Germany’s Unknown Soldier

As the 11th November approaches here in Great Britain, thoughts turn to the remembrance of those who fell in the two World Wars and more recent conflicts. In Germany such sentiments on a national level are unheard of, but it wasn’t always so. In the years following the Great War of 1914-1918 France, then Britain and finally America selected unknown soldiers from the shell-torn battlefields to be buried in a place of honour. During the Weimar period in Germany there was no thought of such a thing; the feeling of defeat and the more pressing problems of the economy and competing political ideas made it impossible. But by the 1930s Germany was changing, and in 1931 the architect Heinrich Tessanow was commissioned by the Prussian state government to convert the Neue Wache in the Unter Den Linden into what was known as the ‘Memorial for the Fallen of the War’. The Neue Wache had once been a Prussian guardhouse and it was adapted to resemble a tomb, with a central plinth.

‘Memorial for the Fallen of the War’ in the 1930s.

It seemed that finally Germany was coming to terms with its losses in the Great War, numbered at more than 1.8 million dead alone. But then Hitler came to power in 1933 and the Nazis played heavily on the sentiments of the past. The ‘Memorial to the Fallen of the War’ became a centre piece of Nazi culture and the Third Reich hierarchy were regularly photographed here paying their respects, and while ranks of men from the Nazi war machine marched past in salute both before and after Europe went to war in 1939.

It is also believed that either during the original redesign by Tessanow or during the Third Reich period the body of an unknown German soldier was reburied here. I say ‘believed’ as this part of the history of the building seems shrouded in mystery. A number of online sources confirm that the Neue Wache is the tomb of Germany’s unknown soldier and some contemporary 1930s also seem to confirm it.

The Neue Wache in May 1945.

The building was badly damaged in the Battle for Berlin in April-May 1945, and after 1945 formed part of the Russian Zone, eventually East Germany. The memorial was guarded by DDR soldiers and recast as a memorial ‘Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism’. When the Wall came down and Germany was re-united the Neue Wache was again rededicated, this time as the ‘Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny’, the centre-piece of which was a Käthe Kollwitz sculpture – the Tessanow plinth had long since gone, but it’s bronze wreath is preserved in the Deutsches Historiches Museum.

DDR Soldiers guard the Neue Wache. (Source Flickr User)

Today a visitor will see Kollwitz’s statue, see images of the DDR guards and learn it is a memorial to the Victims of War but all mention of it being a tomb of an Unknown Soldier has long since been left out of the tourist guides. Hitler’s hand touched the national conciseness of the Great War so heavily – he was a veteran of the war, and propagated the importance of those veterans – that it is forever tainted with the stain of Nazism. The Unknown German Soldier, if indeed he still lies buried in the Neue Wache, symbolises Germany’s own unknown – a lack of knowledge or appreciation that the Great War wiped out a generation of young Germans in the way it did elsewhere in Europe. He lies forgotten as an anonymous victim of an anonymous war, perhaps forever overshadowed by the events in Berlin, in Germany, which took place after 1918.

~ by sommecourt on 31/10/2011.

8 Responses to “Germany’s Unknown Soldier”

  1. […] just acquired a new image of the Neue Wache, which was once the tomb of Germany’s Unknown Soldier. It takes the form of a printed postcard showing a group of German soldier’s marching past in […]

  2. […] Den Linden to the Neue Wache which we have featured before on Military Berlin. This had been the Tomb of Germany’s Unknown Soldier and again the 1945 battle damage is clearly […]

  3. So many German soldiers suffered and died for their country. They deserve remembrance as do all soldiers of any country who give their lives for their fellow countrymen and women. They were true patriots

  4. I watched the changing of the guard here in 1988. I was a serving British soldier stationed in Spandau at the time. I was very impressed at the time. Suppose that’s what it was designed to do.

  5. I visited it originally in 1979 — I was a serving soldier in the U.S. Army at the time. I re-visited it again just a few weeks ago (July 2014). I had remembered a “light” or “flame” display of some sort, which was missing now. I asked a museum guard (it is not guarded by any military now) and he said it was removed in 1994. Any idea why?

    • It went from being the tomb of the Unknown Soldier to being a politicised memorial commemorating all who died in conflict.

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  7. Saw the guards when I was stationed in Germany in the US Army back in 1982. They were very well trained and quite impressive.

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