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Mourning Aachen’s War Dead: Cultures of Memory during the First World Warm and the Postwar Period

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The First World War proved costly to European societies, resulting in numbers of human casualties which went far beyond the imagination of the time. Coming to terms with these losses required new ways of coping, both on a broader social level and in terms of individuals and families. The focus of our study is an examination of the forms that the mourning of the war dead took at the local level. Special emphasis has been placed on semi-public and private remembrance in the German society of war times, and more specifically, in the city of Aachen, which has seldom been addressed in scholarship. To this end, we have analyzed hitherto unexamined archival sources containing obituaries from local newspapers from the war period, as well as materials on the construction of monuments, commemorative celebrations, and books from the 1920s and 30s. In the majority of private obituaries, one detects a national-patriotic glorification of the dead, which tapered off somewhat in isolated cases towards the end of the war. Public memory of the war changed towards the end of the Weimar Republic into a commemorative culture supported by the state with no regional differences, before being put into the full service of military revanchism by the beginning of the Third Reich.


“Why Germany Has Forgotten the First World War.” Thus reads an early 2013 cover of the national newspaper Die Welt, offering in stark terms an examination of a German blind spot as regards the country’s efforts to make sense of its own history. This occurred in spite of the fact that Germany was named “World Champion of Coming to Terms with the Past” by the Nobel Prize Committee Chairman Péter Esterházy (Stepanova 2009, 17). After the end of the Third Reich, memory of the First World War disappeared almost entirely from German public view, as the Second World War cost nearly four times as many human lives as the First, once held to be the war to end all wars (Kershaw 2011, 511). The twelve years of National Socialist rule remain one of the best-researched epochs in German history, though the cost of such unyielding attention has been a tendency to consign other chapters of German History to oblivion. In the other European countries that participated in World War I, its memory is both more present and more carefully preserved. While preparations to commemorate (in 2014) the 100- year anniversary of the outbreak of the war are in full swing, Germany wants to yield primacy of place to the war’s victors and maintain only a secondary role (Schmid 2013; Alpcan 2013). Aachen, the site of the first battles of the German army on the Western front that commenced during the invasion of neutral Belgium on the occasion of the 1914 conquest of Liège, is planning extremely limited celebrations for the anniversary. In 2014, the “International Newspaper Museum of the City of Aachen” will hold events to commemorate the war, whereas the city will primarily focus its attention on celebrations devoted to the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death. Beyond that, a World War commemoration ceremony will be organized in the Aachen Cathedral as part of the nationwide activities of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge association. These contributions can only be deemed very limited when we remember that this city lost more than 3,000 of its citizens as soldiers in the war.

Dying and Death in the “Great War”

As in the first global war, the First World War was not fought on the Europe’s battlefields alone; rather, it encompassed the colonies in Africa and East Asia, the Near East, and the world’s oceans. It was a war of unimaginable dimensions, involving Europe’s “Great Powers” at the beginning of the “Short Twentieth Century.” A war involving an intense arms race and major geo-political rivalries, it raged on for four long years. The soldiers died in skirmishes on as well as under the ocean on fronts that spanned the entire world. They found death in the skies, they died of poison gas, machine gun fire and artillery attacks. For contemporaries and later generations alike, this war would come to be known in collective memory as the Great War, der Große Krieg, or la Grande Guerre. On the Western Front in particular, the war was remembered as characterized by immobile attrition and murderous battlefields resembling wastelands, with enormous costs to both man and material. After only a few months it became clear that the war would in no way be the brief and decisive conflict that many at the time thought it would be, one whose ultimate aim was to secure “a place in the sun” for Germany. Instead, it stood as an unparalleled example of technical modernization and “total war.” Never before had so many soldiers been mobilized – more than sixty million from five continents marched over the course of the war – nor so many people killed: there were seventeen million casualties. These included nearly ten million soldiers and almost seven million civilians killed. As a ‘total war’ – the first of its kind – the First World War tore a swath of demographic destruction throughout the European states. For the German Empire, military losses amounted to some two million soldiers lost or 15% of the 13.2 million men who served, and over five million soldiers who suffered permanent disability (Bihl 2010, 298; Beckett 2007, 438–440; Overmans 2003, 664–665).

