Commemorating WWI: Munich

When I take students to Europe next January to study the history of World War I, we’ll close the journey (as my wife and I did this month) in Munich — primarily to consider how WWI led to the rise of fascist movements and thence to World War II and the Holocaust. But we’ll also look at how the First World War itself is commemorated in Munich, capital of Bavaria.

We’ll have to look hard, for the Bavarian War Memorial (Kriegerdenkmal) is difficult to find. Even though it rests in the middle of a popular park (the Hofgarten), right in front of Bavaria’s main government building, I spent a good fifteen minutes searching for it. This no doubt speaks to my lack of spatial awareness and powers of observation, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that this particular memorial does not stand out in any way. First, it’s not marked on any of the maps scattered around the Hofgarten. Second, it lies in a sunken plaza in front of the government building (itself formerly an army museum), with the effect that the highest point on the Kriegerdenkmalbarely rises above the horizon when looking from the Hofgarten. And at least at dusk (when I visited), the design and coloring of the limestone slab that rests atop the memorial makes it look like the whole thing has been crated up for renovation or relocation.

The Bavarian War Memorial
The Bavarian War Memorial, in front of the Staatskanzlei

Indeed, the memorial was almost relocated, after World War II. First a bit of background… Built in 1924-1925 to commemorate the 13,000 Münchner who died in WWI (many of them buried at Langemark Cemetery, featured in the previous installment in this series), the sunken plaza featured the names of the dead and expressionist carvings by sculptor Karl Knappe. In the center stood a crypt-like structure (the aforementioned slab resting atop twelve stone supports, with the phrases “To our soldiers killed in action” and “They will be resurrected” on the eastern and western walls, respectively) that sheltered a marble sculpture by Bernhard Bleeker, the Sleeping Soldier.

Bleeker, Schlafende Krieger
Bernhard Bleeker, Der Schlafende Krieger (Sleeping Soldier)

Munich experienced heavy Allied bombing during the Second World War, and while Bleeker’s soldier and his crypt were largely spared, the plates bearing the names of the dead soldiers were destroyed. After the war, the American military government initially forbade Bleeker (a Nazi Party member since 1932) to renovate his work, and while the memorial did reopen in 1948, the names of the dead were never restored.

The Bavarian government proposed relocating the memorial into the nearby Feldherrnhalle, which had been the site of a firefight that ended Hitler’s 1923 putsch and was treated as an important landmark by the Nazis. (It sits on the Odeonsplatz; one of its lions is partly visible in the famous photo of an August 1914 war rally in that square that supposedly includes a recognizable young Adolf Hitler.) Given the history of that site and the contentiousness already swirling around the memorial itself, it isn’t surprising that the proposed relocation sparked a fierce debate in 1954-1955. Supporters argued both that Bleeker’s statue needed to be better preserved from the elements and that the relocation would serve to “extinguish” the Nazi legacy of a major Munich site. Opponents thought the opposite: that moving a war memorial would risk the integrity of the statue and reiterate the city’s militarist and Nazi past.

Ultimately, the proposal was defeated, with the ruling Christian Social Union party admitting that “since inglorious events in the history of Munich are still unfortunately associated with the Feldherrnhalle, many would not understand if, through such a relocation, the honorable soldier and defender of the Fatherland would be brought into connection with the unscrupulous adventurers” (quoted in Gavriel David Rosenfeld, Munich and Memory: Architecture, Monuments, and the Legacy of the Third Reich, p. 117 — from which I’m deriving much of my knowledge about this memorial and the relocation debate). The war memorial received refurbishing, but it stayed where it was — largely, I strongly suspect, unseen by tourists and locals alike.

Of course, the fallen German soldiers commemorated at the site did not survive to learn of Hitler, the Nazis, and the events of 1939-1945. I’m sure that some of those who do find the Kriegerdenkmal see in the sleeping soldier nothing but the image of a long-dead relative, an honorable participant in a tragic but not genocidal war. Others are probably reminded that German militarism did not begin with Hitler. I was mostly glad to finally find it and take pictures before the sun had completely set.

The already complex motives behind this and other WWI memorials are further complicated because their audiences are not monolithic. Different viewers will see it, well, differently. And the meaning of a memorial can change from person to person.

WWI Memorial in Hamburg
Courtesy of Katie Dunker

Consider one of my former teaching assistants, Katie Thostenson Dunker. After I began this series, she sent me this photograph of the WWI memorial in the German city of Hamburg. A massive pillar in the middle of the marketplace on the banks of the River Elbe, it’s very much the antithesis of what I’ve written in general terms about German commemoration. Enormous and centrally located, its inscription is about as unsubtle as a memorial can possibly be: “Forty thousand sons of this city gave their life for you, 1914-1918.”

Yet even so massive a monument with so direct a message might not even catch the attention of the ordinary American visitor, especially if she is distracted by all the sights and sounds of the bustling Christmas market. But because of the family she married into and because of her faith, Katie found herself deeply moved — in a way that the memorial’s designer perhaps intended, and then in another that arose from an unintended juxtaposition of images.

I’ll let her words close this series, as she reflects on looking from the Hamburg WWI pillar to the very different kind of memorial across from it: the former a relic of war; the latter a promise of peace.

It was a very simple memorial, but as I was in the company of my German husband and my German mother-in-law, I think I was hit harder than ever before thinking about the tragic loss of life for all sides during the war. Perhaps the memorial seemed even more poignant since directly opposite it was a large nativity scene that served as one of the center pieces of the Christmas market.

Nativity Scene in Hamburg Christmas Market
Courtesy of Katie Dunker

The juxtaposition between a memorial that serves as a reminder of the consequences of human sin–the incredible suffering and tragedy of war, and a display representing the hope and cleansing brought to humanity through Christ’s incarnation, was to say the least, very powerful.


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