By John V. Denson
This article is adapted from this December 2015 Mises Weekends interview.
Jeff Deist: Our guest this weekend is in the studio with me. He’s Judge John Denson, a great war historian and a lawyer who helped Lew Rockwell found the Mises Institute right here in Auburn in the early 1980s.
You know, John, there are varying accounts of what happened. Depends on who you read and you can’t really ask anyone because none of the participants are alive today or very few. How widespread do you think it really was and do we make more of the Christmas Truce than we ought to because it’s so hopeful, in other words, it’s something we want to believe in.
John Denson: Well, I do recognize that there are various accounts of it and one reason I like the book Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub is I think he goes to original sources. It’s all from a British viewpoint because he went back to letters, from the front to home, to their mothers and fathers by soldiers who were actually there and diaries of eyewitnesses.
There’s a French movie called Joyeux Noel, from a French viewpoint but I doubt his sources are as good because in Weintraub, who is a very well-respected historian and is an Emeritus Professor of Arts and Humanities at Penn State. He’s written a lot of military history and he goes to original sources and he says that the French and the Belgians were not as prone toward the troops as the English were. They were fighting this war on the French soil and Belgian soil and the British just came across the channel, so I think there was a different viewpoint. So, you get different perspectives depending on who’s telling this story, but I think Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub came out in 2001, is a very accurate source, from what I can tell.
Deist: Well, you mentioned that the German and British soldiers saw the war a little differently. It was not being fought in their homeland, they weren’t French. But something that’s so significant to me is you mentioned in your article from which we excerpted in our Mises Daily yesterday, you say the British and French soldiers, however, saw little meaning in the war. To them, after all, the British king and the German Kaiser were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. So, this is such an astonishing fact, that the threat that would be posed to the establishment, to the generals, and the politicians by having rank and file soldiers, sort of awakened to the idea of the preposterousness of the war.
Denson: And Weintraub also states — which I include in my review that you’re going to publish — that about 80,000 Germans went to England before World War I to get jobs. They were cab drivers working in restaurants as cooks and waiters and so forth and they well understood the English language, so there was no language barrier between a lot of them because they spoke very good English. So, when they had the truce and began to play football on Christmas day and sing, they were singing the songs in English and reciting the 23rd Psalm in English, so there was easy communication.
Deist: And with all this commonality, why are we fighting, might be our question. Right?
Deist: Well, let me ask you this. Obviously, at the time, we could understand why the brass would want to tamp this down and to stop this from spreading, but do you sense that even today, all these many years later, that there is an effort to sort of suppress the importance of the Christmas Truce and what it meant? Do you think even today, like these sort of war hungry neo-conservative types, don’t want the Christmas Truce to be widely discussed?
Denson: I think that’s true and I think that was exactly what they tried to do at the time of the truce. There was an actual order issued on Christmas Eve by Brigadier General Forrester Walker and he said, to forbid any fraternization, for it discourages initiative in commandos and destroys offensive spirit in all ranks. Free intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistice and exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited under the threat of court martial. Anybody that fraternized and they just did it anyway and the officers couldn’t stop it. And then the officers participated, so you don’t want to develop good feelings in the Christian spirit during war time.
Deist: One thing that’s so remarkable about the Christmas Truce is this whole question of what might have happened if the truce had spread and this had caused the war to end earlier or be somehow limited. Weintraub addresses this in his book. We may not have had the rise of communism, the Russian Revolution and Stalin and Lenin, we certainly would not have had Versailles. As a result, we might not have had Hitler or Nazism or maybe even FDR. I mean, it’s remarkable to think about, isn’t it?
Denson: That’s right and that’s counterfactual history at its best. Weintraub, in his last chapter, entitled “What If,” points out that he thinks … and of course this is speculation, counterfactual history … that if we had had no Russian Revolution, we wouldn’t have gotten to that point where communism took over, no Lenin, no Stalin, there would be no Treaty of Versailles, mistreated Germany, therefore Hitler would not have had his cause to rise and no Hitler and Nazism and World War II, as I have argued in the past, World War II was simply a continuation of World War I with a truce, and World War I was to see if you could remake the world to benefit the English, the British, and the Russian Czar. World War II was to see if you could keep it that way, what they’d done in World War I. So, it would have changed the whole history, in my opinion, of the twentieth century. And, we are still in the Middle East, suffering the results of the treaties that ended World War I. I mean, the treaties that created Iraq, tried to give Syria to the French, and Israel was created in the middle of an Arab world and it’s still a problem that was created by the World War I treaties. So, all of that, the whole twentieth century, I think, would have been completely different, if it could have ended, say when the troops stopped at Christmas of 1914. It’s amazing to think about that.