Efforts to come to grips with the mass death of soldiers in this boundless war, which has come to be called “the great seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century,” stands at the center of this paper. The mass grief that followed in the wake of mass death transformed European societies into societies of mourning (Janz 2002, 554). We will examine the reactions to the war death, often euphemistically referred to as “the sacrificial death” (Opfertod), or as “hero’s death” (Heldentod), which implied that death was never viewed as senseless, but rather as a necessary part of an important and successful attack (Janz 2009, 79). Death was therefore significant, as it would inspire further heroic actions among the survivors (Janz 2009, 80).

This brings us back to the question of how this grief played out in city communities. It is likewise important to determine whether there were qualitative differences in displays of private (for example, obituaries by relatives) versus public (for example, in the inauguration of memorials to war casualties) grief.

This question will be dealt with by taking an approach that looks at a regionally delimited example. As Germany’s westernmost large city, Aachen is in many respects ideally suited for the purpose: it sheltered a garrison of the Prussian-German army – the Lützow Infantry Regiment – and was the first site of a military hospital in the Reich which could be reached from the northern part of the Western Front. The first German soldiers of the war died directly west of the city in an attack on nearby Liège. Aachen thus was relatively early forced to find rituals and coping mechanisms in order to come to terms with the war dead, in both the private and public spheres. And what was true for Aachen was true for the rest of the Reich over the course of the war – grieving was now to take place in the absence of corpses or physical remains of the deceased, which almost always remained at the front. For most family members of the fallen, this represented death at a distance and led to a heightened need to represent and communicate the events verbally (Janz 2009, 71).

Our analysis of the transformation of private and public mourning practices of a city community torn between the emotional and psychological needs of the surviving family members and the requirements of the state, which valued nothing more than morale and perseverance, can be summed up as follows:

1. Analyzing the obituaries published in Aachen’s local press during the First World War. The processing of and coming to terms with the war dead was dictated by the public will to persevere. Private grief was limited to a narrow field. In the foreground stood the purpose of the soldiers’ death for the “emperor and fatherland,” though this was undermined by the endless number of death notices.
2. Employing memorial books, convocations and commemorative events dating from the postwar period, which was shaped by social and mental transformations. These were especially prominent in Germany due to the defeat, the war guilt clause, reparations and the military occupation of parts of the country, and caused the German efforts to overcome their war trauma to manifest themselves through (memory) repression and political activism (Krumeich 2002, 7).
3. Investigating Aachen’s cemeteries and memorials relating to the years 1914–1918. The first cemeteries date back to the wartime period. In Aachen, the construction of memorials was still underway in 1933 when the Nazis seized power. This event marked a further transformation in the mourning of casualties from the First World War. The culture of mourning was placed fully into the service of preparations for war.
4. Analyzing programs of memorial services from the 1920s and 1930s.


The culture of mourning is easily identified in public spaces by the presence of war monuments and cemeteries which, alongside commemorative events and celebrations, figured among the most significant testaments to the fallen after the war. These collective and public forms of war remembrance are among the most cited in contemporary research, whereas individual and private expressions of grief within urban communities (excepting Europe’s major capitals) have scarcely been examined.

The sources analyzed for this study are all found in Aachen’s city archive. The monuments, which up to the present day have offered proof of the human costs of the Great War, are described in the pages of the Heimatblätter des Landkreises Aachen, as well as in the journal of the Aachen Historical Society (Zeitschrift des Aachener Geschichtsvereins). Information on the origins and development of the cemetery of honor are to be found in the administrative records of the city. Also analyzed are publications commemorating regimental reunions among units stationed in Aachen (though available only for the Nazi period), as well as local organizations and the university.

In order to capture the sentiment behind private mourning rituals, we consulted 2,500 private and semi-public obituaries in the local newspapers (e.g. Echo der Gegenwart, Politisches Tagesblatt, Volksfreund; see Öffentliche Bibliothek 2006) which were published during the war. These obituaries were published at the behest of family members and friends, but also of employers, organizations, or military units.

