Will a Nazi poet's Christmas carol remain in book of hymns?
A Christmas carol by a Nazi poet loyal to the regime is still in the Protestant hymnal. Now, there is a discussion about removing the song by Hermann Claudius in the next edition.
Christianity and its customs were a thorn in the side of the National Socialists. After all, it was not Jesus Christ who was to be celebrated as the savior, but the "Führer" Adolf Hitler. Germans were supposed to place their faith and hope in him alone during the Christmas season. The Nazi regime made every effort to replace the Christian Christmas ideal with a nationally oriented, National Socialist Christmas cult. (Also read: Christmas 2022: 3 easy to make last minute delicious desserts recipes)
In that crusade, Christmas carols also became the focus of the Nazis. All connections between the Christian faith and Judaism were to be obliterated. During the Nazi era, even the lyrics of popular Christmas carols were rewritten. Jewish names such as Jesse or Isaiah disappeared from "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" ("A Rose Has Burst Into Bloom," also known as "Behold a Rose of Judah") — standard repertoire on Christmas Eve — and entire lines were completely replaced. Songs like "Tochter Zion, freue dich" ("Daughter of Zion, Rejoice!") and "Zu Bethlehem geboren" ("In Bethlehem is Born") were banned altogether.
New Christmas carols during the Nazi era
Entirely new Christmas carols were also composed during the Nazi era, including the strongly propagated song "Hohe Nacht der klaren Sterne" ("Behold the Bright Stars on the Holy Night"). This continued to be sung in the post-war period by performers such as the German Schlager singer Heino.
The originally Christian content of the Swiss carol "Es ist für uns eine Zeit angekommen" ("Unto Us a Night Has Come") has since been almost entirely forgotten — in contrast to the Nazi-era re-phrasing, which describes a winter hike.
Among the newly written Christmas carols during the Nazi era was the piece "Wisst ihr noch, wie es geschehen" ("Do You Remember How It Happened") by poet Hermann Claudius (1878-1980), who was loyal to the regime.
He wrote the song in 1939. It is still in the Protestant hymnal today and, because of its simple but beautiful melody, is still sung with pleasure at Christmas time in numerous congregations. In contrast to many other Christmas carols from the Nazi era, which were full of pomposity and pathos, the lyrics of the song are rather nondescript.
Problematic author, unproblematic text
In fact, musicologist Udo Wennemuth noted in the book "Liederkunde zum Evangelischen Gesangbuch," a handbook addressing the Protestant hymnal, that the lyrics to "Wisst ihr noch, wie es geschehen" were written at the suggestion of a Christian publisher who did not want to support the "liturgical erosion" of Christmas.
In his career, however, Hermann Claudius also wrote lines such as "Herrgott, steh dem Führer bei, dass sein Werk das Deine sei" or "Lord God, help the Führer that his work may be Yours."
Even after the end of the Nazi dictatorship, the song "Wisst ihr noch, wie es geschehen" was not called into question, said Christa Kirschbaum, music director of the Hesse-Nassau regional church. That is why she finds it inappropriate to continue singing the piece in church services.
Ansgar Franz, professor at the department of practical theology at the University of Mainz, sees things differently, saying that it is not the song that is historically charged "but the author."
Here, he says, a distinction should be made: "The song does not represent the Nazi view of Christmas." Franz says there are no incriminated songs in the Christian hymnals, "but possibly authors who lacked the necessary distance to the regime during the period of National Socialism."
Re-examining the hymnal
During an interview with DW, Franz said, "In the Christian hymnals, there is not a single 'incriminated' song," meaning a song that spreads racist, xenophobic content, even if it is indirect or not immediately apparent. Franz also says he is unsure about examining every author's history before approving a hymn.
"But now to investigate every song considered 'good' to see if the author was politically and theologically correct? Does that make sense? How far should this go?" he asks. "I am very much in favor of thoroughly examining the songs, but how far should an examination of the authors go?"
Experts from Germany and Austria are currently working on a revision of the Protestant hymnal, which was introduced in the 1990s. Christa Kirschbaum is also a member of the commission that is deciding on its content. It is still unclear whether the Christmas carol from 1939 will be published there again, says Kirschbaum.
This article was originally written in German