A seasonal tale of politics, propaganda and paganism in Hitler's Third Reich
If the Nazis were sworn enemies of Christianity, why were they so obsessed with Christmas? And how did they square celebrating the season of goodwill with their racialist policies?
What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Imagine the scene. It’s December 1936, and the shadow of war has not yet fallen over the people of Germany, who are now experiencing their fourth Christmas since Hitler’s National Socialist Party came to power and began its transformation of modern Germany. The streets of every town and city are busy with last-minute shoppers; the sounds of carol-singing and the rattle of Winter Relief collection tins fills the evening air; people wish one another a Happy Christmas as they stand before a great tree, proudly decorated and topped with a huge Swastika.
Is it possible, even, that a regime which was shortly to embark on an apocalyptic and genocidal course of action that would plunge the entire world into conflict saw itself as Christian?
A New Religion?
Hitler’s Third Reich has often been described as possessing the qualities of a religious movement in its own right, and it’s easy to see why: a political party led by a cult figure with a Messianic vision of his adopted country’s redemption is swept to power and sets about effecting a complete transformation of society. Even at the time, some commentators compared Nazism to a religion: one unnamed member of the exiled Social Democratic Party wrote in April 1937 that the result of National Socialism was a “church-state” or a “counter-church” with its own dogmata and rituals, demanding total dedication and belief from its congregation. The following year, philosopher of history Eric Voegelin published The Political Religions, arguing that phenomena such as National Socialism were examples of a latter-day immanentist heresy, functioning as pseudo-religions even as they replaced what they saw as an outmoded Christianity with virtual parodies of religious forms, creating a “congregation of the faithful” bereft of all genuine moral bearings.  After the war, Norman Cohn could call National Socialism, with its promise of a thousand-year Reich and its identification of the Jews as the forces of evil, a form of millennial belief,  while analysis of Nazi iconography, art and architecture has revealed the extent to which the regime drew upon religious inspiration in its staging of national identity and its mobilization of Führer-worship. 
But while the Nazis may have deliberately usurped many of the areas of life usually reserved for the ministrations of Germany’s two Confessions – Protestantism and Roman Catholicism – Hitler was clear that he had no intention of turning the National Socialist Party into a religious movement, and strongly criticized those völkisch elements whom, prior to the seizure of power, he saw as trying to “to turn Nazism from a political movement with a religious deportment into a religious movement with a political deportment.” 
The fact that the German states had been divided along sectarian lines since the Reformation meant that one of the challenges for the Nazis was to unite the nation and to bridge this religious divide, and one of the key strategies employed was to valorize the ideals of ‘blood and soil’, of the race and the nation, to raise the Nazi state and its supporters above the two Confessions. There was a far neater fit between certain Protestant groups – who had been toying with pan-Germanism and völkisch ideas long before the Nazis’ seizure of power – than with the Catholic Church, but Hitler wanted at all costs to avoid being drawn into sectarian warfare: “I need Bavarian Catholics as well as Prussian Protestants to build up a great political movement,” he is supposed to have said. 
There was, ultimately, no attempt to replace the two Confessions with a ‘national religion’. Hitler may have dreamt of at least uniting the disparate Protestant denominations into a ‘Reich Church’, but he seems to have had little sympathy for those within the party who wished to replace Christianity with a new, purpose-built ‘national’ religion; as early as his imprisonment in Landsberg prison, where he wrote Mein Kampf, he appears to have decided that his movement would not be of a völkisch-religious nature, and criticized those who promoted such ideas: “For the political leader the religious doctrines and institutions of his people must always remain inviolable; or else he has no right to be in politics but should become a reformer, if he has what it takes!” 
When Arthur Dinter attempted to steer the NSDAP (National-sozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiter Partei) toward sectarian revolution – arguing that “the Roman Pope’s church is just as terrible an enemy… as the Jew” – he was quickly expelled from the party. Hitler was determined to avoid the party being drawn into the dangerous realm of sectarian religious struggle: “We are a people of different faiths, but we are one. Which faith conquers the other is not the question; rather, the question is whether Christianity stands or falls.” 
