Rocking Around the Nazi Christmas Tree: The Invention of National Community

Nazi Germany was not the first radical regime to revolutionise its holidays. Russian Bolsheviks believed church bells represented the “old way of life” and actively sought to destroy them in from the late 1920s (and many didn’t ring again until the collapse of communism in the 1990s!). Even French Revolutionaries changed the entire calendar to reflect its commitment to the separation of church and state; 7 day weeks were replaced with 9 day weeks; saint-days were replaced with names of animals, plants, and farm implements; months were renamed by their seasonal activity (germination, flowering, meadow).  It is astonishing that such a calendar lasted a full 12 years.

As in any dictatorship, Nazi Germany’s control and influence filtered down into all aspects of social and cultural life. But Christmas was a bit tricky. How does an anti-Semitic political party celebrate the birth of a Jew? How does that same violent political party celebrate Christian values of charity, love and forgiveness? And, how does a despot like Hitler share his power with baby Jesus?

But the Nazis were cunning, resourceful and, above all, ambitious. Their Christmas celebrations morphed good ole Christian traditions into a mystifying quagmire of cultish obsession with “Nordic” nationalism. German women became “priestesses” of the home, while rituals like lighting the candles on a Christmas tree came to symbolise the birth of “Germanness.” It must have been effective though, as some Nazi-written carols were still sung until the 1950s (yes, really).

Of course, in the post-war period, Christmas became sanitised and distanced from whatever it had become under Hitler’s reign.  But as one Westfalen resident commented in the 1950s, “family celebration has been degraded into the simple giving of presents, and the mother has been dethroned” (see a fabulous article on this complex topic by Joe Perry, “Nazifying Christmas: Political Culture and Popular Celebration in the Third Reich,” Central European History, Vol. 38, No. 4 (2005), pp. 572-605).

But let us not assume that every resident of post-war Germany was longing for the days of “All I Want for Christmas is Hitler.” Because that’s simply not true. But instead of writing a superficial blog about Christmas trees adorned with swastikas, I shall attempt to delve deeper and do justice to the confusing and desperate Christmastimes that average Germans experienced under Nazi rule.

 “Have a Holly, Golly, Invented Norse/Pagan/Viking/German Christmas”

Before the Nazis came to power, Christmas could be considered a rather unique “German” holiday. This attitude pervades even today’s Germany. In the mid 1800s, German scholars (Paulus Cassel, Johannes Marbach, W. Mannhardt) wrote at length that German-speaking territories celebrated Christmas not only as a Christian holiday, but also a pre-Christian tribal ritual incorporating popular folk superstitions.  What the hell does that mean? Well, think Norse. Think Pagan. Think Viking. While they are not interchangeable words (or cultures, or histories), Germany by the 1900s had embraced a mish-mash of holiday traditions and fused them under the term of “Weihnachten” or “Christfest”.

For example, the Advent Wreath, which is adorned with four candles and lit each Sunday before Christmas, derives from the “ring of light” that existed among Germanic tribes before the celebration of Advent. Apparently, these tribes lit lights to represent the shortening of the days until the solstice, at which time the Julfest celebrated the return of light. (Incidentally, the English word yule is derives from the Germanic Jul). Other traditions, such as Santa Claus (Weihnachtsmann), Christmas markets (Weihnachstmärkte) and Christmas trees (Tannenbaum) share their roots from these pre-Christian and “Germanic” traditions.

As Germany itself was still trying to find its national identity in the wake of its unity in 1871, Christmas traditions – whether invented or repurposed – became essential to the national celebrations the Nazis would manipulate when they came to power.

Pre-1933: “It’s the Most Anti-Semitic Time of the Year”

Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Christmas was an opportunity to launch attacks against those they perceived to be internal enemies (communists, socialists, Jews, liberals, etc.). Rather predictably, they blamed the erosion of so-called “real” Christmas on these groups. They even justified attacks on Jewish stores as a way to promote Christian harmony and a “good will to all.”