Deist: Well, you mentioned counterfactual history. Let me ask you, how did you, as a practicing lawyer, later a judge here in Alabama, become interested in historical revisionism and begin to study the history of war?
Denson: Well, I started out with really, no particular interest in war. I do remember being in high school and thinking about being in the Korean War in the 50s and I was surprised to hear Senator Robert Taft when he was running for the Republican nomination say it was an unconstitutional war. And I thought to myself, you know, I may have to fight in this war and it violates the constitution. But, it all died out and I went to law school at NYU and I heard John Kenneth Galbraith give a speech to the student body there. It was during the Kennedy-Nixon campaign and debates and so forth. And I got really interested in all that in 1960. And he made a statement that, you know, there are still Neanderthals that believe that you should have a balanced budget and everybody laughed. And I thought, whoa, wait a minute, I must be a Neanderthal.
Deist: So, your time at NYU did not turn you into a Galbraithian.
Denson: No. And an odd thing occurred. I had a lot of relatives there from Alabama practicing law and a brother that lived there and I was introduced to a new cousin named John Denson, who was editor of the New York Herald Tribune. I had lunch with him and I told him about this speech by Galbraith and I said, I took economics, but it taught me that free market failure caused the Great Depression and that’s why we needed government regulation. He said, I’ve got a close personal friend who wrote the best book that’s ever been written. His name is Henry Hazlett. John had been editor of Newsweek and he had hired Hazlett and Walter Lippmann to give different viewpoints. So, Economics in One Lesson started me off. And then I got to the Ayn Rand group and they were recommending Henry Hazlitt and Mises and that’s how I got to Mises and then through Mises I got to the Foundation on Economic Education, FEE.
And the thing that really got me into the military issue was an organization called Ramparts College and it sounded like Galt’s Gulch in Colorado. And they had university programs much like Mises Institute. You’d go there for a week or two weeks and they’d bring in speakers. They brought in Murray Rothbard, they brought in Mises himself, he taught there and they had these tapes and a whole book on history. And if I recall correctly, the first military history I read on revisionism was by Percy Greaves. And he had been hired after the end of World War II, to do the research for the Republicans on Pearl Harbor.
It had been a fixed thing to blame the command, how the commanders messed up, prohibited any investigation of what was going on in Washington. So, he gave this speech that the whole thing was provoked by Roosevelt’s actions and it just blew my mind. I thought, my gosh, why have I never heard this before? And so then I went back and got some of the other history courses at Ramparts and that introduced me to what I would say the Golden Age of Revisionism after World War I. Harry Elmer Barnes and Charles Tansill and Charles Beard, just wrote devastating attacks on why America should not have been in World War I and why World War I was a horrible thing. And it just blew my mind. I said, why have I never been taught this in college? I took history that taught me that the Civil War was for the purpose of abolishing slavery and World War I was for the purpose of setting up the League of Nations and ending all war and Americans destroyed that by not adopting it and World War II was to wipe out the world threat of Hitler and I just began to say, you know, this is a whole new world. And so military revisionism is a very, very important subject and the theme of my book, A Century of War, and I think it is the key to future peace. If people begin to learn the truth about why we go to war and learn what the true effects of it are, and how horrible it is, that things are hidden from them, most American people don’t know about the horror of war because they didn’t drop atomic bombs on us, they didn’t bomb all the cities like they did in Germany and Japan. So, I think revision, especially as to war, is a key element for the future of peace.
Deist: John, one of the things you say in the preface to your book, A Century of War, is that we tend to think of history as this static set of facts, but in truth, history is constantly being revealed to us because we don’t always have accurate information from the time and sometimes what develops is that what we thought is the truth is not necessarily the truth.
Denson: That’s exactly right. I’ve told people, given this example that much of history is like a murder trial. You’ve got a murder, got one event, a murder. And you’ve got the prosecution that’s telling you that here is my interpretation, the man’s guilty. You’ve got the defense saying, no, he’s innocent and it goes to a jury verdict and the jury decides one way or the other, but it’s the winning side that gets to tell the story. And it may not be the truth. All jury verdicts are not exactly accurate and you don’t hear the other side. So, that’s the way history gets written is the winners tell the results and that’s why I think you’ve got so much falsehood about American Civil War, World War I, and World War II from an American perspective, since we won it we got to justify.
