Building a bridge of peace to the future from a Christmas trench back in 1915
Originally published in the Irish Independent December 24th, 2015
Christmas Day 2015 marks the centenary of a little-known World War I truce – in the Vosges Mountains, a 60-minute drive from Strasbourg – that inspired one of the great youth movements of all time, of which Ireland was a founding member.
The founder of the international youth hostelling movement, Richard Schirrmann (1874-1961) was a school teacher and a reservist in the German Army. His unit was positioned on the Bernhardstein, a peak on the Vosges mountains through which the old French/German frontier ran in the oft disputed Alsace region.
Schirrmann was a much-loved teacher who believed in learning beyond the classroom. He often took his students on overnight hikes during which they would sleep in barns and outhouses.
On Christmas morning 1915, Schirrmann had a transformative experience that lead him to envisage a youth movement with a century-long legacy of promoting peace on earth and goodwill towards all.
He recalled: “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines … something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over.”
The encounter between the Westphalian soldiers, in their pickle helmets and long coats, and their French opponents high in the snow-covered mountains of Alsace had a profound impact on Schirrmann and his peers. “Why,” he asked, “did the soldiers on the Bernhardstein not want to fight each other any more after celebrating Christmas together? It was certainly not out of cowardice, but because they had come to know each other as human beings.”
Schirrmann reflected on his truce experience and wondered whether “thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other … that could and must be the role of our youth hostels, not only in Germany, but throughout the world, building a bridge of peace from nation to nation!”
Prior to the outbreak of WWI, Schirmann’s outlook was not unlike that of many of his contemporaries in Britain and France (including British Lieutenant-General Baden-Powell in England, who founded The Boy Scouts Association) who were motivated by patriotic fervour for their respective fatherlands.
Biographer, Graham Heath, described Schirrmann as “… a man who had the faults as well as the virtues of greatness … an idealist who had a simple faith in the goodness of human nature and was only truly happy in the company of the young”.
As a teacher Schirrmann wanted to impress upon his pupils a sense of the beauty of nature and the positive benefits to be enjoyed through developing a profound respect for the environment. In that regard alone, he was a visionary and well ahead of his time.
In 1919 Schirrmann founded the German Youth Hostelling Association. It was used extensively by young foreign travellers who carried home glowing reports. Schirrmann’s dream of bringing young people together was happening naturally, and in 1932 he travelled to Amsterdam to set up the International Youth Hostelling Association, founded by 11 European associations, including An Óige.
Schirrmann was elected the Association’s first President in 1933 at a gathering in Germany, the same year that the National Socialist Party (NSP) came to power. One of the primary targets of the NSP was education and youth, including Schirrmann’s Youth Hostelling Movement. Schirrmann’s biographer, Graham Heath, states that he bitterly regretted his enforced association with the NSP, but notes also that Schirrmann saw the National Socialist Party as a passing phase.
The NSP were, initially, happy to use Schirrmann’s reputation and popularity abroad to suggest an alignment of his ideals with the new Nazi Youth Movement. Their tolerance of Schirrmann, however, was short-lived because of his determination to make uncensored speeches extolling the virtues of world brotherhood and peace, and his friendship with people like the French intellectual and politician, Marc Sangnier, who promoted ‘The Disarmament of Hatred’ and the ideal that “to kill war we must give birth to love and justice in the hearts of men”.
In 1935, Schirrmann criss-crossed the United States addressing universities and schools, encouraging “an increase in youth travel from land to land”. On his return a vicious campaign was launched against him. At a youth hostel conference at Dilsberg he was beaten and attacked. His was systematically belittled in the Nazi press. In 1936 the Nazi regime confiscated Schirrmann’s passport and forced him to resign from the Presidency of the International Youth Hostel Federation.
Aged 62, he retired with his young family to the remote village of Gravenwiesbach, where he lived a frugal life, growing fruit and vegetables on a small holding and worked as a teacher throughout WWII.
Following WWII Schirrmann focused his energies on rebuilding the German and International Associations. In 1952, for his efforts, he was awarded the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany.
The legacy of Richard Schirrmann is Hostelling International, which is unquestionably one of the great unobtrusive peace movements in our world today. It is a movement that continues ‘building a bridge of peace from nation to nation’ involving young people from every nationality, ethnicity, culture, religion and orientation. It is a movement that is, today, the sixth biggest provider of accommodation for worldwide travellers – and the largest for young people. It is a movement that encourages friendship with the environment and international understanding.
Hostelling International is a movement worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, awakened as it was during WWI by the peeling of bells celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace on Christmas morning 1915.
At 10:30 on Christmas morning, members of An Óige, UNESCO, Don Mullan, poet Seamus Cashman, the Island of Ireland Christmas Truce Project, and Dean Dermot Dunne of Christ Church Cathedral, will join the bell-ringers of Christ Church Cathedral to celebrate and commemorate the centenary of the 1915 Christmas Truce, inspired by the ringing of church bells in the valleys of the Vosges Mountains that gave birth to Richard Schirrmann’s Hostelling International, including An Óige. All are welcome.
Don Mullan is an Irish best-selling author/humanitarian and media producer. His book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday is officially recognised as a primary catalyst for a new Bloody Sunday Inquiry which became the longest running and most expensive in British Legal History. He is pictured here speaking to the PeaceQuest Plenary in April 2014.