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Hitler addressing a crowd at a Hofbräuhaus in Munich in November 1921, just weeks before his “German Christmas Celebration” speech. (Photo credit)

In 1921, Hitler gave a “German Christmas Celebration” speech at his favourite beer hall in Munich. Four thousand guests applauded when Hitler criticized the materialism that degraded the holiday. He also condemned the Jews who nailed the world’s liberator to the cross (and did not mention the Romans…). By focusing on ideas of “authentic” German community and old pagan traditions (like lighting Christmas tree candles), Hitler and his Nazis pitched Christmas as a German rather than Christian holiday. While it might seem extraordinary that such hateful language could tarnish such a holiday, historian Joe Perry argues that it was “relatively easy for the National Socialists to cast the holiday as an exclusionary celebration of pagan, Volk nationalism, since these ideas had a lengthy popular and scholarly pedigree.” (p. 579).

Post-1933: “Have Yourself a Merry People’s Christmas”

After the Nazis came to power, their approach to Christmas totally changed. While this was strategically beneficial to propaganda efforts and gained mass appeal, it also signified a new wariness towards the Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany.

Religious belief in Nazi Germany was not encouraged. The Nazis would not tolerate being subordinate or accountable to any religious institution, despite the fact that over 95% of Germans in 1939 identified as Protestant or Catholic (Evans, Third Reich at War, p. 546).  For the academic studies and longer discussion, check out Guenter Lewy’s The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, Hubert G. Locke and Marcia Sachs Littell’s Holocaust and Church Struggle, Donald J. Dietrich’s Catholic Citizens in the Third Reich, Leo Stein’s Hitler Came for Niemoeller: The Nazi War against Religion, and Franz G. M. Feige’s The Varieties of Protestantism in Nazi Germany.

Instead of outright condemning Christmas’ religious connotations, the Nazis simply redefined the holidays as annual events of “national rebirth.” Christmas was thus viewed as a superlative opportunity to ritualize and revive the German community in a way that benefitted Nazi politics. This rather clever strategy became another method to politically indoctrinate the masses.

In 1934, the first “People’s Christmas” was celebrated throughout Germany. In Cologne, Hitler Youth brigades held night rallies modelled after solstice pagan rituals. In Hamburg, storm troopers gathered around bonfires on Christmas Eve and sang Nazi marching songs. In Berlin, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels radio broadcast his speech after a torch-lit parade that “the socialism of the deed as become reality. Peace on Earth to mankind.” And, of course, nothing says Christmas in Nazi Germany without “People’s Christmas Trees” set up in various town squares and public parks.

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This photo from 1937 shows Joseph Goebbels with his daughters, Helga and Hilda, beside a People’s Christmas tree in Friedrichshain. (Goebbels’ wife would later kill their children in the Fuhrer Bunker in May 1945). (Photo credit)

Other initiatives also reinforced the Nazis’ politicization of Christmas. Official Nazi holiday greeting cards pictured blue-eyed, blond-haired families to signify racial purity. Christmas entertainment was also revamped and kicked up a notch. On the radio, broadcasts began in late November and seamlessly blended classical carols, radio plays and children’s shows with party propaganda. On Christmas Eve, a special “Christmas Message” from Rudolph Hess was broadcast at 8pm, while carols sung by children’s choirs were followed by Christmas shows about the army, navy and air force.

Even the cinema did not escape the Nazis Christmas propaganda. Annual Christmas newreels featured reports from Christmas markets, state-sponsored events, speeches from political leaders – literally anything that would “colonise and exalt traditional sacred practices” (Perry, p. 582). As with any mass media campaigns, these Christmas campaigns aimed to create a cohesion among the nation-wide audiences who consumed their messages.

Christmas markets, which had been operating in Germany since the 14th century, were also invaded by pro-Nazi booths and and “brown” trade fairs. School teachers were given a specific nazified Christmas curricula with texts that emphasised the Germanic culture as the epitome of Christmas traditions. Children and Hitler Youth members were recruited to help with the Winterhilfswerk campaigns for those “less fortunate.” No German, whether pro-Nazi or vehemently opposed, could escape the Nazis’ reinvention of Christmas.

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Hitler addresses a crowd of Nazis at a Christmas Party in Munich, 1941. (Photo credit)

“I saw Mommy kissing Nazi Claus….” 

