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Honoring their predecessorsImage: DW

Laying Germany's War Dead to Rest

Mathis Winkler, DW-WORLD.DE
April 15, 2005

Sixty years after the end of World War II, the remains of soldiers are still found in Germany. Officials for the organization that buries them say that reminding people of the wasted human lives is still relevant today.


Just half an hour south of Berlin, an idyllic pine forest outside the town of Halbe stands as a silent reminder of the Nazi regime's monstrosities: More than 23,000 German soldiers who died during the final days of World War II are buried here. Some, such as Alfred Boroske, Heinz Borcherdt or Hans-Jürgen Steltzner were killed before they turned 18.

Beisetzung von Soldaten der Wehrmacht
While East Germany's communist government grudgingly agreed to set up the cemetery, crosses were banned until after reunificationImage: DW

Covering more than seven hectares (17 acres), Halbe's soldiers' cemetery is the largest in Germany and will likely keep growing. Some 20,000 men are still believed to lie in the sandy ground around Halbe, their lives wasted because German generals refused to capitulate to the Soviets, who had already completely surrounded them.

Construction workers, but also illegal treasure hunters looking for military memorabilia constantly find more skeletons. The former alert members of Germany's Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, a humanitarian organization that cares for the graves of Germany's war dead, to exhume the bodies. The latter simply drop off the bones at a shack behind the house of Erdmute Labes, the local pastor.

A proper burial

Beisetzung von Soldaten der Wehrmacht
Sixty years after Werner Seidler's death, his wife, Karla (right) finally got a chance to attend his funeral on ThursdayImage: DW

"Every person has a right to a proper burial," Labes said, adding that the funerals for soldiers who died six decades earlier are also important to give closure to relatives and help them find some peace.

On Thursday, Labes and others gathered at Halbe's soldiers' cemetery to lay to rest 38 recently found bodies, their remains encased in small, black coffins made out of cardboard, a white rose lying on each of them.

"Why can't people learn from this? Why don't they understand?" asked Labes as she stood before the open mass grave. "We cannot remind people enough of what happened."

Educating the young

Beisetzung von Soldaten der Wehrmacht
Some coffins contain the remains of more than one soldierImage: DW

That's more important today than ever as the generation that lived through the war is dying out, Volksbund officials said.

"We show young people what war means," said Reinhard Führer, the organization's president, adding that thousands of teenagers participate in youth camps organized by the Volksbund each year. "It clearly has an effect on them when they read on the grave stones that these were as old as they are now when they died."

Reforming neo-Nazis

While neo-Nazis still abuse Halbe and other cemeteries as venues to stage demonstrations, Führer said the graves can also help to instigate a thinking process.

"Halbe is the best example of the Nazi regime's inhumanity," he said, adding that he supports plans to include the cemetery in a list of sites where neo-Nazi gatherings are prohibited. "These people were wasted in April 1945, when the Germans had already lost the war."

Beisetzung von Soldaten der Wehrmacht
"4 Unkown War Dead," reads the plateImage: DW

The graves might convince some right-extremist teenagers to rethink their political views. But visiting cemeteries doesn't necessarily turn young Germans into active supporters of the organization -- something the Volksbund badly needs.

Financial troubles ahead?

It's losing many of its 220,000 members due to old age, with few new ones signing up to replace them. Officials are starting to worry about how they'll manage to bring in enough donations to cover annual expenses of 40 million euros ($51 million) they need to maintain more than 800 cemeteries worldwide. The German government contributes 4 million euros.

Beisetzung von Soldaten der Wehrmacht
German soldiers attended the ceremony, but will these young men support the Volksbund financially?Image: DW

"It's a serious problem," said Fritz Kirchmeier, the Volksbund's spokesman. "You can't get 25-year-olds interested in a group that's focused on the past."

The Volksbund's image as a backwards-looking organization has also done its part in making it suspicious to young Germans. Führer said for many years, his organization was criticized for honoring German soldiers as victims of the war.

"People said, 'You're just thinking about your own,'" Führer said. "The horror caused by the Germans naturally and rightly didn't make it easy for us to remember our own suffering."

A willingness to reconcile

But that's changed over the years as Germans are beginning to feel more comfortable about mourning their own dead.

Beisetzung von Soldaten der Wehrmacht
"1 German soldier," reads the plateImage: DW

"We're no longer the fascist enemy, we're partners," he said, adding that while Germans taking care of war cemeteries in western Europe were still attacked 50 years ago, they're now accepted as friends.

The situation in eastern Europe, where the Volksbund became active after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is also improving. Führer said that plans to set up a cemetery for 80,000 German soldiers near St. Petersburg have had a positive reception by and large.

"This willingness to reconcile is something we as Germans can only be grateful for," he said.

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