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The Military Cemetery as a Form of the Cult of the Fallen Soldier: The History of the Idea and Its Destruction on the Example of Austro-Hungarian Cemeteries in “Russian Poland”

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Fundamental changes occurred in the ways in which fallen soldiers were dealt with in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Europe and the USA. This evolution ran from their original apprehension as the “muck of history,” buried anywhere, in whatever fashion was available, to the cult of the fallen soldier, which reached its apogee in the era of the Great War. The culminating point was “the ideology of the military graveyard.” Since World War One, we have witnessed the gradual disintegration of this idea. The development of nationalism led to a decline in the equable treatment of war casualties, regardless of their nationality. The great cemetery-monuments (at Redipuglia and Tannenberg) are products of a different ideology. In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe different processes took place, linked to the cult of a nation’s own soldiers, felled in the struggle for the freedom of their homelands. This process was particularly strong in Poland, and was tied to the cult of Marshal Piłsudski and the Legionnaires. As a result, the cemeteries from the Great War were physically destroyed, and where they survived, they became – to borrow a metaphor from Paweł Pencakowski – “the forgotten graves of no one’s heroes.” This process, which continues to this day, will be described using the example of Austro-Hungarian cemeteries on the former territory of the Kingdom of Poland.

In his work concerning death in Western civilization, Michel Vovelle poses a fundamental question: How does a nation state perceive its soldiers slain on the battlefield? Does it merely ensure them glory, or does it use them for other aims? (Vovelle 2008, 610).

In 1914–1918 the governments of the warring nations, terrified by the massive number of casualties, created the idea of the military cemeteries as the highest (though not exclusive) form of the cult of the fallen soldier. The key principles of this idea were: the right of every soldier to his own grave, and – insofar as this was possible – that it be marked with his first and last name, with equal treatment for the bodies of the opposing army, their burial in shared cemeteries, though generally in separate areas, and the recognition of the battlefield – the place of the soldier’s death – as the most worthy place to lay him to rest. The fallen soldier (der Gefallen) had become a hero (der Held). This went for the enemy as well. The Germans marked a boulder in the section containing fallen Russian soldiers in Piotrków Trybunalski (in the Lódź voivodeship, Poland) with the inscription: “In praise of a brave opponent” (Ehre dem tapferen Feinden). In all the surviving grave inscriptions in “Russian Poland” the opponent is always “brave.” This form of the cult of the fallen soldier had surely transpired for the first (and, unfortunately, the last) time in the modern history of Europe. What happened to it after the war’s conclusion, particularly in Eastern Europe, where nation states had replaced the great powers? I will use my own research to try to illustrate the processes that occurred, based on the examples of military cemeteries in part of what was once the Kingdom of Poland, that is, the region that Germans and Austro-Hungarians called rusische Polen.

The Austro-Hungarian “Russian Poland” – the MGG

After the summer campaign of 1915, the Russian armies were pushed back from the lands of the former Kingdom of Poland. This region was subdivided into two occupied zones: a larger one to the north, administrated by the Germans, and one half the size, administrated by the General Military Governorship in Poland (Militärgeneralgouvernement in Polen – MGG), with its headquarters first in Kielce, and, after 1 October 1915, in Lublin. The Austro-Hungarians also administrated the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa. This town was located in the German administrative zone, but because of its special religious importance for the Poles it was handed over to the Catholic Habsburg Monarchy. The governor appointed by the Emperor was directly answerable to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army (AOK).

In this area, measuring nearly 45,000 square kilometers and divided into twenty-four regional commands (Kreiskommandos), 729 cemeteries and mass graves have been located, in which 148,129 casualties were laid to rest before 1917 (AGAD, MGGL, cat. 1166, unpaginated). By October 1918 another 11,000 bodies had been located, making for a combined total of 159,633 casualties buried here. There were surely more of them; the remains of soldiers were found in the interwar period, and are still being found to this day. Thus, to the question: How many soldiers fell and were buried in this area?, our only honest reply is: We do not know. We might well mention another number established by the Austro-Hungarian administration – 491 Polish legionnaires were among the fallen. In August 1916 the Tenth Division of Military Graves was created by the MGG. It answered to the Ninth Division of Military Graves in the Ministry of War. Military Grave Divisions with various Kreiskommandos were also active in the area.

The Genesis of the Ideology of the Military Cemetery

To begin, we ought to cite R. Koselleck’s reflection which, though it may concern monuments, is equally applicable to other forms of the cult of the fallen soldier: the paradox of the cult of the fallen, politically speaking, is that its symbolism and function are identical, or can be interpreted in an analogous manner. Their messages, however, are always tied to the time and the place. The message can be ritually repeated, or the monument’s function can change; it can be destroyed or forgotten (Koselleck 1994,10).

It is generally accepted that the roots of this ideology reach back to the Enlightenment, and specifically, to the French Revolution and the First Empire. There is much truth to this, but as an overgeneralization, it is risky. The more or less insane concepts for commemorating the slain and those who served the revolution include Jacques Cambry’s project (1799) – a pyramid into which their ashes were to be poured – and Napoleon’s idea to engrave the names of fallen soldiers of the Great Army into a church, thus turning it into a great war monument. These were unrealistic, but they did stir the imagination. Jacques Cambry’s project made the simple soldier equal to the head of a revolution, while Napoleon’s equated him with generals and marshals and made him the object of a cult which had theretofore surrounded only leaders and rulers (Mosse 1990, 38). This period ultimately left behind the Pantheon, where the most deserving were buried, and the Arc de Triomphe, which contains the names of the marshals and generals. Nonetheless – excepting the section for the National Guard in Pere Lachaise – the problem of a dignified burial for fallen soldiers was not resolved. In this respect things remained as they were – ordinary soldiers were buried in any old place and manner, if they were buried at all.

