Berlin at War (52 page)

death, and I will give thee a crown of life’.

In time, new graves would be added. On 22 November 1941, the

funeral was held of the charismatic Luftwaffe general Ernst Udet. As a

member of Richthofen’s ‘flying circus’, Udet had been the highest

scoring surviving air ace from the First World War. He had gone

on to work as a stunt flyer and test pilot before joining the Luftwaffe,

where he had been instrumental in developing the tactics of dive-

bombing. Disillusioned by the progress of the war, however, and

scapegoated by Göring for the shortcomings of the Luftwaffe, Udet

committed suicide in his Berlin apartment.

Despite this rather ignominious end, a state funeral was ordered and

the fiction was proclaimed that Udet had been killed testing a new

weapon. On the very morning of Udet’s funeral, however, another

prominent life was lost. General Werner Mölders was one of the most

successful airmen of the Second World War: the first fighter pilot to be

credited with a hundred ‘kills’ and the first German serviceman to

be awarded the prestigious Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross. On the

morning of 22 November, Mölders was a passenger in a Heinkel

He-111 flying to Berlin for Udet’s funeral when the plane crashed in

bad weather near Breslau in Silesia. A few days later, Mölders too was

buried in the Invaliden cemetery alongside his friend and superior.

All such state funerals followed a similar formula, but the event

reached its apogee with the death of SS-

Heydrich, the Reich protector of Bohemia and Moravia and the most

prominent Nazi to fall victim to assassination during the Second World

War. Heydrich’s funeral, in June 1942, was a protracted affair. His coffin

was laid in state, first in the Hradcˇany castle in Prague and then in the

Mosaic Room of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, flanked by flaming

torches and an SS flag. An elaborate funeral ceremony was held, with

Hitler himself inspecting Heydrich’s orders and decorations, before

paying tribute to him as ‘one of the best National Socialists, one of the

strongest defenders of the German Reich’ and – most famously – as

‘the man with the iron heart’.6

Broadcast live over
Grossdeutscher Rundfunk
, the service featured the

German state orchestra playing the
‘Horst Wessel Lied’
, the funeral march from Wagner’s
, and the soldier’s hymn ‘
Ich hatt’ einen

berlin at war

’. The latter, originally penned during the Napoleonic Wars,

was a staple at countless military funerals, and was the only song –

apart from the national anthem – for which soldiers were required to

salute. It was a moving soldier’s tribute to a fallen comrade:

Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden,

I had a comrade,

Einen bessern findst du nit.

you won’t find a better one.

Die Trommel schlug zum Streite,

The drum was rolling for battle,

Er ging an meiner Seite

he marched at my side

In gleichem Schritt und Tritt.

in the same step and stride.

Eine Kugel kam geflogen:

A bullet flew towards us

Gilt’s mir oder gilt es dir?

is it meant for me or meant for you?

Ihn hat es weggerissen,

It tore him away,

Er liegt vor meinen Füssen

he lies beneath my feet

Als wär’s ein Stück von mir

like a piece of myself.

Will mir die Hand noch reichen,

He wants to give me his hand,

Derweil ich eben lad’.

while I reload.

‘Kann dir die Hand nicht geben,

‘I can’t give you my hand,

bleib du im ew’gen Leben

rest in eternal life

Mein guter Kamerad!’

my good comrade!’7

As Heydrich’s coffin was finally borne from the Reich Chancellery

to be taken to the Invaliden cemetery, Beethoven’s
was played

in tribute, and a long line of mourners filed out in silence to follow

the honour guard. Then, to the accompaniment of muffled drums,

the procession – with the coffin mounted on a gun carriage and draped

with the swastika flag – filed through the streets of the capital, past

a silent crowd of Berliners.

On arrival at the Invaliden cemetery, the solemn commemorations

continued. Among a sea of pressed uniforms and elaborate wreaths,

Heydrich’s coffin was buried alongside that of General Tauentzien, a

Prussian hero of the Napoleonic Wars, its position indicated by a

simple wooden grave marker, noting Heydrich’s name and dates

beneath an outline of the Iron Cross. It was intended that the spot

should be the site of another impressive sarcophagus, designed by two

Nazi favourites, the architect Wilhelm Kreis and the sculptor Arno

Breker. It has also been suggested that Heydrich’s remains were only

to stay in the Invaliden cemetery for a short time, as they were

the persistent shadow


apparently to be removed to a dedicated cemetery for SS personnel

– a
or ‘death grove’.8

For all the elaborate ceremonial, in one respect Heydrich was

ultimately to share the fate of the humblest infantryman. As the pres-

sures of war mounted, neither his sarcophagus nor the bespoke SS

‘death grove’ was ever built. Finally, in the chaos of the German collapse

in 1945, his wooden grave marker disappeared as well.

Death was ever present in wartime Berlin. There was scarcely a family

in the capital – just as elsewhere in Germany – that did not lose a loved

one during the war years, yet ordinary Berliners were rarely accorded

even a fraction of the ceremonial, the fanfares or the solemn pantomime

of a state funeral. Of the five million or so German servicemen killed

during the Second World War, few were ever brought back to their

homeland for burial. Most of them were never formally buried at all.