Women’s Christmastime roles were also reconstructed by the Nazis as absolutely crucial to holiday celebrations. According to the director of the women’s division of the National Socialist Teacher’s Union, Auguste Reber-Grüber, the German mother was the “protector of house and hearth.” As a “priestess” of the home, the traditional family holidays benefitted from her moral and physical direction. Broadcasts and Nazi pamphlets provided mothers with directions on how to create home-made decorations shaped like “Odin’s Sun Wheel” or bake cookies in the shape of a loop to imitate fertility symbols.  As historian Joe Perry states, “Traditional women’s tasks… like wrapping presents, decorating the home, baking foods…. now had ‘eternally German’ meanings that linked special, everyday acts of holiday preparation and celebration to a cult of sentimentalised ‘Nordic’ nationalism” (p. 597).

“I Won’t Be Home For Christmas”

Once the Second World War began, Christmas changed once again. It even received a name made popular during the First World War: Kriegsweihnachten (literally, “war Christmas”). With millions of men fighting away from home, new initiatives created Christmas books, magazine article and holiday newsreels that celebrated the “spirit” of German war Christmas. Public drives for food, clothes and necessities also helped in December 1941, when the German army began its retreat from Moscow.

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1944 Nazi Christmas Card (Photo credit)

Radio broadcasts from the front lines reported to families at home how their fathers, sons and brothers were celebrating Christmas in the field.

Christmas cards once again were revamped to show the Christmas unity of the home front with the battlefront. This card to the left shows a woman and child (notice the Madonna-child symbolism) above three soldiers trudging through snow in the East. The images faces a poem by Herbert Menzel entitled “Soldier’s Christmas.” Circulated in 1944, cards like these were meant to reinforce the need for ultimate personal sacrifice to ensure the national victory. For more examples, see Randall L. Bytwerk’s excellent online German Propaganda Archive (Calvin College).

But Christmas gift-giving became increasingly more desperate as the war continued and necessities became scarce. Books, interestingly, were not rationed. They became a popular present in the last years of the war. People scrambled to buy books by weight or attractive covers, rather than by title or content. But as historians point out, reports from Christmas in 1944 were riddled with tales of German housewives fighting over meagre portions of eggs (she got five and I only got two!), and emergency holiday distributions of food and coal were critical to survival. As war dragged on, Christmas celebrations became ever more irrelevant to the overwhelming crisis of total war. Instead, most used the occasion to remember fallen soldiers. As one survivor states, “By then, nobody felt like celebrating.”

So what? 

When I think of the average German Protestant or Catholic family in 1930s Hamburg or Berlin, going to the Christmas markets or singing carols with friends while sipping delicious Glühwein, I can only imagine that many must have felt bombarded by Nazi stalls, Nazi lyrics, Nazi Christmas trees. In some ways, this reminds me of how many Christmases I’ve personally felt overwhelmed by the commercialisation and, frankly, the tacky ways society today celebrates Christmas. Advertisements on the radio and TV harass you by mid-November, and it’s nearly impossible to escape any form of Christmas music once 1st December passes.

While today’s robust commercialisation of Christmas is obviously not equivalent to the violent and highly politicised nature of Nazi Germany, these two periods do share the similarity that the original Christian connotations of Christmas have been diluted and sometimes even entirely replaced by other political messages. Today, it’s about consuming the materialism of the season, which reinforces capitalist ideologies. But in Hitler’s Germany, the Nazis’ ability to smoothly refocus Christmas on its Germanic rather than religious derivations forced average Germans into unavoidable celebrations of “national community.” By doing so, this allowed the Nazis a remarkable and intimate route into the private and familial traditions of millions of Germans on an annual basis. By extracting the Christian meaning from the holidays, the Nazis could then supplant it with a cultish definition of national identity that was exclusionary, racist and violent.

While many Germans believed in Hitler’s doctrine and supported Nazi initiatives, and although “People’s Christmas” drew large crowds, I do not believe that this necessarily means that those Germans were outright Nazis.  Instead, they were engaging in a tradition they already wished to celebrate, and would continue to celebrate, regardless of the politics that surrounded or infused the occasion. The Nazis saturated every fabric of German life, and Christmas was no exception.

