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Cent ans après : la mémoire de la Première Guerre mondiale

Elli Lemonidou

War Victimization and the Memory of the First World War in Germany after 1918

Nils Löffelbein


The phenomenon of the huge number of disabled veterans belongs to the most bitter of long-term consequences of the industrialised warfare of the First World War. In the defeated nation of Germany, it was the handling of precisely these many millions of war victims which proved to be a difficult inheritance for the Weimar Republic and greatly complicated its inner stability throughout the 1920s. It was ultimately National Socialism that was able to massively exploit the unresolved question of the war victims and thus the embattled memory of the First World War.

Le phénomène du nombre énorme d’anciens combattants handicapés appartient aux plus amères conséquences à long terme de la guerre industrialisée que fut la Première Guerre mondiale. Dans la nation allemande vaincue, c’était précisément la manipulation de ces millions de victimes de guerre qui s’est révélée être un héritage difficile pour la République de Weimar et a considérablement compliqué sa stabilité intérieure dans les années 1920. C’est finalement le national-socialisme qui a pu massivement exploiter la question non résolue des victimes de guerre et donc le souvenir meurtri de la Première Guerre mondiale.

Texte intégral


  • 1 Kennan 1979, p. 3.
  • 2 See the numbers in Overmans 2009.

1The First World War posed a catastrophe of civilization of unforeseen proportions. As the “seminal catastrophe of the xxth century”1, it is regarded as the first real global conflict in history, not only with reference to the grave political and social-economic consequences for the xxth century, but also because of the unimaginable number of victims: more than nine million soldiers were killed on the battlefields of the continent by the massive deployment of new weapons technology; around twenty million men were wounded. The mass army of war invalids proved to be one of the most bitter long-term consequences of the industrial war: many millions of soldiers worldwide returned home, often with horrific injuries; in Germany alone, more than 2.7 million disabled veterans fought for social welfare and social recognition after 19182. The surviving dependants, widows, orphans and parents of fallen soldiers, as well as the relatives of those severely injured, were also directly affected by the violence of the war. The war left communities devastated; there was hardly one family from which the war had not taken at least a child, a brother or father. In some cases, entire generations of young men had been wiped out. Altogether, the First World War brought about a magnitude of victims that had never been seen previously and for which none of the belligerent nations had been prepared.

  • 3 Hirschfeld 1993; Dülffer 2002; Hardtwig 2005; Janz 2009; Winter 2009; Horne 2012.
  • 4 Becker 1994.
  • 5 Winter 1995.

2Against this background, cultural history has identified in increasing detail the extent to which the mass death and destruction of the war came to shape the conceptual world and political culture of European societies during the 1920s and 1930s3. To the post-war nations, the mass loss of family members therefore presented the central and decisive experience –something which Europeans, despite their national difference, all shared. The remembrance of those who died or were injured in the war remained an omnipresent part of everyday life for people after 1918: tens of thousands of war memorials sprang up in every town and every remote village in all of Europe, remembering those who had fallen and the boundless suffering that the “Great War” had brought across the European continent4. With this came the huge number of disabled veterans who shaped the image of everyday life; they were to be seen on every street and also needed to be integrated into social and economic life. In this context, the historian Jay Winter has described the culture and politics of the inter-war period above all as a process of collective mourning5.

  • 6 See contributions in: Hettling 2013.

3However, the process of working through the social and mental effects of the war varied greatly and did not only remain closely connected to the issue of victory and defeat. In France, whose population suffered by far the most from the devastation of the First World War, remembrance of the dead and wounded after 1918 quickly solidified itself as a community-strengthening symbol of national unity and republican order. In England too, mourning for the victims of the war and the war dead brought together the community –despite internal political disputes6.

  • 7 Barth 2003.
  • 8 Cited from Hoegen von 2007, p. 141.
  • 9 Ulrich 1997; Ziemann 2013.
  • 10 Bessel 1993; Schivelbusch 2001.

4On the contrary, Germany had lost the war and was subsequently confronted by a defeat which for many Germans had come unexpectedly: the inglorious end to the First World War and the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles were perceived by many as a national humiliation; it represented a deeply traumatic experience, which made it difficult for many to accept the transition to peace7. Even the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) Chairman Friedrich Ebert greeted troops returning home by saying that they had been “overcome by no enemy”8. The remembrance of the war in the Weimar Republic therefore remained quite literally a deeply “contested terrain” (umkämpftes Terrain)9. As the historian Richard Bessel has observed, in the defeated nation of Germany especially, dealing with the “inherited burden of the lost war” proved a difficult legacy for the politically and ideologically deeply fractured society, which failed to find a collective language of mourning and remembrance following the war10.

  • 11 The book of Robert W. Whalen is still regarded as a canonical standard work for the history of the (...)
  • 12 Geyer 1983; Whalen 1984; Diehl J. M. 1993.
  • 13 Kienitz 2008.