The French managed to “infect” their opponents (in particular, the Prussians) with some of their ideas. In 1792 the Prussian King funded a monument in Frankfurt for the residents of Hesse, where the names of all fifty-five soldiers who fell in liberating the city were inscribed (Mosse 1990, 39). Gerhard von Scharnhorst’s reform of the Prussian army had the motto: “We will take victory when, like the Jacobins, we learn to speak to the spirit of the people” (Lynn 2008, 230).

In 1814 general conscription was introduced. In May 1813 King Frederick Wilhelm III had ordered all the districts, at their own expense, to hang a memorial plaque in every church with a list of those who “fell for their king and their fatherland.”

The time of the revolution and the Napoleonic Wars thus brought about the beginning of the cult of the fallen soldier. Nonetheless, a German doctor visiting the field of the Battle of Leipzig wrote of the naked bodies of the fallen, devoured by dogs and crows. Walter Scott recalled that – although the battle of Waterloo was mostly cleared – there were places of mass burial marked by an unbearable odor (Mosse 1990, 44). In 1814 the Prussians burned the bodies of four thousand casualties at Montfaucon (Thomas 1991, 175). This occurred once again in 1871 at Sedan, where the Belgians, bothered by the odor from the shallow graves, decided to exhume them, fill them with tar, and burn them (Aries 1989, 537).

The Austrian fortress of Alba Iulia (presently part of Romania, a town that has also been called Weißenburg and Gyulafehérvár) holds an 1853 monument to the soldiers of the squadron stationed there, who died between 1848–1849. The names of four officers are listed, with a characteristic note: “Mannschaft 44.” This term described soldiers who were not officers. It is hard to believe that the officers did not know the names of their subordinates. We can see that it simply did not occur to them to commemorate their soldiers.

It took another twenty years for this state of affairs to change. First in the United States, during and after the Civil War, in which – let us recall – more American soldiers died than in both world wars put together. From 1860 to 1880 changes also began to occur in Europe, albeit slowly. The massacre at Solferino in 1859 evoked terror, but ossuaries for the remains of the deceased were created only ten years later. Respect was shown for those killed in the Battle of Oświęcim during the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, who were buried alongside one another in graves marked with their names, but we ought to recall that the cemetery as it appears today was created only in 1877–1882. Of course, military cemeteries do appear, first near field hospitals (e.g. in Legnica), or, most often, in special enclosures in parish cemeteries (keeping to territories within present-day Poland, we might mention Nowa Ruda, Świebodzice, Kowary, and Chełmsk Śląski). Many of these provide the names of the fallen soldiers, and not necessarily those belonging to officers alone. It did happen that military enclosures were walled off from civilian ones, but this is more to glorify the dead, and not to stigmatize, as was previously the case (Mosse, 1990, p. 45).

What happened, then? Sometimes one encounters the view that this was a result of American experiences. This hypothesis is less than convincing, given the Eurocentric view of the world that reigned at the time. It seems we are dealing with a few coinciding events, which do bear some resemblance to those which transpired earlier in the USA:

1. The introduction of general or voluntary conscription. In 1868 it became mandatory in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1872 in France, and in 1874 in Russia. The soldier ceased to be the sole property of the state, and returned to his community after service.
2. The democratization of the European states, the development of the ideas of rule of law and civil rights, elective rights, and of local governments meant that the soldier – even when subject to harsh military discipline – remained a citizen. Where a civic society did not emerge, as in Russia, nor did respect for the fallen soldier, to say nothing of the living soldier.
3. The growth of literacy in societies, the development of the press and communications. Just a few decades earlier the average villager learned of a war when enemy soldiers (or their own, which amounted to the same thing) were standing at the outskirts of town. In the late nineteenth century news of war reached the smallest of villages, as did, sometimes, information on the deceased – often family members or neighbors.

The governments of the time could not remain indifferent to these changes. The soldier had the right to his own name on his own grave (insofar as this was possible). This was first made law by the Americans during their war with Mexico (1846–48), and a similar inscription was found in the Treaty of Frankfurt that concluded the Franco-Prussian War – though the degree to which it was respected is another matter entirely (Koselleck 1994, 14).

In this way the basic cult of the fallen soldier was created, reaching its apogee during the World War I period.

The Military Cemetery: Ideology and Practice

“The most dignified place for the soldier’s grave is where he has died for his Fatherland. Thus it is only natural that we find military graves and cemeteries in battlefields. And we can be sure that the all-leveling force of death never so strikes the consciousness as when, after a mortal conflict, friends and enemies are buried alongside one another,” wrote a German ideologist of the new military cemeteries (Bestelmeyer 1917, 22). This is the crux of World War I military cemetery ideology. And, we might add, it is the ideology’s Achilles heel. After the war ended, exhumations of the corpses of fallen French and English soldiers took place on a mass scale. The same concerns the cemeteries in “Russian Poland.”

Today, it is difficult to unambiguously state if, and to what degree, ideological or pragmatic concerns were decisive in creating this standpoint – the armies had more than enough logistical problems as it was without dealing with the exhumation and transport of the soldiers’ bodies as well. All the more so in that their number exceeded all expectations. The latter was certainly of greater import, though it would be wrong to disregard the ideological, or at least the psychological factor. The societies of the day were unprepared for such a long-term conflict – the European wars had theretofore concluded within the course of a few months. Nor did anyone predict that the turnof- the-century technological revolutions in the art of killing would yield such a massacre of soldiers. Nor was anyone able to predict how much of this nightmare a general conscript was capable of enduring. It is hard to dispute Paweł Pencakowski’s view when he writes that the nightmare of war required the creation of an ideological counterweight: “The notion and task of building monumental cemeteries were a logical response to the madness of destruction; their creation and construction responded to the chaos of the battlefield; the general mayhem engendered the harmony of art and nature; the wartime clamor, poetic strophes; hatred, mercy; and animosity, unity” (Pencakowski 2002, 150).