Of course, I write this as peel a mandarin “Christmas” orange and search on Amazon for a Christmas gift for my one-year old nephew (who is neither Christian nor old enough to understand the holidays).

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!

 

Refugees, Labour and Violence: Rethinking “borders” while in the Scottish Borders

Last month, I holidayed in a region of southern Scotland called “The Borders.” As the boyfriend was raised in one of its charming towns, I had a built-in tour guide. He showed me all the fluffy sheep, the gorgeous green rolling hills and told me stories of the Borders’ sparkling history of violence and raiding.

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This vantage of the Tweed valley and Eildon Hills is called “Scott’s View,” as it is reputed as one of Sir Walter Scott’s favourite views.

This lush swath of land held a contentious political boundary that separated Scotland from England. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, this magnificent countryside became ground zero in the quest to define those two nationalities. Repetitive small conflicts and systematic raiding dominated the region due to a group of mercenaries called the Border Reivers. Equipped with bows and arrows and mounted on little ponies, they were notorious for stealing, raping and fighting for live stock and lands.

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Queen Elizabeth I was so impressed with the Border Reivers ruthless success, that she once said, “with ten thousand such men, James VI could shake any throne in Europe.”  (photo: wikipedia)

Today, traces of the intense violence are still present in the abandoned peel towers that dot the countryside, where residents would hide from invaders. One particular peel tower called Smailholm Tower was made popular by Scotland’s cherished author, Sir Walter Scott. As a child battling polio in the late 1700s, Scott stayed with his grandparents at Sandyknowes farm just beside Smailholm Tower and even played in its ruins.

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Smailholm Tower was one of hundreds of defensive fortifications that dotted the countryside. Inside was often a local laird and enough room to house the sheep and cattle, a major resource for the Border Reivers.

Due to the strong oral traditions among the local farmers and shepherds, Scott also learned about the Border Reivers’s raids through workers on the farm, including his auntie who would sing to him. Years later, Scott transcribed and modified some of these folk tales, popularising them through his writings and publications. In one fell swoop, Sir Walter Scott’s renditions of these stories soon came to define an entire portion of Scotland’s (heavily disputed) land and (blood-soaked) history into the romanticised nation we know today.

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Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s family home, is now a B&B and museum.

While Scott’s impact upon Scotland is indisputable – he seemed to be a remarkable and eccentric man – the Scottish Borders as a specific region made me stop and think. Scotland and England would eventually find peace (to an extent) so that the violence would stop, but what do such borders achieve?

Are borders entirely arbitrary, or do they serve a useful purpose? What do borders accomplish? How do borders define a group? Do they cause more peace or more violence? Do we still need them? Or should we build more?   

I’m not the first to ask such questions, especially in recent history. Just last month, it was the 70th anniversary of India and Pakistan’s creation. Or, it was the 70th anniversary of one of the bloodiest legacies that ever came from drawing a border.

In the immediate post-war era, calls for Indian independence from British rule could no longer by ignored by Westminster. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Congress and Muslim League, demanded the creation of a Muslim state. With British PM Clement Atlee’s strong support, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Cyril Radcliffe were responsible for hastily drawing a boundary that essentially cut Punjab and Bengal almost in half.  But the problem was that millions of Muslims lived in what would become Hindu-majority India, while millions of Hindus and Sikhs lived in what would be Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Pakistan Remembering Partition

A photo from 19 September 1947 of an overcrowded train station by New Delhi (from an article by Dawn).

The “Mountabatten Plan” was submitted just five days before India and Pakistan were partitioned (14th and 15th August, respectively). Celebrations ensued, but so did mass migration. Over 15 million Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus essentially swapped countries, leading to over a million deaths in the violence that followed. Chaos reigned at train stations, looting and food shortages were commonplace. People apparently defended themselves from discriminate attacks with knives, guns, swords. Thousands sought shelter and refuge in sacred temples and tombs. Millions died because of this arbitrary, hastily drawn line in the earth. Millions died because of a border.

Borders, essentially, divide people.

