Inside a Nazi Christmas Party, 1941
The images are chilling, bordering on surreal: On December 18, 1941, as World War II rages and the horrors of the Third Reich’s “final solution” grow ever clearer — killing operations at the Chełmno death camp, for instance, began less than two weeks earlier — Adolf Hitler presides over a Christmas party in Munich. Stark swastika armbands jarringly offset the glint of ornaments and tinsel dangling from a giant Tannenbaum; candles illuminate the festive scene. Confronted with the scene, a viewer might reasonably ask, How could Nazi leaders reconcile an ideology of hatred and conquest with the peaceful, joyous spirit of the holiday — much less its celebration of the birth of the Jewish Christ?
We cannot accept that a German Christmas tree has anything to do with a crib in a manger in Bethlehem. It is inconceivable for us that Christmas and all its deep soulful content is the product of an oriental religion.
Those were words of Nazi propagandist Friedrich Rehm in 1937, in pre-war attempts to take “oriental” religion out of the holiday by harking back to the pagan Yule, an ancient Northern European festival of the winter solstice. (An eye-opening 2009 exhibit at Cologne’s National Socialism Documentation Centre featured early Nazi propaganda employed to make over the holidays: swastika-shaped cookie-cutters; sunburst tree-toppers, to replace the traditional ornament Nazis feared looked too much like the Star of David; and rewritten lyrics to carols that excised all references to Christ.)
But by the time of the 1941 Christmas party featured in this gallery, with World War II at its height — America had officially entered the fray just weeks earlier, after Pearl Harbor — the focus shifted to more practical matters. Rather than trying to dissuade millions of Germans from celebrating Christmas the way they had for generations, the Reich instead encouraged them to send cards and care packages to the troops.
The photos published here were part of an enormous stash of color transparencies made by Hitler’s personal photographer, Hugo Jaeger, and buried in glass jars on the outskirts of Munich in 1945, near the war’s end. Advancing Allied forces had almost discovered the pictures during an earlier search of a house where Jaeger was staying (a bottle of cognac on top of the transparencies distracted the troops), and Jaeger — justifiably terrified that the photos would serve as evidence of his own ardent Nazism — cached them in the ground. A decade later, he exhumed the pictures; 10 years after that, he sold them to LIFE, which published a handful in 1970.
In fact, the caption accompanying the one frame from the Christmas party that was published by LIFE in April 1970 offers a possible explanation for Hitler’s glum expression in that photo (slide #3):
“In 1941, Hitler gave this Christmas party for his generals. Though he dominated his officers and came to despise them, Hitler never felt socially at ease with them — they had better backgrounds and education. He never invited them to dinner, aware that they looked down on the old comrades he liked to have around.”
As for the religious views of Hitler himself, the evidence is conflicting: In public statements he sometimes praised Christianity (once calling it “the foundation of our national morality”), but in private conversations — including one recalled by the Third Reich’s official architect, Albert Speer — the Führer is said to have abhorred the faith for what he deemed its “meekness and flabbiness.” Hitler did, however, fervently worship one thing above all else: the so-called Aryan race. And by the time Hugo Jaeger took the photos seen here, Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, commanding general of the SS, had articulated and launched their plan for creating a “master” race — via, in large part, the mass murder of Europe’s Jews and other “undesirables.”