One of the greatest war movies ever made is Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir’s 1937 film about a group of French prisoners of war held in a German aristocrat’s castle during World War I.
In the climactic moment of the film (spoilers ahead), the German baron Von Rauffenstein corners the French officer de Boeldieu in the midst of an escape attempt and pleads with his French counterpart to surrender himself.
They’re both of upper-class background, and although the officers have developed a grudging mutual respect that occasionally verges on actual friendship, they each understand that there are rules and protocol that they have no choice but to follow in such a situation, even without any commanding officers present. Boeldieu refuses to surrender. Von Rauffenstein reluctantly shoots him, almost as a formality.
“Grand Illusion” is about the belief that the prevailing rules and protocols of pre-war European society could blunt the horrifying realities of the conflict. As this scene demonstrates, the opposite ended up being true: The war overwhelmed those rules and exposed their illusory character. By 1918 the former European order, governed through centuries-old dynastic families and rigid social hierarchies, would be in ruins.
Similarly, in the end of “Grand Illusion,” the false edifice of honour and duty demolishes any sense of fellow-feeling between the film’s protagonists, and guarantees that the movie ends in an empty act of violence.
The Christmas Truce of 1914, in which German, British and French soldiers temporarily stopped fighting to celebrate the holiday, was another example of this grand illusion asserting itself. It represents the eclipse of a failed values system that was in the process of destroying itself and it should not be romanticized.
The European countries entered World War I believing the conflict would be over within a matter of months — the allied and central powers may never have rushed to war had they anticipated such a prolonged confrontation. The Christmas truce shows that by December 1914, the delusions of a quick, sanitised war hadn’t totally lifted. The fact that the armies believed that conflict could be halted for the niceties of mutual celebration only shows the depths of the sides’ denial.
The Christmas truce — after which the armies went right back to fighting one another, and which did nothing to actually advance the cause of peace — shows that on some level, the European powers still hadn’t reconciled themselves to the nature of the disaster they’d started. Like Boeldieu and Von Rauffenstein’s aristocratic code, the truce was illusion made manifest and a the last gasp of the bankrupt order that the Great War would violently upend.
Crucially, there was no truce in 1915. By 1916, poison gas was being used on European battlefields. By Christmas in 1918, over 16 million people had been killed in World War I. The most important legacy of the Christmas Truce, which has been memorialised in movies and remembered as evidence of mutual respect and humanity amidst the horrors of war, is that there was only one of them.
The illusions of an orderly and gentlemanly war that the event epitomized are thankfully a thing of the past, or at least less ingrained than they were in 1914. And the world is better off for it — better off for having fewer delusions about the brutal and often inhuman character of conflict.
This article was originally written by Armin Rosen.
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