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How Many Germans Rest In Unnamed Graves

Discussion in 'War on the Eastern Front' started by Jim, Sep 13, 2010.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    In the great battles on the Russian front millions of German soldiers died. But very few had their obituary notices in the German newspapers, and in a host of instances their resting places were completely unmarked. J V Guerter threw some light on this example of German reticence, below is what he wrote back in 1943.


    What has happened to the millions of Germans who have fallen on the great battlefields of Eastern Europe? Nowhere else in this war have the dead and wounded approximated in number to the casualties to which we became accustomed in the battles of the Great War of 1914-1918.

    The Germans have said very little about the graves containing “the flower of their manhood,” to use Hitler’s words. And for good reason. They dare not let the people at home know that the, number killed exceeds a few hundred thousand. To ensure the true extent of their dead being kept secret they have “rationed” notices of deaths on active service in the newspapers. Each newspaper has a “ration” of so many obituaries a day. The Nazis fear that if more were published readers might start doing sums in arithmetic and reach the unpleasant truth. During the present comparative lull, newspapers are being allowed to catch up with arrears to a small extent. But the Germans have not during the present war published a single official casualty list. And they have said very little about how they are burying their dead. At least half, perhaps more, of the Germans killed on the Russian front lie in unmarked graves. This is only partly due to the methods of modern war, which result in large numbers being marked "Missing believed killed." It is also due to the desire to hide the true number of dead. When the Russians advanced during last winter they passed many German cemeteries varying from a handful of graves at the wayside to very extensive ones covering some acres, like that near Stalingrad. Most of the graves were neatly marked with crosses, some of which appeared to have been produced by mass-production methods and sent to the front with typical German thoroughness. All bore the name of the soldier and in many instances his unit. Some of the crosses were Maltese; bearing a swastika, and others the ordinary cross.

    But the interesting point was this. When it became necessary for the Russians to open a number of graves for reburial of the bodies elsewhere, they found that many of the graves marked with a single cross bearing a single name were in fact mass graves containing the bodies of from 30 to 60 German soldiers. The orderliness of the small cemetery suggesting to German soldiers passing for the first time that some small patrol action had taken place in the neighbourhood was a complete deception. It might well be concluded that it was a planned deception. For when from the grave of “Private Karl Schmidt” the Russians recovered thirty to sixty bodies and re-buried them, they found that the mass graves had been used not for men shattered beyond recognition, but for soldiers still wearing round their neck their identity disk. It would have been simple, even if speed demanded burial in a single grave, to have removed these disks and noted the names of the men buried on a cross or headstone above. But for the Russian opening of the grave, this deception would never have been discovered.

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    Nor was this an isolated instance. Its repetition many times must make us presume that it was the result of official instructions. The Russian explanation is that the Nazis feared the sight of' the endless graves would affect the morale of troops going towards the front, and that this dishonest idea was devised to permit burial and yet hide the numbers buried. The German identity disk, incidentally, is a small piece of paper enclosed in a special metal container like a cartridge case with a sealed top. Cremation has been used by the Germans in some instances, and mobile crematoriums have been devised for the purpose. But except in emergencies these seem to have been used chiefly for the many victims of their terrorist methods and for the bodies of their enemies. The Germans are a curious blend of scientists and sentimentalists. The scientists know that cremation is a speedy, hygienic and effective way of disposing of bodies after a big battle. But there is still a deep sentimental aversion to it in Germany. Before the War, prisoners who died in concentration camps and victims of mercy deaths were cremated, but earth burial was the more usual method of disposing of the dead. The great number of their dead they have buried in Russia suggests that even the Nazis are uncertain of the effects of wholesale cremation on morale. Cremation seems to have been more extensive during the first hard winter, when burial was impossible with the ground frozen for months. Cremation, incidentally, is the universal method of disposal of their dead by the Japanese, the ashes being sent home in little boxes to the relatives. But thousands of Japanese who will perish in the eastern jungles win have no grave.


    Rupert Brooke's famous poem "If I should die” contains the phrase, “some corner of a foreign field, that is forever England.” Few people realise how uniquely English is that conception. The Germans have a horror of being buried in foreign soil. One of the stimulants that Nazi propaganda has been applying to the Russian campaign is the idea that soil in which Germans are buried must be made literally German, that is enclosed for ever in the German frontiers, in contrast to the poetical conception of Rupert Brooke.

    Britons who have fought the world over for centuries have no feeling like this. Some 725,000 dead of the First Great War whose names are known are buried in 15,000 different places abroad. How uniquely British is the idea is shown by "the fact that even our American cousins carried back for burial in the USA, 50,000 of their soldiers who died in France, the result of a pledge given when the U.S. entered the war that not a single American soldier would be buried in foreign soil without the express consent of his next of kin, The fear of being buried in foreign soil has undoubtedly played its part in creating the dread of the Russian Front which seems to be planted in so many German soldiers. The great majority of the two million or more Germans who have died in Russia have nothing to mark their graves. Many were buried in the ruins of Russian towns; many blown to pieces, many buried in temporary graves marked with bayonet and helmet in areas which have been fought over in later battles, German mothers and wives at the end of the war will receive a horrible shock. The work of the “Imperial War Graves” Commission which at the end of the First Great War was faced with the formidable task of re-arranging the remains of 1,100,000 dead, buried in 100,000 different places, will seem simple compared to that of regularising the graves on the still unfinished Russian battlefields.

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    The massed battles In Russia have been nearer the type of those in 1914-18, which resulted in 300,900 of the British dead in France having no known graves. The more open warfare in which the British armies have been engaged in this war has resulted in fewer “to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death,” to quote the Menin Gate Memorial. The work of marking graves with a temporary wooden cross is carried out overseas by the fighting Services, and in the United Kingdom by the Imperial War Graves Commission. The number marked is now about 40,000. In many cases comrades of the dead man have themselves carved beautiful crosses or headstones and erected them. Probably after the War many of these temporary cemeteries will be collected, and the graves marked with a standardised headstone like that of the First Great War.

    The present war has presented another problem, the identification and burial of civilians who die in air raids. Some 13,000 men and women died in London during the great raids, and all but a very small proportion were identified and buried. Where large numbers have perished together, a single grave has not only been necessary but has appealed to the sentiments of relatives who have found unity in their common sorrow at the graveside. On the Continent where thousands of civilians died in towns and by the roadside as the result of the German attacks, hundreds have not been identified and even lie in unmarked graves. Perhaps the most beautiful memorial is in Rotterdam, where 30,000 are believed to have perished in the most criminal raid of the War. The citizens have planted seeds secretly, so that now flowers blossom amid the ruins. As they pass the survivors lift their hats, to the intense annoyance of the Germans. Long after this war is over men will lie found buried on the battlefields and perhaps identified. For years after the First Great War unmarked graves of some of the 3,000,000 men who died in France were found, the bodies disinterred and buried again in the war cemeteries. Watches, pencils, the remains of notebooks, often enabled next of kin to identify the remains. One little cemetery of British soldiers was found years later when a French youth, talking to English visitors, said he recalled as a small boy seeing Germans burying British soldiers after a skirmish. He led the English visitors to the spot he remembered. Digging revealed the remains, which were in due course identified. The Kaiser's soldiers, at any rate, generally buried their enemies decently; and there is reason to believe that the Nazi soldiers of today are also whenever possible discharging this time-honoured duty with care.
     

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