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THE WORLD WAR 1 CROSS OF HONOUR WITHIN COMMEMORATIVE CULTURE IN POST-WAR GERMANY

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THE WORLD WAR 1 CROSS OF HONOUR WITHIN COMMEMORATIVE CULTURE IN POST-WAR GERMANY

Anzel Veldman, Curator, Medals and Numismatics, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

 

World War 1 (1914-1918) caused an enormous loss of life, with many soldiers suffering permanent psychological injuries and many spent the rest of their lives living with disabilities. Prior to and during World War 1, Germany was already in a state of flux between liberal and conservative political parties. Having lost the war and as a consequence of the Versailles Peace Treaty (1919), poverty, civil unrest, lawlessness and general socio-economic disorder followed. Keiser Wilhelm II abdicated in 1918 and the Social Democratic party took over the new government. The terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty were rejected and the German populace refused to believe that their armed forces had been defeated. An idea of being unjustly cheated of victory was widely propagated, which was also reverberated with the intensification of German nationalism. The Weimar Republic, the government of Germany from 1918 to 1933 was established with Friedrich Ebert (1919-1925) as the first president followed by Paul von Hindenburg (1925-1934). The modernist and liberal Weimar Republic provided some political stability between 1925 and 1928, however, unemployment and economic hardship were common and exacerbated with the Stock Exchange crash of 1929. The economical and moral miseries that dominated post-war Germany would eventually be used by the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi’s) to gain popularity and power (e.g., Evans 2004; Koenig 2015).  

 

The socio-political milieu that veterans found themselves in after returning from the frontlines was ambivalent. A general view of the demobilisation period is that of veterans being welcomed home by a disdained and disparaging civilian population. Seeing crippled and mutilated men wearing their uniforms and medals begging on the streets was an everyday occurrence. Various newspapers criticised these veterans, who in displaying their deformities traumatised the public, while in response to a seemingly indifferent community, certain artists focused their work only on crippled veterans. Otto Dix in his 1920 painting depicts four men taking part in a mass demonstration while wearing their uniforms and medals (Fig. 1). They all have prosthetics with the exception of the third man who is a torso being pushed in a wheelchair. The blurred image of the second man represents him having shell-shock. Later when Hitler came to power, this particular painting was displayed in the Nazi’s Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937 (Poore 2010; Vlajić 2014).

Fig. 1. Otto Dix: oil on canvas 1920. Current location unknown, presumably destroyed for being ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazi Party in 1937. (https://www.reddit.com/_war_cripples_otto_dix_oil_on_canvas).

 

However, this observed negative public reception of veterans was not universal throughout Germany, nor does war-cripples begging on the street represent war veterans as a whole. Some veterans found employment quite easily and adjusted well into civilian life. Unfortunately, within the Weimar administration, the Reichsversorgungsgesetz did not provide satisfactory financial support to veterans due to economic cutbacks, and problematic pension and welfare policies frustrated such men, which made it increasingly easier for the Nazi Party to win them over (Bessel 1988; Poore 2010; Koenig 2015).

 

Similar to the political situation, public commemorative culture within Germany during the 1920s was a mixture of being ashamed of the war, and yet a desire to honour fallen soldiers. The Advisory Office for War Memorials in provincial Pomerania recommended that local communities should not construct grandiose monuments in public spaces, but rather place simple memorial tablets in churches and their associated cemeteries. In Berlin, deliberations continued about the most appropriate setting and form for a national memorial. Although the construction of an official national memorial to the dead of the Great War was later stated as a priority of the Weimar government, a central national memorial honouring the war dead was only created in 1931. In addition, until 1934 the government did not award any military medals and decorations. The lack of instituting military decorations was probably due to economic constraints, however, the perceived governmental attitude towards veterans and failure to issue a commemorative medal for the war, proved to them the Republic’s lack of respect for veterans. Many veteran organizations began to struck their own medals to commemorate service in the war (Diehl 1987; Bessel 1988; Forner 2002; Koenig 2015).

  

The idealistic and heroic projections on war and the refusal to accept German war guilt and military defeat were a product of Nazi propaganda and became dominant in German commemorative culture. Cultural representations moved away from depicting disabled men as creepy, ugly, poor, and pathetic. Instead, the public imagination of the war was shaped by younger people who never experienced war at the front themselves. Deceased soldiers became a moral and national obligation for the living: their former comrades and the younger generation, to ‘finish the job’ and safeguard Germany’s future (Bessel 1988; Poore 2010; Mennen 2017).

Fig. 2. The Honour Cross of World War 1 (DNMMH Acq No 50566). Photograph: A. Veldman,

 

The image of a heroic frontline soldier and honouring the fallen coincided with the institution of the Honour Cross in 1934. The Ehrenkreuz des Weltkrieges was the first medal to be awarded after 1918 (Fig. 2). President Hindenburg instituted the medal in three categories: for frontline combatants, non-combatants, for widows and parents of the fallen (Purves 1975; Niemann 2004). Designed by Eugene Godet, the medal was originally intended to be struck in bronze, but due to high cost, this was changed to iron and bronzed for combatants. The manufacturer of this particular medal was the Orden-Herstellergemeinschaft in Pforzheim. Awarded from 1934-1944, Hitler declared it the only official military award for World War 1. Previously issued Prussian and/or unofficial veteran organisation medals were forbidden to be worn (Bessel 1988; Niemann 2004).

 

The Honour Cross was instituted during a time when Germany had been struggling with coming to terms with losing the war and the subsequent socio-economic and political processes of demobilisation. Instead, it was easier to believe the myths of an undefeated Germany, heroic soldiers and a united nation. Therefore, public and political memory became structured not by the reality of the veterans, but by the misleading and popular ideologies of the Nazi Party. Winning over the minds and hearts of veterans with the pretentious promise of a prosperous future, Germany will yet again be at the helm of sending men off to war.

 

References

Bessel, R. 1988. The Great War in German Memory: The Soldiers of the First World War, Demobilization, and Weimar Political Culture. German History 6: 20-34.

Diehl, J.M. 1987. Victors or victims? Disabled veterans in the Third Reich. The Journal of Modern History 59: 705-736.

Evans, R.J. 2004. The coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin Press.

Forner, S.A. 2002. War commemoration and the republic in crisis: Weimar Germany and the Neue Wache. Central European History 35: 513-549.

Koenig, C. 2015. Loose Cannons – War Veterans and the Erosion of Democracy in Weimar Germany. Warwick Economics Research Paper Series 1079: 1-75.

Mennen, K. 2017. ‘Milksops’ and ‘Bemedalled Old Men’: War Veterans and the War Youth Generation in the Weimar Republic. Fascism 6: 13-41.

Niemann, D. 2004. Price Guide: Orders and Decorations German 1871-1945. Germany: Verlag Druckerei Medienvertrieb Heinz Nickel, Zweibrücken.

Poore, C. 2010. Disability in twentieth-century German culture. University of Michigan Press.

Purves, A.A. 1975. The medals, decorations and orders of the Great War 1914 – 1918. London: J.B. Hayward & Son.

Vlajić, A. 2014. Invalidity and deformity in the art of Weimar Republic. Vojnosanitetski Pregled 71: 413-418.

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