Though nominally a Catholic, Hitler – like previous generations of nationalists – revealed a preference for the content of German Protestantism, which, from the mid-19th century had given rise to a particular type of theology based on the idea of the ‘nation’ (and, by extension, the ‘race’) as one of the Orders of God’s Creation; such ideas would feed directly into the Nazi vision of the sacred nature of the German national identity.
In fact, the Nazi Party – despite popular views of it as an irreligious movement that held both churches in contempt and planned to do away with them at a later date – even at the highest levels, was home to practicing Christians from both Confessions as well as to every other shade of religious opinion. Propaganda Minister Josef Göbbels, for instance, was hostile to the ‘temporal’ church, but remained convinced that Jesus was the first true ‘socialist’ and that National Socialism merely aimed to put his example into practice. For many other Nazis, Christianity could be accommodated by simply throwing out the Old Testament, on the grounds that it was a ‘Jewish book’ and insisting – as did Hitler – that Jesus, rather than being himself a Jew, was in fact an Aryan and the first fighter against the Jews .
On the other side were those who made no distinction between Church and Christianity and wanted to do away with both; SS man Reinhart Heydrich, head of the feared Security Police, despised religion in any form and harboured fantasies of bringing down the Catholic Church from within by infiltrating his own men into theological seminaries. 
But while such militants – along with SA thugs and SS fanatics – did real harm to the persons and property of both churches, their power was to some extent constrained; according to Albert Speer, it was Hitler’s belief that: “The church would learn to adapt to the political goals of National Socialism in the long run, as it had always adapted in the course of history. A new party religion would only bring about a relapse into the mysticism of the Middle Ages. The growing SS myth showed that clearly enough, as did Rosenberg’s unreadable Myth of the Twentieth Century.” 
And then there were those who, while implacable foes of Christianity as an alien religion of weaklings, wished to replace it with a ‘homegrown’ faith of their own devising.
If Swastikas were adorning Christmas trees all over Germany by the mid-1930s, they weren’t an entirely novel form of seasonal decoration.
On Christmas Day 1907, an eccentric former Cistercian monk named Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels celebrated the festive season by hoisting a Swastika flag atop the tower of Burg Werfenstein, the ruined Viennese castle he’d bought as the headquarters for his order of modern-day Knights Templar, the Ordo Novi Templi.
Lanz was a disciple of fellow Austrian and pan-German Guido von List, founder of a branch of mystical neo-Paganist thought called Ariosophy. Both men were perfect examples of another current in nationalist German thinking that both fed into and provided a context for the growth of Nazism; they were both occupied with unearthing evidence of a prehistoric Aryan master race that could serve as the basis and inspiration for a modern pan-German state.
List drew initially not on Germanic mythology but Theosophy, deriving from Mme Blavatsky’s voluminous output the concept of the Aryan ‘root race’ and the symbol of the swastika, which he interpreted as representing the unconquerable Germanic hero figure. List went on to ‘discover’ the forgotten traces of a pre-Christian Wotan cult in the old Germanic lands – though his finds were the product not so much of scientific method or archæological rigour as of flashes of illumination, rather like Alfred Watkins’s similar discovery of ‘leys’ in the British countryside. And just as Watkins went on to find traces of his ‘old straight track’ and its makers in common English and Welsh place names, List discovered traces of Wotan worship and a proto-Aryan runic language in the names of Austrian towns and villages, as well as evidence of runic symbols in everything from house construction to heraldry.