The architecture of the military cemeteries in the East differs from that of the West. This results from the different nature of the wars: in the West it was trench warfare, while in the East it was trench/maneuver warfare. This explains the larger numbers of scattered graves and small graveyards in the latter.

There are also differences between the architecture of the graveyards found in the lands once belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Galicia) and Germany (Eastern Prussia), and those found in the former lands of “Russian Poland.” This is particularly visible in the case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where an archipelago of 400 Galician cemeteries, each of which is in fact a work of art, clearly differs from the more humble sites in the lands of “Russian Poland.” The Galician sites (like the Prussian ones) were to serve as patriotic education in the future. In “Russian Poland,” where the political future was less than evident, they did not need to serve this role. This does not alter the fact that the basic ideological components were the same. The difference applied less to the content than the form, which was made uniform. Directives of the Tenth Division precisely outlined, for example, the shape and dimensions of the grave crosses, which were produced by favored companies.

Basic differences between the German and Austro-Hungarian cemetery concepts are also visible. Their ideological messages were derived from the divergent recent histories of either state. For Prussia, the latter half of the nineteenth century was a run of political and military successes, while the successes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the same period were disputable, to put it lightly. Prussia’s greatest accomplishment was the building of a powerful state, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire merely succeeded in surviving. This is why the German monuments and cemeteries more often refer to glory, victory, and triumph, while their Austro-Hungarian equivalents are more likely to speak of the fallen soldier’s sense of duty and loyalty to the Emperor and the fatherland. The soldier’s devotion became an autonomous virtue whatever the outcome of the war or battle (Reichl 2007, 119–121). This is somewhat analogous to the situation in the USA after the Civil War, where the monuments erected in the north and the south differed in a similar fashion (Siedenhans 1994, p. 377).

In terms of symbolism the Germans had the upper hand over the Austro- Hungarians owing to the Iron Cross – a clear and legible mark of strength, a soldier’s valor, and eternal glory. Where circumstances allowed, grave monuments took the form of the Iron Cross, which found no opposition even among families of Jewish soldiers (Łopata 2007, 23). This was a secular symbol, not a religious one.

In practical terms, the difference between the German and the Austro- Hungarian cemeteries in “Russian Poland” were reduced to the construction materials of choice. The Germans preferred stone, in the form of cemetery walls, and the Austro-Hungarians earth and wood, which was more a result of economic concerns than ideological ones. The main component of the cemetery space was a Kurgan grave, which was essentially a mass grave for unknown soldiers, which could be seen as a response to the post-war cult of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Brüderkreuz, developed by Austro-Hungarian designers was a powerful symbol – it was a cross of brotherhood, a composition of several crosses with interwoven arms placed on mass graves.

Over its two years of work the Tenth Division of the MGG and its local units partly managed to consolidate the scattered graves and smaller cemeteries. As a result, the number of graveyards was reduced from 729 to 687. In spite of the centrally imposed models, many interesting designs were created. Unfortunately, most of these were not executed, owing to a lack of time and, above all, funds.

The Polish State and the World War One Cemeteries, 1919–1939

The Polish state was reborn at an exceptionally unfavorable time for the survival of military cemeteries. Of the three powers fighting for its territory, two had ceased to exist, and the third – Germany – had too many domestic problems of its own to tend to the graves of its fallen soldiers on Polish lands for at least a few years. The wars, particularly those with Soviet Russia, required the total commitment of the people and public funds, and moreover, it was necessary to take care of the soldiers that were killed in them.

New circumstances emerged after the end of war operations. Above all – galloping inflation, which practically ruled out the sensible planning of activities that looked more than a few months ahead. It also turned out that the scale of the problem, both with regards to the number of tasks and the magnitude of the required financial investments, greatly exceeded the most pessimistic prognoses. This was in spite of the fact that Poland had resigned from the idea of buying back cemeteries on private lands (formally speaking, Poland was not the legal heir to the partitioning powers, and was not obliged to cover the war damages they incurred).

As in France and England, the problem of exhuming bodies from military cemeteries arose in Poland. The available documents make it difficult to estimate the scale of the problem. In the report of the inter-ministerial hearing of November 1920 chiefly devoted to this issue, there is talk of “masses of requests submitted from the families of fallen or deceased soldiers” (Central Military Archive, cat. I.300.63.228, unpaginated). Judging by the numerous and frequent legal regulations concerning exhumation (27.11.1919, 15.01.1920, 20.05.1920) the problem was a pressing one. Ultimately, a solution was adopted that resembled the Austro-Hungarian one: exhumation was permitted in the period from 1 November to 15 April, but only in single graves; the opening of mass graves was forbidden, permission from the sanitation department of the relevant General District Command was required, and there were, of course, a whole range of sanitary regulations.

Was it simple to gain this kind of permission? The available documents do not give us a clear answer. Nonetheless, this was a time of searching for a compromise between the principles established during the war and the realities of life. Poland participated in the Red Cross conference in Prague (March 1920) devoted to graves and war cemeteries, where the following compromise was adopted: in principle it was forbidden to exhume a corpse from a military cemetery, where the soldier lies amid his company in a place of honor; in particular cases, however, consent ought not only to be granted, but families ought to be given all possible assistance. It therefore seems that, as in the West, the ideology of wartime had to give way to the natural law of civilian life – the right to bury one’s loved ones in a family environment.

