War memorials and other commemorative monuments

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has got a great number of memorials and commemorative monuments which were built mostly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see e.g. Hennies 1991). They usually commemorate events such as the victory against Napoleon in 1813, its centenary in 1913, the founding of the second German Reich in 1871, the dead of World Wars I and II, or, most recently, German unification in 1990. But many other events are commemorated by monuments too. In Heiligendamm, a large monolith was erected in 1843 in order to preserve the memory of the founding of Heiligendamm 50 years earlier. In Zepelin near Bützow, a large erratic with a bronze plaque, which rests on three other erratics and is surrounded by a stone circle segment of 24 stones, was erected in 1910 to commemorate the origin of the family von Zeppelin in 1286 (see image below). Not far away, a memorial stone reminds us of the Slavic castle Burg Werle which fell in 1160 (Wegner et al. n.d.: 19, 37). In Schmatzin in Mecklenburg, an Alteigentümer (former landowner) used a large erratic to commemorate his return to the land in 1991 (Stimpel 1995).

Memorials were built with distinctive prospective memories in mind, namely to remember why they were erected. When flowers are put at the bases of war memorials, as it is customary, they do not only honour and re-confirm their established meanings, but also emphasise as metaphors the regeneration of (the memory of) the dead (Tarlow 1997: 116).

It is interesting to observe that many of these memorials resemble, perhaps even imitate, local prehistoric megaliths in material and design. Gravestones in cemeteries sometimes look like megaliths too. I even came across a state-of-the-art dolmen at Mühlengeez in Mecklenburg that was built to commemorate German unification in 1990 (see image below; for other examples see Hennies 1991: 5, 12, 32).

War memorial 1914-1918 in Remplin, Kreis Malchin (1995)

Commemorative monument for German unification (3 October 1990) in Mühlengeez, Kreis Güstrow (1995)

Commemorative monument for the lineage of Graf Zeppelin in Zepelin, Kreis Bützow (1995)

Bismarck Stone in Putbus, Kreis Rügen (1996)

The choice of megaliths as an architectural model for war and other memorials is certainly no coincidence. As people in the Neolithic had similarly calculated, the use of large stones virtually guarantees the future realisation of prospected memories, e.g. the memory of the war dead or of an event of perceived 'historical' importance. In their solemn simplicity and metaphorical power to evoke the solid strength of the community on a sacred place, megaliths were also considered aesthetically and emotionally appropriate by a bereaved community and the state authorities (see Tarlow 1997: 114f.; Beltz 1916a; Mosse 1979: 10, 12; 1990: 88f.). Likewise, a megalith in the direct neighbourhood of a war memorial was seen as creating a strong and most suitable 'powerful' atmosphere which fitted nicely to the 'spirit of the whole' (Beltz 1916b: 45). Claudia Liebers suspected (1986: 95) that the effort needed to erect large erratics as memorials was also a way of expressing reverence for the dead.

Moreover, with the power of their archaic design these memorials could link contemporary politics with an idealised prehistoric past. Often Classical and Medieval references were chosen in memorial design, but a resemblance to prehistoric megaliths could transcend the historical occasion particularly well, thus rendering the horrors of war natural and eternal, and the fallen soldiers timeless (Tarlow 1997: 115). Michael Rowlands went further in suggesting that it "is a remote past that best symbolises the nation's sacrifice rather than the recent past that exemplifies the realities of conflict and power", thus pointing to the creation of false consciousness (1996: 13).

The Romantic traveller Johann Jacob Grümbke called prehistoric burial mounds "Heldenhügel" (hero-hills) and the painter Caspar David Friedrich was certainly also influenced by such thoughts (Grütter 1986: chapter 6, citation on p.180). Wilhelm Petzsch (1925: 32; my translation) described megaliths as "stony witnesses of a valiant age which erected a commemorative monument to their heroes". In folklore, megaliths were sometimes associated with historical events such as battles, and interpreted as the graves of fallen soldiers (Ohlhaver 1937: 203f.). A caricature by Henry Büttner shows a man putting flowers by a megalith in Lancken-Granitz (Beier 1991: 6). War memorials and megaliths thus have in common that both were considered to contain (Germanic) heroes (P.Herfert 28.8.1996, pers.comm).

