Kriegsweihnachten: Reflections on German Christmas during WWII
|Christmas, with deeply-rooted traditions, is the most significant holiday of the year in Western culture. Although Christmas is celebrated allover the world, nowhere is it such a significant holiday as in Central and Northern Europe. A great deal of the traditions of Christmas that we hold dear werein fact put forth by people in the Central and Northern parts of Europe in the years before and after the birth of Christ,intermeshing both pagan and Christian themes into a spirited, festive, and joyous holdiay.Many of the Christmassongs we sing, foods we eat, and traditions we follow – including the mostcentral of all Christmas traditions, the Christmas tree – were first practicedin these regions, and more specifically, in the region we now know of as Germany. Christmas was and remains an important time for most Germans,and this was equally the case during the time of WWII.|
Attempting to account for the infinite number of German Christmas experiences during thetime of WWII is impossible, but we can bring together those commonthemes that were experienced by a great deal of people, in this case, by many ofthe men who served in the German military during the period between1939 and 1945. It was during this time that Christmas would be an equallyjoyous and horrific holiday.
The first German Christmas of WWII was celebrated in December of 1939 while the frontwas for the most part silent; the Western Allies and Germany were in the midst of theso-called “phoney war” between the period after the Invasion of Polandin September of 1939, and the Invasion in Norway later in April of 1940.In bunkers and trenches, pillboxes and depots, private homesand unit bases, all along the border, across Germany, and in occupied Poland,those German soldiers unlucky enough to not be with family and loved ones,spent time together amongst their comrades andexchanged simple gifts of fruit and drink, laughed and played, and sangtraditional German Christmas songs such as “O Tannenbaum” – a timelesssong of Christmas.
|Christmas 1940 was also a relatively quiet period, theWestern Allies, minus England, were now occupied by German troops and theEastern Front had not yet erupted – that would come in June of 1941 with theInvasion of the Soviet Union. The Battle of Britian was also over, leaving thevaunted Luftwaffe bloodied and although not defeated by any means, unableto achieve air superiority over the British Isles. Troops once again spentChristmas in bunkers and foriegn cities, now in a front stretching from the mostnorthern arctic tip of Norway to the most southern tip of France in theMediterranean.|
The winter of 1941 was one of the most harsh and unforgiving winter seasonsin recorded history. The Wehrmacht had crossed the Soviet border in June of1941 and had planned to be finishedwith the campaign before the end of fall. Fate was not on the German side though,and fighting was to continue for 4 of the most harsh and brutal years of combatin all of human history. The comfort and nostalgia of joyfull Christmas celebrations in positions along aquiet front was largely a thing of the past, especially so for those stationed on the Eastern Front which left little to celebrate as the war ground on. In the face of such despair Christmas was still celebratedthough, as the following divisional chaplin expressed in his diary in 1941:
“Slept well in a dirty room. Next to me potato peeling and other refuse, lice.Visited the men in their quarters, 9th and 11th companies. They look awful,ragged, full of bedbug bites, entire bodies bloody, emaciated, dirty.Russian mortar shelling coming closer. One man blown up in front of the church.This was once a beautiful complex in Yaroplets. A green castle with a magnificentchurch. The gold brocade robes now serve as curtains for the broken windows.The enemy is shooting from the wood nearby. In the evening, I visit the menin the little crowded basement rooms, read to them the Christmas story from theBible and talk to them. Later, sang songs with the gentlem from the battalionstaff. The commander played the accordian…”
-An unknown divisional chaplin, December 24th, 1941.
Christmas 1942 was progressively worse for Germany, with the entire6.Armee being lost in the Stalingrad Pocket shortly after the holiday season.Interestingly enough, at midnight on Christmas eve, the sky over Stalingradwas lit up by thousands of colorful flares fired by nearly every unittrapped in the pocket. This amazing sight was in celebration of theChristmas season, and it lasted for many minutes. In the face of increasingdespair Christmas was sometimes celebrated with the sort of true peace, understanding and acceptance that only thoseon the brink could feel. The following three excerpts are froma few of the men trapped in Stalingrad on that fateful Christmas of 1942.
“During the past weeks all of us have begun to think about the end of everything.The insignificance of everyday life pales against this, and we have never beenmore grateful for the Christmas Gospel than in these hours of hardship.Deep in one’s heart one lives with the idea of Christmas, the meaning ofChristmas. It is a feast of love, salvation and pity on mankind. We havenothing else here but the thought of Christmas. It must and will tide us over grievous hours…However hard it may be, we shall do our utmost to master fate and try everythingin our power to defeat the sub-humanity that is wildly attacking us. Nothing can shake our belief in victory, forwe must win, if Germany wants to live…”
“I have not recieved any mail from you for some time… there is a terrible longingfor some dear words from home at Christmas, but there are more important thingsat present. We are men who know how to bear everything. The main thing is thatyou and the children are all right. Don’t worry about me; nothing can happen to me any longer. Today I have made my peace with God… I give you all mylove and a thousand kisses – I love you to my last breath. Affectionate kissesfor the children. Be dear children and remember your father.”