Hundreds of years ago, physical features of the land would define a people, such as river or forest. But in more recent history, borders have been politically motivated rather than geographically defined. Or sometimes both. I remember being a young Canadian elementary student in Social Studies class and asking why the US-Canada border was straight on the left (west), but squiggly on the right (east). My teacher laughed and said the St. Lawrence River was the chosen boundary in the east, while the 49th latitude was the boundary in the west. The answer confused me, but then I was told that the US-Canada border is the longest undefended border in the world. “But we’ll be okay,” she reassured me. “Okay from what?” I remember thinking.

Borders “protect” people.

They keep foreigners out. They help us to define ourselves in relation to the “other” whatever we perceive it to be: barbarity, violence, backwardness, et cetera. By doing so, borders create a sense of homogeneity, safety and order for those inside, implying further that such civilised aspects of society only exist within that border. Borders thus legitimise our identities and strengthen our communities. Evidently, borders do accomplish a great deal.

Today’s borders allow free trade, the free movement of goods to be exchanged. This allows us to create links (sometimes exploitive) with our neighbours and is one of the best things to come out of colonisation and globalisation. And yet we do not afford that same freedom of movement to people, to labour.

As British journalist Giles Fraser says, “We are so hypocritical about our borders.” We will celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we will fortify Calais and the UK against the waves of eastern refugees and migrants. We will condemn Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico, but continue the oppressive system of First Nations reservations in Canada and the US. We shake our heads at the illegal detainment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but we will applaud the commendable efforts of Médecins Sans Frontières (or, Doctors without Borders).

Why such hypocrisy? 

Professor Jonothan Moses claims in International Migration: Globalization’s Last Frontier (2006), that “as distance in the world recedes with technological, social, demographic and political advances, the demand for international migration will surely grow.” The only way to solve our multiple global problems, he claims, is through free migration. It is the last frontier to be conquered by the global community. Naturally, this sounds both radical and implausible, but he assures us that eventually we would become more just and happier, as the world’s economic and political bounty would be better distributed.

A world without borders? Is that possible?  

Just imagine a world where you could visit or permanently move anywhere you wanted without restrictions. Tropical islands everywhere would become overwhelmed with the world’s richest retirement-aged elites. Many long-distance relationships could be solved. Families separated by war or migration could be reunited.  Unmarried women could backpack through Saudi Arabia! And, importantly, the global divide between the rich underpopulated North and the poor overpopulated South would rebalance. Eventually.

But a world without borders is difficult to comprehend.  So if a borderless, free-moving, global population is one radical extreme, then at the other end of the spectrum is a world with well-defined “nations”. We know this world, because we are living in it. A world with borders, barriers and walls, such as those that currently in Israel/Palestine, or those proposed by Trump with Mexico, or those proposed by Brexit with Europe. No more EU Schengen plans. No more visa-free travel. Everyone restricted to their little nation. Everyone defined by their borders.

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The closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics demonstrates just how much we are defined by our borders (Photo: Daily Mail).

But then, history. History tells us that borders aren’t necessarily the best invention since sliced bread. Borders cause war, then war happens, then borders are redrawn. Repeat. For example, one of the strongest underlying factors for the outbreak of the First World War was the fact that people were angry with their borders. And this anger took the form of nationalism. Pause here.

Nationalism (generally, a pride in one’s nation) is based upon a collective identity due to ethnic, religious, and/or political reasons. It’s a massive concept that historians debate endlessly (see Anthony Smith’s Theories of Nationalism (1971), Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983), anything by Eric J. Hobsbaum). Because borders keep foreigners out, legitimise citizens within, and nurture collective pride and identity, nationalism is tied inextricably to borders – real or imagined. Nationalism does not always need to exist in a community, but it does exist because that community is legitimised by, or rebelling against, its borders. Correct? Yes.

So, in the early 1900s, multiple ethnic communities in the Balkans were formulating new identities that wanted autonomy from the Austria-Hungarian state and old Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna. Two previous localised Balkan wars had proved just how forceful these groups were becoming. But the conflict escalated into the First World War when a member of one Serbian nationalist group assassinated the nephew of the Emperor. Nationalism, aggravated by borders (that these groups felt limited by), was thus a major component of the ongoing tensions that sparked and accelerated that conflict.

