Graves of German WWII Soldiers

Dissertation – Abstract

German Military Cemetery, Besedino/Kursk, Russia


Ten cultural-historical case studies investigate how deaths in war were dealt with based on soldier graves of the Second World War. In this dissertation, the resting places of the fallen German soldiers offer a unique perspective in the evaluation of death during a violent conflict and in the post-war period. The examination frame extends from 1939 to the present and follows the reception and importance of the graves and the fallen in military, politics and society. Some single chapters of this thesis have been already published or are intended for publication. Methodologically, the study consists of empirical work, such as the analysis of unpublished archival sources, as well as hermeneutical tools in the form of interviews, surveys, local documentation, and field studies of burial sites and exhumations.

Two terms – hero glorification and signs of reconciliation – illustrate the differences in how the meaning of the graves and their dead soldiers was perceived. This difference highlights the change in values and meaning that the graves had to face.

In the Second World War, the Wehrmacht responded to the nearly five million German casualties with mythical hero stories, propaganda and parades, but also with an elaborate administration system and rules concerning the dead and their graves. The instructions for the soldier’s death included details about the material and inscription of the gravestone to the identification of unknown dead. The graves sustained a structure and organization in accordance with a modern military grave system. The claim to a single grave and the registration and notification of the relatives was included in the Wehrmacht. The denotation of the dead as heroes and their resting places as heroes’ graves (Heldengräber) and heroes’ groves (Heldenhaine) shows the attempt to integrate them into the ideology and propaganda of the National Socialist regime. However, the management of graves, as well as the cult of heroes, had to fail due to the reality of war – i.e., the number of casualties, the chaotic conditions at the front and the defeat of the Germans. The hero’s glorification could not be maintained after the end of the war.

In post-war society, an attempt was made to defuse the symbolism of military death and put it into a neutral and harmless context other than National Socialism. The continuation of the graves’ management, the search for unknown resting places and the construction of cemeteries could no longer be operated by the military. Under the slogan of reconciliation and the expression of peace and understanding instead, access to the Wehrmacht graves was reached first in Western Europe, after 1989 in Eastern Europe by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V. The Volksbund builds and cares for cemeteries and exhumes the remains until the present. This effort is still being made by the Germans today and illustrates the importance of war graves care in modern international context. The studies show how mutable and dependent are the meaning and symbolism of the death of a soldier within different political and social constructs and epochs. In these studies, the range of soldiers’ graves as a research topic is clarified and further perspectives for questions and investigation contexts are shown. The investigation of German soldiers’ graves of the Second World War in terms of their relevance is of particular importance.

The fact that great efforts are still being made to find and maintain the resting places of dead soldiers more than 70 years after the war demonstrates the political dimension of the war dead and their graves. Above all, the distinctiveness of these objects as resting places for German soldiers makes an interesting and even controversial topic for science, politics and society not only in Germany but also in other European countries.

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