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Edelweiss: The White, Noble Flower that Hitler Loved and Yet the Anti-Nazi Resistance Wore With Pride

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

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A Simple and Elegant Alpine Flower

Edelweiss flower symbolises nature in its most sublime form for the Alpine nations. The scientific name is, Leontopodium alpinum, and with its wool-coated white petals and yellow crust, this flower had an easy walk to gain entry into the list of favourite flowers of the Homo sapiens. These earthy stars of nature, these high-altitude angels of the Alpine peaks, once imbibed the valour of a group of teenagers in Germany, fittingly called the Edelweiss pirates, as they resisted the Nazi rule. I will come to that story shortly but now let me explain what this flower means to the people of the Alps.


The Ice Age Migration

The Edelweiss flower migrated from Asia to the Alps in Europe during the Ice age, if plant historians are to be believed. The plant is supposed to have originated in the Himalayas. Originally, the Alps and the Himalayas were part of the Alpine belt of mountains that border the south side of Eurasia and include the Atlas, the Alps, the Caucasus Mountains, the Alborz, Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and the Himalayan mountain ranges. On the edges of meadows and on the limestone rocks that overlook the valleys, Edelweiss blooms in the months of July, August, and September. Beneath the delicate exterior of this flower, there is a fighter and survivor that can overcome extreme weather. The roots are capable of resisting uprooting from the high winds that frequent the peaks of the Alps. As they stand exposed to the sun, the hairy petals are protected from the UV rays owing to their coating of micro-hairs. The flower has been described by many names in history. The most common names are,

Wool Flower

Small Lion’s foot

Star of the Glacier

Everlasting Flower of the Alps

The name, Edelwisss, is German and means, “noble white”.

There are About 2-10 Yellow Flower Heads in the Middle Surrounded by White Wooly Leaves

edelweiss-the-white-noble-flower-that-hitler-loved-and-yet-the-anti-nazi-resistance-wore-with-pride

Edelweiss in Literature

The American writer Mark Twain was no fan of this flower when he visited the Alps in 1881 and he even called it ugly. He observed that the “fuzzy blossom is the colour of bad cigar ashes”. The flower had a mystery and aura surrounding it and people even believed that it was inaccessible, a myth originating from its habitat being the high-altitude peaks of the Alps. In 1861, German writer, Berthold Auerbach wrote a novel titled Edelweiss in which the protagonist goes in search of an Edelweiss flower to prove his love and courage to his beloved. There are innumerable German stories and songs that depict the same theme. The Austrian village folk believed that this flower, when burnt as incense, would drive away evil spirits, especially those that cause udder diseases in cattle. The flower was also believed to have miraculous healing powers and the tea made of it was used to treat indigestion and respiratory problems. Asterix in Switzerland was a book that incorporated the magical healing powers of Edelweiss into its plot. In her poem, Edelweiss: An Alpine Rhyme, Mary Lowe Dickinson wrote,

The Edelweiss grew on that rocky steep

The brave child-feet had climbed too fast and far

And so had come to her this blessed sleep

The blessed waking beneath the morning star

The 19th century saw this flower being positioned as a symbol of the purity and beauty of village life against the growing urbanisation. Edelweiss ironically was depicted as the favourite flower of Adolf Hitler but also served as a symbol of resistance against Nazi ideology when it was adopted as an identification mark by the resistance movement, the Edelweiss Pirates.

Polish Army Insignia with Edelweiss on It

edelweiss-the-white-noble-flower-that-hitler-loved-and-yet-the-anti-nazi-resistance-wore-with-pride

Hitler and the Edelweiss Song

“Adolf Hitler's Favourite Flower is the Simple Edelweiss” is a song composed by Otto Rathke, in 1933. The lyrics were written by Emil Gustav Adolf Stadthagen and this song was part of the German Opera, Tenor Harry Steier. Germany loved this song and it remained evergreen till this song was banned by the Nazi government in 1939. Along with Jazz music and songs created by Jewish composers and singers, this song was branded as anti-national which was in those days synonymous with anti-Hitler and anti-Nazi. The ban came when the ruling Nazis realised that this song had more satirical elements in it than adoration for Hitler. The song goes like this-

High on steep cliff walls blooms a rare kind of flower,

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to which the Kanzler quietly turns his thoughts.

