How are WWII veterans treated in Germany

Travel back in time


The research report presents findings and reflections on the memories of those involved in the war of the Second World War. In addition, the activities of their associations, but also of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge abroad are explained. The presentation focuses on the institutional framework of trips to the former battlefields abroad, above all to France, Italy and Russia or the Soviet Union. In addition, it indicates that different memories clashed here and reservations about West German “battlefield tourism” persisted for a long time. These processes still need to be examined in detail. With the more recent historiography of cultures of remembrance and battlefield tourism, fields of research are linked that have so far been treated separately in historiography.

When in the late 19th century modern travel, which was largely borne by the bourgeoisie, increasingly overlaid the aristocratic "Grand Tour", battlefields also became tourist destinations. At the same time, the governments of important states - such as Germany in the war against France in 1870/71 - decided to bury dead soldiers and leave them where they had fallen. This gave rise to a memorial tourism that was partly combined with military folklore. From the battlefield of Gettysburg to the battlefields of the First World War to the beach in Normandy: Everywhere travelers have been drawn to former battlefields, which they viewed both terrified and fascinated. Many tourists thought of fallen soldiers at the military cemeteries that had been set up on the former battlefields or in their vicinity. This commemoration was evidently often combined with recreational trips, which were an integral part of the new "battlefield tourism".[1]

Using the example of journeys made by veterans of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS from the Federal Republic to places where they fought in World War II, this article deals with the framework conditions for memory processes from the 1950s to the 1980s. For this purpose, the remembrance of the dead of West German veterans in France, the Soviet Union and Italy will be examined. The depiction is intended to outline the war participants as a heterogeneous community of remembrance, which differentiated itself from other groups such as the concentration camp prisoners and the expellees. With the connection between the travels of specific actors and their practices of remembering and forgetting, different areas of social action and also two fields of research can be related to one another, which historians have so far largely examined separately from one another. In addition, studies in this field of research open up the prospect of tracing and explaining the relationship between the memories of veterans and the memory politics of their organizations. Overall, instructive insights into the construction and change of memories of National Socialism and World War II can be conveyed.[2]

Battlefields and the cemeteries and memorials for the fallen on them or in their vicinity are defined below as specific places of remembrance. Based on the pioneering studies by Pierre Nora, the concept of “places of remembrance” has become a new “intelligibility category”. As »material as well as immaterial, long-lasting, generation-lasting crystallization points of collective memory, which are characterized by an excess of symbolic and emotional dimensions«, places of remembrance primarily served to establish national identity. They have therefore been understood differently in the individual countries.[3]

After an overview of important dimensions and the historiography of the problem area presented, this article deals with research on the memory politics of important institutions that were involved in the maintenance of war graves and that organized trips to the cemeteries in foreign countries. Above all, the soldiers' associations and the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V. (VDK) influenced the memories of veterans in the Federal Republic. In the following section, findings and further considerations on trips by West German veterans to war graves and memorials to the fallen and the associated practices of remembrance in states that were occupied by the "Third Reich" during World War II are presented. With France, Italy and the Soviet Union, the research report deals with travel destinations that were involved in the war in different ways, so that a considerable range of specific memories of the traveling veterans of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS is recorded. The article closes with a conclusion in which the findings are classified in the more recent historical research on memory and in the history of tourism.

Dimensions and state of research

In recent years, historiography has increasingly included the cross-border references and dimensions of national cultures of remembrance to the Second World War, National Socialism, Fascism and the Holocaust.[4] The main features of the development of commemoration of the dead since the early 19th century have also been traced in historiography. With regard to “battlefield tourism”, however, research has concentrated on the First World War.[5] In addition, published studies have reconstructed the main features of remembering wars and commemorating their victims in the Federal Republic of Germany and also indicated the contribution of monuments and tombs in cemeteries.[6] Overall, in published studies on the commemoration of the fallen in the 20th century, the importance of conflicts over meaning and legitimation between state and social actors has been emphasized in general, without the associated processes with regard to temporary stays of Wehrmacht members abroad having been specifically analyzed. However, an empirical study has recently been published for the group of soldiers who have returned from captivity.[7]

