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.”

Hitler_addressing_Beer_Hall Nov 1921

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.

Goebbels Xmas 1937

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.

Nazi Xmas party 1941

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.

soldier-baby

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!

 

The Echoes of Nazism in Today’s America: History or Hype?

Is anyone else heartbroken and equally fascinated by what’s happening in America right now? The removal of the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee from a public park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on 13 August sparked demonstrations which culminated in the tragic death of a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer.

But had it not been for Trump’s subsequent statement, then perhaps Heather’s death and these demonstrations could have been recorded as a local (though tragic) event. Heather may have been seen as “just one more casualty” in a long violent history between right-wing nationalists nostalgic about the old South, and everyone else that enthusiastically excludes themselves from that label.

rump-speech-hero-1_fynh2w

President Trump threw fuel on the metaphorical fire by saying, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

But then President Donald Trump condemned the violence at a white supremacist rally “on many sides.”

“On many sides”……? Huh?

It’s been remarkable to watch the visceral uproar following Trump’s trivializing remarks. Scheduled “Free Speech” demonstrations in Boston last weekend were overwhelmed with counter demonstrators numbered in the tens of thousands. At the base of Trump Tower in NYC another 1,000 protesters shouted “Black Lives Matter,” while various sand-filled white dump trucks were positioned as a barricade. And comedian Tina Fey devoured an entire sheet cake:

Tina Fey

Tina Fey reminded white supremacists that: “It’s not our country–we stole it. We stole it from the Native Americans. And when they have a peaceful protest at Standing Rock, we shoot at them with rubber bullets. But we let you chinless turds march through the streets with semi-automatic weapons.”

Even other world leaders unequivocally condemned the white supremacists. In Germany, where any Nazi salutes, gatherings or symbols are illegal (even arresting tourists who flout the law), politicians have tweeted their dismay.

Martin Schulz, leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, tweeted: “One must denounce Nazis definitively. What Trump is doing is inflammatory. Whoever trivializes violence & hate betrays western values.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the events in Charlottesvile “absolutely repulsive.” And former Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, tweeted: “In Nazism, anti-Semitism and racism there are never two equal sides — only one side is evil. Period.”

And some of the strongest voices of all are those of Holocaust survivors and veterans of the Second World War. These brave people are standing up against any revival of the same racist intolerance they experienced in 1930s Germany.

Rubin Holocaust Survivor

Marianne Rubin’s granddaughter, Lena Schnall, captured a photo of her grandmother at a rally in NYC after Charlottesville. Rubin was a Jewish child in 1930s Germany and managed to escape with her parents first to Italy, France and then the US.

But are today’s racial clashes in the US actually echoing the same sentiments of Nazi Germany? Is Trump the new Hitler? Are Muslims and refugees the new Jews? Is World War III around the corner? Or is this all just a bunch of short-lived hype that will shortly disappear? 

Professor Richard J. Evans (my favourite historian and eminent Cambridge scholar) was interviewed by Slate magazine shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Well before the events of Charlottesville, Prof. Evans suggested that some parallels can be drawn between Trump and Hitler’s early days in power. I will now elaborate on three points my biggest intellectual crush raised:

1. The stigmatization of minorities.

Hitler despised those he deemed non-German. Although Hitler was a notorious anti-Semite, his prejudice towards Jews also extended to Bolshevists and progressive liberals who endorsed the Weimar Republic. Importantly, a strong right-wing community supported Hitler, which blamed Germany’s defeat in WWI upon the socialists, communists and Jews that had back-stabbed them on the homefront.  Anti-Semitic newspapers and anti-Jewish clubs were commonplace in prewar Germany.

And, once you combine this common hatred with a socially-acceptable belief in “scientifically-measurable” progression and eugenics (which was studied in numerous universities since Darwin coined the idea of “evolution”), then it’s not difficult to see how even the most civilized of societies – which Germany was in the 20th century – could believe that one race was superior to another. By 1935, the Nuremberg Laws solidified the legal persecution of Jews on the basis of “race” and by 1939, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars in public, moved into ghettos and eventually exterminated in concentration camps. Notably, this stigmatization was also experienced by other minorities, such as the disabled, homosexuals, political opponents, criminals, Roma/Gypsies, black people, religious groups…

Eugenics

A class studies the Bertillon method of criminal identification, based on measuring body parts in Paris between 1910-1915. Eugenics was practised throughout the world and was considered to be ground-breaking field of scientific research which would improve society as a whole.

Today’s America is obviously a far cry from outright genocide, but stigmatization of minorities still exists. For example, Trump’s travel ban imposed against people from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, as well as all refugees caused huge controversy last February. Trump claimed he was protecting American borders from Muslim extremists, despite the fact that only three refugees in American history (Cubans in the 1970s) were ever convicted of terrorism.

Muslims in protest

Muslims pray in protest of Trump’s travel ban in Dallas earlier in 2017. Although  judges have overturned the order, aspects of the ban were implemented and will be reviewed by the US Supreme Court in October.

Trump’s attempts to reverse Obamacare could also be perceived as a stigmatizing the poorer segments of American society who cannot afford private healthcare. The ongoing struggle of the #BlackLivesMatter black-community against state violence and discrimination is still speaking out against various Trump policies (although the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin which sparked the movement occurred before Trump took office).  Also, the Trump administration announced last month that transgendered individuals would be banned from serving in the US military. Even some of the most conservative Republicans and retired military generals have denounced the policy.

transgender

In August 2017, civil rights groups have announced their intent to file suit against Trump for the intended ban against transgendered people serving in the military.