After the First World War, borders were redrawn: Poland, Finland and the Baltics were born. Austria-Hungary was split into Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Alsace-Lorraine was returned to the French. German colonies were transferred to the victors. The League of Nations was created to hopefully broker ongoing peace and stability after an estimated 25 million deaths.

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The German delegates at the Treaty of Versailles: Professor Walther Schücking, Reichspostminister Johannes Giesberts, Justice Minister Otto Landsberg, Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Prussian State President Robert Leinert, and financial advisor Carl Melchior. (Photo from Wikipedia).

For a time, it seemed to work. But the League of Nations faltered. Nationalism grew. This time Germany and Russia became massive forces that spurned many citizens to believe that their nations had not only the means but the right to reclaim lost territories and even conquer new ones. Hitler and Stalin’s fierce ambitions, and weak Allied leadership in the late 1930s heightened tensions and nurtured opportunity for conflict. The Second World War resulted in an estimated 50 to 80 million deaths.

The United Nations attempted to succeed where the League of Nations failed. European Integration became central to rebuilding a world after total devastation. A common market was created among its first four members and the free movement of goods became a cornerstone of collective European prosperity. Go, Europe!

Simultaneously, the Cold War constructed “the Iron Curtain” and, again, divided Europe and the world. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and symbolised the cold, hard barrier between western capitalism and eastern communism. The last remaining right-wing dictatorships in Portugal and Spain soon dissolved. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany were finally reunited. Borders that had previously been so indestructible for decades seem to crumble in a few short months.

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Over 138 people died trying to escape through the Wall, and an estimated 5,000 were successful. The first to escape was East German border guard, Corporal Conrad Schumann, in August 1961 (Photo from here)

By 1993, the Schengen Agreements allowed for movement of “four freedoms”: goods, services, money and people. Millions of young people were able to study in other EU countries and the Euro currency was adopted by most EU nations. Remarkably, the EU eased gracefully into a period of prosperity and harmony. Goals to tackle climate change and terrorism unified these once national enemies. Germany, despite his historic territorial ambitions, became the world leader in accepting refugees and migrants. The EU won the Noble Peace Prize in 2012.

But then, Brexit. And Trump’s Mexico wall. It seems that some western leaders believe tightening borders, not eradicating them, is the best response to global migration.

So what’s the solution?

Rethink the nature of “borders.” Although totally removing borders is radical and implausible in the near future, global migration will only increase. As migrants move between countries, they often transition through multiple societies, adopting new identities in each and thus complicating the simple labels of “origin” and “destination.” Global migration is not only increasing, but becoming vastly more complex.

History proves that borders do not keep foreigners “out” nor keep citizens “in”. And why should they? The global economy is based upon free trade, the free movement of goods, so why shouldn’t that be extended to people, to labour? Meanwhile, current gaps between the rich and poor, the north and south, the citizens and refugees, are eroding due to instantaneous communications, faster transportation, and global infrastructures and this exact type of trade. Sorry, world, but refugees and migrants won’t just “go away,” no matter how high you build those walls.

According to the International Organisation of Migration, “Migration is an integral part of global transformation and development processes rather than a problem to be solved.” If true, then how do we improve this?

Of course, the best remedies lay in helping those on the other side of the border. Provide immediate aid to victims of war, hunger and disease. Allow those fleeing persecution and war to cross borders, with or without passports or visas. Commit to large-scale, international resettlement projects across borders. Do not underfund long-term peace projects that tackle the root causes of war, hunger and disease. Persecute human traffickers heavily. Combat all forms of racism and xenophobia at home and abroad.

The Scottish Borders unknowingly provides us a great deal of information about how this could work on a global scale. Although fighting over human and material resources could continue for centuries, strict borders will eventually disappear. People will eventually live without violence. And while pride for one’s nation is still very strong in this part of the world, and tensions between Scotland and English still certainly exist, the Borders is a serene and renowned land with its numerous peel towers and fluffy sheep.

Who wouldn’t be proud of that?