For the other veterans, however, only a few systematically comparative and interdependent studies on dealing with the Second World War have been presented so far.[8] Rather, historical memory research in Europe continues to be shaped by national historical constrictions that syntheses and collections of articles have hardly overcome. In addition, historiography has largely limited itself to the memory politics of governments and to publicly circulated memory narratives. These national "basic narratives" often contradicted individual or communicative memory. In addition, “cultures of remembrance” have so far mainly been understood as an ensemble of narratives, but have hardly been related to individual and collective social and cultural practices.[9]

With members of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, this article deals with actors whose memory practices have so far only been partially researched. The memory policy of its national and international associations has only received selective attention in historiography. There are also only a few contributions on the status and functions of the soldiers' associations for the integration of former soldiers from the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS into occupied West Germany and into the political and social order of the Federal Republic. Although the z. Some intense controversies about the assessment of the military-conservative resistance, about the rearmament of the new West German state and about the "Wehrmacht Exhibition". Veterans and their associations were heavily involved in these disputes. However, historiography has only recently dealt with the contribution of the former combatants and their organizations to the political and social development of the Federal Republic, especially in the first post-war decade. This differentiates research on soldiers from historiography on other groups such as refugees and displaced persons.[10]

Soldiers' associations in the Federal Republic of Germany: tasks, functions and development

Immediately after the end of World War II, the victorious Allied powers prohibited the formation and activity of soldiers' associations. With its Proclamation No. 2 on September 20, 1945, the Allied Control Council banned alliances of German veterans from the Second World War. This order reinforced the Control Council Act No. 34 of August 20, 1946, which also imposed severe penalties for violations. The interests of the war veterans, who suffered from political downgrading, social marginalization and material need in the immediate post-war period, could therefore not be represented publicly in the first few years. West German authorities, however, generally recognized the group's claims for care. In contrast to the veterans of the First World War after 1918, the members of the Wehrmacht should definitely be integrated into the post-war order in order to prevent a renewed mobilization of veterans against a democratic state - as was the case after the First World War. When the political consensus between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union broke after the beginning of the Cold War, the demands of the veterans, their relatives, widows and orphans met with increasing response from the Western occupying powers, but also from the West German population. In the course of the debate about the war participants' entitlements to benefits, initiatives for a supra-regional merger finally developed. They were also given a powerful boost by the reservations and, in some cases, open resistance to denazification, the war crimes trials against high-ranking generals and the Allied policy of demilitarization.[11]

After the Allied High Commission had repealed Control Council Act No. 34 on December 19, 1949, and thus the ban on soldiers' associations, individual groups formed around high-ranking officers such as Gottfried Hansen, who had retired in 1932, joined forces in March 1950 to "emergency communities" together. In 1951, Hansen united these to form the "Federation of Former Wehrmacht Members of the Wehrmacht and their Survivors" (BvW). The association initially concentrated on social and charitable work and political lobbying to support former Wehrmacht soldiers. The BvW contributed significantly to the adoption of Article 131 of the Basic Law, which came into force in April 1951 and not only promised the reuse of Wehrmacht soldiers, but also alleviated the acute need of the veterans, their relatives and survivors. In addition to taking care of those involved in the war, the new association permanently advocated the social reintegration and political rehabilitation of West German veterans of the Second World War. In the early 1950s, for example, he demanded that the "honor" of former members of the Wehrmacht be restored and that officers convicted of war crimes - including generals - be released. On the one hand, this demand was aimed at relieving the war participants, but at the same time it was intended to justify the reluctance to take the initiative to carry weapons again - this time for the Western allies. The BvW, which already had 75,000 members in the spring of 1950, but mainly represented the interests of the officers, finally successfully pushed for the release of Wehrmacht generals who had been convicted and imprisoned by the Allies as war criminals. To this concession he tied his consent to the establishment of West German armed forces within the framework of NATO.