2. Not adhering to conventions of normal political life.

Although the Nazi party won 37% of the vote through an entirely democratic and legitimate political process, Hitler’s almost immediately changed German laws to create a one-party state. Although historians cannot agree over who exactly burnt down the Reichstag –  Germany’s parliament – afterwards Hitler enacted emergency measures which allowed him to suspend German citizens’ rights, including habeas corpusfreedom of expressionfreedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone. Hitler never reinstated these rights during the Third Reich. This was, again, in the name of protecting German citizens from domestic terrorism.  In June 1934, Hitler also violently eliminated about 100 rivals in a violent purge called “Night of the Long Knives.” Then, after President Hindenberg’s death in August 1934, Hitler merged the presidency with the chancellorship. Incredibly, Hitler consolidated his power and created a violent dictatorship in less than two years.

Hitler HIndenberg

President Paul von Hindenburg and newly-elected Chancellor Adolf Hitler in a parade in Berlin in 1933. By consolidating the roles of presidency and chancellorship shortly after Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler was able to create a secure dictatorship.

What about Trump’s adherence to normal political life? Trump’s administration has passed more Executive Orders than any other president since Roosevelt, but many of these orders are politically insignificant (such as designating buildings or naming people to certain positions). However, the controversies surrounding Trump, especially with regard to Russia hacking the US elections and the dramatic resignation (dismissal?) of FBI Director James Comey, throw doubt on Trump’s ability to “adhere to normal political life.”  What about Trump barring certain journalists from the White House press room? Or the appointment of his daughter Ivanka Trump, and husband, Jared Kushner, as “special advisors” and even representing the US government at the latest international G20 conference? Or the fact that less than a year into the job, some seven high ranking officials were either sacked or resigned from the Trump administration?

Sean Spicer

After White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer‘s resignation, he said what has been claimed as the most Sean Spicer thing ever: “You can keep taking your selfies.” Huh?!

3. Spurning international agreements.

A month after Hitler came to power, he withdrew Germany from the League of Nations. He argued that the Disarmament Conference did not allow it military parity with the Western nations (meaning that Hitler wanted to rearm and the Allies wouldn’t let him).  Hitler obviously would not agree to any international policy that would limit Germany’s autonomy. He continued to flout international laws by annexing Austria and invading the Sudetenland without any hassle from the French, British or Soviets. Well, not until he invaded Poland.

Goebbels at Geneva

Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in Geneva in February 1932 with the League of Nations. Shortly after, Germany would withdraw from the League.

Trump’s isolationist policies (if we can call them that) echo the goal of many historic politicians (Hitler included) who wished to put the needs of the nation before any obligations towards the international community. “America First” is Trump’s slogan which seeks to revive the exhausted American coffers by tightening federal budgets with more domestic investment (for example, by slashing diplomacy and development funding by a 32%). Recently, Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement which nearly 200 countries signed in December 2015 in an effort to combat global warming and help poorer countries adapt to an already-changed planet. Similarly, however, Britain has left the European Union so perhaps isolationism is a growing economic model in an increasingly globalized world. But by spurning such international agreements, Trump appears as an antithesis to the incredible global action by the US in the last 3 years: stopping the Ebola epidemic, rallying more than 65 partners to fight ISIS, and leading those same 200 countries to forge this historic climate change agreement in the first place! Barack is probably on a beach somewhere, shaking his head…

Trump Paris Agreement

World leaders were visibly upset that Trump would not concede on an international policy for climate change.

So what?

Although the words of caution from Holocaust survivors are obviously crucial warnings during such social upheaval, I’m not convinced that Hitler’s Germany and Trump’s America are synonymous. But perhaps I’m being cynical. Prof. Evans claimed there is one big difference between Hitler and Trump: while Hitler’s speeches and policies were exceptionally well-practiced, focused and deliberate, Trump’s tweets and policies are spontaneous, erratic and unguarded. This implies that Trump is not single-mindedly achieving some ultimate vision, but leisurely and arrogantly deciding grand policies without much foresight. As comedian Frankie Boyle quips, “Trump’s nothing like Hitler. There’s no way he could write a book.”

The good news? The violence from the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville followed by Trump’s trivializing comments has forced Americans everywhere to defend their most basic national values, whatever they perceive them to be.

Trump may not be the voice for Americans everywhere – he certainly struggles to reflect the mood of the country – but at the very least he’s forcing Americans to have a conversation, a confrontation, of what it means to be American. He’s the proverbial trickster. A rousing ringleader. The grand master of controversy. The court jester who masquerades and provokes. The words that spill out of his mouth are not intricately prearranged, but reckless, and thus easier to destroy.

Fortunately, the greatest difference between 1930s Germany and today’s America is the lack of political violence by its leader. Whereas Hitler mobilized his Sturmabteilung brown-shirt henchmen to beat up political opponents in the streets, Trump has no such organized paramilitary government wing. Instead, Prof. Evans argues, political violence has taken the form of tweets and trolling, poisoning our political discourse.

But at the same time (and with the greatest respect, Prof. Evans!), Twitter, Facebook and other social media also allow everyone – Trump included – a political voice and online presence to confront ideas, create communities and mobilize politics. Smart phones allow people to record events like Charlottesville, so that those who promote hatred and bigotry are exposed. Modern communications certainly attracts trollers and hackers, but the brutal political violence that typified Nazi Germany is not what one experiences when they open their laptop, check their news, and write their blog. Thankfully.

Covefefe.