The original Huns were a tribe of nomadic horsemen from Central Asia who rode fast and fought hard.* When they reached Europe in the second half of the fourth century, the Huns triggered a mass migration of Germanic tribes that contributed to the fall of Rome in the fifth century. Under the leadership of Attila, they invaded Italy in 452–and were defeated by an alliance of Germanic tribes in 455.
The Huns may have been the barbarian’s barbarians, but they certainly weren’t Germanic. (Unlike the Vandals, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths and the Franks.) So who pinned the name “the Hun” on Germany as a term of abuse?
Ironically, it was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who first linked Germany to the Huns. Speaking in 1900 to German soldiers waiting to sail to China to help lift the siege of Peking in the Boxer Rebellion, Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops to fight “like the Huns under their King Attila a thousand years ago” so that “the name of Germany shall become known in China to such affect that no Chinaman will ever again dare so much as to look askance at a German.” Ruthless was the name of the game, according to the Kaiser: “Pardon will not be given, prisoners will not be taken. Whoever falles into your hands will fall to your sword.”
Way to go, Wilhelm! The Allies couldn’t have come up with a nastier description if they tried.
*Sometimes it seems like Central Asia had an inexhaustible supply of armed horsemen ready to ride across the Russian steppes or the Hindu Kush and change history. Think Ghengis Khan’s Mongol hordes.
For most of us, the most vivid images of World War I are the trenches on the Western front. Men dug into positions on either side of a no-man’s land of craters and burned out buildings. Barbed wire and sandbags provided little protection from enemy shelling or snipers; they provided no protection from rats, lice, flooding, or the dreaded “trench foot”. The battlefields were noxious with the smell of rotting corpses, overflowing latrines and poison gas fumes.
Trench warfare was hell. It also made possible one of the most extraordinary events of the war: the unofficial Christmas armistice of 1914. The truce began when some German troops decorated their trenches with candles and Christmas trees and sang carols. British troops responded with carols of their own. On Christmas Day, some groups ventured into “no-man’s land” to share food, sing carols, hold joint services for their dead and play soccer matches.
One German soldier, Josef Wenzel, described the scene in a letter to his parents:
One Englishman was playing on the harmonica of a German lad, some were dancing, while others were proud as peacocks to wear German helmets on their heads. The British burst into a song with a carol, to which we replied with “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. It was a very moving moment–hated and embittered enemies were singing carols around the Christmas tree. All my life I will never forget that sight.
It is estimated that 100,000 men took part in the Christmas truce. In some places, the truce lasted only through Christmas day. In others, it lasted until New Year’s Day. In some sectors, the war continued unabated.
The Christmas truce did not recur in 1915. Both the British and the German high commands were appalled at the blatant fraternization with the enemy and gave strict orders against future incidents. After all, how do you fight a war if the men at the front decide not to fight?
Peace on earth, good will to men.
My friend Nancy Friesen brought this lovely version of the story to my attention:
If you’re in Chicago between now and January 22, or are close enough that you can get here with no difficulty, I strongly recommend you get tickets to Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Elizabeth Rex by Canadian playwright Timothy Findley. *
Findley builds his story on three historical facts:
- The Earl of Essex, a court favorite and rumored to be Elizabeth I’s lover, was beheaded for treason on Elizabeth’s order
- The day before he was beheaded, Elizabeth attended one of Shakespeare’s plays
- Men played women’s roles on the Elizabethan stage.
The result in a breathtaking riff on gender, power, love, poetry, and history. And it has a bear.
What are you waiting for?
* If you can’t make it to Chicago, track down the DVD of the 2004 television adaptation. Diane D’Aquila plays Elizabeth in both productions.