Remembering and Forgetting the Great War in Germany
By David Eisler
They originally called it “Heroes’ Grove” when they buried the dead from the Great War. In the lush, green hills of Germany’s Rhein-Neckar Valley, about thirty kilometers from Heidelberg, the names of the town’s forty-two fallen soldiers were engraved on individual plaques and attached to the oak trees that formed the woods. The families of the dead tended the graves.
In 1957, nearly forty years after the dedication of the Heroes’ Grove, the plaques were recast in bronze and the names of the dead and missing from the Second World War were mixed with those of the First. A sandstone boulder with the years 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 bolted on its face was placed in the middle of the grove. Later, after nearly another forty years, the community would build two small stone walls near the central boulder and place the plaques with the names on them, where they still are today.
But in 1998, eighty years after the end of the Great War, the local mayor encouraged the community to repurpose the land and expand the war memorial into a nationwide cemetery, preserving the peaceful atmosphere of the natural woods but rebranding the location as a burial destination for anyone. Ten years later, the community inaugurated the new Naturfriedhof (“natural cemetery”) and changed the name from “Heroes’ Grove” (Heldenhain) to “Resting Grove under the Oaks” (Ruhehain unter den Eichen). Today, for a few hundred euros, anyone can have a biodegradable urn with their ashes buried in the grove, with prices that vary depending on if you prefer to be next to a small boulder or a tree. Older, bigger trees are more expensive than little ones, which are more expensive than stumps.
The Great War sits at an awkward place in German collective memory. Like the original Heroes’ Grove, the memory retains a more local connection, the towns who remember and mourn their lost without draping them in the war’s politics—small plaques here and there with handfuls of engraved names that, spread over an entire country, lead to an undeniable sense of loss. That loss is compounded by the way Germans associate the First World War with the Second, a blending reflected even in the Ruhehain’s two stone-bordered panels, just behind the large memorial stone, listing the names of those killed in both wars, mixed together with no obvious order or rationale; a subtle reminder that, here in Germany, the conflicts have combined into a single dark stain on the nation’s collective memory and of the challenge of remembering the fallen without honoring the cause for which they fell.
The transformation of the site from a memorial for war dead to an eco-friendly burial destination for nature lovers raises interesting questions about the preservation of the war’s collective memory. Historical scholarship has revisited and revised Germany’s role in starting the Great War, and in the decades since the end of the Second World War, Germany has become wary of anything that sounds too much like militarism or nationalism. Unlike the Great War in British, French, or even American memory, the German way of memorializing the events and those who perished in them tends to be more somber and understated, as though even now it would be wrong to attach too much heroism and bravery to their commemoration. The Ruhehain achieves this by acknowledging the need to remember those who were killed but suggesting that they are but one part of the community’s history and purpose. The cemetery’s official website mentions little of its history, though it does have a short piece on its original purpose from 1920: “For generations,” the website says, “citizens remember those fallen in war on the national day of mourning. With the creation of the natural cemetery, though, this place became much more. Since 2008, even individual memorials have been held at the lectern.”
As an American war veteran now living in Germany, I have been fascinated by the comparison of our two memorial cultures. The Ruhehain’s assertion that what was once a war memorial “became much more” by expanding to the public is at odds with the American veneration of military service above nearly everything else; the strict conditions that need to be met to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery or other, smaller veterans’ cemeteries around the country. Americans tend to construct barriers—both physical and sentimental—between those who serve and those who don’t, bombarding its citizens with so many images of war that they become easier to forget. The Ruhehain does the opposite, creating a space to mourn the fallen within an environmental setting whose intended appeal is to outlive any individual memories of those who are buried there. Yet the original war memorial, impossible to miss as you walk up a small hill into the shade of the oak trees, sticks out as a clearly manmade object in the otherwise natural woods, perhaps meant as a subliminal hint to visitors of mankind’s role in the need for war memorials to begin with.
