Photo by The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The History

While the specific incidents and characters in Silent Night (and the film upon which it was based) are fictional, the historical background is an accurate reflection of actual events. As documented in Stanley Weintraub’s Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, the informal truce and fraternization was actually a widespread phenomenon, not confined to a single locale. In most cases the Germans were the ones who initiated the truce. As in the film and opera, music was often the initial force which brought the two sides together, as many of the Christmas carols sung by the Germans were also part of the French and British traditions, albeit in different languages.

Several events depicted in the film and opera reflect actual occurrences. An opera singer named Walter Kirchoff was sent to the front lines by the Kronprinz (though unlike his fictional counterpart, he was not a soldier), and it was his rendition of Silent Night which inspired a reaction from the opposing side (though the bagpipe accompaniment seems to be an example of poetic license). The extension of the truce for the burial of the dead is also factual. The friendly taunts (such as the Germans’ offer to get together after they conquered France) was real, as was the Scots’ taking offense at being called Englishmen. Both sides took part in the improvised soccer games. And there was an angry reaction from the military commanders on both sides when they heard about the fraternization. Among the critics of the fraternization, ominously, was a young solder named Adolf Hitler.

After the film was made, the director received a letter from a young woman who called herself a “grandchild of the fraternization.” Her grandfather was a German soldier who survived the war and afterwards traveled to France to visit a French soldier he had met during the truce. While there, he met and fell in love with a young Frenchwoman, whom he eventually married.

The decision to identify the German lieutenant as Jewish was justified by history. Prior to the rise of the Nazi party, German Jews considered themselves fully German and served in the military as well as partaking in all other aspects of German culture. For example, when Jewish immigrants to the U.S. early in the twentieth century were asked about their national identity, Eastern European Jews said “Jewish” and German Jews said “German.” There is a story – perhaps apocryphal – about a Jewish soldier killing another soldier in hand-to-hand combat and being emotionally shaken when he heard his victim recite the “Sh’ma” – the traditional Jewish declaration of faith.

One element of the film not included in the opera’s libretto is the documentation of the racism that was being promoted on both sides prior and during the war. The film opens with chilling scenes in which children of various nationalities address their school classes with speeches condemning the British and Germans as subhuman creatures, gleaned from actual historical records. Campbell felt that while this was an effective opening for the film, on the operatic stage it might be too “hokey and obvious” – not to mention the casting challenge this would pose. The film also includes a sermon given by the clergyman who replaces Father Palmer on the sacred duty to annihilate the German race – a speech taken word for word from an actual sermon preached to the troops in 1915.

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