- Purchase/rental options available:
Radical History Review 83 (2002) 7-27
[Access article in PDF]
The Madonna of Stalingrad:
Mastering the (Christmas) Past and West German National Identity after World War II
Joseph B. Perry
In August 1983, a charcoal sketch titled the Madonna of Stalingrad was donated in a public ceremony to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche), the central tourist site in the heart of West Berlin. Drawn in a German bunker by Lieutenant Kurt Reuber, a staff physician and Protestant pastor, during the Battle of Stalingrad in December 1942, the Madonna was flown out of Stalingrad on the last transport plane to leave the surrounded German Sixth Army. Now on permanent display in the Memorial Church, the Madonna of Stalingrad evokes troubling memories of wartime Christmas and the Nazi past while simultaneously offering Germans a way to manage those recollections.
The organizers of the 1983 dedication ceremony positioned the Madonna as a symbol of peace and security (Geborgenheit), and the links between Stalingrad, German victimhood, and the tragedy of world war forged in their rhetoric resonated with Berliners. Observers of the ceremony wrote to the Berliner Morgenpost, a popular daily, to describe the "deep impression" the drawing made and the "deeply distressing" memories of Stalingrad it recalled. Just as the United States was stationing nuclear missiles on West German territory, one woman from Berlin drew connections between the escalation of the Cold War and the trauma of World War II, writing that "when I think back full of horror on the terrible years of the war, I wish that [End Page 7] all the ruling statesmen in the world, who stand again on the edge of the abyss, would have to stand in front of the Stalingrad Madonna and memorize the words 'light, life, love,' so that the insane arms race would end and the world would get true peace and liberty." 1 Even after the official dedication ceremony, the Madonna continued to prompt expressions of popular memory. According to Ruth Niebuhr, who worked in the souvenir stand in the anteroom of the church, repeat visitors to the Madonna included "visibly moved women" who whispered that "my husband also fell at Stalingrad." 2
In this essay, I fold back these layers of memory and myth that surround Reuber's Madonna and Christmas at Stalingrad, to address larger questions about popular memory and the construction of a usable past in postwar West Germany. In the late 1940s and 1950s, what the Nazis called "war Christmas" (Kriegsweihnachten) became a powerful "site of memory," an event invested in shared memories with symbolic significance for the construction and contestation of national identity. 3 For the postwar generation, memories of war Christmas, and especially Christmas at Stalingrad, proved particularly useful as a way of remembering the past in order to come to terms with the present. West German poets, priests, and politicians, as well as a number of authors and filmmakers, returned repeatedly to wartime Christmas scenes to conjure a vision of national continuity that overcame the burdens of the immediate past. Reuber and his sketch became integral figures in a myth of the Christmas past focused on the suffering and victimization of the ordinary soldier. In postwar memory at least, wartime celebrations of this "most German" holiday hinged on apolitical values of community, comradeship, and Christian fellowship, rather than the ideology of national socialism.
These reworked Christmas memories offered postwar West Germans a means to construct a viable national identity based on shared suffering and allowed them to evade personal responsibility for Nazism. 4 This was the dominant message purveyed in the Madonna dedication ceremony of 1983, and my essay opens with an analysis of how the contemporary framing of the sketch promotes a narrative of suffering and forgiveness that ignores other possible readings of the Madonna and the events surrounding its production. I then examine the way in which the events of Stalingrad Christmas sustained multiple readings and appropriations, at first by soldiers in the battle itself—who used the traditional rituals of military celebration to...