Berlin History

Exhuming German War Dead in the East

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W0506-316 / Georgii Zelma [2] / CC-BY-SA. Licensed under the: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany
On Saturday, a new official war cemetery was inaugurated near Smolensk Russia for some 30 000 fallen German soldiers retrieved from various WW2 burial sites along the Eastern Front.

Germany has gone to an extraordinary effort to recover its war dead for the past twenty years (since the fall of the Berlin Wall), in the East where almost 3 million German soldiers died and over 11 million Russian soldiers were casualties. This is gruesome business: unearthing decades-old cadavers, identifying them, transferring them, reburying them.

The Eastern Front is now at the focus of much new historical research, esp. by Timothy Snyder, History Professor at Yale. During the Cold War, Western historians focused on WW2 in the West––although there was a lot of good historiography already happening in Eastern Europe and the bloodier battle sites were behind the Iron Curtain. Now, with access to the East, we are dealing directly with the material evidence of the most murderous war in history. It’s also very sensitive territory because many of those German soldiers being reburied on Saturday were responsible for acts of brutality against Slavs and Jews. The German’s brutal parallel obsession, The Holocaust, was of course pursued largely in the East.

I think many observers are left, with Saturday’s events,  hanging between the very touching desire to commemorate and identify individuals who were killed in battle—and let’s remember these are individuals—and a desire to keep alive too the memory of Hitler’s horrific project in the East against Slavs and Jews.  Stalin’s brutal war methods to achieve the final victory helped enable, meanwhile, many of the atrocities committed against vulnerable groups of civilians caught between the armies (as Snyder explores).

What’s happening this Saturday is part of a greater shift in contemporary German mentalities about war guilt: in the past generation Germans have talked more openly about their own victims, and denied that the recognition of German victimhood necessary needs to be balanced against a discussion of the victims of Germans. Indeed, very few Germans today were directly involved in Hitler’s atrocities, and many young people wonder what happened to their grandfathers. This change, I think, was especially initiated into the international debate by the appearance of excerpts of WG Sebald’s Natural History of Destruction in the New Yorker, in the late 90s, and the work of historian Jörg Friedrich, who examined the effect of the bombing of German cities.

Again, I think we are seeing something very important happening in the story of German memorialization of its war dead with Saturday’s dedication of the German cemetery. It also represents a very poignant cooperation and rise of historical sensitivity between Russia and Germany. Germany, of course, manages graves for Russian soldiers, in particular the largest such cemetery outside Russia right here in Berlin in Treptow (see my blog post about it here). I simply hope that, as the vision of individual tragedy is brought increasingly into the spotlight, that realities of the collective tragedy are not occluded from our vision.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.