History as memory

History as memory

Eversberg Cemetery of Honor in Meschede, Germany © dpa

History as memory

Eversberg Cemetery of Honor in Meschede © dpa

Tens of thousands of World War II dead are buried in North Rhine-Westphalia. But the military cemeteries are visited less and less, their care costs a lot of money. Nevertheless, the cemeteries have an important task.

The stone crosses stand waist-high, in dozens of rows one behind the other, as if in battle formation. Two names per cross, always two dead of the Second World War. Two of 928 who have found their final resting place at the Eversberg military cemetery in the Sauerland region since 1961. Fallen, slain or burned at the end of the war in Meschede and Arnsberg, in battles in Brilon, battles in Altena and in Lippstadt. Eversberg is only one of numerous cemeteries with war graves of Germans, Poles and Soviets, Belgians, British and Italians in North Rhine-Westphalia.

How many cemeteries for the war dead there are in NRW?

The German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfursorge) counts around 2130 cemeteries in the country, each with at least one so-called war gravesite. Honorary cemeteries such as the Dusseldorf North Cemetery with its 3857 dead from the Second World War are among them, as is Hurtgen with 3000 dead or the Dortmund Main Cemetery with around 9000 dead. But there are also cemeteries such as Altenberge-Hansell near Munster, where only one dead of the 1939 to 1945 wars is buried.

Are only soldiers buried there?

No, there rest also unknown and forced laborers, soldiers, prisoners and civilians. Women and many children are also among them. In total, the graves of around 332,000 dead are recorded in NRW; more than one in two came from abroad.

Why are there so many burial grounds and no central facility??

After World War II, there had initially been discussions about consolidating all war dead on selected large war gravesites in NRW. The U.S. military cemetery in Arlington, with its more than 260,000 burials to date, is considered a model. But the communities insisted that "their" war dead remain in place.

Who takes care of the graves?

It depends on where the grave is located. The War Graves Commission designs and maintains German war graves abroad, while the graves of the war dead in Germany are cared for by the cities, districts and municipalities. However, the War Graves Commission is repeatedly asked for advice by the town halls as cemetery operators.

Are still found dead from the world wars?

Yes, even decades after the end of the war, bones of war victims are discovered, for example, during road construction work or by the explosive ordnance disposal service in regions that were heavily fought over at the time (Eifel and Lower Rhine). "If they are German dead, they are recovered by our umbetter and the remains are then buried at a nearby war gravesite, usually in Vossenack in the Eifel or in Weeze on the Lower Rhine," says Peter Bulter, the state director of the Volksbund.

Which dead are buried in Germany and which abroad?

Simple rule of the War Graves Commission: "We bury the dead in the countries where we find them," says Bulter. Exception: relatives wish the remains to be transferred, as was the case recently with a concentration camp prisoner from Holland, who was brought home from Porta Westfalica. "Then it becomes a private matter," says Bulter.

How much does it cost to care for a grave??

For war graves in Germany, the states receive about 30 million euros a year from the federal government, of which about 4.7 million euros go to NRW. The costs in the municipalities depend on whether it is a single grave or an area grave. "If I have one area, it's more economical to do than if a home community has six graves in different places to maintain," says Bulter. According to this, a municipality receives about 21 euros for the care of a grave, with an area it is 6.50 euros per square meter.

Is the money enough?

"Many municipalities can't cope with that," says Wolfgang Held, who advises municipalities in NRW on design, maintenance, repair and financing on behalf of the Volksbund. But there are ways to use federal funds, as recently in Weeze, he said. Around 2,000 grave slabs had to be replaced there.

Do fallen soldiers have the same rights as those who died in the world wars??

No. Among other things, with the exception of the Free State of Saxony, they have no permanent right of rest, as is due to the fallen of the world wars at state expense. "The dead of the German Armed Forces do not belong to the scope of the Graves Act," says Held. Some communities buried them near the war graves, granting a quasi local permanent right of rest. The War Graves Commission commemorates the eight soldiers who died in Afghanistan and are buried in North Rhine-Westphalia, sometimes at their graves. "This is how we try to keep a certain eye on it."

Are military cemeteries still anchored in the consciousness?

War gravesites are perceived differently: Many are rarely visited anymore, at others bereaved families still gather, still others are considered landmarks. "Commemoration is on the wane, at least that's the predominant impression," says Bulter. Donations and membership fees also declined from about 6 million euros ten years ago to the current level of 4.7 million euros a year.

Does a war grave site have the same function today as it did 20 years ago?

No, the task has changed: "In the 1950s and -60s, a war gravesite was primarily a place of individual mourning, survivors came to the cemeteries in remembrance," says NRW Justice Minister Thomas Kutschaty (SPD). "But increasingly, cemeteries are becoming places of collective remembrance, when school classes or clubs come."In the view of the minister, who heads the War Graves Commission in North Rhine-Westphalia, a war gravesite takes on the role of a historical memorial and an educational aid. "At the graves we learn that Russian forced laborers and prisoners also died without having fought here. We can educate with simple means."

What task will the War Graves Commission still have in the future??

According to Peter Bulter, the historical sites and the experience of the Volksbund must be combined with educational work. "Municipalities are not in a position to do this, because they have gardeners looking after the graves and not education experts."

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