This is my translation of the article ‘Das Paradies’ by German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935 after publishing an expose of clandestine German re-armament in 1929. He was convicted and imprisoned for high treason, and detained in a number of concentration camps after 1933, finally succumbing to tuberculosis in 1938.
This article was published in the Berliner Volks-Zeitung on Christmas Day 1921 (read the original article here).
Carl von Ossietzky
25th December 1921
When we use Christmas Day as an occasion for retrospection and introspection, and as a time to set higher standards than usual, this has nothing to do with the professional sentimentality of the holiday cheerleaders. The struggles of everyday life oblige us to be humble. Only when tradition overpowers even the most warlike people, and imposes a short ceasefire, then should it not be used as a mere pause for breath—during which new forces can be gathered to wallop the opponent even harder once the sacred day is over—but rather as a short period in which to reflect upon one’s own ego, to contemplate its properties and ideologies.
In the Middle Ages—a time that we, the contemporaries of U-boats and poison gas, now call barbaric and murky, because people would assail each other with pikes and morning stars—people were acquainted with the beautiful custom of “Gottesfrieden” (Truce of God). This meant that, on days consecrated by the Saviour’s suffering and death, every battle was made to cease. Time has long since brushed this practice aside: so thoroughly, in fact, that nothing in our thoughts and feelings remains to remind us of the old, meaningless custom.
That is to say, we have become far more “consistent” in all affairs, and we pride ourselves on this fact. The tenderness and mildness of humanity is no longer held in esteem; toughness and ruthlessness prevails. Sure, you could call this “strength of character”, or “lust for life”, or suchlike. Still, all that’s really meant by this is sharp elbows. It’s what we require of individuals. It’s what we require of the aggregate of individuals: of nations. With the political struggle, with the social struggle, it has escalated to a tremendous level. And now, when we pipe up once more with our Christmas carols, all too often they carry a fatal undertone: Lord, destroy our enemies!
And, when all is said and done, this is only logical. If there’s something twinkling above mankind on Christmas 1921, it is not the star of the new covenant. Just as in the war years, it is the juggling of flaming red missiles, back and forth across the black night sky, over the cold, damp trenches where people huddle together with hammering hearts and wistfully send their wretched, scattered thoughts to distant homes. That blood-red signal still dances above us—and it is, in truth, the very symbol of divinity, to which the people pray.
Poor spiritual conditions for the day of promise. The thunder of the canons still rings in our ears and we fail to hear the song of the shepherds. What are they to us, those shepherds of the field who hurried to pay homage to the small God in the manger? Little people, who live together with their animals, peaceably and harmlessly under a thatched straw roof. Little people! And yet these same “little people” undermined the entire Roman Empire with their faith and were placed high on the pedestal of the new doctrine. They carried this new doctrine throughout the whole world, until even the Roman Emperor himself recognised the political shrewdness of adopting this doctrine of powerlessness, in order to safeguard his own power. Thus, from henceforth, the Christian predator took the place of the heathen predator in the governing of the world. And yet the everlasting glory remains with those apostles who were the first to bear witness to their gracious God. And in our times, when power rules without restraint and whole nations are kept in chains, there are similar twitches and shudders in the nether regions of human society. There, one sees signs, one waits on promises, and intersperses, amongst the shrill voices of hate, a quiet and friendly “Peace on Earth!”
The voice is faint, but woe betides the Herod who sends his bailiff out to smother it. For while the patient and peaceable may get trampled, they have always had deeper lungs than their snorting and raging enemies.
Christmas is the true festival of utopia. It holds a unique and isolated position in this world of “given facts”. Quite against their will, people become softer, spinning around themselves a silky state of peacefulness, and a vision of eternal justice is asserted next to cold rationality. In the strangely coloured miracle stories of the great Anatole France*, each unforgettable chapter comes forth from the old gardener**, who blows the flute of the great shepherd god Pan. With this seductive sound, the wild animals lay aside all enmity, to gather peacefully and listen.
It has become a commonplace that true art should strive to make possible a convivial coexistence. Yet deep in the thicket of the soul, there still resonates the desire for the unattainable, like the most delicate violin tone. This desire gropes backwards through our gloomy prehistory in search of the Garden of Eden: the perfect harmony of all that lives and breathes. This blissful state, which we set so readily at the beginning of days, is what we also desire for the end. A magnificent thought: the history of mankind, glutted with blood and terror, bookended by two gardens in full bloom. Glad tidings indeed, even where the faith is lacking. We lay down our weapons and listen, as eager and spellbound as the animals to the great Pan’s flute.
* The French poet and novelist Anatole France had recently published his ‘The Miracle of the Great Saint Nicholas’. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921.
** France (1844–1944) was also renowned for his journalism and social criticism, including the essay collection The Garden of Epicurus (1894).