-Karl Binder, Deputy Chief Quartermaster, 305.Infanterie-Division
On the evening before the Holy Day, in a hut which was still fairlyintact, eleven soldiers celebrated in quiet worship. It was not easy tofind them in the herd of the doubting, hopeless, and disappointed. But thoseI found came happily and with a glad and open heart. it was a strange congregationwhich assembled to celebrate the birthday of the Christ-child. There are manyaltars in the wide world, but surely none poorer than ours here. Yestreday thebox still held anti-aircraft shells; today my hand spread over it thefield-grey tunicof a comrade whose eyes I closed last Friday in this very room. I wrote to hiswife a letter of consolation. May God protect her.”
“I read my boys the Christmas story according to the Gospel of Luke, chapter2, verses 1-17; gave them hard black bread as the holy sacrifice and sacrament of the altar, the true body ofour Lord Jesus Christ, and entreated the Lord to have pity on them and tothem grace. I did not say anything about the fifth commandment (Thou shaltnotkill). The men sat on footstools and looked up to me from large eyes intheirstarved faces. They were all young, except one, who was 51. I am very happy that I was permitted to console theirhearts and give them courage. When it was over, we shook each other’s hands,took down addresses, and promised to look up relatives and tell them aboutour Christmas Eve celebration in 1942, in case one of should return home alive.”
-An unknown German Cathlic Army Chaplain
“Just now the master sergeant told me that I cannot go home for Christmas.I told him that he has to keep his promise, and he sent me to the captain.The captain told me that others had wanted to go leave for Christmas too, and thatthey too had promised it to their relatives without being able to keep thepromise. And so it wasn’t his fault that we couldn’t go. We should be glad we were still alive,the captain said, and the long trip wouldn’t be good in the cold winteranyhow.”
“Dear Maria, you must not be angry now because I cannot come on leave. Ioften think of our house and our little Luise. I wonder if she can laughalready. Do you have a beautiful Christmas tree? We are supposed to get onealso, if we don’t move into other quarters. But I don’t want to write too muchabout things here, otherwise you’ll cry… Sometimes I am afraid we will not seeeach other again. Heiner from Krefeld told me that a man must notwrite this; it only frightens his relatives. But what if it’s true!”
“Maria, dear Maria, I have only been beating around the bush. The mastersergeant said that this would be the last mail because no more planes areleaving. I can’t bring myself to lie. And now, nothing will probably evercome of my leave. If I could only see you just once more; how awful that is!When you light the candles, think of your husband in Stalingrad.”
-An unknown German soldier
Christmas 1943 was just as harsh and brutal as those previously, but ittoo provided men with reason for hope, even if for but a short time. The followingexcerpt is of the experiences of Belgian Wallon volunteer troops on the Eastern Front.
“At the front I had never seen Christmas be anything but sad. Men would drink,sing, joke. For an hour everything was fine. then each would recall Christmasat home: the blushing cheeks, the dazzled children, the tenderwife, the sweet songs. Eyes would gaze into the distance with a far-awaylook, seeing hamlets and rooms once filled with joy. A soldier would leave,and we would find him crying all alone beneath the moon.”
“That evening there were fifteen suicides in the division, hearts brokenfrom the strain of so many months of seperation and suffering.”
I had wanted to visit all our volunteers’ bunkers. Amid the snow and thedarkness, I made ten kilometeres, entering each smokey shelter. Somesquads, the young especially, were putting a good face on things and whooping itup, but I found a great many more grave faces than smiling ones. One soldierwho could not contain himself (any) longer had thrown himself to the earth and lay sobbingagainst the ground calling for his parents.”
“At exactly midnight, at the moment when those who were still brazeningit out had just started to intone ‘O Holy Night’ the sky burst intoflames: it wasn’t the Herald Angels, nor the trumpets of Bethlehem. Itwas an attack! The Reds, thinking that by this time our men would be under the table, had openedfire with all their artillery and were hastening to the combat.”
“In fact, this was a relief. We leaped up. And in the snow illumintatedby shells, by tracer bullets, by the flash of cannon fire, by the red, green and whiteflares of the signalers, we spent our Christmas Eve preventing a ragingenemy from crossing the Olshanka River.”
“A dawn the firing let up. Our chaplain gave Communion to the troops, who wentup from their positions, squad by squad, to the Orthodox chapel where are Walloon priest dressed in Feldgraujoined in a truely Christian fashion with the old Russian village priestin his purple miter.”
“There sad and bitter hearts were soothed. Their parents, wives, andbeloved children had heard the same Mass back home and receivedthe same Eucharist. The soldiers went back down with simple souls, pureas the great white steppe which glistened in the Christmas afternoon.”
-Leon Degrelle, SS-Sturmbrigade Wallonien
The final Christmas of WWII in Europe, Christmas 1944, was nothing tocelebrate for most Germans. The Eastern and Western Frontswere quickly crumbling, millions of German men and woman hadbeen thus far killed, hundreds of thousands of Germans were withouthomes and loved ones, the air campaign against the homeland hadleft many cities devastated and crippled – to say nothing about theunfortunate German troops awaiting the next Soviet onslaught along theEastern Front, or those troops sent forward into the Ardennes regionin the last-ditch “Battle of the Bulge” which saw American and Germantroops fighting bitterly without rest on Christmas day. The War virtually lost,Christmas came and went, leaving behind 6 long years of bitter warfare andconquest.