Cemeteries, War

The question of what do with soliders killed in war has been a problem throughout recorded history, addressed in different ways by different cultures. An extreme solution was eating the killed individual, an act often connected with the idea that the power of the victim would be added to that of the eaters. Or the deceased might be left on the ground until the corpse was decayed or devoured by animals, which would be considered a disgrace, especially to the losers of a fight or battle. More often than not, killed individuals would be buried.

Throughout history the dead, mainly the losers, were often deprived of their belongings. This was seen as part of the spoils of war. The winners often displayed a more honorable reaction to their own dead than to those of the losers. Another principle permitted the leaders to be appreciated in a special manner. One can find impressive monuments to the leaders, while ordinary fighters were buried anonymously. The so-called Drusus Stone, a huge monument in the town of Mainz, Germany, was erected for the Roman general Drusus, a brother of the emperor Tiberius, who was killed in 9 B.C.E. in a battle at the River Elbe.

Burying the War Dead

Modern times saw the inauguration of the practice of burying soldiers who were killed in battle. This was done partly due to hygienic considerations common throughout the world—unburied corpses can soon create epidemics. The burial grounds are often found where the fights took place. However, there can also be "regular" cemeteries in which the bodies are buried side by side with the dead of the region or, more frequently, in war cemeteries dedicated exclusively to fallen soldiers.

Because of the huge numbers of casualties on both sides in the U.S. Civil War (more than 600,000 victims), the dead of both sides were often buried side by side, hence giving birth to the idea of posthumous reconciliation of the warring sides and respect for the sacrifice of the individual soldier, each of whom now had his own grave site, a contrast to earlier practices of mass military burials in which all soldiers achieved a rough equality in death, without all distinctions of rank, religion, and race erased by collective interment.

The uniformity of design of all U.S. war cemeteries was influential on the subsequent design of war cemeteries in other countries. Each nation selected its own special grave symbol. The French had a cross made of concrete with the victim's name and a rose; the British typically employed a stele.

The annual honoring of the American war dead occurs on Memorial Day, at the end of May. However, in some countries this day of remembrance has been expanded to the memory of all the war dead of all countries, as in Finland after World War II.

German War Cemeteries

Although World War I primarily took place in Europe, many of the participating nations drafted men from their far-flung colonies. During World War I, 10 million people were killed, among them 2 million German soldiers. By 1928, 13,000 cemeteries had been completed in twenty-eight countries for these dead. World War I is also another example for the different attitudes toward losers and winners, as outlined above. The French government, for example, did not permit German officials to design their own war cemeteries.

Fifty-five million people were killed in World War II, among them 13.6 million soldiers of the Red Army and 4 million German soldiers. For those 1.8 million German soldiers who died beyond German borders, 667 cemeteries in forty-three countries were completed. Most of these were created in Western countries such as France, Italy, or Belgium. The task of properly burying all German soldiers of WWII has not yet been completed. With the lifting of the Iron Curtain in 1989, it was possible to lay out new cemeteries in former communist countries. In the 1990s a new cemetery was opened for 70,000 soldiers near St. Petersburg in Russia. The task of lying to rest all fallen German soldiers is expected to be completed by the end of 2010.

Honoring the German War Dead

The body responsible for completing war cemeteries for passed German soldiers is an independent organization founded in 1926; its name is Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (People's Community for the Care of German War Graves). It can be observed that the functions of this organization and of the cemeteries have changed since World War II. Its initial task was to bury the soldiers and to enable the families to visit the graves. Each year, between 700,000 and 800,000 persons visit the German war cemeteries. Originally, war cemeteries were established to honor those who gave their lives for their countries. The dead soldiers were declared heroes. The memorial day for killed soldiers was called Heldengedenktag (Heroes' Memorial Day) during the Third Reich in Germany. Such a name held strong connotations toward nationalism and chauvinism. After World War II the name for the memorial day was changed into Volkstrauertag (People's Mourning Day) and designated to be the Sunday two weeks before Advent. The new name signifies a change of attitudes. The idea of commemorating the deeds of proud heroes was abolished and has been replaced by the grief for killed fathers, brothers, and sons, which is the focus of memorial sermons.

In the case of Germany there is a special historical burden that required this change of attitudes. Not only had Germany lost World War II, but that war had been provoked by an authoritarian and terrorist regime. Thus, there is an ambiguity toward their soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their country. The Volkstrauertag remembrance sermons, held in many towns in the frame of a ceremony, are now not only for soldiers, but for alle Opfer der Gewalt ("all victims of violence")—as is now the official term. The victims include the refugees, the resistance fighters against Nazism and all those who died or were killed in the concentration camps. Thus, any glorification of war and Nazism is excluded.

There is another change in the purpose of war cemeteries, namely toward reconciliation and work for peace. The two slogans of the Volksbund Arbeit für den Frieden ("work for peace") and Mahnung über den Gräberm ("warning over the graves"), characterize its activities. The graves themselves, often many hundreds to a cemetery, point to the importance of peace. Different countries send participants to youth camps dedicated to this aim. These young people not only work in the cemeteries but they also learn to respect each other and permit new friendships to develop. Since 1953, 3,670 camps have been held involving 170,000 participants.


An increasing number of the dead soldiers no longer have surviving family members. In just one generation there will be far fewer visitors going to the cemeteries. The dead have a right of eternal rest, so no war graves are levelled, which is a sensible principle in the light of the changing functions of war cemeteries. Visitors with no personal interest in the graves can still be impressed by the huge area of the cemetery and thereby be encouraged to contribute toward maintaining peace.

See also: Cemeteries, Military ; Mourning ; War


Walter, Tony. The Eclipse of Eternity: A Sociology of the Afterlife. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Internet Resources

"Introduction." 1949 Conventions and 1977 Protocols. In the International Committee of the Red Cross [web site]. Available from www.icrc.org/ihl .




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