However, the association refused to accept former members of the Waffen SS, who were initially excluded from pension benefits. Many of these soldiers then formed the "mutual aid community of former members of the Waffen-SS" (HIAG), which initially only comprised loose associations. According to its own information, 376 of these associations were already active in the Federal Republic in October 1951. It was not until 1953 that the regional associations set up a "federal liaison office" in Kassel. In April 1959, the "Federal Association of Soldiers of the Former Waffen-SS e.V." was finally formed. The HIAG initially pushed for equality between former Waffen-SS soldiers and former members of the Wehrmacht, also with regard to pension claims. It combined caring for its clientele with lobbying for the continually demanded political and social rehabilitation and recognition of its members. Although the HIAG was gradually integrated into the West German veteran culture by the late 1950s, it was unable to prevent the number of members from falling to around 6,000 by 1963. In 1972 the association was even included in the list of right-wing extremist organizations by the Federal Ministry of the Interior. Even when the new Minister Friedrich Zimmermann withdrew this step in 1983, the loss of membership and influence continued. In 1992 the federal association finally had to be dissolved; only regional HIAG groups continued to exist.[12]

With the BvW, which acted as the "German Soldiers' Union" from August 1951, "traditional communities" competed since the 1950s, which - like the organizations "Greater Germany" and "Africa Corps" - collected members of individual units of the former Wehrmacht. In addition, the "Association of Homecoming" (VdH), which was founded in March 1950 in the Federal Republic, represented the interests of prisoners of war and their relatives. In numerous public campaigns, this organization demanded, above all, the release of the German soldiers. Some were still in Soviet captivity until 1955. In addition, the VdH urged politicians to recognize the pension claims of the returning veterans. In doing so, he contributed to the passing of the Law on Compensation for Prisoners of War, which came into force in the Federal Republic of Germany on January 30, 1954. The aims of the disabled and the surviving dependents of the fallen and missing were ultimately primarily represented by the "Association of War Disabled, War Survivors and Social Pensioners of Germany", which in 1951 already had 15,000 branches.[13] Thus, by the early 1950s, a broad spectrum of interest groups for those involved in the war had developed in the Federal Republic. However, only around a third of the German veterans joined the associations.[14]

When the beginning of the Korean War in 1950 triggered plans for a West German defense contribution, both the High Commission of the Western Allies and the Federal Government encouraged the soldiers' associations to merge, which finally took place in September 1951 with the establishment of the Association of German Soldiers (VdS) has been. The umbrella organization joined, inter alia. the German Soldiers' Union, the Stahlhelm, the traditional community "Greater Germany" and the "Association of German Africa Corps", but also the HIAG. However, the lobbying of the collective organization remained weak in the early 1950s, as many members of the BvW in particular continued to harbor concerns about a merger of the associations. The VdS therefore primarily devoted itself to cultivating tradition and comradeship, and endeavored to restore the "honor" of officers and soldiers. In addition, the organization used its tracing service to bind veterans of the Second World War, but also their relatives and survivors. Last but not least, symbols such as flags and stagings (such as celebrations) contributed to this. However, it still has to be checked whether and to what extent joint trips to war graves also had an integrating effect.[15]

However, the VdS and the individual traditional communities were only able to influence the disputes over the rearmament and the formation of the Bundeswehr to a limited extent, especially since they did not openly admit to the military resistance, which culminated on July 20, 1944 with the assassination attempt by Wehrmacht officers on Hitler. Rather, the members of the soldiers' associations saw themselves as victims of the Second World War, who, as "non-political" soldiers, fought for Germany - but not for the Nazi regime. In doing so, they nourished the myth of the "clean Wehrmacht", which was not until the "Wehrmacht Exhibition" opened in 1995 that was supposed to break the ground. As part of their lobbying, the organizations - including the HIAG - made contact with influential politicians in the 1950s, for example with the SPD member of the Bundestag (and later Chancellor) Helmut Schmidt. But even the stylization of the Waffen-SS as the “first European army”, in which volunteers from different countries fought against Bolshevism, ultimately did not give the HIAG a political reputation. In the Cold War, however, the conservative idea of ​​defending the "West", which was widespread throughout Western Europe, was more compatible with the prevailing anti-communism.The reservations that HIAG and many soldiers' associations harbored and expressed about military resistance against Hitler and National Socialism also met with a positive response in the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1950s and early 1960s.[16]