As was usual in many armies, only senior officers could expect to

be repatriated after death in the field; ordinary soldiers and lower ranks

would generally remain more or less where they fell. In some cases, a

casualty would be buried, temporarily, by his fellows, with a simple

wooden cross bearing his name, unit and date of death, topped perhaps

with his ‘coal-scuttle’ helmet. Those same comrades would also register

the death, by snapping off half of the victim’s
, or dog tag – a tin disc worn around the neck, bearing the holder’s serial number,

unit and blood group – and handing it in to headquarters. In due course,

and if the military situation allowed, the body would later be disin-

terred and reburied nearby in a formal war cemetery.

Word of a soldier’s death would in time be passed to the bereaved at

home. In some cases, news of the death would be brought personally

by troops on leave or by letter from a fellow soldier. Ursula von Kardorff

recalled receiving the news of the death of her brother Jürgen in a letter

from his comrade in the spring of 1943. ‘I sit on night watch in our regi-

mental command post’, it began, ‘and don’t know how to tell you . . .’9

In the majority of cases, however, the victim’s next of kin would

receive notification of the death from the relevant authorities – the

, or ‘Army Information Centre’, in Berlin, known

colloquially as the ‘WASt’ – usually in the form of a letter forwarded

from a superior officer or regimental chaplain.10 Such letters, though they

could incorporate a personal note, were nonetheless rather formulaic,


berlin at war

bearing many of the same phrases: ‘painful duty to inform’, ‘died in our

nation’s struggle for freedom’, ‘the ultimate sacrifice for Greater

Germany’. Details would also be given, where possible, of the location

of the soldier’s grave. Such notifications became so common that they

were known simply as ‘the letter’. One Berliner recalled her neighbour

getting ‘the letter’ in the summer of 1942:

I saw Frau Müller who lived in the building next door. Her black-clad

figure was shrouded to her waist in the sombre sad veil of mourning. I

curtsied in homage to her grief and hurried home. Death in our midst,

my heart pounded. ‘Who died?’ ‘Tsk, tsk,’ Mutti and Oma clucked their

tongues in unison. ‘Such handsome boys, both of them. So young.’ . . .

‘The mail carrier brought the second letter only a few days ago.’

I had heard about letters like that. ‘She got a letter’ women would say,

meaning the one that they all dreaded. ‘The one with the black border on

the envelope and the military markings.’ . . . The mail carrier had tossed

the letter into the mailbox in the door and raced down the steps so she

would not hear Frau Müller’s screams. She was not fast enough though . . .

The list was getting longer. On the streets I saw too many people

with black crepe bands on their sleeves, black robed women who got

‘the letter’ and not a body to lay to rest.11

Some families would also receive the personal effects of the deceased

– a diary, watch or wedding ring and perhaps a medal. Ursula von

Kardorff recalled the arrival of her brother’s belongings, after his death:

Yesterday, the remainder of Jürgen’s things arrived. ‘Fallen for Greater

Germany’ was written on the package. The sight of it brought it all back.

His books: Luther, Rilke, Kant, Spengler, Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, a

frivolous French novel and the Bible. Typical of him. In addition, both

Iron Crosses. His signet ring wasn’t there . . .12

In a few instances, the bereaved would also receive an official scroll

to commemorate the death. Under a gilt German eagle and swastika,

the text read that the deceased had fallen, ‘True to his Oath in the

struggle for the Freedom of Greater Germany’. Beneath his name,

rank and unit was appended the sentence: ‘A Hero’s Death for Führer,

People and Fatherland.’13 Such mementoes would often find pride of

the persistent shadow


place on a mantelpiece or in a quiet corner, carefully sited alongside

a black-edged photograph of the deceased.

In most cases, however, no personal effects were passed back to the

family. One Berlin woman, who lost all three of her brothers in the

war – one in the Battle of Britain, one in the Battle of the Atlantic and

one in Stalingrad – recalled that her family received no personal effects

whatsoever.14 This lack not only of a body, but also of any mementoes

and possessions of the deceased, can only have compounded her family’s


Some soldiers took extraordinary measures to assuage the anguish

of a loved one left in a simple grave close to the front line. Wehrmacht

officer Philipp von Boeselager went to remarkable lengths in an attempt

to bring the body of his friend Wendt back to Germany. As he explained

after the war:

I had seen during my previous leave, how much it affected my mother

that my brother’s grave was [at the front]. Then, the following year,

my comrade Wendt died and I [. . .] had a wooden crate made with a

zinc lining. Then I dug him up, which was complicated as it was freezing

and one had to light a fire to thaw the earth, and people came along

and wanted to put it out. [Finally] we got him in the crate and I took

him with me . . . I thought, ‘one day we will go home.’ He was with

me for a year and a half . . . No one was bothered by it.15

Despite his efforts, Boeselager was unable to return his friend’s remains

to his family. Transferred to the High Command, he was eventually

forced to entrust the crate to a friend, with the instruction that the body

should be buried and a sketch of the site made, so that it might be

found after the war. It seems unlikely that the body was ever retrieved.

Most were much more modest in their endeavours. From the very

first days of the Polish campaign, grieving families posted sombre black-

lined death notices, mourning those lost in the conflict, in German

newspapers. The notices spanned the confessional divide, and in some

instances were even placed by the deceased’s employers as well as his

family. Most of them carried similar wording. Beneath a facsimile of

the Iron Cross, the heavy gothic text would tell of a ‘Hero’s death’ ‘for

Führer and Fatherland’ on the ‘Field of Honour’. A typical example is

this notice from the autumn of 1939:

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