As far as the treatment of the First World War cemeteries is concerned, the interwar period can be divided into two sub-periods, characterized by a clearly differentiated handling of cemeteries as the loftiest form of the cult of the fallen soldier.

In the first, which ran until approximately 1928/1929, the state authorities tried to enact the principles for handling fallen soldiers developed during the Great War. It was impossible to carry them out in full, of course, as the new state had new heroes of its own, who had fallen in the border war with Ukraine and in the Bolshevik War. It is no accident that Warsaw’s Grave of the Unknown Soldier holds those who died defending Lviv, and the choice of coffin was made by the mother of three sons who fell in combat with the Ukrainians. In our part of Europe this is nothing exceptional – in Latvia, for example, the Brothers’ Cemetery in Riga became a national cult symbol, though it commemorated not the Great War, but the war for independence (Aboltis 1995, 183).

The second period began with the tenth anniversary of the end of the Great War, which Poland commemorated as the anniversary of regaining independence. This period brought an end to the idea of the military cemetery as it had been understood during the Great War. From then on, the cult of the fallen soldier focused on the monuments and cemeteries of the Legionnaires, who had won Poland’s freedom. Separate cemeteries were created for Legionnaires. The bodies of soldiers of other nationalities were brought to different cemeteries (Jastków, Czarkowy) or, in some cases, located in separate, unmarked mass graves, which over time became forgotten (Bydlin).

Immediately after independence was regained, the cemeteries and military graves were tended to by military units, which was justified by the war that was being fought. The initially somewhat chaotic system run by the Military Graves Departments, the Military Constructions Council, and the various decanates was consolidated in December 1919 by the establishment of the Offices for the Care of Military Graves (UOnGW), which answered to the General District Commands (DOG), which in turn answered to the Ministry of Military Affairs. Beginning in early 1923, the upkeep of cemeteries was assigned to civil administration, the Ministry of Public Works, which was subordinate to the local UOnGW.

The first task was to register cemeteries and military graves. Although the relevant orders were released in December 1919, no wider inventory was carried out until 1921.

The results were horrifying. People had stolen all, or a significant portion of the cemeteries’ accoutrements. The first to disappear were the wooden items – fences, gates, and crosses (where the Austrians had placed wooden ones). Of the several dozen visitation reports from the Miechów district, not a single one fails to mention a lesser or greater degree of devastation. We can assume that the robberies occurred in the winter of 1918/1919, which was exceptionally harsh.

Iron crosses had also vanished. In Wierzbnik, in the Kielce Voivodeship, police found a major stockpile of them in an estate. The policeman astutely observed that it would be hard to find any use for them in a village farm, and that they were surely stolen to sell as scrap metal.

The main damage caused by these thefts was that the name plates of those laid to rest in certain graves vanished along with the crosses. Most often these were impossible to relocate on the basis of archival materials. As a result, one of the key rights of the fallen soldier was annihilated on a mass scale – the right to a grave marked with his name. The scale of the problem is demonstrated by the fact that, among all those buried in sixty-five cemeteries and military grave areas in the four regions in the north of the Małopolska Voivodeship, only in a single case has a concrete grave been assigned to a concrete soldier (Pałosz 2012, 238).

There are also recorded examples of the dismantling of walls surrounding a cemetery. Here the explanation is simple – someone needed some wellworked stone for the foundation of his house. Father Tomasz Jachimowicz thus described his visit to the cemetery of German soldiers in Mieczysławów, in the Kozienice district: “The horror I found [...] all the monuments and gravestones destroyed, the crosses broken, and even stolen, apparently for use on farms. There was a chapel on the site that was dismantled for the foundations of huts. The iron gate no longer exists. Although the Germans are our enemies, it doesn’t matter, what is of concern in the present case is the embarrassment to our state and degradation of our national culture” (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 15221 index 68).

It was not only the military cemeteries and individual scattered graves that were at risk, but also the sections and mounds for buried soldiers in the parish cemeteries. It is hard to estimate the scale of this phenomenon in the interwar period. Complaints to authorities were made only sporadically, and generally concerned individual graves. The liquidation of larger sites was generally revealed by accident. One example is Stopnica, in the Kielce Voivodeship, where, in liquidating the Orthodox area (which was unfortunately the rule), the priest also liquidated the Legionnaire section, of whose existence he was allegedly ignorant. It seems that it was more often the case that cemetery areas were pilfered gradually. They were also devastated, though to a lesser degree than military cemeteries proper.

The state authorities fairly quickly realized the extent of the problem. At the various meetings of the heads of the General Districts (7 July and 29 November 1920) the “mournful state” of the military cemeteries was raised. Responding to the Ministry of War on the subject of military graveyards, Sub-colonel Bronisław Pieracki emphasized “society’s lack of respect and devotion to graves and their lack of cooperation in conserving cemeteries and military graves,” but also the lack of activity on the part of the UOnGW. It was proposed that councils become more active and the community become more active, particularly through the Polish Association of the Mourning Cross, created in 1920, an organization based on the Austrian Black Cross (ŐSK), whose aim was to “provide care for the graves of fallen soldiers, both Polish, and those belonging to the armies of the partitioning states.” Ranks of workers were to be organized from prisoners of war and even Polish soldiers, and cemetery guards were to be employed, often recruited, from among war invalids (CAW, cat. I.300.63.228, unpaginated).