In contrast to the years after the First World War, nationalist heroic commemoration in West Germany or in the Federal Republic after 1945 was excluded. After the decisive experiences of the National Socialist dictatorship, the Second World War, the genocide of the Jews and the total defeat of 1945, the "war memorial" became the "memorial for the fallen".[17] The need of the relatives, the soldiers' associations and the VDK to mourn the individual dead met with the official departure from the Nazi regime, which was central to the political legitimacy of parliamentary democracy in the Federal Republic. There was a "normative tension" between the honorable commemoration of the dead and the distancing from the war of extermination of the Nazi dictatorship, which has not yet been investigated with regard to commemoration in German war cemeteries abroad.[18]

Officially, all soldiers' associations committed themselves to international understanding and democracy at an early stage. They also established contacts with their former enemies as early as the early 1950s. The contacts originated in particular from French generals who had met in Caux sur Montreux in Switzerland since 1947 and initiated encounters between Western military officials. In 1950, former German officers also took part in a conference for the first time. Dedicated to »moral armament« (as the name of the supporting institution is), the talks were characterized by rhetoric of reconciliation, a commitment to Christian charity and the concept of teamwork. After the beginning of the Korean War, anti-communism, which also shaped the understanding of "Western" democracy, was even more important. In view of the common threat posed by the Soviet Union, the reservations of the politicians and the military in the neighboring countries of the Federal Republic of Germany against the soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht slowly receded. In the early 1950s, British generals in particular showed themselves to be quite accommodating in the spirit of military "comradeship" towards their former opponents. Representatives of the West German soldiers' associations therefore hoped for a public "declaration of honor" from the Deputy Commander in Chief of NATO and World War General, Bernard Montgomery.[19]

In this campaign to restore the soldier's "honor", the VDS, the traditional communities and the returnees' association formed the "Working Group of Soldier's Associations". Networks developed that not only extended to the Federal Intelligence Service and the American "Central Intelligence Agency", but also strengthened cross-border exchange. Even before his release from prison in January 1953, General Field Marshal Erich von Manstein recommended VDS chairman Hansen to establish contact with French soldiers' associations, although national motives were by no means predominant in the Resistance, but rather »communists and criminal elements«. In the hope of increasing the reputation of his organization, Hansen immediately accepted Manstein's proposal. In contrast, in December 1952 the leadership of the Stahlhelm had rejected an initiative by the former Field Marshal Albert Kesselring to come to an understanding with soldiers' associations in the European neighbors. The connections that the "German Soldiers' Union" made with veterans of other countries from 1951 onwards under the banner of "international understanding", "comradeship" and "charity" relied on the longed-for political and moral rehabilitation. However, the cross-border exchange did not keep the West German associations from z. Sometimes violent criticism of the former opponents of the war, who - according to the formula "tu quoque" - were accused of also having committed serious war crimes.[20]

All in all, however, the West German soldiers' units were able to significantly expand their cross-border cooperation in the 1950s and 1960s. After the first meeting in Switzerland, in view of the Korean War and the discussion about a European Defense Community (EDC), efforts intensified, especially in France, to found an international organization of former war veterans from Western European countries. After the EVG failed due to the rejection of the French National Assembly and the Federal Republic of Germany joined NATO, previous talks between representatives of Belgian, Italian, Luxembourg and German soldiers' associations in June 1955 resulted in the formation of the "Fédération Européenne des Associations de Combattants" (FEDAC). The West German veterans were mainly represented in the new organization by the VdS. But also the German Navy Federation, the Kyffhäuserbund, the traditional community "Greater Germany" and the "Association of German War Victims, Physically Disabled People and Social Pensioners" joined the FEDAC. Retired General Siegfried Westphal, who has also been chairman of the German Africa Corps Association since 1958, became vice-president of the international organization. FEDAC promoted not only encounters between war participants and exchanges between the children of the veterans, but also trips to the battlefields of the Second World War.[21]

As early as 1953, West German war victims had also made contact with the “Fédération Mondiale des Anciens Combattants” (FMAC), which Albert Moral, a French resistance fighter and wounded man in the First World War, had founded in Paris in 1950. Finally, 18 out of 20 member countries voted for the inclusion of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge. The association endeavored to reintegrate into the workforce and to provide legal protection for war invalids. But he also advocated international understanding. B. organized youth encounters. Last but not least, he called for relief for trips abroad, which brought former soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht together with their foreign comrades. Encounters in the cemeteries and at memorials to favors were of great importance.[22]

