SINCE its genesis, “Silent night” has stirred minds like no other Christmas carol. Many consider it the epitome of the Christmas carol in the German-speaking world. It simultaneously conveys the Christian message of Christmas, connects (childlike) memories of Christmas Eve, and imparts — even to its critics — the call to stand still and contemplate. It thus seems to almost invite new versions of the text.
In the political Christmas of the 20th century, four epochs can be distinguished: Christmas in the German Empire, Christmas in the Weimar Republic, Nazi Christmas, and Christmas in post-war Germany. In each of these periods, typical text adaptations of the time emerged.
Christmas in the German Empire
CHRISTMAS in the German Empire was characterised by a broad public interest in the celebration. Christmas celebrations were held in the field (with obligatory singing of “Silent night”), in which the Christian saviour remained present, and the German Emperor almost attained equal status to him.
The Christmas tree, a requisite of today’s Christmas enactment, was introduced through politics and the regulated nationwide installation within German families during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. It represented homesickness, a family feeling, and longing for peace; but also a sign of victory (with particular respect to the war).
Social Democracy oriented itself towards the middle-class Christmas celebration, and all the while used it as an opportunity to denounce social wrongs. The so-called “Workers’ Silent Night” by the recital artist Boleslaw Strzelewicz was written at about the turn of the century, and serves as an example of this. A translation reads:
Silent night, sad night,
all around splendorous light!
In the hut only misery and distress,
cold and bleak, no light and no bread,
poverty sleeps on straw.
The contrast with the idyll with the Holy Family and that of the middle-class Christmas, with its “splendorous light” is openly expressed. The Christmas of humanity is sought after, not the Christmas in the stable. Hope lies more in freedom for all than in that of the “saviour”. The song culminates in an appeal to wake up (instead of “sleep in heavenly peace”) to action, to fight.
The “socially forward” Strzelewicz travelled through Germany with two others organising satirical evenings for workers’ organisations, which had become possible again since the abolition of anti-socialist laws. Fotizik observes: “His most popular song, the ‘Workers’ Silent Night’, was considered a subversive song, and thus repeatedly banned by authorities before the First World War.”
Variants of the “Workers’ Silent Night” were sung until the 1920s. The caretaker of a Berlin girls’ home, quoted by Lisbeth Franzen-Hellersberg, reports: “This song has made its mark. It is copied, learned, in the same way as love songs and hits. Not only by the girls who are left-wing from their upbringing; it had a general popularity.” This rewriting of “Silent night” — in contrast with any other political works — was widespread for many decades.
During the First World War, several text adaptations of “Silent night” emerged. The dominant themes of the following version (a handwritten version from Greifenberg, in Pomerania, 1917) contain the complaints of the soldiers, their homesickness, and their longing for peace and their own (and not the Holy) family. Compliance and resignation remain, however: no call for disobedience or even desertion is hinted at.
Silent night, holy night,
Germany’s defence on guard far away,
they think of home, of wife and child,
who are lonely again today
in the holy night.
Christmas in the Weimar Republic
CHRISTMAS in the Weimar Republic differed greatly from Christmas during the German Empire.
At social democratic Christmas celebrations in the 1920s, the following version of “Silent night” focused on survival, with the words “bread” and “hunger” indicating the recession and financial hardship of the time. This text adaptation was also popular in Communist circles:
Silent night, holy night,
Watches over our worries,
And in this sacred hour
Many a hungry mouth asks:
Make, O father, us bread.
Silent night, holy night,
In the palace — splendorous light,
Milk and bread in abundance,
In poverty, ones starves silently,
When does the saviour come?
National Socialist Christmas
IN THE 12 years of the Third Reich (1933-45), the clearest example of political Christmas was evident: the agitation towards Christmas in the public space increased continuously from 1933 until the beginning of the Second World War, and was extended to families with full consequences from 1942.
Various National Socialist governing bodies contributed to the appropriation of the Christmas celebration. Despite their different orientations, all institutions were concerned with reinterpreting Christmas in the name of National Socialism: as a non-Christian festival based on Germanic roots that could now be rediscovered or reworked.
Rewritten or brand-new Christmas carols, which were intended to be sung by families, were a popular means of communicating the new “inherent” (non-Christian) contents of the festival. This was the first attempt to directly infiltrate the living rooms of German families at Christmas and enforce National Socialist ideologies.
The central contents of the National Socialist (wartime) Christmas, reflected in these songs, encompassed the motherhood cult (Mutterkult) and a new moral “armament” for women, followed by nature mysticism, and hero commemoration.
Although it was not official, there was an indirect ban on Christian Christmas carols. It goes without saying that “Silent night” fell within this ban. As the best known and most popular Christian carol, it had become obsolete within the context of the new Führer religion. Only a few text adaptations existed, but were uncommon. This one is by Georg Schmückle, written in about 1940.
Silent night, holy night,
Mother did you think of me?
A shimmering star hangs in the Christmas tree
for your child in the lost distance,
a shimmering, sparkling star.
The reinterpretation of the German family as a Holy Family was typical of the National Socialist ideology. The content — the strong homesickness, the longing for the family — contrasts, however, with other militant Nazi Christmas carols, since it is more destabilising than motivating. This could probably explain the lack of success and limited circulation of the song.
Another text adaptation received particularly violent criticism from party-affiliated reviewers. “This new rewording of ‘Silent night’ supposedly corresponded to the singing of the troops [i.e. ‘growing out’ of the people rather than conceived by an author] and was considered completely unacceptable,” notes Fred K. Prieberg. This version is anonymous, about 1940.