Aachen in the First World War

In the First World War, the old imperial city played no special military role. However, the northern part of the Western Front had to be provisioned from Aachen, and the city’s industry profited from the production of armaments. The military and organizational structure within Aachen changed; the number and size of military hospitals and garrisons increased significantly. At the end of the war, in November 1918, Aachen was occupied by French and Belgian troops. The French had withdrawn their troops by 1920, but the Belgian occupation lasted eleven years. Although the years between 1914 and 1918 marked a major transformation in world history, this period’s impact on Aachen has seldom been researched and is lacking in both comprehensive large-scale surveys as well as detailed individual studies of the social, economic, and political cataclysms characteristic of the period.


I. Obituaries

City obituaries

During the four years of the conflict, written regimental reports of the city of Aachen included “plaques of honor,” which honored city workers who served and died during the war as conscripts. The plaques for these men were symbolically adorned with the iron cross. In the first year of the war, thirty-six men died, “a hero’s death for the fatherland. [...] The city of Aachen will forever preserve these fallen heroes’ honored memory.” (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1915). The second “plaque of honor” from the year 1916 honored sixteen city workers – here, however, reference to a “hero’s death” is absent. It is only the word “fatherland” which is mentioned (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1916, 5). In 1917, fifteen men died as “heroes who secured our abiding remembrance” (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1917, 5). In 1918 seven men fell, for whom the exhortation read: “honor their memory!” (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1918, 5).

The “hero’s death” was utterly fraught with political meaning and served to motivate both soldiers and German society to carry on the struggle (Janz 2009, 79–80). The individual’s death seemed to retreat into the background. On other “plaques of honor,” the city found itself repeating phrases, especially “On the field of honor, our regiment lost...” (Garde-Kameradschaft Aachen 1937, 21). Here, an honorable death was implied which was seen as requiring suitable tribute and gratitude from those at home. The human loss and the oftentimes barbarous and undignified circumstances in which death occurred at the front were ignored.

City obituaries generally had the purpose of transmitting the homeland’s support and the identification of the public sphere with the war, its causes and its consequences. It was all about patriotic, unreflective, uncritical grief, which became ever more impersonal, in as much any kind of information (apart from name and date of birth/death) regarding the fallen was completely absent.

Semi public and private obituaries

An important element for the culture of mourning during the war was the publication of obituaries provided by families, employers and social circles – for example, clubs or associations. For the city of Aachen, there exists a considerable collection of such sources from the time of the First World War. The majority of obituaries pertained to the inhabitants of Aachen who had lived in the city before the outbreak of the war. However, there were also death notices for people who did not live in the city themselves, but whose immediate family members were inhabitants of Aachen. Finally, there were obituaries in the local papers for people – mostly those of high social rank – who had at one time called Aachen home but no longer resided there.

It should be noted that the obituaries followed established patterns that had emerged in peacetime for private obituaries (cf. Zeck 2001). In most instances, they are colored by a clearly Catholic character, as revealed through references to saints or masses for the dead. This is to be expected, given Aachen’s Catholic majority (about 91% of the population) (Kühl 2011, 29). Distinct Protestant notices are nowhere to be found, and only one obituary commissioned by a Jewish organization and devoted to a deceased fellow-believer who died in an Aachen military hospital stands out. There is a particularly strict, militaristic mode of expression that emerges in a large portion of the obituaries (Capdevila & Voldman 2006, 119): they are often adorned with an Iron Cross that serves to denote military service. Inscriptions bearing the rank of the deceased often figure prominently. In contrast to those who died in peacetime, soldiers did not die in their homeland; as a result, obituaries contain rough mention of the place of their demise, often only whether the soldier died on the Western or Eastern front. Deviations from this formula were seldom seen. In a few select cases, the time of the funeral was provided – this was only possible if the deceased passed away in an Aachen military hospital or if family members had arranged for the transport of his body back to Aachen from the front.

The obituaries generally fall into one of two groups: 1) private expressions of grief from relatives and friends and 2) those stemming from employers, organizations, or military units. Both groups kept the nobility of the “hero’s death” at the forefront by emphasizing his death in service of the fatherland, and less commonly, for fatherland and king. This way of making sense of the soldier’s death is true for the whole period under investigation.