From here, it was a short step to a full-blown historical conspiracy theory in which the priesthood of the old Germanic religion had been wiped out by an invading Christianity and the idea that it was now the moment for this secret tradition to be revived by List and his followers. The result would be a new, rigidly hierarchical Aryan state in which non-Aryans would be ruthlessly subjugated and strict race and marriage laws would ensure the continued dominance of the Aryan bloodline, watched over by a new secret knightly order, “whose power was holy, absolute and mysterious”.  Uncannily, List appeared to be foreseeing something very like the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and the emergence of Himmler’s modern ‘knightly’ order, the Schutzstaffel or SS.
Lanz developed some of List’s ideas even further, creating a terrifying vision of Manichean racial struggle in which the blonde and blue-eyed Aryan is locked in eternal conflict with the bestial dark races; according to Lanz’s wonderfully titled 1905 tract Theo-Zoology, or the Lore of the Sodom-Apelings and the Electron of the Gods, the decadent state of contemporary Western civilisation was the result of centuries of deadly interbreeding between these two races and the ancient practice of “the rearing of love-pygmies (Buhlzwerge) for deviant sexual pleasure”. 
Exactly to what extent the emergence and doctrines of Nazism were indebted to the Ariosophists, Wotan-worshippers and rune-readers is not easy to determine. There is some evidence that Hitler read – and possibly even met – Lanz von Liebenfels, who in 1932 wrote: “Hitler is one of our pupils”.  Hitler was certainly aware of List’s work, from which a line can be traced through various reactionary occultist societies such as the Thule Society and the Germanenorden and on to the more mystically inclined elements of the Nazi party; Himmler’s patronage of Karl Maria Wiligut, whose runic researches were rooted in List’s earlier work, is well known.
But, while Himmler – when he wasn’t studying the World Ice Theory or pondering the location of Atlantis – continued to encourage the kind of ‘research’ undertaken by List, Lanz and others, as well as turning the SS into an order actively committed to moving beyond the confines of an outmoded Christianity, it’s important to remember that Hitler, and many other Nazi top brass, had little sympathy for this kind of mythologising. According to Albert Speer, Hitler would often launch into tirades against Himmler: “What nonsense! Here we have at last reached an age that has left all mysticism behind it, and now he wants to start all over again. We might just as well have stayed with the Church. At least it had tradition. To think that I may some day be turned into an SS saint! Can you imagine it? I would turn over in my grave…”  And on Himmler’s archæological digs: “Why do we have to call the whole world’s attention to the fact that we have no past? It isn’t enough that the Romans were erecting great buildings when we were still living in mud huts; now Himmler is digging up these villages… and enthusing over every potsherd and stone axe he finds.” 
Nevertheless, such enthusiasms – if freed from their air of mystical pseudo-religiosity – could prove eminently useful in constructing a new, Nazified Christmas in which the figure of Jesus made way for that of the Führer and the divide between the two Confessions was bridged by appeals to a far older national identity.
If the National Socialists were divided amongst themselves as to just what form religion in the Third Reich should take, then Christmas was both a proving ground for their varying ambitions and a site of conflicting ideas and contradictory impulses.
Christmas, of course, was one of the most important dates in the calendar for German Christians of both Confessions; but for the Nazis it also offered a priceless opportunity to capitalize on a festival that traditionally brought people and families together and to overlay it with meanings central to a new conception of the German state.
As one party functionary, Hannes Kremer, put it: “In our efforts to deepen National Socialist forms of behaviour in the area of rituals and ceremonies, we have two main tasks. On the one hand, we must create new ideas and new customs, and on the other hand it is necessary to adjust those customs that have grown out of the people to the ‘new community of the Germans,’ which means giving these inherited customs a new content consistent with the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft)… Here it is a question of creating new customs for the new political worldview… These new customs develop directly from the ideas, experiences, and traditions of the party itself.” 
Remodelling the calendar and creating new holidays was a well established revolutionary method of doing away with the old and validating the new (witness the French Revolution), and the Nazis had wasted no time in introducing various holidays based on party history and ideology – Hitler’s Birthday, German Mother’s Day and the Day of Remembrance for the Fallen of the Movement were some of the new additions to the German year. But recasting Christmas as a National Socialist holiday was a more problematic affair – after all, it was a genuinely popular festival with its own familiar traditions, as well as a key date in the Christian calendar.