The former prisoners of war also cooperated across borders at an early stage. By exchanging their specific memories of the war, they made a significant contribution to the genesis and development of a transnational military culture of remembrance. It should also upgrade the West German veterans. As early as the 1950s, the VdH made intensive efforts to join the Confédération internationale des anciens Prisonniers de Guerre, which former French, Belgian and Dutch prisoners of war had established in 1949. As a first step, he made contact with the "Fédération nationale des Combattants Prisonniers de Guerre" (FNCPG), which had already been formed in November 1944. In an effort to appear "non-political", the leading representatives of the VdH and the FNCPG initially avoided an open argument about the recent past. Nevertheless, the contacts between the two prisoner-of-war organizations in France broke up until the early 1960s, especially in rural areas, for example. T. violent contradiction. In individual communities such as the city of Béziers, where 18 hostages were murdered by German soldiers on June 7, 1944, even after the conclusion of the Elysée Treaty (January 22, 1963), the Paris management of the FNCPG local branches urged visits by German soldiers to prevent.[23]

As has been emphasized and shown in recent historiography, the soldiers' associations in West German post-war society and politics were all in all important agencies for socialization and integration, although they harbored reservations about the new democracy until the 1960s. Even if they only covered a third of those involved in the war, there were around a thousand veteran organizations in the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1950s, which at the beginning of the decade had united 500,000 to 600,000 former soldiers. Furthermore, in the early 1950s, 25 percent of veterans had informal contacts with "comrades". Their demands met with a considerable response not only from broad sections of the population, but also from politicians. According to a survey by the Allensbach Institute for Demoscopy in 1951, 31 percent of the West German soldiers' associations considered them to be "good," while 43 percent considered these organizations to be "not good". In view of the experiences of the Second World War only six years ago, the proportion of expressions in agreement is quite remarkable. The conclusion of the Germany Treaty, which came into force in 1955, and the associated accession of the Federal Republic to NATO in 1955 gave the soldiers' associations further impetus. In the 1960s, around 2000 organizations of veterans of the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS were registered in the Federal Republic of Germany. They also increasingly dedicated themselves to commemorating the fallen. Up until the 1970s, the concept of "comradeship" exhibited considerable integrative power. Some of them cooperated with reservist organizations of the Bundeswehr, in 1977 they had around two million members (including 20,000 in the Kyffhäuserbund, which was founded in 1900 as the umbrella organization of German war clubs). They organized the commemoration of fallen soldiers and also trips to the war graves at home and abroad, where they honored the dead at monuments. In this way, however, they increasingly decoupled themselves from the development towards a more critical culture of remembrance in West German democracy, so that their social and political integration function declined since the 1960s.[24]

In addition to the soldiers' associations, the newly founded Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V. made a lasting contribution to the memory of German veterans of the Second World War. The VDK, which emerged in 1919 from social associations for the care of soldiers' graves, was allowed to resume its activities in 1946. Under its General Secretary Otto Markgraf, who had already served as the “Federal Office Leader” of the coordinated organization in the “Third Reich”, the Volksbund was responsible for searching for, securing and maintaining the gravesites of German soldiers after the War Graves Act of May 27, 1952, also abroad. This included reburial operations, which were generally carried out in military cemeteries near the battlefields. From 1954 onwards, the VDK received state subsidies amounting to 200 DM for each individual grave. Numerous encounters at the memorials, but also many trips with which the VDK had mainly brought the bereaved of fallen soldiers to the cemeteries since the 1950s, were dedicated to commemorating the dead.[25]

To do this, however, an international legal framework had to be created, also to avoid political conflicts with the neighboring states, which were linked to the Federal Republic in NATO from 1955 and in the European Economic Community from 1957. In the second half of the 1950s, the West German government therefore concluded bilateral agreements with countries such as Luxembourg, Belgium, Norway, Italy, France and Egypt, which enabled the VDK to set up military cemeteries in these countries, to carry out reburial activities and to care for graves. This also made organized trips easier. After the Volksbund had reburied more than 40,000 war dead in larger cemeteries in the Federal Republic of Germany by the mid-1950s, it laid out the first cemetery for fallen German soldiers abroad in Sandweiler (Luxembourg) in June 1955. Around 2000 relatives who had traveled from the Federal Republic on special trains attended the inauguration of the war cemetery. A military cemetery was then set up in the Belgian municipality of Lommel, where 40,000 German soldiers rested. Young people from 15 nations helped with the construction of 6,000 graves in Recogne-Bastogne. In the second half of the 1950s, the VDK also concentrated the 12,000 German soldiers who had died in Norway in six collective cemeteries. In addition, extensive relocations were carried out in France, beginning in Alsace-Lorraine and Burgundy in 1957. In the previous year, the VDK had also started building a place of honor in Pomezia south of Rome. It was inaugurated in May 1960. More than 10,000 fallen German soldiers of the "Africa Corps" found their final resting place in cemeteries of honor in Tobruk and near El-Alamein.[26]