5Surprisingly, historians have underestimated the degree to which millions of disabled veterans and bereaved family members of the war dead were a burden on the young Weimar democracy, whereas the war invalids, their relatives and surviving dependents as victims of the war all together made up around one tenth of the German population. Their welfare provision at times brought the crisis-ridden Weimar Republic to the brink of its financial capabilities. Yet, until the 1980s, historians hardly paid attention to the treatment of war invalids and surviving dependents after the First World War11. Whilst older historical research has already dealt with the social and economic consequences of the huge numbers of war invalids12, the question as to what extent the phenomenon of the millions of disabled war veterans shaped the republic’s social self-perception after 1918 –and thereby also the handling of the victims of the war– has hardly been paid attention. The sole turn from social history to the “new” cultural history in the 1990s allowed historical research into the consequences of the war to start to examine in more detail the following question: how enduring the experience of mass war disablement had an effect on the self-perception of the Weimar Republic, as well as on the memory of the First World War in the 1920s13?

6In the following, I want to show that within the political culture of the Weimar Republic the war invalids precisely became a symbol of war and defeat, which in return strongly affected the memory regarding the First World War as a whole. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that the contested memory of the First World War in the Weimar Republic complicated the social reintegration of the war victims into society.

  • 14 Krumeich 2010; Weinrich 2013.
  • 15 Löffelbein 2013.

7At first, I will illustrate the reasons for the failed integration of the war victims in post-war society. Secondly, I will show to what extent the contradictory discourses about questions of war victims shaped the political culture of the Weimar Republic. As research has recently been able to demonstrate, the symbol-political exploitation of the experience of the First World War in the Weimar Republic represents one considerable reason for the rise and the success of the National Socialist movement. Thus the never fully achieved settlement for the German war victim movement with relation to the state significantly contributed to the destabilization of its political order. The unresolved question of the war victims finally gained new urgency during the world economic crisis and the sweeping rise of the National Socialists at the beginning of the 1930s especially. The Nazis staged themselves as real successors or heirs of the front soldiers like no other political group14. So finally it was precisely National Socialism that reversed the marginalization of the victims of war in the public consciousness after 1933 and glorified the war invalids and bereaved as “honoured citizens” (Ehrenbürger) with great organizational and propagandistic effort15. As it will be illustrated, the National Socialists not only recognized the propagandistic potential of the war invalids for their military and political goals, but also pushed the female bereaved and surviving dependents into the centre of public attention in a specific way, in order to channel part of the widespread mood of protest amongst the milieu of the victims of the war.

“Memorials of Horror”16: War Victim Politics in the Weimar Republic

  • 16 Kuttner 1920.
  • 17 Beaupré 2009, p.116.
  • 18 Barr 2005; Goebel 2013.

8As historical research has already shown, the treatment of the high numbers of war victims by the European post-war states differed substantially. In the victorious nations of France and Britain, war victims were included in the collective remembrance of the war from the very beginning, in marked contrast to those in the Weimar Republic. As early as the large allied victory parade in July 1919 in Paris, a thousand of war invalids led the main procession. The significance of this political gesture can hardly be underestimated17. In Britain too, public gestures of gratitude and appreciation to the veterans and their relatives were an integral part of the national remembrance of the victims of the First World War. With this sentiment, the revenues from the sale of the artificial poppies on “Remembrance Day”, the wearing of which was soon upheld as a national duty by the population, were donated for the benefit of the veterans and their relatives18.

  • 19 Weiss 2005, p. 186, n. 10.
  • 20 Geyer 1983; Leese 1997; Cohen 2001.
  • 21 Prost 1983.

9A different situation occurred in Germany: while the governments of Great Britain and France had no problems in honouring the sufferings and sacrifices of the war victims in public, Weimar Germany failed to establish official signs of remembrance and appreciation for this large section of the population. Those who engaged in the politics of remembrance largely excluded war victims, who felt overlooked and misunderstood. With regards to the symbolic vacuum of Weimar policy for war victims, it was therefore only characteristic that in 1926 not even one single representative of the war victim associations was invited to the discussions for the planning of the Empire Memorial (Reichsehrenmal) for those fallen in the war, much to their annoyance19. Thus the relations between the war victims and the Republic during the entire Weimar period remained tense, even though the war invalids were financially much better provided for than in other belligerent nations. Due to preferential treatment on the job market, guaranteed by the state, they were also able to return to work much quicker, in comparison to Great Britain, for example, where unemployment amongst veterans remained disproportionately high into the 1930s20. Antoine Prost even estimated that in France, almost three quarters of the war invalids had to manage without a single pension payment21. Nevertheless the veterans and relatives were a social fringe group in the Weimar Republic which ultimately never found its place in German post-war society.

10What was the reason for the marginalization of the disabled veterans and bereaved in the public space?