1. Most private obituaries reveal the society‘s widespread expectation of the “silent and steadfast” mourner. Particularly dominant was the romanticization of the hero, especially in evidence amid the boundless elation that accompanied the first year of the war (1914). Obituaries often claim that the last words of the deceased were, “but we were victorious” (obituary of 29 August 1914) while in other cases they were invested with even more positive meaning: “(He) died the most beautiful death a man possibly can.” However, the elation of the war hero was not an obligation, as shown by the example of a 1918 obituary involving two brothers. The first brother’s obituary was just being written when the news of the other brother’s death reached the family. In this case, the myth of the “hero’s death” is completely absent. In fact, the family spoke of “horrible tidings” that had reached them. In a few other cases (n=3) – likewise towards the end of the war (1918) – the expression “victim of the war” (Opfer des Krieges) is used in place of the notion of the ‘hero’s death’ (Heldentod), which still remained very frequent. In these cases, affected family members were distancing themselves from the invariably strong patriotic attitudes of society. Nevertheless, the term “victim of the war” was used in less than 1% of obituaries and was limited to private ones. In fact, it only emerged in 1918. Over the course of the war, the numbers of those who had lost more than one family member increased. This became apparent for the public through private obituaries in which references to the repeated loss of the family became more and more frequent. The death of successive family members was perceived as a multiplication of the sorrow already experienced.

Throughout the entire war, obituaries contained surprisingly frank and graphic descriptions of the circumstances surrounding soldiers’ deaths. It is true that there were occasions in which the suffering on the front was portrayed in romanticized terms; for example, when death was recounted as occurring amid a “circle of comrades” or there was mention of the grave prepared for the deceased by his comrades. A comforting picture of death in the field was painted on the home front through these descriptions, often in stark contrast to the reality. Nevertheless, entombments and day-long suffering from deathly injuries and gassings were also reported. In this way, the horror of the war crept into the mourning culture at home in small doses.

2. Obituaries by organizations and employers are clearly more formulaic. This is particularly the case of obituaries commissioned by the Erholungs- Gesellschaft Aachen (a social club which still exists today), which differed solely in the names of the deceased. Obituaries from employers often indicated the significance of the loss for the company and listed the credentials of the fallen employee. Organizations, on the other hand, often included the number of their dead in the obituaries (“Of the thirteen comrades who have served in the field to fight for Germany’s rights and honor, the second from our ranks who has died a hero’s death in France in the name of king and country is...”). School obituaries proved especially eager to celebrate the virtuous and exemplary character of their dead heroes, particularly in the first two years of the war. This presumably had the express purpose of encouraging other young men to enlist for military service, an incomprehensible didactic approach from today’s perspective.

Obituaries that were commissioned on behalf of organizations or companies that had no family relationship to the fallen played a clearer role within society than privately commissioned obituaries. They showed sympathy despite lacking any kinship to the deceased and owed a considerable debt to mourning rituals prevalent in times of peace from before the war. Even when semi-public obituaries contained actual expressions of grief, these sentiments took on a more distanced and formulaic guise compared to those appearing in private obituaries. Obituaries commissioned by comrades clearly represent an exception, as the number of these obituaries is very small. In the case of dead soldiers of higher rank in particular, one finds obituaries commissioned by their units in which the fallen are praised for their heroic courage and model character. In addition, poems dedicated to the dead penned by comrades were printed as obituaries in Aachen newspapers. They represented a link between mourning family members and grieving comrades, between the front and homeland. Nevertheless, in most cases the public and private spheres of mourning remained clearly separate. In conclusion, our analysis reveals that obituaries took the kinds of forms we might expect. Patriotic displays, which declined over the course of the war – though they never disappeared entirely – were present throughout. Given the prevailing censorship of the time, the most remarkable obituaries were those which clearly distanced themselves from a patriotic interpretation of death, as well as those in which there was a clear description of the circumstances of death: they set themselves apart from most obituaries, in which a quick, painless death is described in reassuring standard phrases.