Overall, the war cemeteries abroad attracted thousands of Germans in the late 1950s and early 1960s - mostly combatants and their relatives - who combined the commemoration of the fallen soldiers to varying degrees with specific forms of recreation. As part of "battlefield tourism", there were also numerous encounters with the residents of the communities in which the cemeteries and memorials were located. In the interactions, which have so far hardly been explored, there was obviously a struggle for images of soldiers and forms of remembrance of the dead as well as for central ideas and concepts such as "perpetrator", "victim" and "honor". On the one hand, the VDK committed itself to reconciliation in Europe, and it broke with the traditional heroization of war death. On the other hand, he remained silent about war crimes committed by members of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. In doing so, he strengthened the awareness of victims that was widespread in the early Federal Republic and the model of an ultimately honorable, allegedly entirely "non-political soldiery".

The transition to mass tourism took place in the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1950s and 1960s.[27] In this context, both the VDS and the Volksbund organized trips for their members. In doing so, they directly recommended certain behaviors to those who participated in the war when they were traveling abroad. Press reports and concerned reports from diplomats in the Federal Republic also contributed to this. In 1953 the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung criticized the behavior of a West German couple who rang the doorbell at a house in Amsterdam during a trip to the Netherlands in 1953 because the husband wanted to show his wife the house in which he lived during the Second World War would have.[28] In view of the considerable reservations in the 1950s and 1960s, the embassies also repeatedly advised West German travelers to behave cautiously in neighboring countries, especially when they returned to places where they had been during the Second World War. Diplomats and conservative press organs took over and thereby intensified, at least indirectly, the bourgeois criticism of "mass tourism". The "battlefield tourism" and "war grave trips" to cemeteries outside the Federal Republic have nonetheless remained integral parts of the West German veteran culture up to the present day.[29]

The VDK and the soldiers' associations combined the maintenance of war graves and remembrance of the dead with the peace commandment and appeals for reconciliation. In doing so, they also claimed human rights for themselves, to which the United Nations had committed itself in the general declaration of its General Assembly on December 10, 1948. As recent research has shown, the appeal to these fundamental rights met with a positive response in neighboring European countries, despite continuing reservations against German war participants, especially since humanitarian goals had influenced the demands of pacifists in the League of Nations for a reconciliation of the Opponents of the First World War had entered.[30]

However, during their visits, the West German veterans apparently repeatedly glorified the Second World War as a "touching act of international understanding in distant countries."[31] For example, commemorative ceremonies in cemeteries and at memorials that the VDK had set up abroad for fallen soldiers of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS have triggered repeated protests in countries such as Italy and France since the 1950s. In Austria, too, where the leading politicians of the ÖVP and SPÖ concealed responsibility for the Second World War by officially stylizing the country as a victim of the Nazi regime, meetings of members of the "Greater Germany" tank corps released suspicions and questioning as early as 1953/54 by the police. In 1953 the Ministry of the Interior even forbade a planned meeting between German and Austrian veterans of the traditional »Greater Germany« community. The following year, a meeting with Kesselring, who ordered the shooting of innocent hostages in 1944, even caused a political scandal in Austria. Interior Minister Oskar Helmer, former Field Marshal General, who was honorary president of three traditional West German associations, publicly urged his "comrades" to leave the Alpine republic immediately. He accused Kesselring of having "political talks". The former top military officer was even filmed by the Austrian newsreel laying down a wreath with which he had honored fallen soldiers of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS at a memorial in Trautenfels.Because of the resistance in neighboring countries, West German soldiers' associations and the VDK have repeatedly taken up local traditions and involved local dignitaries since the 1950s in order to increase the acceptance of the cemeteries they look after and the commemorations organized here. The reservist camaraderie that had been traveling to war cemeteries abroad since the 1970s also consciously and specifically involved local actors in their activities.[32]