Silent night, holy night,
Germany’s sons keep watch.
Snowing in the trenches
we lie ready, man by man,
lurking by day and by night.
At a first glance, the following “Silent night” adaptation, emerging in the Third Reich, could be considered ideologically flawless. Note the frequency of the adjectives “proud” and “free” in this version — as opposed to Mohr’s “silent “and “holy” — and with the central idea that Jesus is not needed, since humankind can save itself with “freedom”. Nevertheless, to my knowledge, this text (anonymous, about 1940) has been reprinted only once.
Silent night, holy splendour!
The sea of stars
give wise instruction!
God proclaims to us in the vast universe,
Knowing nothing of humility
and the torment of servitude.
Knowing only the proud and free,
They can be truly blessed by God.
Text adaptations of existing Christian Christmas carols, such as new versions of “Silent night”, were regarded as poor substitutes by the National Socialists — even those who were (very superficially) state-supporting:
Silent night, holy night,
All are sleeping, alone and awake
Only the chancellor faithfully alert,
Keeps watch of Germany’s prosperity well,
Always mindful of us.
Subliminal reminiscences of the original text were unavoidable when retaining the old melody. Therefore, new “powerful” — as they were typically known in the language of the time — Christmas songs were undeniably preferred and commonly published.
The most successful was “Hohe Nacht der klaren Sterne” with text and music by Hans Baumann (1936), one of the Hauspoeten (home poets) of National Socialism.
“Hohe Nacht der klaren Sterne” was the most commonly sung Christmas song adopted by the National Socialists. It was their “Silent night” in terms of its core content of the new, intrinsic world-view of the time, its easy catchy melody, and its relationship to the awakening of a very special mood created for a specific situation.
High night of the clear stars,
which stand like wide bridges,
over a deep distance,
over it our hearts go.
High night with big fires,
that are on all mountains,
today the earth must renew itself
like a newborn child.
Mothers, for all you fires,
all stars are created;
Mothers, deep in your hearts
beats the heart of the vast world.
The omnipotence of nature, the living, and the mothers (not particularly Mary, mother of Jesus) take precedence over the child Jesus, who is the focus in “Silent night”, and steps into the background here; it is no coincidence that Baumann only attaches a marginal content and linguistic part to the child: it is no more than an attribute.
Christmas in East and West Germany after 1945
AFTER 1945, two ways to celebrate Christmas arose in Germany: those of the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany. There were only a few distinctions between the two sides, until far into the 1960s, with regard to the family Christmas, a celebration among the closest family circle, the tree, and its presentation (Bescherung).
The portrayal of the public Christmas was completely different, however: in the East, it was a socialist peace festival, and in the West, a commercial celebration.
The Socialist Unity Party of Germany linked its “secularised message of the socialist peace festival” with the communist propaganda of the 1920s. Indicative of the official position was the title of a Christmas anthology: Friede schafft der Mensch allein (“Peace alone creates man”), which appeared in 1959 in the publishing house Junge Welt, in (East) Berlin.
Christmas in West Germany was still marked by uncertainty after 1945. There was no reappraisal — on the contrary, very soon (presumably owing to the great yearning for normality, especially at Christmas) the old “rules” were followed: a celebration within the family circle with gifts, a tree, and great food.
The associated buying frenzy and simulated idyll of the Federal Republic’s Christmas did not go unmentioned: satirists and writers assumed the topic and formulated it in witty parodies or critical rewordings. Existing Christmas carols were also revisited.
Waltraud Linder-Beroud writes: “A whole series of Christmas song parodies arose [at the end of the 1960s] during spontaneous actions, like the manning of warehouse-entrances in December 1968 on Saturdays of sale, calling for a gift boycott. . .
“The tedium of constant exposure to Christmas carols in advertising, in the media, and in department stores in face of the Vietnam War and hunger in the Third World is unmistakably expressed in the polemic texts.”
The songs, which arose in the Christmas period as well as those in the singer-songwriter scene, often have parodic elements. “The Christmas songs of the German student movement were agitational texts intended to enlighten and provoke,” Doris Foitzik notes.
Once again, “Silent night” lent itself to being reworked. The following version (with a variety of witty, yet also bitter, and sometimes even disrespectful, allusions to the Mohr text, together with an affront on basic Christian policies and teachings) is by Dieter Süverkrüp, who, along with Franz Josef Degenhardt, was one of the most successful political songwriters of the 1960s.
Christmas bonus is brought
by Knecht Ruprecht from the Lo-hon [pay]office.
Silently, the staff go to the toilet,
counting how many crumbs
mercifully fell from the Lord’s table. . .
Wild night, striking night!
One day, not quite gently,
we flout at the mercy of the Lord,
take over the corporation
and the leadership of the state.
That will be a Christmas celebration!
“Silent night” text adaptations are a multi-faceted mirror of the time, taking up current political topics and reprocessing them. They paint a picture of Christmas in each present-day situation, and prove the liveliness and resilience of the “eternal” song.
Dr Gajek is a researcher at the University of Regensburg. This essay, abridged here, appears in Silent Night: A companion to the song, edited by Thomas Hochradner and Michael Neureiter, and translated by Claire Austen (Verlag Anton Pustet, 2018, £23.57 (CT Bookshop £21.20); 978-3-7025-0918-7).