II. Commemorative Books, Events and Celebrations

In the wake of the war, numerous organizations and social groups of the most varied sort celebrated their anniversaries and issued celebratory pamphlets for the occasion. These publications hovered somewhere between the public and socially influenced culture of mourning, with elements of personal inflection mixed in. All these groups were affected by the war and suffered losses. Was an anniversary the right occasion to commemorate the war dead, or was the memory of tragic death pushed aside to celebrate joyfully? A glance at the reports of RWTH Aachen University, of sporting organizations, shooting and hiking clubs, as well as fraternities, reveals that they all honored their dead. The range and scope of these commemorations, however, varied greatly: While certain organizations only mentioned their losses while discussing limited club activities, the RWTH – and above all, the student associations – devoted much more attention to the war dead. Nevertheless, our source base revealed that the majority of commemorative groups seldom dedicated more than a single page to their dead, in most cases numbering mere paragraphs or short chapters. Next to the names, the rank of the fallen was sometimes given. On the other hand, the Aachen gymnastics club printed photographs of its fallen members – a measure which was not taken elsewhere.

This marginal, somewhat distanced approach to mourning within groups not part of the inner family circle was disrupted by direct queries for missing soldiers from those left behind. A 1938 celebratory report commemorating the 125th anniversary of the former von Lützow infantry regiment contained two such queries for missing soldiers, and this more than twenty years after the end of the war. Relatives searched for more information about their fallen family members, such as descriptions of the circumstances surrounding their deaths. Information that the widows could provide included the name and rank of the soldier, the regiment number, as well as the date the soldier went missing, was wounded, or died. They were trying to locate eyewitnesses (comrades) who might be able to provide details that went beyond the formulaic military letters of condolence:

Seeking comrades who served together with (P. D.) in the 11th Company. The above-named fell on 9–19–1914. Can someone please provide information about the circumstances surrounding his death and where he is buried? Contact Mrs. (E. D., maiden name D.) at Aachen, Pontstraße 101. (Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1938, 11)

This was an attempt to bring death that had occurred on the battlefields or in military hospitals back into the private sphere. For the deceased’s relatives, death generally happened (geographically) far away, violently, and very suddenly, in a public space, in circumstances of total anonymity, and outside of the family’s reach. Eyewitness accounts made it possible for those left behind to participate emotionally in the death of those dear to them (Janz 2009, 72). In the extant sources, only one query for a missing soldier appeared.

It is important to note that the majority of organizations and groups did, in fact, make mention of their dead, but only to a certain extent can this even be defined as an explicit culture of mourning. The dead were scarcely granted a hearing. Reflections on the meaning of their deaths are scarce.

These commemorative depictions, which mention war deaths only in passing and position them outside the center of the analysis, stand in contrast to books whose only purpose was to honor the fallen. Of particular interest was the depiction of the Catholic Aachen student association Franconia (Hurck 1923). They honored their war dead with a small publication with general depictions of the war, the role of fraternities, and stories surrounding the individual fates of the fallen. In spite of all the war euphoria, the association did not shrink from showing pictures of the severe costs of war. Readers were spared neither the indescribably painful circumstances surrounding soldiers’ deaths, nor gruesome stories – like one about a corpse that had lay tangled in barbed wire behind enemy lines for three weeks. Still, they also functioned as an example of “proud grief ” that left no doubt about the significance of the soldier’s death and his model character. The depictions of Franconia and other student organizations included in the RWTH anniversary pamphlet show that cultures of mourning within organized student groups in the 1920s were already being used to serve the mobilization of a new war (Gast 1921).

III. Cemeteries and monuments

In 1907, a ten-meter-high monument in the form of a stylized “B” was dedicated in the Aachen Forest. On top of the monument sat a princely crown and orb, the entrance was emblazoned with a bust of Bismarck. The “Bismarck tower” paid tribute to the “Iron Chancellor” and founder of the Empire who had lived in Aachen during his tenure as a government intern (Aachener Stadtgeschichte, 2012). Originally conceived by his architects as a nationalist project and used by the citizens of Aachen as a landmark lookout tower, it acquired new significance as part of the “cemetery of heroes” (Ropertz 2011, 83). The Bismarck Tower was a favorite excursion site for the citizens of Aachen, which was perhaps one of the reasons for the erection of a cemetery in that place: the war dead would thereby somehow remain a part of the society through the presence of visitors, instead of being excluded from the city community, as would have happened had the cemetery been placed in a remote location.