  • 22 Führer 1990; Frie 1994; Kleinschmidt 1994.
  • 23 Hudemann 1991.

11The social history of the 1980s and the 1990s ascribed the responsibility of the increasing marginalization of war victims from the community above all to the specific structure of welfare provision for war victims in Germany. It also highlighted the problems for veterans in the job market and in their dealings with state authorities22. The Weimar system of welfare provision for war victims was solely geared towards the vocational rehabilitation of veterans, as opposed to the paternalistic “warrior welfare” of the German Reich. Unlike before 1918, pension levels were no longer set according to military rank, but by the level of work ability. In order to be able to reintegrate war invalids into the world of work at every price, Weimar social experts developed complex social-political measures and instruments, which were unique in Europe: a location-dependant, graded system of basic and supplementary pensions added to vocational and medical care enabled a comprehensive social-political control of the welfare system through state-run authorities and agencies. They also established numerous additional payments such as allowances for the severely disabled, families or carers and additional payments based on location and death allowances to complete the system. With the introduction of universal pension entitlement after 1918, the welfare for war victims proved to be the pacesetter for the modern welfare state, the essential features of which continue to shape the pension system of the Federal Republic until today23.

  • 24 Geyer 1983.
  • 25 Ibid.

12Despite its social and technical efficiency, the apparatus of welfare provision was often perceived by those reliant upon it as anonymous and impersonal. The confusing process and subject matter, which could often be understood only by experts, as well as the constantly changing classification criteria and the dominance of administrative professionals and consultative medics, offered war victims few possibilities to identify with the new state form of provision. There was no official representation of interests for the issues affecting war victims in Germany, as had been realized in France and England with the creation of their own pension ministry24. Furthermore, the politically deeply divided war victim associations in Germany at no point managed to occupy a position in society which matched their size in terms of numbers or which could have lent their demands more political leeway. They were demoted to little more than the thankless role of an interest group for the purposes of welfare support25.

  • 26 Kienitz 2008.
  • 27 Bundes-Nachrichten 1922, p. 121.

13However, the social exclusion of the disabled veterans in the Weimar Republic cannot be explained by a German welfare-political Sonderweg alone. In this sense, more recent studies no longer show the return to civil life for the many millions of disabled men as a purely social-political problem of the State, but rather point at the collective psychological effects for the German post-war society as a whole, arising from the experience of mass war disablement26. According to this, the inability of German society to overcome defeat led to a repression of the problem of the war victims in the political and social spheres of the Republic. Indeed, it would appear clear that the war victims hardly showed themselves in the Weimar Republic. This lack of official representation was frequently and publicly denounced by the war victim organizations. In their publications and during countless demonstrations in the 1920s and early 1930s, war victims’ organizations scandalized the refusal of succeeding governments to grant them a special place in society. The Bavarian Association for Disabled Veterans and Surviving Dependents (Bayerischer Bund Kriegsbeschädigter und Kriegerhinterbliebener), on the occasion of the unveiling of a memorial, for example, complained bitterly how society honoured the fallen “heroes” with pathos, whilst the thousands of “living monuments” to the war still around were met with disdain27.

  • 28 Buchner 2001; Rossol 2010.
  • 29 Diehl J. M. 1971 and 1977.
  • 30 Weiss 2005; Ziemann 2013.
  • 31 Eichenberg 2011 and 2013.

14In recent years, the long held dominant perspective about which pro-republican government party underestimated the political importance of public symbolic actions and gestures (or failed to recognize them at all) has been called into question28. Moreover, after 1918, the landscape of associations for German war veterans and victims was not as strongly influenced by a nationalist or anti-republican stance as previously assumed29.In this connection, Benjamin Ziemann recently referred to the Social Democratic National Association of Disabled Veterans, Combatants and Bereaved, “Reichsbund” hereafter (Reichsbund der Kriegsbeschädigten, Kriegsteilnehmer und Kriegshinterbliebenen). With at times over 800  000 members, this association was by far the largest veteran and war victim association in the Republic. It shared the democratic values and ideals of the Republic and, at the same time, as part of the Weimar “never again war” movement, it was a pronounced exponent of pacifism30. In this respect, the Reichsbund association represented the driving force in the field of international veteran and war victim reconciliation during the 1920s, by which veterans organized themselves in the hope that a future war could be prevented after the catastrophe of civilization of the First World War31.

  • 32 Behrenbeck 1999.

15Nevertheless, regarding the war invalids, neither the state nor society succeeded in establishing a ritual of remembrance and recognition in the public sphere, whereas that could have retroactively given some meaning to the military deployment during the war, considered as an “act of sacrifice” (Opfergang) by the victims32. The Republic’s symbol-political departure from the swashbuckling style of the Wilhelmine German Reich was widely welcomed by the majority of the pro-republican war victim associations. Nevertheless, even the Reichsbund association bitterly registered the apparent unwillingness of Weimar governments to grant war victims a special place in society. That ultimately led them to pursue all the more vehemently their claims for national gratitude in the form of financial benefits from the state, with devastating consequences, as it became apparent during the world economic crisis of the early 1930s.