This failed to make much of a difference. The voivodes called for the devastation to end (in 1923 and 1927), threatening harsh penalties, but to little effect. The workers were disorganized, at least in the Lublin Province, because of the exchange of prisoners with Soviet Russia and the swift demobilization. The guards that were hired were laid off in 1921 and 1922, owing to lack of funds. Only those who agreed to work in exchange for the right to the grass clippings from the cemetery grounds were kept on.

Devastation and ordinary bureaucratic incompetence affected both the graves from the Great War and the Bolshevik ones. In undated instructions from the Voivodeship Office in Lublin, hailing no doubt from 1921 or 1922, it was noted that many scattered graves were lying about which had few crosses and “practically all of their identities are unknown” (APLublin, UWL, WKB, cat. 3190, index 96). On 15 November 1920 the MPs representing the Popular National Union tabled a motion in Parliament indicating that the graves of Polish soldiers were scattered across fields, plowed, and located in places that were utterly inappropriate (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 15181, index 27).

Judging by the lack of further appeals to the population and relevant decrees after 1927 we might hazard the opinion that, if plundering of military graveyards had not ceased altogether by the late 1920s, it was at least no longer a mass phenomenon.

The “Mourning Cross” turned out to be a misled notion. In the larger cities it had some degree of recognition, but in the counties and communes it scarcely existed. “Our society is so occupied with everyday life that it does not or cannot understand matters of such significance as caring for military graves,” wrote Lublin’s voivode in a letter to the Ministry of Public Works in April 1923 (APLublin, UWL, WKB, cat. 3190, index 170). More funding was brought in by public collections, generally organized by the mayors of the smallest rural administrative units on 1 November. The surviving letters from donors in 1922 in the Lublin area appear to suggest that these mayors simplified their work by imposing a kind of tax on estate dwellers, a sum of one hundred Polish marks per family. This was less than the price of one egg.

As previously mentioned, the first and basic task of the administration was to inventory and identify the cemetery sites. This was essential to begin adequate renovation work, but also to assess the situation on a nationwide scale. In February 1920 the Ministry of War wanted to present the government and Parliament with a breakdown of the costs needed to upkeep the cemeteries, in the hopes of acquiring necessary funds from the “occupying states.”

The official statistics were of fantastical proportions. In October 1922 the Ministry of Public Works estimated that, across Poland, 500,000 soldiers were buried in 6,000 cemeteries, 200,000 lay in scattered graves, and there was a need for around 300,000 crosses and grave markings (APLublin, UWL, WKB, cat. 3191, index 50). Meanwhile, in the early 1930s, and thus right after the partial consolidation, the Ministry of Internal Affairs declared that, in the territory of Poland as it stood, there were 1.3 million soldiers buried between 1914–1921 in 10,755 cemeteries (CAW, cat. I.300.63.228). The Ministry of Public Works thus underestimated the scale of the problem by about fifty per cent. In April 1923 the ministry caught an inconsistency in data concerning the graveyards of German soldiers: according to Lublin’s data there were eighty, and according to German data – 546.

The Austro-Hungarian bureaucrats were guilty of the same crime. As mentioned before, they counted 687 cemeteries in MGG territory. Meanwhile, the sum total of cemeteries in the early 1930s in the Lublin (425) and Kielce (653) voivodeships comes to 1,078. If we add the military areas in the parish graveyards to this sum (336), we arrive at a total of 1,414 (we should take into account that during the Bolshevik War new cemeteries were not established in the Lublin area; fallen soldiers were buried in military areas or in scattered graves). Even the border changes of the Lublin Voivodeship cannot account for such vast discrepancies.

As for the scattered graves, every number is only approximate. To this day, private grave hunters find a few new ones every year.

In spite of the war, the lack of documentation and the problems with grave robbery, the new Polish state did have a chance to cope with the problem of the vast quantities of cemeteries and military graves. The obstacles they faced were a public funding crisis and gigantic inflation. In September 1923 the Lublin voivodes applied for additional subsidies to close the third financial quarter, an amount of 60 million Polish marks. In October they were informed that the combined subsidy of 75 million marks earmarked for the third quarter had run out, and they applied for 150 million for the fourth quarter. The mad inflation annihilated any sensible plan of action. If a liter of milk cost 400–500 marks in September 1922, a year later it cost 3,000–5,000 Polish marks.

The situation stabilized after Władysław Grabski’s currency reforms (April 1924). This allowed for the gradual consolidation of military cemeteries. At any rate, such activities had been taking place – as far as funds and manpower allowed – since 1920. However, the Ministry of Public Works’ rescript of 13 January 1923 (APLublin, UWL, WKB cat. 3190, index 178) and a range of accompanying decisions created a legal basis for cautious consolidation, particularly the transfer of soldiers buried in smaller cemeteries and scattered graves to larger “collective” cemeteries. The bodies of identified fallen soldiers were to be buried in single graves, and the obligation to transfer the cross or the name plate together with the body was stressed, as was the duty to keep them in a decent state. Unknown bodies were to be buried in common graves. They maintained the principle that collective graves containing in excess of twenty bodies were not to be exhumed.

In sum: until more or less 1928–29 the Polish government tried – insofar as this was possible – to maintain the basic principles of the policies toward cemeteries that were developed in the Great War.

The Time of Nationalism: Our Fallen Soldiers and Theirs

The turn of the 1920s and 1930s sparked nationalist moods in Poland and all across Europe. This was quickly reflected in policies toward war cemeteries – fallen soldiers began to be divided into ours (superior) and theirs (inferior). Projects emerged to place “our” bodies in separate cemeteries, or sometimes to remove the “foreign elements” from “Polish” cemeteries.

