A boy looks at a toy train he received during an annual gift-giving event organized by firefighters in Ciudad Juarez on Dec. 24, 2011. The firefighters from Ciudad Juarez collect donated toys throughout the year for Christmas and hand them out to poor children on Christmas Eve.
[Credit : Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters]
The image is chilling, bordering on surreal: On December 18, 1941, as World War II rages and countless innocents endure the horrors of the Third Reich’s “final solution” — killing operations at the Chełmno death camp, for instance, began less than two weeks before — Adolf Hitler presides over a Christmas party in Munich.
Stark, jarring swastika armbands offset the glint of ornaments and tinsel dangling from a giant Tannenbaum; festive candles illuminate the scene. Confronted with the image, the question naturally arises: How could Nazi leaders reconcile an ideology of hatred and conquest with the peaceful, joyous spirit of the Christian holiday — much less its celebration of the Jewish-born Christ?
Here, LIFE.com presents astonishing photos from this unsettling affair, and the equally remarkable story behind them.
[Credit : Hugo Jaeger/Time & Life Pictures]