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Christmas — even in the darkest times

by
23 December 2022

In the depths of 1942, amid the desolation of the Eastern Front, German soldiers grasped for hope and miracles, says Peter Harmsen

Alamy

“Light, life, love”: the image of Mary and the Christ Child, known as “the Stalingrad Madonna”, drawn in charcoal on the back of a map by Kurt Reuber in 1942. Reuber was taken prisoner two months later, in February 1943, and died in January 1944 in the Prisoner-of-War camp in Yelabuga, Tartarstan. The drawing survived, and is now displayed in the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin

“Light, life, love”: the image of Mary and the Christ Child, known as “the Stalingrad Madonna”, drawn in charcoal on the back of a map by Kurt Reuber ...

IT WAS only four days since Richard Jung, a young soldier in an armoured engineering company of the German Wehrmacht, had been sunbathing on the French Riviera and taken a swim in the warm Mediterranean, and now he was standing in the middle of the freezing Polish night, on his way to the Eastern Front.

The train transporting the men to their destination was making a brief halt in the snow-covered countryside, and while they were waiting for it to move on, the company commander had spotted a small pine tree a little distance from the railway track. Now he was busy decorating it, hoping to cheer up the men. They called him “der Alte” or “the Old Man”. He was 25 years old.

The men gathered around the tree, now lit up by a few candles that someone had produced from a crate inside the train. They considered themselves tough soldiers, but many eyes were shining with tears in the flickering light. Home was on the minds of most of the men. It was nothing like the richly decorated, brightly lit Christmas trees of their childhood, but the memory alone was almost overwhelming to some.

At this moment, as they were lost in thoughts about a past now seeming impossibly remote and out of reach, they saw a lone figure emerging from the dark. It was an angel.

She had a white robe and long hair falling over her shoulders. She was wearing a headband with a star attached to it, and she had wings. In her hands was a basket filled with hard Polish peasant bread. The soldiers reached out, grabbing the bread and putting it in their pockets. Soon, the young men started singing a traditional German carol.

At first, only individual voices joined in, but soon the entire company was singing along. They knew they were on the way to the toughest front a German soldier, or Landser, could be sent to: immense, eternal Russia. Although no one said it out loud, this could very well be their last Christmas alive.

At the same time, while losing themselves in the choir, the men got a closer look at the angel. They noticed that her bare feet were stuck into rough men’s shoes, and that her robe was dirty. The wings were made of cardboard and were drooping sadly. The soldiers had probably known all along, but now it was made painfully clear that she was a peasant girl in her late teens, trying to sell bread and make a little money desperately needed at home.

Still, they wanted to keep the illusion of having met a messenger from God. “That night we believed in miracles,” Jung wrote many years later, “that Christmas Eve in 1942 on an insignificant section of railroad in Poland.”

 

RELIGION played a surprising part for the common German soldier, even though he served a regime that saw the Christian faith as an obstacle to the ideal, racially pure society it wanted to build. Lutherans from the north of Germany and Catholics from the south were united in their observance of Christmas.

The feeling of living in extraordinary times that required extraordinary sacrifices was heightened in the charged religious atmosphere. In 1914, the Catholic chaplain Jakob Ebner had observed the same phenomenon. “With rifle in one hand and helmet in the other, they kneeled down on the hard, frozen ground in front of the altar, to receive the greatest gift of Christmas,” he wrote in his diary. It was “a drama for angels and mankind, a great religious deed in a great and difficult time”.

Religion triggered a sense of magic associated with Christmas, recalling faint echoes of a past at home, when old fairy tales had been told in the warm glow from the Christmas tree with its bright candles. A few German soldiers even waxed lyrical about the Russian countryside in front of them, imbuing the barren landscape with supernatural qualities.

“Snow covers the devastation and transforms the bleak trees with their trunks and branches shot to pieces into an enchanted forest,” the infantryman Friedrich Grupe wrote in his diary. “At night a marvellous full moon rises over the battlefield.”

Even though the German soldiers were surrounded by evidence of the death and devastation they had brought to Russia, they nevertheless managed to convince themselves that they were fighting for the right cause. Young men who had managed to retain their religious devotion despite Nazi efforts to roll back the influence of the Christian Church, were made to believe that God was on their side, just as their belt buckles carried the inscription Gott mit uns: “God with us.”

The exhortation from a booklet published for Christmas 1942 was typical of this view: “Now, comrades, we will celebrate a German Christmas in enemy country! Make your hearts firm and pure! The Everlasting will bless our struggle if we keep the idea of love as a holy fire in our hearts. That way, the true, holy and great German Reich will emerge!”

For some German soldiers, there was an experience akin to religious revival as the constant danger at the front line left them desperate for some kind of consolation or spiritual refuge. “The value of religious care,” a Protestant chaplain wrote in Stalingrad, “has probably seldom been so quickly recognised as now in the time of encirclement. This was especially apparent during the Advent and Christmas celebrations, when so many of the outward trappings [of the normal holiday] had to be renounced. Here the most inner meaning of Christmas came to have much more validity than in other years.”

Seeking comfort in religion was not always simple, and soldiers had to search deep in their memories for bits and pieces of the Christian faith that had survived the Nazi attempts to de-emphasise the subject in the schools. At a hastily arranged Christmas service near the front, a German soldier read the Gospel of Luke to his comrades, and a sergeant who had also fought in the previous world war exclaimed “Amen”, and started singing “Sweeter the bells never sounded”, an old German carol. “Many were able to sing along. And then we sang on, all the carols we had sung at home,” a younger soldier wrote in a letter to his mother.

 

KURT REUBER, a 36-year-old priest and physician, was inspired by the overall mood of hopelessness and distress to draw a sketch of the Virgin Mary with the newborn Christ, with brown chalk on the back of a three-by-four-foot Russian map. He gave it the title “Christmas in the Cauldron”, and added the words: “Light, life, love” from the Gospel of John. “What else is there to say?” he wrote in a letter to his wife, describing the image to her. “Think about our situation, marked by darkness, death and hate — and our longing for light, life, love, which is so unfathomably large in each one of us!”

He placed the drawing in his quarters, with a candle below to enhance the visual impact. Then he let soldiers enter in small groups, in the same way that German fathers would open the door of their living rooms to their children to unveil the magic, decorated Christmas tree.

“An uncanny view, the flickering candlelight,” a soldier who saw the image wrote later. “[We stood] silent, with eyes wide open. The picture emanated a ghostly calm. . . The picture wouldn’t leave us alone. Many eyes were damp, there were tears.”

 

This is an edited extract from Darkest Christmas: December 1942 and a world at war by Peter Harmsen, published by Casemate Publishing at £29.95 (CT Bookshop £26.96); 978-1-63624-189-0.

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