Deist: But, when you say the winners, you tend to mean the winning political class, the states involved.
Deist: And so perhaps a lot of what we know as history is actually false state propaganda of a sort.
Denson: Yes. You know, there’s an interesting quote in here. The British history officially came out in 1926 and indicated the Christmas Truce was just a minor incident, an event, but it was during the House of Commons debate in March 31, 1920 and H. Kingsley Wood, a cabinet minister, got up and made a speech and he said, he had been in the trenches, he said in the front trenches in Christmas 1914 and he said, I took part in what was well known at the time as a truce. We went over in front of the trenches and shook hands with many of our German enemies and a great number of people and I think we did something that was degrading or wrong and refused to stop, he said, the fact is, we did it. And I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves, there never would have been another shot fired. For a fortnight, the troops went on and we were on the most friendly terms and it was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another again.
And he blamed the resumption of war on “the grip of the political system which was bad, and I and others who were there at the time, determined there and then, never to rest until we had seen whether we could change it.” And then it concludes. There are people that thrive on war, the military industrial complex and one of the results of the World War I revisionism showed that the people that do the armaments and make money off that, help cause war. There are people, bankers, that have an interest. JP Morgan had a big interest in America getting into World War I and he financed the British Army and that led to the passage of the Neutrality Acts, which tried to keep America out of future wars and Roosevelt kept trying to knock that down. And to me, the most revealing book about Pearl Harbor — in addition to Percy Greaves’s book — is the book Day of Deceit by Robert Stinnett because it shows that the hearings that were held right after Pearl Harbor contained much perjury. Witnesses were told not testify under oath. We actually knew where the Japanese were and when they were going to attack, in Washington and they were told to lie about that and they did under oath. And he found out all about that through the Freedom of Information Act. So, that people that are in control and certain elites that make money out of war have great influence on getting us into war and keeping us there.
Deist: It’s interesting how, so often it seems by the time the truth comes out, the perpetrators are long gone and we don’t know whether they get their just desserts or not.
Denson: Look at the Iraq War. I mean, everybody knows that it was a fabrication of the intelligence. It said that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and we now know that was a complete lie and yet, George W. Bush has not been held accountable. His advisors, the people that furnished false intelligence, nobody is held accountable for the errors that were made that killed thousands and thousands, even millions of people.
Deist: In fact, many of those same people are still appearing every night on CNN and Fox, etc. John, one last question for you. You wrote your book, A Century of War, obviously looking back, about the twentieth century and the tremendous horrors of World War I and World War II. Are you hopeful about the twenty-first century or do you think it will likewise be a century of total war?
Denson: Well, I did a podcast with Lew Rockwell where I quoted this wounded soldier of World War II saying that we’ve got to think about war in a different way. He said, look, we always had slavery for thousands of years, it was accepted by everybody, we’ve always had war, but then the nineteenth century comes along and slavery gets abolished and it was partly because of looking back at the Declaration of Independence that everybody had equal rights to life and liberty and the Industrial Revolution came along. So, there was a big change in circumstance and people and the only war that was fought even in the name of slavery was America, so there was a big change. He says now, let’s look at war in a different way and the big change that has occurred is nuclear weapons. We’ve got to see what nuclear weapons can do. We’ve got the ability to destroy western civilization and even all life. We’ve got enough weapons now, so it’s time to start thinking about war, the way people saw that you needed a change about slavery.
And so, I think we’ve got a chance because if people realize the ultimate threat of nuclear war, then they’ve got to realize we can’t just commit suicide, you’ve got to take another look. So, you know, I think it’s a possibility and the internet allows people to get past the barriers that have prevented knowledge in the past. The Council on Foreign Relations, one of its purposes was to keep from having revisionism after Roosevelt and World War II. So, I think that the truth can be there and there is a change in circumstance.
The way we view war is different now. When the Civil War started, people went out in their carriages to get on a hill so they could see the battle and it didn’t involve the civilians, or so they thought. I read recently, however, that there were 50,000 civilians in the South murdered and killed in the Civil War and now you can look at the bombing of Germany and Japan and see it’s a different kind of war now.