The construction of a cemetery was indispensable for the city of Aachen after the first soldiers from the western front died in Aachen infirmaries in August 1914, or, as one source put it, here “death relieved them of their suffering” (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1914, 44–45). As a result, a resolution was passed to set aside a parcel of land in the Aachen Forest behind the Bismarck Tower that would serve as a “cemetery of honor” for all who had taken part in the war and died in Aachen. German, Austrian, and even foreign soldiers found their final resting place in this cemetery. Its function was, as the city put it, “to honor those who gave their lives for the fatherland and to secure heartfelt appreciation from all of posterity” (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1914, 45).

The soldiers’ cemetery in Aachen was modest in appearance and laid out in rows with graves marked by simple wooden crosses. It was designed in the austere form found throughout the Reich: burial plots were to be harmoniously arranged and enclosed within the untamed, primordial natural surroundings (Fig. 1). Its simple modesty and undifferentiated character symbolized the fallen who were all equal in death but whose own position was elevated by their separation from civilian burial sites (Ropertz 2011, 73; Latzel 1988, 77). The natural surroundings of the soldiers’ cemeteries show the Germans’ special attachment to nature compared to other nations (Mosse 1993, 108) – an attachment which became even more pronounced under National Socialism in the form of the “heroes’ groves” (Heldenhainen), and which remains characteristic to this day (Poschardt 2013; Palzer 2010).

The first twenty Germans were interred in the cemetery of honor in Aachen Forest in August 1914 (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1914). The commemorative book of the Harmonia men’s singing group describes how members of the organization provided musical accompaniment to the funeral ceremonies. Here, one sees how the civilian population became involved, if only to a limited degree, in the grieving process, one that acquired a military quality due to the absence of family members (mgv 1924).

Only one year after its construction, the city council agreed to extend the cemetery. Additional expansion followed in 1917, deemed necessary due to the “large number of victims claimed by the long war” (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1915, 46; Bericht über die Verwaltung 1917, 52).

From the beginning of the war through to the end of 1920, 2,848 people directly involved in the war were interred in the Aachen cemetery (2,164 Germans, two Austrians, one Hungarian, one Turk, and 676 people from other nations, as well as four nurses), making it the largest soldiers’ cemetery in the area surrounding Aachen (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1920, 5 & 64). Apparently, the grave site continued to be used during the Third Reich: a city report mentioned the solemn burial of 91 people in April 1944 (Ropertz 2011, 74). 2,623 more were buried during the Second World War. There were no observable differences in the manner of burial when comparing the two wars. A 1965 law conferred eternal peace unto the war dead.

In the first years following World War I, few Germans could visit burial sites located in other countries; as a result, monuments in Germany had to serve as the primary sites for those working through the grieving process. The repatriation of bodies back to Germany was a rare occurrence (Brandt 2002, 243). At the same time, soldiers were often not given a proper burial when they perished abroad, with about 25% designated as “missing in action” (Brandt 2004, 204).

It was remarkable that Germans had created monuments to their dead for a war that they had lost. Monuments typically serve to commemorate victories and successes: “If such misfortunes inspire the building of commemorative symbols then it is because the death of citizens as a consequence of a failed military or political action is very much in need of some sort of justification” (von Looz-Corswarem 2004, 213).

The construction of memorials during the Great War was subject to these severe restrictions. Politicians were convinced that war memorials undermined the perseverance of the German people, so that the majority of the structures in honor of the fallen were erected many years after the end of the war in 1918 (Weigand 2001, 213–214).

In Aachen, in the aftermath of the First World War, only two war monuments were built: 1) the “Ehrenmal” (memorial) in the city center and 2) the Rothe Erde war monument. Today, both monuments serve to honor the memories of those who died in the First and Second World Wars.

