1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Remembrance Day

November 11, 2011

While much of the world stops to remember the dead of the world wars, Berlin is business as usual on Armistice Day. DW's Stuart Braun ponders the muted memorializing of war in the German capital.

Scene in Berlin logo
Image: DW

A great war leaves a country with three armies - an army of cripples, an army of mourners, and an army of thieves, according to a German proverb. But today, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year, when the so-called victors will stop to remember the armistice that ended World War I, Germany, as usual, will not commemorate the day. The German capital is marked by a conspicuous absence of commemoration for its fallen soldiers and citizens.

There is a marked difference between the subdued memorializing of the First World War in Berlin - the city in which Kaiser Wilhelm II declared war on Russia after hostilities had broken out between the Austro-Hungary Empire and Serbia in 1914 - and the extensive commemorations to victims of the holocaust or Berlin Wall.

War memorial in Berlin
German war memorials can seem hiddenImage: Stuart Braun

War memorials are solemn, often hidden, and tend to remember all victims of violence and oppression. They do not celebrate those heroic "fallen comrades" of war commemorated in Allied nations like my homeland, Australia. There, war cenotaphs are key city monuments, and on Armistice Day, wreaths will be laid thick across cities.

The politics of the past

Germany's own Remembrance Day (Volkstrauertag) is November 13. The 65 million people killed during both world wars will be commemorated in the federal parliament in Berlin to remember all victims of war and violent oppression, including civilians who suffered under totalitarian violence.

It's logical that the German capital is restrained in the way it remembers war, not wanting to glorify any part of its disastrous military past, or offer symbols that could fire nationalistic sentiment.

I noticed this when, wandering down Unter Den Linden soon after arriving in Berlin, I stumbled into the Neue Wache, a former Prussian guardhouse recast as the Central Memorial for the Victims of War and Tyranny.

War memorial in Berlin
A rare monument to the fallen soldiers of WWI in Kreuzberg is vandalizedImage: Stuart Braun

In the 1920s, the Neue Wache was a more conventional war memorial dedicated to German soldiers who fell during WW1. But after the fall of the Nazi regime, the East German communist government re-dedicated the imposing classical structure to victims of fascism and militarism. The changing semantics of the monument well-illustrate the politics of memorializing war in Berlin.

The focus of the Neue Wache memorial is a somber, squat statue, the Mother with her Dead Son by Käthe Kollwitz, which sits alone in a large dark space, lit only by a saintly beam of daylight issuing from a hole in the roof. The memorial is powerful because of its bleakness, but also its tranquility, its message of peaceful redemption from a universal horror.

There is no mention of bravery or heroism - sentiments I tend to attach to war memorials as a native of the "allied" world. It seems any glaring tribute to war is quickly vandalized in Berlin, as is the case with the stone sculpture of a naked, kneeling man in Kreuzberg, a rare symbol of fallen and missing comrades of both world wars, which has been splashed in red paint out of protest.

Remembering all wars and violence

It takes time to notice the very subtle ways Berlin tries to remember those 20th century wars in which it played a very large part. Only last week, I literally stumbled across a stone obelisk hemmed by trees in the corner of a random suburban park, two small stones either side commemorating the first and second world wars. An ominous message is inscribed on the large, rough boulder: A reminder - the victims of the wars and all tyranny.

War memorial in Berlin
Stumble on the pastImage: Stuart Braun

Blink and I would have missed it. But the power of this monument lies in the universality of its message, and the poignancy to find it, not rammed down your throat, but hidden in some bushes, a muted cry from the city that ushered the world into two monstrous wars, and which still partly lives with that guilt.

Berlin won't officially remember the Armistice on November 11, but look closer and you realize the city never forgets.

Editor: Zulfikar Abbany