He’s covered the 1914 Christmas Truce and Washington’s Christmas Farewell, among other books. This year historian Stanley Weintraub travels back to 11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944. He recently talked to NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez about his latest and Christmas at war.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What was Christmas like for General Patton in 1944?
Stanley Weintraub: Ordered to turn his tanks and troops of the Third Army around and race north to rescue the besieged crossroads town of Bastogne in southern Belgium, Patton faced the twin enemies of the Wehrmacht and the weather. Slow and sleet slowed down his movements and kept covering aircraft from the skies. A traditionally religious Episcopalian, Patton believed that an occasional personal appeal to the Almighty was useful. Just before Christmas, he went to a Roman Catholic chapel near his headquarters in Luxembourg, fell to his knees before the altar, and as if the Deity were a general senior to him, prayed, “Sir, This is Patton talking. . . . Who’s side are you on anyway?” He asked for four days of clearing weather, “to kill Germans.” His chaplain protested the abuse of prayer, but, Patton later wrote to his wife, Beatrice, “My prayer seems to be working still as we have had three days of good weather and our air [force] has been very active.” Bastogne was reached the day after Christmas. Patton prayed again, reporting that the “awful weather which I cursed so much” actually hindered the Germans more than the Americans. “That, Sir, was a brilliant military move, and I bow humbly to a supreme military genius.” Others thought that Patton was often off-the-wall, but as a fighting general he had no peer.
Lopez: You have Patton asking God which side the Almighty was on. Did he really feel the need to ask, though?
Weintraub: The war was going badly. Patton never lacked confidence, but he questioned everything.
Lopez: What about Christmas for Hitler?
Weintraub: Born in Austria a Roman Catholic, Hitler eschewed all vestiges of faith and religious observance, decreeing instead Nazi substitutes for traditional ritual. But a holiday dinner of roast goose was a German tradition beyond religion, and if few could manage that in the straitened circumstances of the war’s last Christmas, Hitler’s headquarters could — and did. While his staff masked defeatism with feigned festivity on Christmas Eve, Hitler had his usual vegetarian meal, and with a hand that still trembled from injuries after a failed assassination attempt in July, he even accepted a rare glass of wine as everyone toasted him — and the victory they all knew was now an illusion. The next day he returned to Berlin.
Lopez: I imagine it would have been relatively easy to ignore the German point of view. Why didn’t you?
Weintraub: There are always two sides in a war. German troops had been propagandized that they were the Master Race, and sure to win whatever the odds. Early and easy victories had validated that assurance. One SS grenadier painted in block letters on a farmhouse wall, “Fuehrer befiehl, wir folger dir!” (Our leader commands; we follow!) Discipline remained firm. Their tenacity was fierce. The Germans knew they were now battling to keep Allied forces from the Homeland — which strengthened their resolve to fight on. This was their last chance to do that.
Lopez: Is the question the Germans blared across the lines via loudspeaker, “How would you like to die for Christmas?” a good motivator?
Weintraub: The Germans knew the Americans were not fighting to defend a threatened Homeland, but for such lesser matters as values — Mom, apple pie, faith, etc. Who wants to be killed for values? The aim was to demoralize the enemy. The opposite happened. The challenge evoked anger, determination, aggressiveness.
Lopez: You have some remarkable novel-like details in your book. Where do you get them from?
Weintraub: Interviews with survivors, letters, diaries, memoirs privately published for family members, histories of the Bulge gathered by and for individual units (the source of “How would you like to die for Christmas?”), past chronicles of the Bulge. Sometimes what seems to be a trivial memory encapsulates the experiences of many veterans — as with the miniature doll christened “Purple Heart Mary” (it had arrived in the mail, damaged), or the flowers wired home in advance for Christmas which led the family to think that the sender was dead. Or prisoners of war singing carols, to keep spirits up, in a sealed, dark, railway boxcar attacked by one’s own planes. Fact is often far stranger than fiction.
Lopez: How does Ernest Hemingway irreverently fit in 11 Days in December?
Weintraub: Hemingway as an ambulance driver had been wounded in World War I, and covered the Spanish civil war as a highly paid reporter. Two of his novels deal with those wars. He wanted to experience another world war as a correspondent, for the excitement and possible material for more fiction. When he pulled strings with brass hats he knew to cover the Bulge, he had been ill with flu in a hotel in Paris. In the snow and cold, he jeeped out, ill, and largely covered the war, bedridden, from inside a house near the front abandoned by a priest. In it he found a hoard of sacramental wine. I leave it to my readers to find out what happened, most irreverently and unexpectedly, next! Call it comic relief.
Lopez: What is your fascination with Christmas at war?
Weintraub: I have written three books in which wartime Christmases occur. Each of them emerged from research on another book. In the mid-1980s I worked on a book about the end of World War I, beginning with the “False Armistice” of November 7, 1918, to the real thing on the 11th. It was published as A Stillness Heard Round the World. The End of the Great War. While researching it, I learned of an abortive end to the war nearly four years earlier, when the opposing sides on Christmas Eve refused to fire on each other, lay down their arms, and fraternized — even singing carols, exchanging token gifts, and playing soccer together — in chewed-up No Man’s Land. Most histories said it was a minor episode, largely myth. Curious, I spent years tracking down what really happened — even the “football” scores. The book became Silent Night (2001). When I was working on a book about how the American Revolution appeared from the losing side (losers seldom write the histories!), I found that when the British, long after their defeat at Yorktown, finally evacuated their last bastion in the American colonies, New York City, or December 4, 1783, George Washington, on retrieving the city, determined to get home to Mount Vernon for Christmas with his family. He had only been home once in seven years. Did he make it? I found that he got to Mount Vernon, after a long celebratory journey, on Christmas Eve. I put aside Iron Tears (it would be published later, in 2005) and wrote General Washington’s Christmas Farewell. A Mount Vernon Homecoming (2003).
Working on a new book, 15 Stars, to be published June 12, 2007, I found that the chapter on the Battle of the Bulge was getting greatly oversized although it dealt largely with only eleven days in a narrative that covered seventy years. It threw the story out of balance. And the crucial episode ended the day after Christmas, 1944. I pulled out the chapter and rewrote it as 11 Days in December. Christmas at the Bulge.
Christmas, although crucial to these books, is obviously more than that. Aside from its religious aspects, it is a home-and-family festival. Service personnel away from home at that time sorely miss the warmth and togetherness of the season. I recall that from personal experience during the Korean War, spending two bleak Christmases 8,000 miles from home, and seeing its impact on others. Wartime Christmases far away, and under the strained atmosphere of war and foreign parts, sticks in the memory no matter how many years pass. And “peace on earth, good will toward men” is especially ironic during a wartime Christmas.
Lopez: Are there some constants you find when you’re researching soldiers at war at Christmastime?
Weintraub: As a biographer more than as a military historian, I look for the human face of war. Conflicts may occur for all kinds of political, economic, geographical, or religious reasons over history, but they are fought by people, and people — farmers, mechanics, clerks, whatever — pay the price for the losses or gains. As a song about the Christmas Truce of 1914 observes, on both ends of the rifle we’re the same.
<title>11 Days in December, by Stanley Weintraub</title>