A queen of the Alps this is his heart’s joy.

Adolf Hitler’s favourite flower is the simple Edelweiss.

Take this song through all the districts,

plant it forth from mouth to mouth,

Take a piece of the German soul around the whole world.

Plant it in hearts for the leader to praise and cherish.

Adolf Hitler’s favourite flower is the simple Edelweiss.

The Edelweiss Pirates

‘Edelweiss are faithful’ was the motto of the Edelweiss Pirates, who were a small cell of underground resistance against the Hitler government in Germany. As a mark of identification, these teenagers, who hailed from working-class families, wore cheap Edelweiss flower pins on their coats. They also sometimes wore wristbands with an Edelweiss floral design imprinted on them. For young people, it was dangerous in Hitler’s Germany to get organised outside the official Hitler Youth programme. Still, these brave hearts met in parks, forests, and mountains and went together on camping and trekking trips. They would play the guitar and sing folk songs, defying the strict discipline and control of the Hitler Youth and the Nazi secret service. These groups would have girls and boys in them in contrast to the gender-segregated Hitler youth programmes. Many of these courageous boys and girls were captured, punished, sent to concentration camps and even hanged in public in a show of power by the ruling Nazis. Still, these small groups survived and sprouted anew in different parts of Germany and continued their work till the downfall of Nazism.

A Group of Edelweiss Pirates

The Sound of Music

The legendary musical movie, The Sound of Music, popularised the Edelweiss flower as never before with a tribute song. It was originally written for the Broadway production of The Sound of Music. The song represents Austrian patriotism during the times of Nazi threat.

Every morning you greet me

Small and white, clean and bright

You look happy to meet me

Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow,

Bloom and grow forever…

Edelweiss, Edelweiss,

Bless my homeland forever

This song was written by Oscar Hammerstein II and composed by Richard Rodgers. The song went straight to the heart of a global audience, in the poignant voice of Bill Lee.

Fun Fact

When the president of Austria, Rudolf Kirschlager, visited the United States during the reign of President Ronald Reagan, The Edelweiss song from The Sound of Music was officially played during the welcome ceremony. Many critics observed that this song was played under the wrong impression that it was the Austrian National Anthem while this was just a movie song and had nothing to do with Austrian national identity or aspirations. The Austrian people were mostly unaware of and rarely had heard this song.

A Still from The Sound of Music

A Flower of National Ethos

The 2-cent Euro coin has the picture of an Edelweiss flower imprinted on it. Earlier the Austrian 1- schilling coin also carried the same flower on it. One of the first environmental protection laws of Europe was enacted to protect the Edelweiss as Alps adventurers began to uproot the Edelweiss plants en masse to take them home as souvenirs, threatening their very existence. The canton of Obwalden, one of the 26 cantons that constitute the Swiss Confederation, banned picking Edelweiss as early as 1878. During the 1990s, Switzerland as a nation redefined itself in terms of its national identity and culture and adopted the Edelweiss flower as representative of the Swiss identity. In Switzerland, this flower adorns all kinds of cultural spaces, insignia, and pictorial representations.

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Alpine Countries and Edelweiss

Edelweiss is a national symbol for many countries- Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania. The Bavarian traditional tracht (traditional wear) has the Edelweiss flower embroidered on it and the Bavarian mountain troops have this flower as part of their emblem. Recently, in 2017, the Austrian extreme-right Freedom Party replaced its symbol, the cornflower, with the Edelweiss creating a controversy. The cornflower was the symbol of Austrian Nazis and yet Freedom Party members used to wear these flowers on their coats. The change in flower symbolism was adopted by Freedom Party as they were also entering a coalition government with the centre-right conservatives. Media and political analysts interpreted this as an attempt to tone down their Nazi heritage. Indeed, Edelweiss is yet to carry more politics than its delicate petals have already shouldered.

Freedom Party MP Wearing Edelweiss

In 2018, Google brought out a doodle celebrating the Edelweiss flower.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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