Commemorating WWI: German Subtlety

While the British commissioned architects like Reginald Blomfield and Edwin Lutyens to construct towering monuments whose significance would endure throughout eternity and their Dominions (e.g., Australia and Canada) used commemoration to help establish their claims to distinct nationhood, the Germans generally tacked in the opposite direction, preferring simple, dignified symbols of quiet mourning. Ironically, it was the “victors” of World War I who had to strive hardest to make the war meaningful; those who “lost” simply tried to grieve.

As I continue my series on how I saw the First World War commemorated during a recent trip to London, Paris, Munich, and the former grounds of the battles at Ypres, Vimy Ridge, and the Somme, I’ll focus this and the final post on German commemoration. None of what I’ll write is systematic; I primarily want to pass along some impressions gained from seeing German cemeteries and memorials.

But if I can generalize a bit: German commemoration tends to be rather subtle. And as we’ll see tomorrow, when I conclude the series by writing about one German war memorial, that nation’s commemoration of WWI is easily, perhaps inevitably intertangled with the history that followed 1918.

Today, I’ll focus on German military cemeteries in Belgium and France, which were largely created under the rather anti-nationalistic government that preceded the Third Reich and then renovated under the even less militaristic government that followed it.

Langemark Cemetery
Langemark Cemetery

We visited three: Langemark (near Ypres, Belgium), Neuville-St-Vasst (near Arras, France), and Fricourt (the main German cemetery for the Somme battleground area). A couple of common features presented a stark contrast with British/Commonwealth and French cemeteries. First, German soldiers are not buried individually, but in groups of four or more. Our tour guide Carl attributed this, perhaps correctly, to an anti-individualism he found prevalent in German culture. At the same time, the Germans went to enormous lengths to identify the remains of their soldiers, and have proportionally fewer “unknown dead” than do the former Allies.

Second, German cemeteries almost blend into the landscape. While the British grounds are set apart by brick walls and their omnipresent Crosses of Sacrifice towering over the countryside, German cemeteries scarcely have borders, or anything so monumental as to draw the eye away from the graves. Not much rises too far above the ground. Indeed, at Langemark, even the gravestones are embedded in the soil.

Krieger's Mourning Soldiers
Statues in Langemark Cemetery (note: no wall behind them – the cemetery simply abuts farmland)

Indeed, nothing in German military cemeteries is much taller than a few statues whose symbolism is hushed, if not ambivalent. In Langemark, four bronze men watch silently over the 44,000 graves. Designed by the ironically named Emil Krieger, the statues represent four German soldiers in mourning, though little about them suggests warrior status except that three hold steel helmets (the other represents the unarmed medical corps).

Kollwitz, Die Eltern
Käthe Kollwitz, Die Eltern – Wikimedia

We didn’t get a chance to see them in person, but by all accounts, even more moving are the statues designed by the great Käthe Kollwitz that stand in Roggevelde Cemetery (near Vladslo, Belgium). Called simply Die Eltern (The Parents), the statues represent a mother and father grieving over their fallen son’s grave. For Kollwitz it was a work born of seventeen years of mourning for her own son Peter, who died (not far from Langemark) just two months after the war started.

She did not even begin work on the statues until eleven years after his death, and took nearly six more to complete them.Here’s how she described her first visit to Roggevelde, conducted while she was just a year into her work on the figures of the parents:

The cemetery is close to the highway… The entrance is nothing but an opening in the hedge that surrounds the entire field. It was blocked by barbed wire… What an impression: cross upon cross… on most of the graves there were low, yellow wooden crosses. A small metal plaque in the center gives the name and number. So we found our grave… We cut three tiny roses from a flowering wild briar and placed them on the ground beside the cross. All that is left of him lies there in a row-grave…We considered where my figures might be placed… What we both [she was visiting with her husband Karl, a physician in Berlin] thought best was to have the figures just across from the entrance, along the hedge… Then the kneeling figures would have the whole cemetery before them… Fortunately no decorative figures have been placed in the cemetery, none at all. The general effect is of simple planes and solitude… Everything is quiet, but the larks sing gladly. (quoted in Jay Winter, Sites of memory, sites of mourning, p. 109)

Visiting in January, we heard no larks, but much else sounded eerily familiar: “…no decorative figures… simple planes and solitude… Everything is quiet….”

Tomorrow: more on German commemoration of WWI, as we visit Munich and its easy-to-miss war memorial.

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