more than a couple of years, were thinking this is really horrible, really difficult. Maybe we can toss these guns and this mustard gas aside. Maybe we can turn convention and prejudice and ambition and blind patriotism and violence on its head. Maybe this minute can be the beginning of the end. Maybe by Carnivale we enemies can be friends. Or maybe not quite friends, but we'll drink a beer together. Maybe we will be able to forgive.
Nic asked us to post something for which we are grateful. My list is long, long, long, long. But I'm just going to just mention forgiveness: for when I have been forgiven, for my own ability to forgive (not perfect, but I'm working on it) and for forgiveness in general. Forgiveness is magic. Really. Forgiveness stopped all war in most of Europe. Forgiveness is a conscious action and must be done with no strings attached. Forgiveness releases the forgiver of the huge burden of resentment and revenge. Ever had that feeling? You just say, "I'm forgiving you" and you feel like a weight has been lifted? "Eye for an eye?" Why that? Now we're both half blind. Forgiveness is freedom, I think.
The Great War soon was rechristened World War I. The war did not end all wars. But it did end. It appears that the military involvement in Iraq has an end almost in sight. Way off, and kind of hazy, but there is an end. I want to wish the families with members of the military a beautiful Veterans' Day.