1. In August 1933, a little more than six months following the Nazi “Seizure of Power,” the “monument of honor” at the Marienburg, a tower built in 1512 outside the city walls of Aachen, was dedicated (Figs. 2 & 3). Various regiments were honored in the treasured commemorative books, notably the Lützower Infantry Regiment, which was defiantly remembered as “unbeaten in battle.” The tower at Marienburg was seen as a former defensive site and an emblem of the glory days in the history of the city that produced the “proud” Regiment. At the same time, it was seen as a future place of remembrance and gratitude. The monument was not only to serve as a means to grieve “our casualties in the war,” but rather as a reminder of the “living strength and right to life of our German sons in the borderlands” (Festschrift Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1933, 25). The Christian theme of eternal life was secularized and reinterpreted: the soldier sacrificed his life, and the nation was held as the highest benchmark of worldly transcendence (Janz 2002, 565). Suffering in the name of the Volk and the fatherland reached its culmination point, according to the interpretation of monument constructors, in the newly restored militarism, in the new Reich of renewed vigor and strength (Festschrift Bundesführer 1935). As he visited the monument, the visitor could look towards the horizon, “where, during the storming of Liège, for the first time ever German military power shone brightly, and further on, towards the blood-soaked battlefields of Belgium and France, where for years our troops used their bodies to throw up an impregnable wall against an entire world of our enemies” (Festschrift Bundesführer 1935). The theme of the supposedly undefeated German troops of World War I, which formed the basis of the later myth of the “stab in the back,” along with the antagonistic superiority of Germany’s enemies, were widely cited by contemporary observers and found reflection in a number of popular fixed expressions. These could be put into service by National Socialism in order both to mobilize society in readiness for the “coming war” and to call for revenge against Germany’s enemies (Weigand 2001, 217). The exact causes of the war were depicted in a distorted fashion and portrayed as actions necessary for defending Germany’s borders. The “worth” of the Volk was measured by its willingness to militarize; that it was “ready to serve the fatherland with property and blood [...]. We believed in this in 1914 and believe in it today, and we will believe in this forevermore” (Festschrift Bundesführer 1935). The grief and the vast human losses were absent from the general discourse, one was rather proud of the victims “who died for the homeland and the empire.” (Festschrift Bundesführer 1935) It was thus a duty of the survivors and future generations to achieve the (alleged) goals for which the soldiers had died (Brandt 2004, 202). The architectural style of the monument, the circumstances of its formal dedication, as well as the speeches declared during the official ceremony show the strongly militarized lens through which the dead were remembered at the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the Third Reich. Death was viewed as a duty and suggested a renewed readiness to fall victim to the war and sacrifice in the name of the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft). There was, however, no such thing as “victims,” only “heroes.”

2. The Rothe Erde war memorial was built “by the parish of St. Barbara for its fallen heroes who perished in the World War of 1914–1918” (Fig. 4). Not even the Aachen Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments has the year of construction in its files, a fact that speaks volumes about the minor value of these aspects of remembrance among present-day Aacheners. Presumably, the monument dates back to the 1920s. It is composed of white stone and adorned with a simple iron cross and two mourning women in prayer. The names of the war dead from World War I were perhaps once inscribed in the middle of the monument, though today a commemorative plaque hangs there instead, to honor the victims of both world wars (Rothe Erde 2010). In contrast to the first monument, this one is devoid of any pathos. Its function was not to serve as a military monument, but rather to depict the grief and sorrow of those left behind through the gestures of the female figures. As sources from the city archive reveal, this intention was made clear from the outset in the inauguration of the monument, which was accompanied by religious fanfare, rather than military pathos and military music. In this way, it stands apart from the “monument of honor” whose later dedication had a clearly military character and showed the government’s efforts to mobilize the country for another war.

IV. Commemorative Celebrations

The festival programs which emerged out of the reunions of regiments and associations that came to Aachen date back to the 1930s and, as such, clearly already bear traces of National Socialism. Festival day programs consisted of a wreath-laying ceremony at the cemeteries and monuments alongside commemorative celebrations and marches through the city. This was followed by officer addresses, toasts, the bestowing of awards, and musical tributes, often concluded with ceremonial artillery salvos. Speeches sung the praises of soldiers’ chivalry. One of particular interest was given in Aachen in 1933 by (retired) General Major von Friedrich on the occasion of the reunion of the Landwehr Infantry Regiment 28: “strong in will, courageous in deeds, brave in victory, loyal to the death. So will live the 28th in our memory forever” (Lndwehr-Inf.-Reg. 1933). Here, death received an expected form – as the heroization of death above all else, appealing to and making recurrent use of the active semantics and self-image of manly military virtue (Janz 2002, 563). Loyalty and belief in Germany was emphasized again and again, as was the model character of the fallen and the “fiery hearts” with which they served in the war, whose duration and severity could scarcely have been believed at the outset (Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1938, 9). Family members received no attention, as opposed to the fraternal community, which continued to exist. The regiments made their presence felt throughout the city: in their marching from monument to monument, in their gatherings in the central marketplace, and in their paying of respects at commemorative events and war cemeteries, not only in Aachen but at cemeteries in neighboring Belgium as well (Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1938, 2; Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1933, 7). For this reason, Mosse’s observation rings true: soldiers’ cemeteries after the war functioned as places of national meditation and pilgrimage (Mosse 1993, 115).

