Did you know that, on Christmas Day 100 years ago, across the trenches of the First World War there were numerous brief truces in which British and German troops met in No Man’s Land? If you didn’t before, you doubtless do now; there’s been a football match, an RSC play, and even her Majesty gave it a conspicuous mention in her festive speech.
A Sainsbury’s advert nobly led the charge in ensuring this particular moment in British history does not slip from our national consciousness. And in case you wanted to feel closer to those men in the trenches, who intrepidly stepped out to meet their foes in the depths of winter, in the run up to Christmasyou could buy a bar of chocolate from the aforementioned retailers for the meagre price of one pound.
Has there ever been a more apt metaphor for sugar-coated memory?
Unless your sarcasm sensor is switched off, you’ve probably worked out that I’m not overly keen on this year’s celebration of the Christmas Truce. As it turns out, I’m not alone, particularly with regards to the Sainsbury’s ad.
Charlie Brooker, as you might imagine, is not a fan. In a tone far more sardonic than my own, he describes it as a ‘tear-jerking period piece in which a perfectly good war is ruined by a tragic outbreak of football’. Surprisingly, the Telegraph’s Andrew Critchlow is an unexpected ally, and writes of the supermarket that, ‘by dramatizing the 1914 First World War truce between the “Tommy” and “Boche” soldiers to sell us more mince pies and turkey this Christmas, it has gone too far’. Indeed, few news sources have not featured some kind of piece on the ad; even my beloved Eastern Daily Press (source of all the best Canaries-related news) has seen fit to comment. Although it, in fact, is in favour.
How, then, to contribute something new to the conversation? One of my issues is primarily ideological. The capitalist exploitation of the memory of one of the most brutal moments in modern history bothers me. The short-lived Christmas Truce represents a more palatable memory of the ‘Great War’ than that of Europe’s first industrialised conflicts that claimed millions of lives, and is therefore far more saleable.
Sainsbury’s may have given all the proceeds from their chocolate to the British Legion, but that doesn’t change the fact that their greatest hope was that each person who bought a bar would also buy a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk. And who knows how many Christmas dinners were sourced from Sainsbury’s, solely as the result of a bright blue chocolate bar?
You can dip marketing in milk chocolate and wrap it in pretty blue paper all you like. It’s still marketing.
But then, that argument has been well-worn already. So what can an academic perspective, and more specifically that of a student in languages, bring to the table? Well, Sebastian Borger’s piece is a good place to start. As a London-based German writer for the Berliner Zeitung, he points to the cultural differences between Britain and Germany as critical in understanding how such an advert could come to be produced.
Where the UK continues to celebrate the military establishment, he feels that, as a German today, he is more conscious of the brutal reality of war that goes beyond the rhetoric of ‘heroes’ and ‘sacrifice’ that still proves popular in the UK. Noting that the proceeds of the Legion’s campaign might go towards helping victims of our most recent war in Afghanistan, he writes, ‘The syrupy slogan “Christmas is for sharing” doesn’t even come close’.
But I think we can go further. Reading a foreign writer’s perspective on our festive television made me realise how little interest we take in the other side of the story. In my view, one of the key issues with the Sainsbury’s advert is that it stakes the British claim on the memory of the Christmas Truce.
Sure, it features German soldier (an oh-so-stereotypical Otto), a German carol and a friendly game of football (which apparently ends all square at 1-1). But it is a robin, an almost exclusively English symbol of Christmas, that prompts the impromptu fraternisation. And it is British chocolate, secreted away as a gift to a hungry German, that seals this moment of humanity in the midst of an inhuman war.
Make no mistake, the Sainsbury’s ad makes the Christmas Truce a very British victory. It takes it out of its brutal context, fills it with sugar, wraps it up in a homogenised packaging and, as plain as ‘Made at 173 Drury Lane, London’, stamps ‘We woz ere’ all over it. How is any German to argue with that?
If the memory of the First World War is to become anything more significant than a patriotic rallying cry that divides us from our European neighbours, it needs become a dialogue. It needs to be a melting pot, in which diverse voices are all heard; not just our own, not just those of our allies, not even just those of other Europeans, but those of hundreds of nationalities, all of whom lost countless lives to a senseless war.
The memory of the First World War will always be bitter, unpalatable and confusing. But anything else is a tragic disservice.