A 100 years since a Christmas of uncertainty and hope

by Norbert Rebow

Last month the world marked the centenary of the end of the war that many contemporaries had thought would be over by Christmas 1914, but in fact lasted more than four years. Christmas 1918 was thus the first to be celebrated after the signing of the armistice with people across Europe and the globe having to face a world that had changed dramatically over the previous four years – and was continuing to do so. Let us take a look at that first postwar Christmas and how it compares to Europe almost three-quarters of a century since the last major war, and over a quarter since the constraints of the Cold War were lifted from the continent.

The first question to ask is who was in Europe at Christmas 1918 and with whom they were spending this festive season. The war brought soldiers from around the globe to fight or support the effort. This included troops of armed forces of non-European states such as the US Army on the Western Front and a squadron the Japanese Imperial Navy operating in the Mediterranean [1]. It also consisted of a 140,000 strong Chinese Labour Corps as well as forces and support services from the colonies and dominions of the European imperial powers. Over the course of the war, a million men from French and British possessions had served on the western front [2]. Some European soldiers were able to celebrate Christmas at home with families, as the process of demobilization began, though the demands of complex logistics and of an unstable world kept conscripts at arms for another year. Allied soldiers that had been captured and held as prisoner of war camps in Germany, began returning home with some 576,000 being repatriated in December 1918[3].

What were the challenges and uncertainties that Europe faced as 1918 drew to a close? In short, it was a time that demanded great resilience. 1918 saw the outbreak of the Spanish Flu pandemic. A number of regions, especially those in central Europe, faced food shortages. The case of Vienna is of particular interest – the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire left one of the largest cities on the continent cut off from its sources of food supply [4]. Furthermore, the main war may have concluded, but old fault lines were invigorated and new conflicts arose. In Germany the survival of the newly established Weimar Republic was in question and in Russia civil war had already begun. The nations between them, however, were able to celebrate recovered or newfound freedom, though independence immediately brought with it the competition over claims between different people and diverse political visions for their futures.

It was undeniably a Christmas of crisis, but it was also a time of new beginnings. The war had powerful effects that laid the foundation for how we conceive Europe and the world today. With the Paris Peace Conference set to begin in January 1919, the last days of 1918 saw the beginning of the arrival of the representatives of Allied states and of people’s aspiring to statehood in the French capital. US President Woodrow Wilson was insisting on the peace being built on the basis of national self-determination which encouraged this particularly multinational environment at this time. In a world of uncertainties, the upcoming peace conference seemed, at least to some, to have the potential to right wrongs. The respect for smaller nations and the idea of multilateral cooperation and permanent international institutions as embodied in the League of Nations may have failed in the 1930s but they underpin international, and especially European, cooperation today. The end of the war also saw a democratization of the continent as voting rights were expanded. To name but a few examples – the 1918 elections in the Netherlands were the first held under a universal male franchise, in Britain the general election held in December 1918 was the first at which women had the right to vote and in the first days of independence, Poland instituted universal suffrage.

Christmas 1918 was, therefore, characterized by a striking blend of pain, conflict, hope and reunion and the events of this period laid a foundation for the lives of general peace and freedom that we enjoy in Europe today. As the centenary commemorations of the First World War come to an end, we must make sure we keep remembering those past sacrifices that still shape this continent and the world.


Sources used in this article:

  1. ERIC JOHNSTON, ‘Japan’s little-known, but significant, role in World War I’, 2017, retrieved from: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/05/09/national/history/japans-little-known-significant-role-world-war/#.XBLc3GhKjIU
  2. SANTANU DAS, ‘Experiences of colonial troops’, 2014,  retrieved from: https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/colonial-troops#,
  3. https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/soldiers/a-soldiers-life-1914-1918/demobilisation-and-discharge/
  4. PATRICIA CLAVIN; The Austrian hunger crisis and the genesis of international organization after the First World War, International Affairs, Volume 90, Issue 2, 2014, Pages 265–278.