Christmas is for Learning. We-Guild and the Christmas Truce

On Christmas day 1914, British and German troops fighting in France left their trenches and joined each other.
 In this article we are sharing with you what the Christmas Truce has to do with We-Guild.

What's the Christmas Truce?

On 31 December 1914, the front page of British newspapers reported an event that shocked the country. On Christmas day that year, just a few months after the official beginning of WWI, British and German troops left their trenches and joined each other at no man’s land.

There they played football, exchanged cigarettes and confraternized with the enemy.

Officers and high command were of course appalled at such ‘unpatriotic behaviour’, but fascination of the wider public with such an event has continued ever since. (Remember the controversy about Sainsbury’s ad commemorating the 100th anniversary of such an event?)

We know it does sound like the stuff of a fairy tale, but the Christmas truce did happen and in a way it has influenced how We-Guild works! Anyway, some people have argued about whether they really played football, but everyone agrees that there were plenty of different types of confraternizations happening at different points along no man’s land (though not everyone participated).

The Christmas truce has somehow influenced how We-Guild works

Photo by Mig_R via Flickr

One of the most fascinating aspects about this event is that it was not centrally planned or orchestrated. Pope Benedict XV did request leaders of the battling nations to hold a Christmas truce. He asked “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang“. But of course the leaders of the warring nations didn’t care.

Nevertheless, the soldiers themselves somehow fulfilled Benedict’s plea for kindness in a totally unofficial and spontaneous manner!

Photo by John M Burt via Flickr

Whether you’re a pacifist, a sociologist, anthropologist or psychologist or you’re just someone fascinated by this example of solidarity among people who were supposed to kill each other, one of the most interesting questions is how did this happen?

The Christmas truce wasn't unique

We could start by thinking of things that they had in common. It surely helped that both Germans and British troops were Christians and that many German soldiers spoke English so they could communicate with each other. But as much as such overlaps certainly made the Christmas truce more feasible, the Christmas truce becomes a bit less impressive if we consider something else that in a way is rather remarkable: that there were many instances of unofficial agreements between both sides to not kill each other on the trenches!

Photo by Quentin History via Flickr

For example, both sides would misfire on purpose to make their officers believe (the officers of course didn’t agree with such confraternization) that they were engaging in combat while in practice they were letting enemy troops live. In some sectors there were agreements to not shoot while men rested and there even was a case of a German soldier apologising to his English counterparts when some ambiguous shooting threatened to escalate things out of control:

“We are very sorry about that; we hope no one was hurt. It is not our fault, it is that damned Prussian artillery.” (Axelrod)

Live and let live

Such strategies between enemy troops have come to be labelled ‘live and let live’ and they have been studied for decades as a fascinating real example of spontaneously emerging cooperative strategies. However, live and let live became less frequent as WWI went on. Many explanations have been offered for this, with the main ones being that the war was gradually becoming cruder and more savage and also that the high command started enforcing a policy of frequent raiding of enemy positions that undermined the features that made live and let live possible.

How does the Christmas truce relate to We-Guild?

Glad you asked. Let’s focus on something else for a bit…

As you may know, We-Guild’s co-founders live or have lived in housing co-ops. We love, breathe and believe in co-ops and thus it’s no surprise that We-Guild is a platform co-operative.

At some point I (Guillermo) started looking into the literature on co-operation as a driving organisational force both in humans and in nature. The first book I came across was Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Co-operation.

In it there is a lot of stuff on ‘live and let live’ (within the context of WWI) as, in his opinion, it is one of the prime real-life examples that proves the premise of the book – that co-operative strategies can arise and spread even in the most hostile of environments if certain conditions are met.

The book is very much the research based on the famed Computer Prisoner’s Dilemma Tournament that Robert Axelrod organized in 1980, a sort of Robot Wars of Prisoner’s Dilemma fighting algorithms sent to Axelrod by mathematicians, political scientists, logicians… of the day.

This will be the subject of a different blog post but for a quick overview you can watch This Place’s superb video The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma and The Evolution of Cooperation or, for an even more gratifying, entertaining and educating experience, have a go at Nicky Case’s amazing interactive website The Evolution of Trust.

We-Guild and The Evolution of Co-operation

Axelrod’s research and the conclusions he reaches have strongly influenced the design of We-Guild. The main principle he elucidates from his research is:

Repeated interactions are essential to elicit co-operation even among strangers (who of course are not strangers once there’s been some interaction!)

So, even though there are no total strangers in We-Guild (the furthest ones are the trusted friends of your trusted friends), the principle of repeated interactions is there as your network will usually grow rather than change users (though that can happen too).

The members of your network will likely be a stable bunch! Then, the more you help the members of your network (and vice versa), the more repeated such interactions will be and the more likely a culture of co-operation will arise.

Basically, if strangers who are supposed to kill each other can get to co-operate through repeated interactions, imagine what friends and friends of friends can do by being part of your stable network!

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