This phenomenon was not unique to Poland. In December 1920, on the request of the Hungarian government, the Ministry of War asked the General District Commands if it was possible to clearly distinguish the graves of fallen Hungarian soldiers (APKielce, UWK I, 15196, 24). This request was reiterated in 1929, and further suggestions came a year later – that the cemeteries of fallen Hungarians be renovated first, that “Hungarian soldier” be written in Polish on their gravestones, and that Hungarian bodies should be, as far as possible, put in separate graves. Poland agreed to some of these requests, while stating that they would be possible only when the cemeteries were being reconstructed (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 15196, 166). Representatives of the Hungarian embassy occasionally visited the graveyards where their countrymen lay buried (in Lublin, for example, in 1928).

In Bielany, near Warsaw, an Italian cemetery was built in 1926; prisoners of war buried in Poland were exhumed here. Exhumation concluded in the territory of the latter-day MGG in 1929. In the fall of 1928 the Turks submitted a request for their deceased to be exhumed, establishing a cemetery near Lviv (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 15182, 53).

In Poland the changes in military cemetery policy were tied to Józef Piłsudski’s May coup d’etat (1926) and were a consequence of the burgeoning cult of the Marshal and the Legionnaires. The conviction formed (or was formed) that the Legion was the main reason why Poland had regained independence.

In late 1929 the Minister of Public Works, Jędrzej Moraczewski, suggested “creating, as far as possible, Polish military cemeteries which hold mainly Polish soldiers, transferring the grave mounds for foreign soldiers to other cemeteries, mixing the bodies of the soldiers of the occupying armies” (APLublin, UWL, WKB, cat. 3187, 122). The style of this document is significant. It indicates how far we had moved from the conception developed during the Great War.

The way in which the bodies were treated also changed. When, in 1932, the remains of Polish soldiers were exhumed in Okraja (Lublin Voivodeship), this was a ceremonial occasion. The bodies were laid in decorative coffins, and a special mass was held in a nearby church. The remains of the “soldiers of the occupying countries” were carried in paper sacks. In June 1929 the Lublin Voivodeship Council considered the complaints of three local mayors against a Voivodeship Council delegate leading the exhumation of scattered graves. They complained that the “remains of soldiers’ bodies were transported in a small paper bags” and that he had recommended they be buried, at the cost of the local governments, in the nearby cemeteries. One mayor claimed that the delegate had been drunk (APLublin, UWL, WKB, cat. 3191, 39–40).

In the early 1930s Legionnaire cemeteries began to be established, as in Jastków (1931, Lublin Voivodeship) and Czarkowy (1937, Kielce Voivodeship). A problem arose, however: What was to be done with the bodies of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian soldiers buried there?

During a visit to Jastków in 1929, a representative of the Legionnaires’ union suggested that the cemetery be completely rebuilt to hold exclusively Legionnaires. The twenty-three Russian soldiers and 108 Austro-Hungarian soldiers buried there in a mass grave (according to other data – 255 Russians and 117 Austro-Hungarians) were to be transferred to another cemetery (APLublin, UWL, WKB, cat. 3191, 10). This was, in fact, accomplished – in 1930 they were exhumed and transferred to nearby Garbów (Dąbrowski 2004, 105). It is a small irony of history that, two years earlier, on the tenth anniversary of the regaining of independence, in this very cemetery, the local people raised a chapel with the inscription: “To the knights who fell fighting for the freedom of the Homeland, on the tenth anniversary of independence, 1928.” Not a single Polish soldier is buried in this cemetery. This also anticipates a tendency that was to become almost universal after 1989.

Apparently, the same occurred in Czarkowy, though on a greater scale. A chance discovery of a Legionnaire grave by the road to the cemetery led to a monument to the “victory of the Legionnaires” being erected here in 1928 (Oettingen 1988, 107). This was followed by a decision to reshape the existing cemetery into a Legionnaire one. In total the ashes of over a dozen Legionnaires were placed here (Oettingen 1988, 106). To this end, the remains of 473 Austro-Hungarian and Russian soldiers were removed in 1937 and taken to a nearby cemetery in Opatowiec. This did not, however, cause the latter cemetery to be expanded. “The remains of the bodies will be buried in the area confined by the embankment surrounding the cemetery,” we read in the Voivodeship Council’s letter to the Regional Government Office in Pińczów (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 17483, 254–257). Because the cemetery in Opatowiec is relatively small (around twenty-eight by thirty-one meters), it is difficult to imagine a dignified burial for almost five hundred bodies.

We find an explanation of this phenomenon in correspondence concerning another exhumation. It was fairly common practice to carry bodies to the military enclosures of parish cemeteries. This did not require the consent of the priest, as the remains were buried between preexisting graves, thus not increasing the surface area of the section (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 17484, 189–90; cat. 17483, 221, 268).

Specialists from the Jurajski Forum, researching the cemetery in Kotowice, in the Myszków district, have come across human remains barely 30–40 cm below ground. There is evidence to suggest that the cemetery in Kluczy in the Olkusz district was only partly exhumed, and that bodies were certainly left in mass graves (research is still underway). The reason for this was the constantly reiterated appeals of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (after the liquidation of the Ministry of Public Works in 1932, responsibility for military graves passed to the Ministry of Internal Affairs) to exercise maximum frugality in consolidating cemeteries.