  • 33 Fehlemann 2010.
  • 34 Lloyd 1998; Grayzel 1999; Evans 2007; Roper 2009.
  • 35 Acton 2007.

16Obviously, the absence of representation for the war victims in the political self-portrayal of the Weimar Republic was also true regarding the surviving dependents. Indeed, the large associations expressly represented the interests of female war victims. On the boards of the associations, the proportion of women was nevertheless negligible. The same was true for the number of female surviving dependents and veterans who participated in the official openings of military cemeteries and remembrance ceremonies33. Comparative studies of cultural remembrance practices in other post-war societies have pointed at a significant difference when dealing with death, loss and mourning34. Indeed, in numerous states after 1918 there were not only special associations founded for widows and mothers, for example in the United States of America and in Canada, but they were also given prominent seats in the foremost rows at large national memorial events. Moreover, their loss was recognized and honoured by the state through the awarding of crosses of honour and medals35.

17The social presence of surviving dependents was almost entirely missing in the Weimar Republic. The surviving mothers and wives of soldiers were neither able to raise their issues adequately through the war victims associations, nor to be recognized by symbol-political gestures and rituals as in other nations. The culture of remembrance shaped by soldierly conceptions of masculinity and military norms excluded the mass of female surviving dependents almost completely from the memory of the First World War.

Hero or Cripple:
From Warrior Heroes
to Symbol of Defeat

  • 36 Bourke 1996; Kienitz 2008.
  • 37 Kienitz 2004.
  • 38 See also Frevert 2001; Jansen 2004.
  • 39 Micale, lerner 2001.
  • 40 Riedesser 1996; Hermes 2012.

18Cultural and gender history has tried in previous years to find new answers to the question of the increasing social exclusion of the victims of the war during the 1920s. Recent research has shown that the image of the mutilated soldier precisely became an influential symbol of the traumatic experience of war and defeat in Germany36. In fact, Sabine Kienitz has characterized the image of the disabled soldier as the main “medium” that constantly reminded German society of the lost war in the 1920s37. Thus the return of many millions of disabled war veterans questioned the fundamental images of heroes and victims. But it also deeply shook the established ideals of masculinity. The male role model had not been as strongly loaded with military norms and values in any other European country as in the German Empire before 1914. The soldier was deemed to be a prototype of the German man, a symbol of virtue, discipline and masculine beauty38. Yet the outbreak of the First World War marked a deep break with the conceptual world of the xixth century. In the constant fire of the front line, the idealistic image of the heroic warrior was eroded and the ideal of soldierly masculinity appeared to many contemporaries to be permanently damaged: millions of young men were no longer able to return to the jobs they had held before the war due to their injuries, neither could they fulfil their traditional role as head of the family and main breadwinner. As a consequence, countless veterans remained dependent on nursing provided by women, public welfare and state pensions payments for the rest of their lives. Hundreds of thousands were unable to psychologically cope with the horror of the material battles of the war. The massive deployment of heavy artillery, the long periods of time in the trenches, lasting days and weeks, and the experience of mass death and killing at the front line lead many soldiers to a complete psychological and physical breakdown. For the first time in the history of modern warfare, “shell shock” and the proverbial “war tremors” took hold in epidemic proportions. For instance, the British authorities declared in 1917 that psychological causes underlay a seventh of all soldiers who had left military service due to injury39. In the spirit of the age, these cases were interpreted by military psychiatrists as a sign of weakness and unmanliness and treated with electroshock therapy, whose cruelty rivalled that of the battles on the front40.

  • 41 Kienitz 2004.
  • 42 Conze 2007.
  • 43 Kienitz 1999.

19Whilst disabled soldiers may have been hailed as national heroes with all the pomp of Wilhelmine Germany at the beginning of the war, during the war the sheer scale of the war victims in the homeland led them to be increasingly pushed to the fringes of society. Even after 1918, the shock of the millions of crippled war veterans remained ubiquitous in society’s conceptual world and framework of remembrance. As Sabine Kienitz has shown on the basis of an abundance of individual sources, the images of men’s war ravaged bodies continually stood at the centre of the highly politicized battle over the interpretation of the “correct” remembrance of the First World War in Weimar society. The figure of the “war cripple” quickly became an emblem for a war whose glorious outcome had not been accepted by the majority of Germans, let alone overcome41 –did the disabled war veterans not remember every day the defeat, collapse and humiliating conditions of the Versailles “dictate of shame”, which was constantly described in public debates at the time, and not coincidentally, as an “amputation” of the nation’s body (Volkskörper)42? The leading medics, orthopaedics and social experts believed that the amputated bodies of war invalids could be to some extent “reconstructed” by using complex prosthetic technology. In this context, those beliefs appeared to be an attempt to restore the damaged masculinity of the war veterans. Although defeat had been sealed militarily, in the German art of engineering the end of the war could in this respect be interpreted as a victory43.

