I had just finished reading Red Storm over the Balkans, a very detailed history of the failed Russian offensive of April / May 1944 into Romania, when Edward the Corgi co-incidentally reminded me of a small yet significant feature of the Greding town war memorial. The memorial, like many in towns all over western Europe and North America, records the names of town folk fallen in service of their country. The Greding memorial dates from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 with the last entries being from the Second World War.
However, on closer inspection you notice an interesting feature. Those who fell in battle in both the Franco Prussian war, and the Great War for Civilisation* (that would be WWI for all you ahistorical postmodernists out there) are annotated with specific locations (an exception is made for those who served in the Kriegsmarine, where the location is annotated with an ocean name), but a large percentage of those who fell in the second war are noted as having fallen only in ‘osten‘ or the east.
Now this is curious for a number of reasons. Germany, being an industrial nation, and a bureaucratic state similar to those others in western Europe of the day, and culturally predisposed to following rules (alles in ordnung) surely records must have been kept. That even during the days of their darkest regime, there must have been bureaucrats toiling away in some nameless office block of the personnel section of the Wehrmacht, filing away posting messages, keeping unit and battalion records and together these might produce at least an idea of where each individual soldier had served and fallen.
Apparently, not as easy as one might think. Keep in mind that from January 1943 (the surrender of Von Paulus’ sixth Army at Stalingrad) the German Army was more or less on the defence (albeit a rather mobile defence with some significant reversals for the Russians at times) for the remainder of the war, fighting in ‘terra incognita’ at least until late 1944, an area for which accurate maps and other detail was largely unavailable to both sides. To complicate matters further, the Soviets dug up/bulldozed/destroyed any Wehrmacht (not to mention Italian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Romanian) cemeteries upon retaking their ground, so that not only were the families of the dead not allowed to visit the graves of the lost, in Russia, there are no graves to visit. Add to this the visceral feelings of hatred amongst the two belligerents, the sheer scale of the battles and casualties, the rapid movement of the lines, it all adds up to an inability to state for certain exactly where many sons of Greding are buried.
In contrast, visit one of the beautifully kept (by public subscription, I believe) German military cemetaries in France where the families of the fallen often conduct pilgrimages to the gravesites, and you can understand how the idea of “the East” must have taken hold, particularily when the shear size and timescale of the Eastern Front is considered, with the climate extremes etc. Without in any way excusing the excess of the horrific regimes on both sides of this largely now forgotten war, the young German soldiers who served for years in “the Land of Dragons” had no choice in the matter, and did the best they could under conditions we cannot imagine. They deserve better than just vague reference to the east.
But there it is: ‘osten‘. Small comfort for the families of Greding.
* E the C will insist. Grateful to the shorter legged canine for all the helpful editorial comments.