Was even a symbolic religious ceremony organized in relocating bodies? It would seem not – though exceptions did occur. In 1937 the Voivodeship Council in Kielce applied to the head of the Tenth Corps Region for consent to transfer parts of a military cemetery to a new location. For financial reasons, there was a request to be free of the obligation to bless the new grave, arguing that during the time when the military cemeteries and enclosures were established they were, in the main, not blessed (which was not actually true). The council appealed to the Ministry of Public Works resolution of 5 January 1931, whereby soldiers’ bodies were to be transported “with all caution, gravity, and respect, but incurring no costs beyond reasonable necessity.” In response, the Catholic dean of the Tenth Corps District reminded the council that “in times of peace all transport of bodies should be accompanied by a brief service, out of concern for the piety and reputation of the local population,” and that, moreover, in this case, it would cost nothing, as the blessing was performed free of charge by the priest of the garrison in Sandomierz. His objection was supported by the head of the district (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 17483, 357–362). Judging by the other archival documents, however, this was more an exception than the rule.


The act of 28 March 1933 pertaining to military graves and cemeteries (Dziennik Ustaw No. 39/1933, art. 34) regulated the issue of military cemeteries in a complex fashion (it holds to this day, in an amended version). Cemeteries were, from then on, to be located on state lands (apart from religious cemeteries). If they were located on private lands, the state powers were given a choice: exhumation, purchase, or – inasmuch as this was possible – appropriation of the land where the cemetery lay. The state was responsible for the affairs tied to military cemeteries, while the communes took care of the local management. The regulations concerning exhumation were liberalized at the family’s behest – the decision was made by the voivode.

This act placed a great financial burden on the Polish state, and thus it was clear that the number of cemeteries had to be reduced to a reasonable figure. The general tendency was consolidation. Documents from the early 1930s show that the scope of the liquidation was enormous. In the Kielce district 290 cemeteries were to remain out of 653, and in the Lublin area, 180 out of 425. There were no plans to reduce the numbers of military enclosures in civilian cemeteries. However, the number of graves, both single and collective, was to be reduced.

Consolidation plans were modified as time went on. To judge by surviving correspondence between the Ministry of Internal Affairs, voivodeship councils, and local mayors, the basic criterion for keeping or liquidating a cemetery was the answer to a question: What comes out more affordable – exhumation or buying the land? (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 17483, 35–37, 173, 175, cat. 17484, 187, 205–208). Thus, unfortunately, it happened that cemeteries that had recently been renovated were liquidated in spite of being architecturally interesting, their only drawback being that they were located on private land.

The main objection toward consolidation – apart from the negligence in its enactment – is the fact that it brought no “added value” to the state of the surviving cemeteries. The reason for this was obvious: frugality. This is clearly expressed in a Ministry of Internal Affairs letter dated April 1939 to the Kozienice district authorities: in the remaining cemeteries only “provisional repairs” were to be conducted (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 17484, 187).

An act of 1933 broke with the World-War-I idea of the military cemetery once and for all. This ideology, however, had long since died. The cemeteries – to paraphrase the title of Paweł Pencakowski’s work – became “the forgotten graves of no one’s heroes” (Pencakowski, 1996, 3).

World War II and the Post-war Period: A Time of Destruction

The Germans restored a few cemeteries, including six in the Lublin district (Dąbrowski, 2004, 51). In destroying the majority of Jewish cemeteries, they liquidated many neighboring military grave enclosures at the same time (the rest were, unfortunately, destroyed immediately after the war).

The problem of secondary burials also cropped up – fallen Polish, German, and Soviet soldiers were buried in the First-World-War cemeteries and military enclosures. When Soviet (and later German) soldiers were exhumed in separate cemeteries, the remains of those killed in the First World War were also often collected.

World War II trauma caused the World War I cemeteries to vanish from the community’s memory. “Whereas military cemeteries were liquidated in the interwar period through the consolidation of graves [...] after 1945 these cemeteries disappeared through a lack of interest and upkeep” (Oettingen, 1988, 62).

The history of this “disappearance” of military cemeteries and enclosures is fairly well documented in the literature (Dąbrowski, 2004, 52–53, 123–124, Lis, 2001, 71, Oettingen, 1988, 62, 101, 173, 186, Ormanowie, 2008, 136–137, 152, 160, 183, Pałosz, 2012, 225–231), and thus we need not delve into the problem here. Firstly, those cemeteries on private lands that had not been exhumed or purchased in the interwar period disappeared. Many of these were plowed up, in some cases (Wierzchowisko near Wolbrom, Stogniowice near Proszowice, Kraśnik in the Lublin Voivodeship) they were joined to private properties, and one example is known of the construction of a residential home on a cemetery (Skrzeszowice IV near Krakow).

This does not mean that such a fate was shared by the majority of military cemeteries or enclosures during the time of World War I. Where there were no cemeteries of those killed in World War II they served the role of “tombs of the unknown soldier.” As the oppositional mood increased in the 1980s, some came to serve as local ara patriae – altars of the Homeland. Symbolic crosses appeared, honoring the memory of Polish officers murdered at Katyń (as in Biórków Wielki or Olkusz) or – in more contemporary times – sites for the cult of President Lech Kaczyński and other victims of the Smoleńsk catastrophe (Włodowice, the Zawiercie environs). This was not the first example of the “appropriation of fallen soldiers.” In 1953, during the preparations to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the January Uprising, some First World War graves of unknown origin (at the time) were renamed graves of the Insurgents of 1863 (e.g. Złotniki I and II near Krakow). However, as the Polish proverb says, every evil brings some good results – and surely it is for this reason that they have survived to this day.

