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The 1914 Christmas truce

24 December 2014
by Guest author

1914 2014To mark the centenary of The First World War, we will be publishing a series of articles looking at what has changed over the last century in a number of domains. Today’s article is the third from Alan Whaites, team leader, Governance for Peace and Development at the OECD.

The Christmas truce of 1914 is one of the iconic moments of the First World War, soldiers on the Western Front took the initiative to suspend hostilities in order to meet, share rations and play football. Accounts of the events on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914 often refer to the singing of carols as a point of connection between the two sides. It seems that the power and symbolism of a religious festival that for many is associated with hope acted as a point of unity across divisions of nation and politics.

The truce is a rare positive reminder that identity is a powerful factor in many conflicts; too often identity is seen as the curse of conflict, the mechanism for division. Yet shared symbols, shared history and a sense of belonging to a group are simply the mediums through which ideas and ethics are transmitted. In his classic work Benedict Anderson described this sense of belonging as “imagined communities”, the bedrock of national identity and of the state itself.

Yes, of course the ties that bind can also divide and the phrase “conflict entrepreneurs” was coined to describe those adept at exploiting identity and sense of community for the purpose of individual or collective gain. In a report on a workshop on the issue Marina Ottaway noted that: “Conflict entrepreneurs often mobilize individuals through three general tactics: appeals to ethnic, religious, and/or ideological solidarity; patronage; and positive or negative promises regarding security.”

The vulnerability of identity to exploitation by conflict entrepreneurs creates a sense of pessimism about differentness and belief. In the Clash of Civilisations Samuel Huntington tells us that: “The philosophical assumptions, underlying values, social relations, customs, and overall outlooks on life differ significantly among civilizations. The revitalization of religion throughout much of the world is reinforcing these cultural differences.” Frances Stewart, however, warns against over-simplification: “Clearly, cultural differences alone are insufficient to cause violent conflict, given the large number of peaceful multicultural societies. Hence the many socio-economic and political explanations of conflict. Among these are horizontal inequalities (inequalities among culturally defined groups).”

Stewart’s work points to the need to also look at the power of political divisions. Particularly the role of social and economic problems that can either be harnessed to the mobilising potential of identity; or to those existing divisions that are visible through identity. After all consolidating the support of one constituency can often be discrimination against another, even to the extent of enshrining in law, constitutions and budgets the privileging of identity. These political divisions constructed through the medium of identity create the fuel for it to be instrumentalised by leaders in the context of conflict.

Ultimately this means that it is the choices that individuals make, as leaders, citizens and followers that matter. For this reason the work of those who explore “political settlements” has much to offer. Political settlement thinking recognises that If political leaders are willing to exploit identity for the purpose of conflict then that is likely to be for political gain – and this means political in its raw sense of access and use of power. Identity becomes a vehicle for controlling or destabilising the political settlement in question, but could equally be used to negotiate a more visibly inclusive process to manage power.

Sometimes caricatured as too elitist these studies have instead often pointed to ways in which relational dynamics and personal strategies for managing power make all the difference between peace and war. Political settlement thinking recognises that the strategies leaders use to relate to their constituencies matter, whether a society is deeply heterogeneous or not. Earlier this year Sarah Phillips outlined at the OECD the findings of her study on the Somaliland pointing to the way in which shared experience can play a positive role. Coupled with the work of others, such as Stefan Lindemann’s studies of several African countries, it suggests that the tactics adopted to include others in political settlements are crucial. Inclusive enough political settlements also need to be smart enough.

Choosing the smart rather than expedient path is the challenge. The positive and negative choices that leaders make have always been difficult to explain. Why are some leaders more willing than others to positively manage political settlements, rather than opting for the leverage of mobilisation and conflict entrepreneurialism? We all carry multiple identities around with us, and constantly weigh and prioritise these in the context of circumstances, opportunities and challenges. Yet while in the constant renegotiation and adaption of resilient political settlements these identities still surface and matter they are not usually instrumentalised as frameworks for discrimination and privilege. Research groups such as the Development Leadership Programme, ESID, and others are now chipping away at the issues of why some political settlements work in managing these processes, while others collapse.

The failure of leaders to manage these processes in 1914 provided a stark illustration of the cost when managing political settlements – including cross border ones – breaks down. It is therefore apt to remember that the ability of shared values and shared humanity to overcome those failures, shown momentarily at Christmas in the same year, is something that works on both identity and political settlements and it needs to be built on – not fear.

Useful links

OECD work on peacebuilding, statebuilding and security


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