So how did the Nazis go about redefining Christmas in their own image?
In some senses, much of the necessary work had already been done for them: just as völkisch movements and neo-pagan thinkers had begun to redefine German identity through dubious historical research and ‘invented traditions’ from the mid-19th century on, Christmas had likewise been identified as having its roots in a pre-Christian ‘Nordic’ celebration of the winter solstice. Although Christmas was celebrated all over the world, in Germany it came to be seen as a particularly German festival, full of survivals of a lost past – tree cults and solstice fires – that modern Germans could reconnect with through ‘Nordic’ Christmas trees, and the flickering drama of paganistic bonfires and torchlight parades. 
These were just the sort of connections that Himmler’s ‘Ancestral Heritage Research and Training Foundation’ – or Ahnenerbe – delighted in uncovering, and chimed perfectly with the anti-Christian ethos of the SS; but even for the non-pagans in the party they proved immensely useful as a way of cultivating explicitly nationalistic feelings wrapped in a notionally Christian package.
Irmgard Hunt, whose recently published memoir of growing up in the town of Berchtesgaden, in the shadow of Hitler’s Alpine retreat on the Obersalzburg, recalled such efforts:
The word Weihnacht (holy night) may have come from pagan times but had for ages stood for the blessing brought by the birth of Jesus. The Nazis, however, began to promote a different name for the holiday, calling it Julfest (Yuletide) or Rauhnacht (Rough Night) to emphasize a neo-pagan, Nordic/Germanic concept that focused on the winter solstice, the harsh, dark times that required forbearance and strength, followed by the long-awaited return of the Sun. 
By avoiding explicit references to the birth of Christ and the festival’s Christian message and substituting a vaguely pagan but undeniably nationalistic symbolism, the Nazis appeared to be replacing, or conflating, one Messiah with another; as well as the ‘Son’ with the ‘Sun’. To their thinking, after the dark years of World War I, Versailles and Weimar, a redeemer had indeed emerged, bearing a blazing swastika and promises of national renewal. The Führer, as head of the Nazi state, would preside over a Christmas that addressed not Confessions or denominations but every member of the Nazi state – a Volksweihnachten or “People’s Christmas”.
The Swastika on the Christmas tree
Such appropriations of Christmas were felt in both the public and private spheres: if Christmas was to become the “People’s Christmas”, then it was vital to involve as many of the people as possible in Nazified celebrations. Most Party-sponsored or affiliated mass organizations mounted events and activities; the Hitler Youth, for instance, ran ‘Home Evenings’ where youngsters made hand-crafted gifts to help raise money for the Winter Relief Campaign (itself a prime example of Nazi ‘co-ordination’ of previously non-party activities such as charitable works), while the League of German Women and the German Workers Front organized their own Christmas celebrations for members. Then there were the great state-orchestrated celebrations that took place across the country, employing “fire and light to symbolize the revival of ancient ‘Nordic’ rituals and the ‘national rebirth’ of the German community”,  evocations of the pre-Christian past in which Hitler Youth brigades re-enacted ‘solstice rituals’, Storm Troopers gathered about blazing bonfires to swear ‘oaths of fire’ and torchlight parades through city streets were a common sight.
‘People’s Christmas trees’, adorned with gleaming Swastikas, were a feature in town and city squares across the Reich, the focal point for carol singing, speeches by Nazi officials and other carefully stage-managed events. In Berlin, Göbbels himself would appear, handing out presents to children beneath such trees and praising the spirit of unity now abroad in the land.
