December 2006

Stanley Weintraub

Revisiting Hitler’s Christmas surprise
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During war, there are no holidays. But historian Stanley Weintraub knows well that holidays can affect the way war is waged, from the celebrated Christmas Truce of World War I to Hitler’s brutal attack during the final winter of World War II.

In his new book, 11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944, Weintraub shows how Hitler took advantage of the Allies’ Yuletide cheer to launch the 1944 surprise attack that became known as the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest clashes of the war.

So imminent was an Allied victory in those waning weeks of the European theater that some troops had already taken leave from the front to enjoy the holiday in Paris. Hitler was counting on just such a seasonal lapse as he secretly amassed his remaining ragtag divisions in the Ardennes Forest for one last offensive. The Nazis, short on strategy, were helped by 10 days of driving snow and rain that prompted Gen. George Patton’s famous plea to God, "Sir, whose side are you on?"

The weather cleared as Patton requested, Allied air strikes commenced, and ground troops converged to take Bastogne on Dec. 26, effectively ending Hitler’s conquest. As Weintraub illustrated in his two previous books, General Washington’s Christmas Farewell and Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914, Christmas and other religious observances often play pivotal roles in military history.

"The Japanese, for example, planned the Pearl Harbor attack for Sunday. Very often, major offensive surprise attacks occur on a Sunday because it is assumed that, in a largely Christian West, Sunday will be a time when people are less alert and will be doing other things," says Weintraub, the Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities at Penn State.

The Germans were equally aware that, with the war in its 11th hour, Allied troops were less inclined to take risks. " The Germans would broadcast over loudspeakers, ‘How would you like to die for Christmas?’" he says. "They counted on a relaxation at Christmas, and they were quite right." The Allied commanders couldn’t have been more different in style or temperament. British Field Marshal Montgomery, whose troops had suffered most in the early years of the war, was a national hero and cautious to a fault. Omar Bradley, pulled from the Pacific theater, was a fish out of water. George Patton, a born warrior and deeply religious man, saw no contradiction in asking God for good killing weather.

"The real hero was George Patton. He was a fighting general and the troops loved him," says Weintraub. "He was certainly the most aggressive general, but he was off-the-wall; there was no one like him. When he was killed in an automobile crash at the end of the war, I think it might have been the best end for him because he was not a civilian. He was not the kind of person who could sit at a desk." Weintraub leavens his military history with celebrity cameos. Sultry Marlene Dietrich receives frostbite and lice in return for her Christmas goodwill tour to the front, where she exchanged intimate holiday greetings with several officers including Patton. David Niven, then an unknown British intelligence officer, tries to keep Allied codes current to thwart German spies. Even Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is spotted en route to Dresden his experiences there inspired Slaughterhouse-Five.

Weintraub saw two Christmases on the front lines first-hand as a soldier in the 8th Army Division in Korea. "Because the cultures were so different, we could not have a Christmas in which the enemy across the line celebrated, too," he says. The same holds true today in Iraq. Barring a sudden outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Canada, he sees little opportunity for Christmas to play a major role in wars to come.

"I don’t think it could happen today. The idea of a common Western culture in which Christmas is both a secular and a religious holiday shared by the enemy as well just can’t happen anymore."

Jay MacDonald will celebrate the holidays at his new home in Austin, Texas.

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