The Appropriation of Fallen Soldiers

The year of 1989 saw crucial changes to how First World War cemeteries were treated. The role of the Austrian Black Cross (ŐSK) can not be overestimated here, as it first financed, and then inspired the renovation of the World War One cemeteries. This period also saw increased interest among local populations in the history of their “little homelands.” Happily, there are still people whose parents or grandparents told them stories about the First World War and the graves found on their land. It does, however, often happen that these “discoveries” are tainted by stereotypes shaped by the decades in between, above all the fairly widespread conviction that in 1918 Marshal Piłsudski’s Legionnaires fought for Polish freedom. Thus it frequently occurs that, in cemeteries or grave enclosures where not a single Legionnaire is buried, there are inscriptions claiming or suggesting that they contain the bodies of Polish soldiers who fell in the struggle for independence in the years 1914–1918. An extreme example is the military grave enclosure in Igołomia, just over a dozen kilometers east of Krakow, which holds the remains of 127 Austro-Hungarians (judging by the course of the battle in this region, they must be primarily Tyrolians) and twenty Russian casualties. The towering monument is dedicated to “the nameless Polish soldier” who fell in the fight for independence. The image of this “Polish soldier” on the facade of the monument is a curiosity of sorts: he wears a helmet resembling those worn today in China, a Russian overcoat, and holds something recalling a Kalashnikov in his hand.

Such cases, unfortunately, are abundant. Probably the largest cemetery appropriated for the Legionnaires is Opatów I, where 929 fallen soldiers are laid to rest, including one Legionnaire (who was certainly exhumed, at any rate). There are scarcely fewer (855) at the cemetery in Ogonów near Wolbrom, which is devoted to Legionnaires (in reality one lies there). Marek Lis has found at least seven cases of mislabeled cemeteries in the Sandomierz area (Lis 2001, 61), and Marian Dąbrowski has found the same number in the Lublin area. An initial attempt to sum up the number of bodies declared to be legionnaires finds that it exceeds their combined total in 1914. We have two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, there is the development of associations and informal groups (e.g. the Jurajski Association and the Austro-Hungary Internet forum) with the relevant knowledge. On the other, we are dealing with the spontaneous acts of people who remain under the influence of Legionnaire ideology or who lack knowledge and competence (which cannot, after all, be expected of them).

Excessive generalizations, however, are risky. My research into the First World War cemeteries in the northern districts of the Małopolska Voivodeship indicates that, of the twenty-one marked cemeteries (not counting those which have been plowed over or otherwise destroyed), eleven are correctly marked, five are wrongly or ambiguously marked, and five are not marked at all. In terms of the military sections of cemeteries, twelve are correctly marked, one is unmarked, and thirteen are marked wrongly or ambiguously (Pałosz, 2012, 245–246). Here, too, the destroyed sections have been omitted.

Unfortunately, the members of The Jurajski Association continue to wage a battle, both fierce and hopeless, against scrap collectors; in Wronin in the Małopolska Voivodeship only one cross remains of the several dozen donated by the priest in the neighboring Biórków (which ought still to be regarded as progress, as for several decades after World War II there was only a local garbage dump on the site). It would seem that the lack of respect for military cemeteries found outside of parish or communal graveyards will be remarkably difficult to mend. This does not alter the fact that military enclosures are sometimes liquidated in parish cemeteries. In 2011 in Aleksandrowice (a district of Bielsko-Biała, Silesian Voivodeship), for example, there were visible traces of new burials in the grounds of a former military enclosure – between freshly-dug civilian graves one could find abandoned metal crosses, which generally signify soldiers’ graves.

The liquidation of small local schools and the decline in importance of the scouts means that cemeteries and mass graves once maintained by school children are gradually disappearing (in the Krakow region, this has meant the disappearance of the cemetery in Marszowice and the mass grave, Skrzeszowice III).

The most difficult issue, however, will be dismantling the mythology of the Legion and departing from the “us and the occupants” formula; showing the fallen soldier in this most senseless of wars in the history of Europe as an ordinary person whom politicians tore from his natural environment, gave a uniform and a weapon, and ordered to kill others like him, but in different uniforms. Only to fall dead in a country that was foreign and hostile.

Will such a transformation in the perception of the cemeteries that remain after World War I ever be possible? Not in the foreseeable future. The legend of the Legions is inscribed in Polish historical mythology, where historical truth has no role to play.


Jerzy Pałosz. A lawyer and a historian, a journalist for many years, presently an employee at the Faculty of Humanities, Cultural Studies Department of AGH University of Science and Technology (Krakow). He has written a range of publications on the subject of military cemeteries from the Great War and the history of the cult of the fallen soldier. In 2012 he published the book Śmiercią złączeni. O cmentarzach z I wojny światowej na terenach Królestwa Polskiego administrowanych przez Austro-Węgry [Death of the United: On World War One Cemeteries in the Kingdom of Poland administrated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire] (pub. Libron, Krakow 2012). He has spent years heading the inventory of the remains of cemeteries from the Great War in the former lands of the Kingdom of Poland. He has received the Black Cross for Service to Austria.


List of References

Archival Sources

Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw. Militärgeneralgouvernement in Polen (MGGL). Dossier of the Tenth Division of Military Graves, cat. 1166 (unpaginated), quoted in: AGAD, MGG, State Archive in Kielce.

Kielce Voivodeship Council (UWK I), cat. 15181, index 27, 15182, index 53; 15221, index 68; 15196, indexes 24, 166; 17483, indexes 35–37, 173, 175, 221, 254–257, 268, 357–362; 17484 indexes 187, 189–190, 205–208, quoted in APKielce, UWK I. State Archive in Lublin.

Voivodeship Council in Lublin, Transport-Construction Department (UWL, WKB), cat. 3187, index 122; 3190, indexes 96, 170, 178; 3191, indexes 10, 39–40, 50; quoted in: APLublin, UWL,WKB.

Central Military Archive in Warsaw (CAW), Cat. I.300.63.228 (unpaginated), quoted in: CAW.

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