In his book on the Great War in European cultural history, historian Jay Winter noted that memorials across Europe erected in the immediate aftermath of the war served multiple functions and could be found in and among the communities that built them:
"War memorials were places where people grieved, both individually and collectively…To find them one must simply look around. The still visible signs of this monument of collective bereavement are the objects, both useful and decorative, both mundane and sacred, placed in market squares, crossroads, churchyards, and on or near public buildings after 1914…They have a life history, and like other monuments have both shed meanings and taken on new significance in subsequent years."
In Germany, these “sites of memory” are everywhere, if easy to overlook. In most cases, local memorials simply blend into the town’s scenery. Riding on the left side of the bus on my route home from work, I’ll just catch a glimpse of a stone pillar with an iron cross and the words Zum Gedenken der Gafallen (“In Memory of the Fallen”) above the all too familiar year groupings, 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. A low stone wall covered with flowers and bushes are the only separation between the memorial and the sidewalk. If I blink and don’t look in time, I’ll only see the local bank. In Amberg, the town where I lived while stationed here with the Army, another easily-missed memorial hangs under the shade of an old balcony attached to the town hall. There are 768 names next to a more elaborate inscription than most German war memorials: “To the everlasting memory of the heroes who died for their fatherland in the World War, 1914-1918, dedicated by the grateful city of Amberg.” There are no names from the Second World War.
What is it about lists of names engraved into metal or stone that causes us to forge a more emotional connection with their loss? Perhaps we are more likely to see a part of ourselves in that dark, mystical space between the sets and rows of printed letters. We can more easily imagine the person, the soul behind each name, the lives they lived and the deaths they met. The feeling is more powerful when confined to the local, when the lists of names represent people who tilled the same soil, walked the same streets, went to the same church, and even lived in the same buildings as the town’s residents a century later. Whether separated by days after the war or decades, the image of a local community tending to the memory of their fallen is, in some ways, more powerful than something larger and impersonal that one might find at a national memorial.
When I took my daughter for a walk up to the Ruhehain, I couldn’t help but read each of the names on the plaques to see if my family name, which has German ancestry, was among them. It wasn’t. But while searching for information and history about other sites, I came across a digital archive of war memorials with a searchable database by name or town across the entire country. Curious, I looked up the memorial in the town where I had lived until recently, a site that I had somehow overlooked while living there. I found a Heinrich Eissler, born January 25th, 1899, and killed October 18th, 1918—just a few short weeks away from the armistice we are about to commemorate. I then put in a more general search for any Eisler or Eissler whose name appears on a memorial to the fallen from either World War.
There were dozens.
For more on German WWI memorials, see WWrite posts by Patricia Hammond, "Soon, All Too Soon: British Musicians Bring Life and Melody to Exhumed Body of Forgotten WWI Soldier, Ernst Brockman," and Connie Ruzich,"In a Lonely Forest: Joseph Rust Found. Connie Ruzich Uncovers Lyricist for Ernst Brockman's "Soon, All Too Soon." "
David Eisler is a Ph.D. candidate at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies in Heidelberg, Germany. His doctoral dissertation focuses on the relationship between American civil-military relations and contemporary war fiction from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. David received a BA in astrophysics from Cornell University in 2007 and an MA in international affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in 2014. Prior to beginning his Ph.D., David was a Research Associate at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) where he provided analytical support to the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. He is also a member of the Board of Directors for Words After War, a non-profit literary organization that brings veterans and civilians together to examine war and conflict through the lens of literature. Before joining IDA, David served five years on active duty in the United States Army, earning the rank of captain and completing overseas tours in Germany, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
His writing has appeared in The New York Times, War on the Rocks, The Daily Beast, Collier’s Magazine, Military Review, Drunken Boat, and the anthology of short fiction, The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War (Pegasus Books, 2017). He lives near Heidelberg, Germany with his wife, son, and daughter. He can be found online at www.davidfeisler.com and @David_Eisler on Twitter.