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How the Nazis co-opted for Christmas

In 1921, in a Munich brewery, the new Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler gave a Christmas speech to an enthusiastic crowd. According to undercover police observers, 4,000 supporters applauded when Hitler condemned “the cowardly Jews for breaking the liberator of the world on the cross” and vowed “not to rest until the Jews … fell. On the ground”. Later, the crowd sang Christmas carols and nationalist hymns around a Christmas tree. Participants from the working class received charitable donations. For the Germans of the 1920s and 1930s, this combination of familiar holiday observance, nationalist propaganda and anti-Semitism was hardly unusual. As the Nazi Party grew in size and reach – and finally seized power in 1933 – committed propagandists worked to “Nazify” Christmas further. By redefining familiar traditions and devising new symbols and rituals, they hoped to channel the main principles of National Socialism through the popular holiday. radio broadcasts and press articles. But under any totalitarian regime, there can be a great disparity between public and private life, between the rituals of the town square and those of the home. In my research, I became interested in how Nazi symbols and rituals permeated private and family festivities – away from the eyes of party leaders. Although some Germans resisted the brutal and politicized appropriation of the favorite holiday. from Germany, many actually adopted a Nazi holiday. which evoked the place of the family in the “racial state”, free of Jews and other foreigners. Redefining Christmas One of the most striking features of private celebration in Nazi times was the redefinition of Christmas as a neo-pagan and Nordic celebration. Rather than focusing on the religious origins of the holiday, the Nazi version celebrated the supposed heritage of the Aryan race, the label the Nazis gave to “racially acceptable” members of the German racial state. practiced by the “Germanic” tribes before the arrival of Christianity. Lighting candles on the Christmas tree, for example, recalled pagan desires for the “return of the light” after the shortest day of the year. Researchers have drawn attention to the manipulative function of these and other invented traditions. But that’s no reason to assume they were unpopular. Since the 1860s, German historians, theologians, and popular writers had argued that German holiday celebrations were vestiges of pre-Christian pagan rituals and popular popular superstitions. So, because these ideas and traditions had a long history, Nazi propagandists could easily make Christmas a celebration of German pagan nationalism. A vast state apparatus (centered on the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda and Enlightenment) ensured that a Nazi party dominated public space and celebration under the Third Reich, but two aspects of the Nazi version of Christmas were relatively new. First, because Nazi ideologues viewed organized religion as an enemy of the totalitarian state, the propagandists sought to de-emphasize – or completely eliminate – the Christian aspects of the holiday. The official celebrations might mention a supreme being, but they featured more prominently the solstice and “light” rituals that would have captured the pagan origins of the holiday. Second, as Hitler’s speech in 1921 suggests, the Nazi celebration evoked racial purity and anti-Semitism. Before the Nazis took power in 1933, ugly and overt attacks on German Jews were holiday propaganda. Blatant anti-Semitism more or less disappeared after 1933, as the regime sought to stabilize its control over a population tired of political conflict, even though Nazi celebrations still excluded those deemed “unfit” by the regime. Countless media images of invariably blonde, blue-eyed German families gathered around the Christmas tree helped normalize ideologies of racial purity. Open anti-Semitism did emerge at Christmas, however. Many would boycott Jewish-owned department stores. And the cover page of a 1935 mail order Christmas catalog, which featured a blonde mother wrapping Christmas presents, included a sticker assuring customers that “the department store has been taken over by an Aryan!” This is a small, almost banal example. But that says a lot. In Nazi Germany, even buying a gift could naturalize anti-Semitism and reinforce the “social death” of Jews in the Third Reich. The message was clear: only “Aryans” could participate in the celebration. According to National Socialist theorists, women – especially mothers – were essential in strengthening the links between private life and the “new spirit” of the German racial state. Daily festive acts – wrapping gifts, decorating the house, cooking “German” holiday dishes, and throwing family celebrations – were linked to a cult of sentimental “Nordic” nationalism. Propagandists proclaimed that as a “priestess” and “protector of home and hearth,” the German mother could use Christmas to “bring the spirit of the German home back to life.” The holiday issues of women’s magazines, Nazi Christmas books and Nazi Christmas carols tinted conventional family customs with regime ideology. This sort of ideological manipulation took everyday forms. Mothers and children were encouraged to make homemade decorations in the shape of the “wheel of the sun of Odin” and to bake holiday cookies in the shape of a loop (a symbol of fertility). The ritual of lighting candles on the Christmas tree was said to create an atmosphere of “pagan demonic magic” that would embrace the Star of Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus in feelings of “germination”. Family song embodied the porous boundaries between private and official forms of celebration. Propagandists tirelessly promoted many Nazified Christmas songs, which replaced Christian themes with racial ideologies of the regime. Exalted Night of the Clear Stars, the most famous Nazi song, has been reprinted in Nazi songbooks, aired on radio programs, performed at countless public celebrations – and sung at home. Indeed, Exalted Night has become so familiar that it could still be sung in the 1950s as part of a regular family celebration (and, apparently, as part of some public performances today!). While the song’s melody mimics a traditional chant, the lyrics deny the holiday’s Christian origins. The verses of stars, light and an Eternal Mother suggest a world redeemed by faith in National Socialism – not Jesus. Conflict or consensus among the German public? We will never know exactly how many German families sang Exalted Night or baked Germanic sun wheel shaped Christmas cookies. But we do have information about the popular reaction to the Nazi party, mostly from official sources. For example, the “activity reports” of the National League of Socialist Women (NSF) show that the redefinition of Christmas created some disagreement among members. NSF files note that tensions erupted when propagandists insisted too hard on ruling out religious observance, which led to “much doubt and discontent.” Religious traditions often clashed with ideological goals: was it acceptable for “staunch National Socialists” to celebrate Christmas with Christmas carols and Christian cribs? How could Nazi believers observe a Nazi vacation when stores mainly sold conventional holiday products and rarely stocked Nazi Christmas books? During this time, German clergymen openly resisted Nazi attempts to remove Christ from Christmas. In Düsseldorf, clergymen took advantage of Christmas to encourage women to join their respective women’s clubs. Catholic clergy threatened to excommunicate women who joined the NSF. Elsewhere, women of faith boycotted Christmas parties and NSF charity campaigns. Yet such dissent never really questioned the main tenets of the Nazi party. Public opinion reports compiled by the Nazi secret police have often commented on the popularity of the Nazi Christmas festivities. Well into World War II, as impending defeat increasingly discredited the Nazi holiday, the secret police reported that complaints about official policies were dissolved in a general “Christmas mood.” Despite the conflicts around Christianity, many Germans accepted Christmas Nazification. The return to colorful and pleasant “Germanic” pagan traditions promised to revitalize the family celebration. Not least, the observation of a Nazi holiday symbolized racial purity and national belonging. The “Aryans” could celebrate German Christmas. The Jews couldn’t. The Nazification of the family celebration thus revealed the paradoxical and contested ground of private life under the Third Reich. The seemingly mundane, everyday decision to sing a particular Christmas carol, or bake a holiday cookie, has become either an act of political dissent or an expression of support for National Socialism.This article is republished from The Conversation, a Nonprofit information site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. Read more: * Hitler at home: How the Nazi PR machine remade the domestic image of the Führer and fooled the world * How Charles Dickens redeemed the Christmas spirit * Can astronomy explain the biblical star of Bethlehem? Joe Perry received funding from the German Exchange Service University and Georgia State University.


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