  • 44 Friedrich 1924.
  • 45 Notruf der Kriegsopfer.
  • 46 Kaes 2009.
  • 47 Eberle 1989; Schubert 2006.
  • 48 Kienitz 2003.

20On the other hand, the figure of the frail, begging disabled veteran quickly became an effective symbol used by the political left to denounce the destructive militarism of the belligerent German Empire, as well as the incapability of the Republic to reasonably care for its war victims. In 1924, the pacifist Ernst Friedrich shocked the public with his anti-war book War against War (Krieg dem Kriege) in which he attacked Wilhelminian militarism with numerous pictures of severely wounded soldiers44. For the war victims’ organizations, the invalid’s body served as a powerful weapon in their fight for both national gratitude and honour. The left-wing associations, in particular, enforced their claims by presenting disabled veterans to the public. The memorandum of the Reichsbund, with photographs of badly injured veterans, is a good example of this strategy. But it was left destitute by the effects of the Great Depression, in an attempt to fight against the emergency decrees of 193245. The ubiquitous images of amputated bodies were also found in the contemporary art of the 1920s and early 1930s46. Weimar avant-garde artists such as Max Beckman, George Grosz and especially Otto Dix used their work to express their indignation over the existing social situation of disabled veterans47. Their body functioned as part of a comprehensive identity politics and was deployed by the associations as a targeted “medium of battle” (Kampfmedium) for the promotion and implementation of their own interests48.

  • 49 Schulz 2004; Reichardt 2005; Kühne 2006.
  • 50 Müller 1986.
  • 51 Diehl P. 2005.

21The traumatic experience of defeat and the resulting degraded images of soldierly heroism led the political right to a diametrically opposed reaction. After the war, a soldierly hero cult quickly disseminated amongst the domains of the right-wing veteran associations of the Weimar Republic, which were rapidly gaining members, as well as through their closely related political milieus. The sheer unbounded glorification of the triumphant and heroic front soldier stood at the center. This cult of strength celebrated by the national right manifested itself in an extremely condensed form in the literary works of the National Socialist author and former front soldier Ernst Jünger. It did not only gloss over the violence of war, but also negated its social consequences49. Jünger’s soldierly “heroic body” (Heldenkörper) was like a machine, hard like steel, and knew no pain. It is therefore no wonder that war injuries and psychological trauma were left out of Jünger’s work, as well as the rest of the war-affirming right-wing literary scene50. The National Socialists were not the only ones to make use, later, of the racially loaded images of steely uninjured front soldiers in their propaganda as an ideal for a heroic memory of the First World War, whilst the suffering and horror of the war were banned from the realms of National Socialist propaganda51.

  • 52 Crouthamel 2005.
  • 53 Mosse 2000.
  • 54 Rauh et. al. 2005/2006.

22The question of a meaningful explanation for the First World War was also expressed in the social debates over the treatment of “war neurotics”52. Thus, in the 1920s, the Social Democratic and Communist organizations once again elevated those who had been traumatized by the war to a symbol of the horrors of war, against the mythical glorification of the experience on the front (Fronterlebnis) on the part of the political right53. Significantly, the National Socialists particularly rejected the psychological injuries of war as unmanly and weak. They also completely denied those afflicted by them the status of front warrior (Frontkämpfer). After 1933, these “hysterical men” (Paul Lerner) were ostracized from national society; many thousands later fell victim to the target killing program of “euthanasia”54.

“Honour and Justice”:
The Restaging of War Victims
in National Socialism

  • 55 Löffelbein 2013.
  • 56 Bundesarchiv Berlin 1932.
  • 57 Ibid.
  • 58 Nationalsozialismus und Kriegsopfer 1932.

23The National Socialists clearly recognized the lack of symbolic representation for the victims of the war in the Weimar Republic and the resulting bitterness and protest earlier than other political groups. In this way, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP) tirelessly began to court war veterans as political clientele during the 1920s. They presented themselves through their propaganda as a party of deserved front soldiers and war veterans55. In 1932, the National Socialist functionary Gregor Strasser reminded in a circular to the political leaders of the NSDAP of the fact that the two million disabled veterans taken with the bereaved all together made up around five millions potential voters56. Significantly, the former front soldier Adolf Hitler –who had received multiple injuries during the First World War– was represented as a disabled veteran to the Weimar public at various opportunities. He had “experienced the hardship of disablement through war first hand”57, as described by the National Socialist publication in 1926. Then only the “Führer” was qualified to lead the victims of the war from hardship and misery to a better future. It was no coincidence that the shortage of symbolic recognition for the victims of the war during the Weimar Republic was denounced by Hitler and the National Socialists as a wilful attempt by the “November revolutionaries” to let the suffering and achievements of the front soldiers be forgotten. The NSDAP promised therefore to honour the war invalids and their relatives as they deserved and to provide for their welfare on a completely new, idealized basis58.

