The German People’s Day of Mourning

 History Today, November 2003, Volume 53 (11) p4


“I had an invitation for the ceremony here, but now I see it was for yesterday not today. Shame, I would love to have taken part,” says a woman in her mid-seventies. We are standing in a war cemetery in the Neukölln district of Berlin. It is the second Sunday before advent – Germany’s annual ‘Volkstrauertag’ or the ‘People’s Day of Mourning’. With a girlish smile, the woman has agreed to be interviewed. She is dressed in pink and wears a lot of perfume. “Do you have a personal reason for being here?” I ask. “Yes.” Her face falls suddenly, silent. When she speaks again it is in a pained whisper: “I lost my two brothers in the war. And my father. And my grandparents. All five of them… I can’t go on, let’s not talk any more”.

 The evening before several hundred people had gathered at dusk to remember ‘the victims of war and tyranny’. The cemetery of over 6000 war dead contains a tomb where a giant wreath of gold and silver leaves rests. Politicians and ambassadors placed garlands of flowers in front of it. Most people struggled to find their voice or the words for the national anthem to close the ceremony, but 73 year-old Elizabeth Bauer sings lustily: “I hate all war and cruelty and that’s why I am here. Love your neighbour as you love yourself. If you accept that, you have nothing to fear.”

“I fought in the war,” says Herr Hoehne, 90 and ex-Luftwaffe. “It was pointless bloodshed. Most of my generation feels the same. We didn’t really understand what was happening. You assumed the national leadership knew what they were doing and I had a duty to defend my homeland. That was the great frenzy then. It doesn’t fit with a war of aggression but we youngsters believed it all right. It was an adventure, and I loved flying. That what we were doing was really an injustice was the last thing to cross our minds”.

This ceremony on the eve of ‘Volkstrauertag’ is only one of hundreds of events across the country. Berlin hosts wreath layings at a Jewish cemetery, at a Soviet military cemetery and at Ploetzensee prison, where many involved in the attempt to blow up Adolf Hitler in 1944 were executed. Official German commemorations treat the last war as inseparable from the Nazi dictatorship, genocide and war crimes. It is far more fraught than just a national day to remember the sacrifice of those who died fighting for their country.

Former servicemen gather at a military graveyard in South Berlin on Sunday morning for a more private ceremony, which starts with a roll call of regiments: “Third Panzer Division, First Foot Guard Regiment, ‘The Berlin Bears’…” perhaps one or two members of each unit are present here today. “I was a soldier,” says a fit-looking 76 year-old. “I am here to remember dead comrades. We know how British national pride is emphasised. That’s been spoiled for us in Germany over the last 50 years. I see no reason why commemoration of fallen comrades shouldn’t be done here in exactly the same way”.  British people would probably agree that German war dead should be remembered but what about commemorating those who were in the SS, or committed war crimes? Isn’t that a difficult question? “Not at all. I was a volunteer in the Armed SS. I think it is high time that the world media were a bit more honest. If we’re going to talk about war crimes, was not the atom bomb the greatest crime ever, or the Allied policy of area bombing Germany? Children, old people who had nothing to do with the war were savagely killed. That was just murder for the love of it”. I asked where he came from: “I was born in Dresden, and if that means anything to you, perhaps you can understand me”.

Major Welker leads the ceremony. He was wounded and flown out of Stalingrad in January 1943. “We honour those who once gave their lives in the service of duty. We make no distinction about who fought on which side, we remember those who gave the greatest that they had, their lives. It is time for understanding. I place no emphasis on reconciliation, just that we understand one another”

As he speaks, French soldiers and the Royal British Legion stand feet away from former SS men. “Soldiers understand one another,” Welker explained later. “They went through the same. Politicians never understand. In Russian captivity I was once presented to Marshal Zhukov who asked me my unit. ‘Stalingrad, 6th Army,’ I said. ‘They were brave soldiers’, he replied. I never heard that from a politician”.

Later on Sunday I returned to the site of the previous evening’s ceremony. Along the path leading into the cemetery are two simple headstones. One says: ‘The Dead in The East’. Opposite is another monument: “to the victims of expulsion, rape and forced labour. Innocent children and mothers, women and girls – their fate in the chaos of the Second World War must never be forgotten”. On its side is another inscription: “This block of stone is adapted from a granite monument originally placed by citizens of Schabrinsk, Siberia on a mass grave of German women and girls who were interned between 1945-48 and died of their imprisonment. Those women who returned will never forget their dead.”

At the end of the pathway is the tomb. In front of it are last night’s floral tributes. Trickles of people walk past, stooping to read the messages. “My father fell in Russia in 1943,” says Herr Sommer. His father is one of over a million German dead without a known grave, “so this is a place I can honour and think of him. But I also respect the other dead and I visit the British cemetery here in Berlin now and again”.

“It’s important to remember all the victims on both sides,” says Frau Sommer whose grandfather died on a U-Boat. “This is a day to remember the victims of the Nazi regime and that doesn’t just affect us, but mostly non-Germans”.

“I felt drawn here somehow.” Wulf Zahn is in his late 30s. “Today is important: there are wars everywhere so it’s a good occasion for certain circles to be reminded that they are capable of starting wars. There’s a stone over there that commemorates the mothers and children who were killed in the ‘chaos of the war’, but that’s nonsensical. Wars are not chaos. Wars are always declared and led. Wars are planned.”

Gabriel Fawcett