Kriegsweihnachten: Reflections on German Christmas during WWII
by Jason Pipes
Christmas, with deeply-rooted traditions, is the most significant holiday of the year in Western culture. Although Christmas is celebrated all over 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 were in 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 Christmas songs we sing, foods we eat, and traditions we follow - including the most central of all Christmas traditions, the Christmas tree - were first practiced in 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 the time of WWII is impossible, but we can bring together those common themes that were experienced by a great deal of people, in this case, by many of the men who served in the German military during the period between 1939 and 1945. It was during this time that Christmas would be an equally joyous and horrific holiday.
The first German Christmas of WWII was celebrated in December of 1939 while the front was for the most part silent; the Western Allies and Germany were in the midst of the so-called "phoney war" between the period after the Invasion of Poland in September of 1939, and the Invasion in Norway later in April of 1940. In bunkers and trenches, pillboxes and depots, private homes and 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 and exchanged simple gifts of fruit and drink, laughed and played, and sang traditional German Christmas songs such as "O Tannenbaum" - a timeless song of Christmas.
Christmas 1940 was also a relatively quiet period, the Western Allies, minus England, were now occupied by German troops and the Eastern Front had not yet erupted - that would come in June of 1941 with the Invasion of the Soviet Union. The Battle of Britain was also over, leaving the vaunted Luftwaffe bloodied and although not defeated by any means, unable to achieve air superiority over the British Isles. Troops once again spent Christmas in bunkers and foreign cities, now in a front stretching from the most northern arctic tip of Norway to the most southern tip of France in the Mediterranean.
The winter of 1941 was one of the most harsh and unforgiving winter seasons in recorded history. The Wehrmacht had crossed the Soviet border in June of 1941 and had planned to be finished with 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 combat in all of human history. The comfort and nostalgia of joyfull Christmas celebrations in positions along a quiet 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 celebrated though, 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 magnificent church. 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 men in the little crowded basement rooms, read to them the Christmas story from the Bible and talk to them. Later, sang songs with the gentlem from the battalion staff. The commander played the accordion..."
- An unknown divisional chaplin, December 24th, 1941.
Christmas 1942 was progressively worse for Germany, with the entire 6.Armee being lost in the Stalingrad Pocket shortly after the holiday season. Interestingly enough, at midnight on Christmas eve, the sky over Stalingrad was lit up by thousands of colorful flares fired by nearly every unit trapped in the pocket. This amazing sight was in celebration of the Christmas season, and it lasted for many minutes. In the face of increasing despair Christmas was sometimes celebrated with the sort of true peace, understanding and acceptance that only those on the brink could feel. The following three excerpts are from a 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 been more 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 of Christmas. It is a feast of love, salvation and pity on mankind. We have nothing 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 everything in our power to defeat the sub-humanity that is wildly attacking us. Nothing can shake our belief in victory, for we must win, if Germany wants to live..."
"I have not received any mail from you for some time... there is a terrible longing for some dear words from home at Christmas, but there are more important things at present. We are men who know how to bear everything. The main thing is that you 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 my love and a thousand kisses - I love you to my last breath. Affectionate kisses for 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 fairly intact, eleven soldiers celebrated in quiet worship. It was not easy to find them in the herd of the doubting, hopeless, and disappointed. But those I found came happily and with a glad and open heart. it was a strange congregation which assembled to celebrate the birthday of the Christ-child. There are many altars in the wide world, but surely none poorer than ours here. Yestreday the box still held anti-aircraft shells; today my hand spread over it the field-grey tunic of a comrade whose eyes I closed last Friday in this very room. I wrote to his wife a letter of consolation. May God protect her."
"I read my boys the Christmas story according to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 1-17; gave them hard black bread as the holy sacrifice and sacrament of the altar, the true body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and entreated the Lord to have pity on them and to them grace. I did not say anything about the fifth commandment (Thou shalt not kill). The men sat on footstools and looked up to me from large eyes in their starved faces. They were all young, except one, who was 51. I am very happy that I was permitted to console their hearts 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 about our 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 that they too had promised it to their relatives without being able to keep the promise. 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 winter anyhow."
"Dear Maria, you must not be angry now because I cannot come on leave. I often think of our house and our little Luise. I wonder if she can laugh already. Do you have a beautiful Christmas tree? We are supposed to get one also, if we don't move into other quarters. But I don't want to write too much about things here, otherwise you'll cry... Sometimes I am afraid we will not see each other again. Heiner from Krefeld told me that a man must not write this; it only frightens his relatives. But what if it's true!"
"Maria, dear Maria, I have only been beating around the bush. The master sergeant said that this would be the last mail because no more planes are leaving. I can't bring myself to lie. And now, nothing will probably ever come 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 it too provided men with reason for hope, even if for but a short time. The following excerpt is of the experiences of Belgian Wallon volunteer troops on the Eastern Front.
"For Christmas of 1943 each hut had set up a Christmas tree, whitened with cotton wool taken from the medics."
"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 Christmas at home: the blushing cheeks, the dazzled children, the tender wife, the sweet songs. Eyes would gaze into the distance with a far-away look, 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 broken from the strain of so many months of separation and suffering."
"I had wanted to visit all our volunteers' bunkers. Amid the snow and the darkness, I made ten kilometeres, entering each smokey shelter. Some squads, the young especially, were putting a good face on things and whooping it up, but I found a great many more grave faces than smiling ones. One soldier who could not contain himself (any) longer had thrown himself to the earth and lay sobbing against the ground calling for his parents."
"At exactly midnight, at the moment when those who were still brazening it out had just started to intone 'O Holy Night' the sky burst into flames: it wasn't the Herald Angels, nor the trumpets of Bethlehem. It was an attack! The Reds, thinking that by this time our men would be under the table, had opened fire with all their artillery and were hastening to the combat."
"In fact, this was a relief. We leaped up. And in the snow illumintated by shells, by tracer bullets, by the flash of cannon fire, by the red, green and white flares of the signalers, we spent our Christmas Eve preventing a raging enemy from crossing the Olshanka River."
"A dawn the firing let up. Our chaplain gave Communion to the troops, who went up from their positions, squad by squad, to the Orthodox chapel where are Walloon priest dressed in Feldgrau joined in a truely Christian fashion with the old Russian village priest in his purple miter."
"There sad and bitter hearts were soothed. Their parents, wives, and beloved children had heard the same Mass back home and received the same Eucharist. The soldiers went back down with simple souls, pure as 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 to celebrate for most Germans. The Eastern and Western Fronts were quickly crumbling, millions of German men and woman had been thus far killed, hundreds of thousands of Germans were without homes and loved ones, the air campaign against the homeland had left many cities devastated and crippled - to say nothing about the unfortunate German troops awaiting the next Soviet onslaught along the Eastern Front, or those troops sent forward into the Ardennes region in the last-ditch "Battle of the Bulge" which saw American and German troops fighting bitterly without rest on Christmas day. The War virtually lost, Christmas came and went, leaving behind 6 long years of bitter warfare and conquest.