Travel back in time. The return of soldiers to the battlefields of World War II

Journeys to the cemeteries and the memorials erected here show not only the memorial policy of the soldiers' associations, but also include the diverse memories of the individual German veterans of the Second World War. As empirical studies on returned prisoners of war have shown, return to the places of their captivity was important for this group. Obviously, they were responding to a need to mourn. The returnees communicated during their organized or individual trips, e.g. Sometimes also with the local population. Above all, they conveyed their memories to family members who often accompanied them. In this way - as has been emphasized in recent research on this group - memories can also be understood as social action that is closely tied to specific locations. In doing so, private and public forms of remembrance have been linked, as the traveling veterans referred to or were at least influenced by the memory politics of institutions (such as the soldiers' associations and the VDK). These findings about the returnees must be verified in further research for other groups of war participants. It has become clear, however, that the fixation of historical memory research on often abstract and homogeneously understood national narratives can be overcome by systematically relating them to travel as social action. This offers historiography the possibility of group-specific and individual differentiation. Last but not least, recent studies suggest that the war participants were specific tourists who, with their visits to war cemeteries and monuments at German military cemeteries, were looking for meaning and striving for identity formation. Obviously, the entry into retirement not only made travel easier in practice, but also opened up the German veterans mentally.[33]

"War grave trips" to "hero cemeteries" outside Germany began as early as 1950. As part of the slowly reviving tourism, the soldiers' associations and the VDK in particular organized trips to the former battlefields, which in many places also housed the cemeteries and memorials for the German dead. From 1955 a real »grave tourism« developed, which initially extended to Italy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.[34] However, it is still possible to reconstruct precisely to what extent the journeys of West German veterans were characterized by cross-border reciprocal perceptions, adaptations, interactions and transfers, but also by mutual delimitations. On the battlefields of the Second World War, at the military cemeteries and memorials, traveling veterans apparently not only met the local population, but also met and exchanged views with representatives of veterans' associations of the Allies.

In the following, examples of trips by West German veterans 'associations and individual tourists to the soldiers' graves and related forms of remembrance in France, the Soviet Union, Russia and Italy are presented. It is based on the - yet to be verified - consideration that the trips to the cemeteries and war cemeteries in France brought about a much more comprehensive convergence of the memories of German war veterans and the local population than corresponding trips to the Soviet Union or to Russia, which were also in the beginning started much later. As recent studies show, there was apparently at least a limited exchange in Italy. These differences are - according to another assumption - not only due to solidified prejudices against the "backward East", but also largely influenced by the fact that trips to soldiers' graves in France and Italy were often combined with components of a tourist trip. In contrast, the war grave trips to Russia lacked this multifunctionality. These considerations serve the purpose of giving impulses to further research on the complex of problems.

Even if the following only deals with cemeteries and memorials for German soldiers located there, the traditions of the cult of the dead in the three countries must be included, especially since the fallen soldiers of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS were occasionally buried together with war dead from these countries.[35] By contouring the extent and the barriers of a cross-border community of interaction, the case studies also provide first insights into transnational relationships between national cultures of remembrance in Europe. Beyond this article, special attention should be paid to the relationship between the national stereotypes of German travelers and a shared memory of the suffering of innocent victims. The deheroization of the death of soldiers ultimately contributed significantly to the rapprochement of the Europeans after the Second World War.[36]


The French government signed a mutual agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany on how to deal with the war dead as early as 1954, after the Fédération Nationale des Combattants Prisonniers de Guerre in particular, in view of the discussion about the establishment of a European Defense Community in 1952/53 for reconciliation with their West Germans Comrades had agreed. In the following year, the VDK was able to begin reburial of war dead. The commemoration of the fallen by the Volksbund, the West German veterans and the soldiers' associations in France at the military cemeteries and war cemeteries met the competing memory-political claims of the long heroized resistance fighters. Moreover, in many places the fallen soldiers of the two world wars together were thought more clearly than in Germany.