  • 59 Oberlindober 1933; Seel 1935.

24During the Third Reich, the National Socialists gave the war victims a social valorization. It was of course specifically orchestrated in contrast to the symbolically lacking times of the Weimar Republic. After the National Socialist takeover of 1933, the disabled veterans were used by national propaganda and with tremendous financial and political effort as the “First Citizens of the Nation”. The new regime left no doubt that the “Thanks of the Fatherland” that had allegedly been forgotten by the Weimar Republic should now be fulfilled without any delay. The regime staged countless mass rallies, introduced special social rights for war victims in everyday life and established a mass-organization which helped to enforce and consolidate the National Socialist dictatorship. The proclaimed list of special rights was long and included tax reductions, benefits and seats of honour at public events. From 1933 the war disabled took their seats in the first row in the cinema, the national railway or at the countless party rallies. Hitler and other high functionaries never missed the chance to greet the war victims personally at the seat of honour at party events59.

  • 60 Oberlindober 1938.
  • 61 Völkischer Beobachter 1934.

25The National Socialists exploited above all the old demand of the war victim associations for visible gestures of respect for propaganda purposes. By placing war veterans at the centre of public attention as the “First Citizen of the Nation”, the regime hoped that the protest potential amongst the war victims could be undermined. On the other hand, they hoped that the publicly effective honouring of veterans should also symbolically demonstrate to the whole population the restoration of national “honour” by the former soldier Adolf Hitler. The profound ideologization of war victim politics after 1933 also showed itself particularly poignant in the legal changes to the welfare provision for war victims. In the 1920s, National Socialist propagandists continuously criticized the Weimar welfare system for having degraded the German front soldier as a passive, welfare-dependent scrounger of the state. Accordingly, the receipt of welfare benefits was attacked continually in public statements after 1933 as unsoldierly and unmanly; the “pacifist demon” of Weimar was to be abandoned as quickly as possible. As a result, the militarization of the legislation increased during the Third Reich, whereby the law returned to the principles of the traditional welfare policy of the German Reich. Consequently, welfare provisions for war victims were reduced in many areas, or completely cut off; the criteria for the receipt of welfare benefits were also tightened60. After rising to power, the National Socialist regime finally believed that the time had come to drive back the supposedly dangerous influence of “Marxist” welfare policy. In this spirit and with great propagandistic effort they attempted to “re-educate” veterans as “productive” members of the national community, with the help of costly job creation measures and state-sponsored settlement projects61.

  • 62 See as examples: Bundesarchiv Berlin; “Dem verletzten und unbesiegten Soldaten”, in Völkischer Beo (...)
  • 63 Lerner 2003; Neuner 2011.

26The position of the NSDAP with regards to the war invalids remained deeply contradictory, since the glorification of those disabled in the war basically collided with the bellicose elements of National Socialist ideology –and, also, with the National Socialist conception of man shaped to a high degree by particular ideals of wholeness, strength and the heroic, victorious warrior of the First World War. The public display of war injuries, as practised by the politically left-wing war victim organizations during the Weimar Republic, were henceforth definitively taboo. In the Third Reich, pictures of “war cripples” from Otto Dix and other Weimar avant-garde artists fell immediately victim to censorship. After 1933, the National Socialists attempted to play down the devastating consequences of the violence of war with a veritable flood of images of undefeated, merely superficially wounded heroic figures in order to reconcile the social reality of war disability on a mass scale with the heroization of the soldierly war experience62. On the other hand, war victim groups who stood opposed to the mythical glorification of the experience of the front (Fronterlebnis) –and above all Jewish and psychologically disabled war victims– were successively ostracized from the soldierly community of “honour” by the National Socialist regime and later thousands were killed63.

  • 64 Friedländer 1984 p. 46 and p. 182-196.
  • 65 Frauenwarte 1934.

27However, the National Socialists did not only celebrate the disabled soldiers for their sacrifices. In sharp contrast to the remembrance practices of the Weimar Republic, the regime also moved female war victims to the centre of public attention in a specific way. National Socialist policy in general tried to compensate for the loss of political rights with a symbolic revaluation of women as mothers. Apart from the political inclusion in the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) of “Aryan” and politically reliable women, they also offered to integrate them symbolically. By politicizing the generally private aspects of “motherhood” and “housework”, these practices became of increased importance. Women functioned as a link between the past and the future of the Volksgemeinschaft through their reproductive capabilities, a tradition that no one could represent better than the soldier mother of the First World War. The National Socialists had already started to form a cult of the heroic mother, with broad symbolic arrangements fitted to their own aims. The silent mourning of parents who lost sons during the Weimar period was succeeded by a kitsch and religiously elevated representation of the sacrifice suffered by mothers who endured the death of their son64. Besides the use of the topos “hero mother” to stabilize the National Socialist movement, the regime established a new level of propaganda after they seized power. They created statues of the heroic mothers of fallen soldiers, distributed medals for bereaved parents and widows (Hinterbliebenenkreuz) and introduced new Memorial Days for fallen heroes. On these Memorial Days young National Socialists were staged as heirs to the mothers of the soldiers who fell in the First World War. With an eye towards wartime mobilization, they cultivated a political heroization of the soldier mother. A line of tradition was built between the “sacrificed” sons of the First World War and the young male National Socialists. They were supposed to symbolize the “seed” of the mother’s sacrifice. The formal phrase of many front soldier memorials “You did not die in vain” was used for the forming of a National Socialist heroic mother cult and was formed into “You gave your son but now thousands of sons stand beside you” 65.