Continuity between the wars was present, the celebrations were organized not only “in honor of those fallen in the First World War.” Among those honored were also the soldiers who died during the wars of unification, as well as the “fallen heroes”(!) of the Third Reich (Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1938, 2; Garde-Kameradschaft Aachen 1937, 15). The “losers” of 1918 were part of the same tradition, standing alongside the “winners” of 1871 and 1933. As Janz has rightly put it, a politicized cult of the dead was established in the interwar period, populated by a range of organizations and institutions (Janz 2002, 556).

Remarkably, the presence of religious services or holy masses among the festivities is conspicuous in its absence (Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1938, 2; Garde- Kameradschaft Aachen 1937, 15; Inf.-Reg 1933, 7; Festschrift Bundesführer 1935). The presumed reason for this has to do with the fact that state-prescribed mourning rituals did not carry an explicitly religious connotation. Rather, they were often confessionally and politically neutral affairs which focused on paying tribute to the soldiers (Brandt 2002, 249). There is, in fact, only one festival (from 1937) whose Sunday program began with a religious celebration: starting at 8 am “every hour a mass was read in all the churches throughout the city for Catholic soldiers, ending with the one at 11:30 am in the Kaiserdom. For Protestant comrades, an 8:00 am service was led in Christ’s Church on Martin Luther Street” (Garde-Kameradschaft Aachen 1937, 15). Particular emphasis was placed on the preponderance of Catholic soldiers in the overwhelmingly Catholic city of Aachen.


Mourning culture vis-à-vis the war dead of 1914–1918 in Aachen was, as we have seen, multi-layered. There were diverse efforts to adequately pay homage to the dead, from obituaries and commemorative books to celebrations and monuments. The sources used in this paper show what the differences were between the private culture of mourning in the city community, which this study illustrates mostly with examples from the war period, and the official culture of mourning, which continued to a larger extent after the war.

The obituaries published during the war clearly show the personal, intimate grief of family members. These obituaries are marked by pain, but they nevertheless show the heroization of death in public. In only a few cases a critical perspective can be found, which shows – only to a rudimentary degree – how enthusiasm began to wane towards the end of the war. Aside from references to masses for the dead, one finds no evidence of strong Catholic influence. A religious connotation of death is missing; grieving, as presented in newspapers, was solely permeated by a national, patriotic aura.

The culture of mourning the war dead of 1914–18 in Aachen was complex. Obituaries, commemorative pamphlets, celebrations and monuments were all part of the society’s effort to commemorate the fallen. The sources used in this paper date mostly from the war period itself, and underline how differently the society mourned the dead compared to the ‘official’ culture of mourning, prescribed much later by politicians and parties.

The obituaries published during the war clearly show how intimate and personal the grief of family members really was: even though their pain was obvious, their grieving was still characterized by a heroization of death, at least on the surface. Only in a few cases is a critical undertone noticeable, which revealed how the spirit in Germany was changing towards the end of the war. Apart from masses, there is no mention of Catholic elements. The religious connotation of death is missing: it only resonated in a nationalistic and patriotic way, or so the sources indicate.

This paper is an effort to break new ground in its analysis of this specific period and region. It can therefore only represent a first glimpse into the culture of mourning in Aachen during the Great War. Further research is necessary, and it would be recommended to extend the range of sources to include funeral sermons, more commemorative texts that refer to the region, and private commemorative events and books.


Jens Lohmeier. Studied History and Politics at the RWTH Aachen University. He has published studies on social aspects of military history in the 20th century. He is currently working on his doctoral thesis on health policy in the National Socialist daily press.

Stephanie Kaiser. Studied History and Literature at the University of Mainz and Auckland. She works at the Institute of History, Theory and Ethics in Medicine at the RWTH Aachen University. She is an assistant in the “Transmortality” research project – funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. The topic of her doctoral thesis is body procurement for anatomical institutes in the Third Reich.




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