Carol-singing was another popular tradition vulnerable to Nazi tampering. Silent Night – always sung on Christmas Eve – was saddled with new words:
Silent Night! Holy Night! All is calm; all is bright,
There were constant worries as to just what tone should be adopted in celebrating the Volksweihnachten. Vulgarity was to be avoided: “We must realize that the Christmas holiday or Christmas festival is more than a date on the calendar suitable for cheap entertainment events. We cannot meet our goals in the style of pre-war clubs with their ‘variety evenings’, raffles or the ever-so-popular military farce. Not even if ‘Bananini the Magician’ or ‘Bear Mouth the Sword Swallower’ make a guest appearance.”  In fact, such commercialization of Christmas seemed to bother the Nazis as much as it did the Church. When “the kitschy commercial trivia of domestic celebration… merged with fascist symbols,” producing an appetite for home decorations featuring “Nazi insignia, including Swastika-shaped Christmas tree lights or chocolate SA or SS men”, the Party attempted to bring in a law for the protection of national symbols which would put an end to this festive misuse of Nazi iconography. 
But the private sphere of the family Christmas – with its tree decorations and cosy Christmas customs – was just as important an arena in which to promote and circulate National Socialist values. Nazi ideology valorized the family – after all, the most important building block for a future Nazi state in which reproduction (by ‘Aryans’, of course) was encouraged and rewarded – and particularly the role of women within it. Women were seen as a vital conduit for linking the domestic rituals of the traditional Christmas with the new values of Nazi Germany. One expert at the time argued that they naturally understood the significance of the Volksweihnachten because they were “anchored more deeply than the man in the native soil of authentic national character”. 
These chthonic mothers, then, presided over a number of important rituals that tied the family into the wider national community – lighting candles on the Christmas tree was meant to create a magical and paganistic atmosphere that would “subsume references to the star of Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus in a feeling of ‘Germanness’”.  They were encouraged to avoid kitschy Christmas decorations and to buy specially hand-crafted objects of a more völkisch nature. One 1939 guide to creating the perfect Nazi home enthused over carved wooden Christmas tree stands: “Such a tree stand changes the festival, since it is a family heirloom that, however simple it may be, makes an impression. The wreaths symbolize the closed circle of our lives and of time, of the year and the months; the spokes symbolise the seasons.”  There is no reference to Christ or Christianity here, rather an emphasis on family, continuity and the cycle of the year.
As well as purchasing such items – Himmler’s own porcelain works turned out ‘Germanic’ objects to replace Christian ones, including a Yuletide candleholder supposedly copied “from an old specimen handed down from the early past of our volk” – mothers and children were encouraged to make their own decorations shaped like Sun Wheels, runes or fertility symbols, linking the everyday sphere with the mythologised past of the eternal ‘Nordic’ nation.
Many commentators on the Third Reich have assumed two things: firstly, that the Nazis were united in an anti-Christian agenda, and, secondly, that the Party’s attempts to redraw the German calendar and to Nazify Christian holidays such as Christmas were largely a failure.
Part of that success, of course, was the creation of a unified image of the German nation as blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryans celebrating ‘Nordic’ traditions that pre-dated Christianity and were anchored in the ‘blood and soil’ of their native land. As such, the Nazified Christmas was consciously exclusionary, as much an expression of anti-Semitism as of nationalistic or religious feelings; in fact, all three were inextricably intertwined in the Nazi ideology. There was no place for Jews or other despised ethnic groups around the Nordic Christmas tree, and even such seemingly innocent activities as Christmas shopping could be turned into ideological gestures, with Jewish businesses being boycotted or worse.
And, in the end, for those who were excluded from the Nazis’ Christmas party, far worse was to come as they bore the brunt of the regime’s increasingly genocidal, racist fantasies.
As Germany became mired in an increasingly hopeless war, Christmas festivities became more problematic. These pages from an advent booklet draw on established German traditions of the Kriegsweihnachten ("War Christmas") with its images of celebrating Christmas at the Front, far from their families.
With special thanks to Professor Randall Bytwerk
1 Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History, Hill & Wang, 2000, pp5–13. Voegelin was later persecuted by the Gestapo and his books banned.