  • 66 Frau und Volk 1935.

28In 1934, the Cross of Honour for Bereaved (Ehrenkreuz für Kriegshinterbliebene) was introduced alongside the original medal of service at the front for war veterans. In 1935, the big exhibition The woman and the People (Frau und Volk) was opened, where a hall of fame for the mothers of the fallen was located in the entrance area, which had to be visited in order to get to the actual exhibition66.

  • 67 Oberlindober 1940, p. 4; Fehlemann 2010.
  • 68 Kramer 2011.

29Nonetheless, the heroization and promotion of war victims in the Third Reich also served the regime’s psychological mobilization efforts for the planned war. As heroes who had made the ultimate sacrifice for the fatherland, the war invalids were presented to the entire Volk, in particular the younger generation, as exemplary “heroes of sacrifice” (Opferhelden). And the “warrior mother” of the First World War was exploited with immense propagandist effort as a connective link between the war of the past and the war of the future67. It is therefore no wonder that the victims of the First World War became actively involved in the care of newly disabled Wehrmacht soldiers at the beginning of the Second World War68.

  • 69 Diehl J. M. 1993.

30The end of National Socialist rule heralded once more a complete turnaround in the handling of war victims, which number was as high as never before after the Second World War. The glorification of disability and injury by the state, which received its last renaissance under National Socialism, came to an abrupt end with the absolute defeat of 1945. The Federal Republic assumed the welfare practice of the Weimar Republic and abstained from dealing with war invalids on a basis of state-propagated symbolic politics69.

Final Remarks

31The abundance of research works published to date have already shown how profoundly the social experience of the millions of war invalids was a long-term burden on the Weimar Republic. The defeat of 1918, which was perceived across wide sections of the population as a national trauma, brought about a fundamental shock to society. Its consequences were to be felt for decades to follow. The unresolved and increasingly repressed defeat did not mirror itself more obviously in any other area in the Weimar Republic as in the treatment of and dealings with the war invalids and surviving dependants. Indeed, the financial welfare provision and vocational reintegration of those disabled in the First World War was comparatively successful. However, Weimar society failed to escape the cultural and social-psychological consequences of disablement on such a mass scale. During the entire 1920s and early 1930s, a battle over the sovereign interpretation of the “legacy of the front” raged between the politically deeply divided parties of the Republic and the war invalids –who due to the symbolic appeal of their war wounds quickly found themselves between the fronts of this memory-political extension of the World War. From the political left the figure of the “war cripple” became stylized as the symbol of the destructive force of modern warfare, whilst the radical-nationalist milieu, as opposed to the shocking realities of war, propagated the distorted image of a heroic cult of the front soldier. Nonetheless, the war invalids and surviving dependents of war victims did not remain merely objects of contradictory representations and cultural meanings, rather through their battle for meaning and recognition they were themselves active agents in the process of remembrance. The left-wing war victim associations precisely used the physical attributes of their war ravaged bodies in public self-portrayals, aimed towards the implementation of their political goals and demands. On an international level the alliances of war victims, by the virtue of their painful experience of war, felt called to advocate international peace, communication and agreement.

32In society’s perception during the 1920s the horror of the World War and the national shame of defeat seemed most of all to be mirrored in the physiognomies of the war invalids. As “memorials of horror” the war victims were undesirable in public remembrance. This process intensified throughout the 1920s, even as the collective mourning of the millions who died in the war gradually began to transform into a heroic cult of the fallen soldier. The discontent of the war victims, whether their exclusion from society or the refusal of the Republic to grant them a prominent position in Weimar society, ultimately played into the hands of the National Socialists. They exploited the embattled memory of the “Great War” for their own political goals with all their might. The governments of the Weimar Republic had attempted to fulfil the much-evoked “gratitude of the Fatherland” in a conscious differentiation to the military representation of the demised German Empire through the economic reintegration of war invalids and surviving dependants. However, in the end the Weimar Republic could not provide an answer to the central question of the post-war period, upon which lay the meaning of the mass death and millionfold disablement on the battlefields.