Inscription on the war memorial in Bergen, Kr. Rügen (1996):
"Do not, my people, forget the dear dead."

Memorials were promises for a national future which was rooted in a primordial past. They expressed permanently what the nation could politically be proud of, thus strengthening national identity and a nationalist ideology (Mosse 1979; 1990: 35; Hennies 1991: 5–13). Robert Beltz stated about war cemeteries in Germany, what Michael Rowlands found in an analysis of war memorials elsewhere:

"Die auf ihnen ruhen, sind e i n e s Todes gestorben, in Erfüllung e i n e r gemeinsamen hohen Aufgabe. Das muß durch die ganze Anlage zum Ausdruck gebracht werden. Es ist eine Stätte, die durch das höchste und edelste Opfer, das blühende jugendliche Leben für die höchsten Ziele, das Wohl des Vaterlandes geweiht ist und die als solche sich abheben soll von ihrer profanen Umgebung; auf ihr aber muß der Geist der Gemeinsamkeit der herrschende sein, die Gräber und ihr Schmuck einheitlich, als Ganzes wirkend." (Beltz 1916a: 67)

"Properly orchestrated as a sense of past linked to place, war memorials root the living in a primordial, essentialist and unifying identity which in the end subsumes all differences in the sacrificial act. ... [I]ts form should be timeless ... it should resonate identity with a remote past, escaping the conflicts of the present." (Rowlands 1993: 145; links added)

In 1912 a "vaterländischer Gedenkstein" (patriotic memorial stone) was erected in Bad Doberan to celebrate 25 years of the Doberaner Militärverein (Military Society of Doberan). On the large erratic an inscription was carved which read (Beltz 1913):

"Allezeit treu bereit für des Reiches Herrlichkeit!"
"At all times ready for the Reich's glory!" (my translation)

Such memorials thus glorified the death of soldiers in wars, and played their part in a wider cult of fallen soldiers. In this logic, the sacrifice of individuals secured the immortality of the community, in this case the nation (Mosse 1979; 1990: chapter 5; Rowlands 1996).

Many of the stones needed to build memorials have probably been taken from actual prehistoric megaliths in the surrounding fields (Hennies 1991; for other examples see Liebers 1986: 94f; Eriksen 1990: 123–129). The case is especially clear at Hamberge where the local war-memorial shows dozens of cup-marks and is known to have come from a megalith in the Everstorfer Forst (42). The war memorial in Granzin, Kreis Hagenow, also shows cup-marks, is locally known as "Opferstein" (sacrificial stone), and is said to come from a site of prehistoric burial mounds (Hollmann 1936). Other memorials with cup-marks include the war memorial on the churchyard in Rostock-Toitenwinkel. The gigantic memorial site of the Ulanendenkmal in Demmin is known to incorporate stones from the megalith of Quitzerow. Stones of a megalithic burial in Forst Prora (237), Kreis Rügen, were re-used for three different memorials which were erected between 1896 and 1925, including the war memorial in Swantow with boreholes on its rear (Hansen 1933: fig. 14). In Göhren, also on Rügen, a large erratic from a megalith was apparently unwittingly used for the local Ernst-Thälmann-Memorial, but that has now disappeared without trace.

Stone-re-use in Forst Prora (237; Hagen-Granitz), Kreis Rügen. From Hansen 1933: Fig. 14. Rear of the war memorial in Swantow, Kr.Rügen (1996)

As time moved on, the meaning of these memorials kept changing. Memorials, like all monuments, have got life-histories (Young 1993). In the case of war memorials, grieving relatives even of the most recent war have become rare, and the nationalist spirit in which most memorials were erected is now suspect to many. Nevertheless, many of these sites have retained some meaning in local communities. Threats to their care and survival, or indeed the restoration of memorials that had long been forgotten, such as the Ulanendenkmal, can quickly acquire a wider political significance (cf. Tarlow 1997: 118f.). Memorials are no doubt important sites of memory and an important part of history culture in our society.


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 1 October 2001