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December 20, 2014
Just in case you don’t know what to do over Christmas, you can still book the ‘Christmas Truce Centenary Tour’ from 23 to 27 December sold by the Edinburgh-based tour operators Mercat Tours. The programme includes of course a football match on the Flanders fields where the famous Christmas Truce matches between British and German soldiers are supposed to have taken place.
Two years ago, I asked the question ‘Did the Brits and the Germans really play football on Christmas eve 1914?’. I came to the conclusion that despite the absence of clear evidence, it was possible to answer with a prudent ‘probably yes’. But the question, already at that time, was not so much whether the matches had been a historical fact, but rather what of memory would make of this endearing story. Even if they never really happened as imagined in Michale Foreman’s lovely children’s novel (1989) or in the 2005 French movie ‘Joyeux Noël’ by Christian Carion (see trailer here), our desire to commemorate a moment of humanism in the nightmare of the World War trenches simply wanted the story to be true.
In a few years, memory will have replaced history altogether. The commemoration craze of 2014 cannot afford to have doubts. A recent book by a Belgian journalist appears to have ‘irrefutable’ new sources, quoting the notes of the German soldiers Johannes Niemann and Kurt Zehmisch. And now that the small Flemish town of Ploegsteert has made the memory even more concrete in a momument that was officially inaugurated on 11 December by Michel Platini himself, the Christmas Truce has irrevovably become the Christmas Truth.
What a wonderful contemporary case study for the construction of a lieu de mémoire ? All it takes is a stort that is too good not to be true, a strong collective desire to celebrate human beings rather than war heroes, and a fast-growing sector of commemorative tourism that allows local politicians to combine sincere humanistic beliefs with economic potential.
If the future visitors of the football monument at Ploegsteert also take the time to visit, for instance, the excellent exhibition in the huge Cloth Hall of Ypres and one of the numerous cemetaries that cover Flanders, the Christmas Truce story will have contributed to a good history lesson.
To anybody interested in the history (not memory) of sport, I would personally recommend the Langemark cemetary, which gives evidence to how thousands of Prussian students, entire ‘Studentenschaften’ deeply nationalised by the ‘Turnen’ movement, happily volunteered to get slaughtered in what they no doubt believed would be a kind of great sports event. They were told they would be home by Christmas. But a hundred years later, they’re still in Flanders.
The proximity of Ploegsteert and Langemark – a mere 30-minute drive – is an excellent illustration for the fact that sport is neither essentially good nor bad. It is what the circumstances, the zeitgeist, and the dominant discourse make of it.