33After the accession to power in 1933, the National Socialists propagated to finally fulfil the national “legacy of the front” and placed the war veterans and their relatives into the centre of the national community. The National Socialist instrumentalization of the question of the war victims both in politics and propaganda is therefore to be understood ultimately only against the background of the national trauma, which for the German post-war society meant war and defeat. The attempts to finally overcome the dreadful legacy of the First World War in society by the National Socialist regime, with their “politics of honour” (Ehrenpolitik) in favour of the war victims, served therefore above all the legitimation and stabilization of their own rule. That the Third Reich celebrated the war victims with such remarkable effort as the “First Citizens of the Nation” –almost fifteen years after the end of the war– and mobilized the war veterans and the surviving dependants as part of their exercise of power for their own political goals, makes clear more than any other area the enormous effect of the First World War on the history of the xxth century.


34Bundes-Nachrichten 1922 = Bundes-Nachrichten. Offizielles Organ des Bayerischen Bundes Kriegsbeschädigter und Kriegerhinterbliebener e.V., Nr. 52 (August 1922).

35Bundesarchiv Berlin 1932 = Bundesarchiv Berlin, NS 22/441, Reichsorganisationsleiter an die Gaue, 4.7. 1932.

36Bundesarchiv Berlin = Bundesarchiv Berlin, Plak. 003-028-062, “Frontsoldaten! In diesem Zeichen erfüllt sich das Vermächtnis der Front”.


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1 Kennan 1979, p. 3.

2 See the numbers in Overmans 2009.

3 Hirschfeld 1993; Dülffer 2002; Hardtwig 2005; Janz 2009; Winter 2009; Horne 2012.

4 Becker 1994.

5 Winter 1995.

6 See contributions in: Hettling 2013.

7 Barth 2003.

8 Cited from Hoegen von 2007, p. 141.

9 Ulrich 1997; Ziemann 2013.

10 Bessel 1993; Schivelbusch 2001.

11 The book of Robert W. Whalen is still regarded as a canonical standard work for the history of the German war victims after the First World War. Until the 1990s, Whalen remained the only author who stressed the fundamental social and political consequences of war-injuries on a mass-scale: Whalen 1984; see also Diehl J. M. 1985; Krumeich 1990; Ulrich 1993.

12 Geyer 1983; Whalen 1984; Diehl J. M. 1993.

13 Kienitz 2008.

14 Krumeich 2010; Weinrich 2013.

15 Löffelbein 2013.

16 Kuttner 1920.

17 Beaupré 2009, p.116.

18 Barr 2005; Goebel 2013.

19 Weiss 2005, p. 186, n. 10.

20 Geyer 1983; Leese 1997; Cohen 2001.

21 Prost 1983.

22 Führer 1990; Frie 1994; Kleinschmidt 1994.

23 Hudemann 1991.

24 Geyer 1983.

25 Ibid.

26 Kienitz 2008.

27 Bundes-Nachrichten 1922, p. 121.

28 Buchner 2001; Rossol 2010.

29 Diehl J. M. 1971 and 1977.

30 Weiss 2005; Ziemann 2013.

31 Eichenberg 2011 and 2013.

32 Behrenbeck 1999.

33 Fehlemann 2010.

34 Lloyd 1998; Grayzel 1999; Evans 2007; Roper 2009.

35 Acton 2007.

36 Bourke 1996; Kienitz 2008.

37 Kienitz 2004.

38 See also Frevert 2001; Jansen 2004.

39 Micale, lerner 2001.

40 Riedesser 1996; Hermes 2012.

41 Kienitz 2004.

42 Conze 2007.

43 Kienitz 1999.

44 Friedrich 1924.

45 Notruf der Kriegsopfer.

46 Kaes 2009.

47 Eberle 1989; Schubert 2006.

48 Kienitz 2003.

49 Schulz 2004; Reichardt 2005; Kühne 2006.

50 Müller 1986.

51 Diehl P. 2005.

52 Crouthamel 2005.

53 Mosse 2000.

54 Rauh et. al. 2005/2006.

55 Löffelbein 2013.

56 Bundesarchiv Berlin 1932.

57 Ibid.

58 Nationalsozialismus und Kriegsopfer 1932.

59 Oberlindober 1933; Seel 1935.

60 Oberlindober 1938.

61 Völkischer Beobachter 1934.

62 See as examples: Bundesarchiv Berlin; “Dem verletzten und unbesiegten Soldaten”, in Völkischer Beobachter 1934.

63 Lerner 2003; Neuner 2011.

64 Friedländer 1984 p. 46 and p. 182-196.

65 Frauenwarte 1934.

66 Frau und Volk 1935.

67 Oberlindober 1940, p. 4; Fehlemann 2010.

68 Kramer 2011.

69 Diehl J. M. 1993.


Professeur à la Goethe-Universität, Francfort

© École française d’Athènes, 2019

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