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Formation of the Volksbund

With the end of the First World War the upkeep of German military cemeteries in France and Belgium came to an abrupt end. Organisations attached to the German army which had looked after the graves during the war were disbanded. The only official military war grave organisation operative after 1918 was the Central-Nachweise-Amt, a bureau in the Prussian war ministry. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty the responsibility of this bureau for the maintenance of German military cemeteries outside Germany's borders was taken out of its hands and handed over to the governments of the respective countries where German soldiers were buried.

In 1919 Dr. Siegfried Emmo Eulen, a former army officer who had been in charge of military burials in Poland and Turkey, brought together a group of like-minded individuals to set up an voluntary association to look after the German military graves outside Germany. He believed that the organisation should be privately funded and non-political, and that membership should be open to all.

Dr Eulen's call for action won support from influential politicians, literary figures and artists. The new association was named the 'Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge' – literally translated as 'Care for German War Graves' – and the founding committee meeting took place on 26 November 1919. To ensure that the German people were aware that anyone could become a member of the association, that is, that there was no limitation on certain classes or political persuasions the word 'Volksbund', meaning 'people's association', was added on 13 December 1919, giving the organisation the full title of 'Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge'. On 16 December 1919 the first membership meeting was held in Berlin and the huge task of the association began.

Aims

A German soldier of the First World WarThe constitutional aims of the newly created Volksbund were:

  • to construct and maintain cemeteries both abroad and in Germany.
  • to arrange for remembrance wreaths to be placed on behalf of next of kin.
  • to provide financial support for relatives' pilgrimages to graves.
  • to offer help and advice to dependants concerning any matters relating to the soldier's resting place.
  • to establish a constructive liaison with the appropriate authorities in whose land the German soldiers were buried, and to be the means to learn from the past, to build bridges of friendship and to spread the word of peace.

The Volksbund Motif

The first publication of the magazine of the association 'Stimme und Weg' was in early 1921. The front cover featured a photograph of the 'Vier-Grenadier-Grab' – the 'Four Grenadiers Grave' – in Poland which was designed by Dr. Eulen. The military graves have been removed from this cemetery over the years, and all that remains now is the overgrown raised dias on which the crosses stood.

The image of these crosses was created into a graphic motif in 1926 by Professor Böhm and has been used more or less in the same form as the Volksbund's motif ever since. The magazine is still published for the membership and to advertise the work of the Volksbund.

Building the Cemeteries after the First World War

Maissemy Military Cemetery, Aisne, France (23,292 burials). (copyright www.greatwar.co.uk)By 1929 the Volksbund had completed a survey which estimated that 28 countries contained about 13,000 German military cemeteries, ranging from large plots to individual graves. Almost 930,000 – about 50% of the total German military losses – were buried in France, where the cemeteries roughly followed the line of the trenches which had divided the opposing sides on the Western Front. In Belgium there were 134,000 German dead, in Poland 400,000, in the Sovietunion 115,000. Only about one tenth of the 1,937,000 German soldiers killed in the Great War were buried on German soil.

In the early years the Volksbund had little opportunity to work on cemeteries outside Germany. Nevertheless, they made useful contacts with people outside Germany to find out what state the cemeteries were in and to lay wreaths on behalf of German families if possible.

After the Second World War there were huge new problems – worldwide – for the Volksbund to overcome. They had to start again from scratch with the task of taking the losses of the Second World War into their care. Yet again the German government had to establish a delicate liaison with all the nations where German military and civilian dead were buried.

In 1966 the Federal Republic of Germany signed an agreement with France enabling the Volksbund to start work again in France. It was important to get straight to work on the hundred or so First World War cemeteries which they had not managed to construct before the outbreak of the Second World War and which had been more or less abandoned for thirty years.

Mass graves were provided with new tablets to show the soldiers names, memorials were erected and vegetation replanted. Directional signs to the cemeteries were renewed – many had been damaged by vehicles and vandalism over the years. Renovations to the last of these cemeteries was finally finished in 1980.

Design and Construction

Fricourt Military  Cemetery, France (17,026 burials). (copyright www.greatwar.co.uk)In June 1926 the architect Robert Tischler formed a construction team initially based in Munich (it moved to Kassel in 1967) to take on the task of erecting and building memorials and cemeteries. It was decided not to have a single architectural scheme like the British, American and French style of uniform gravestone, cross of sacrifice or national flag. Instead, the plan was to set out the gardens and memorials so that they would blend in with the natural features of the local area as far as possible.

From the beginning the consideration for the long-term was very important to the Volksbund. Robert Tischler and the team were given a task to construct the cemeteries using architectural and horticultural features which would preserve the theme of 'Remembrance', as a reminder of what had happened. At the same time the team had to consider the need for low-cost maintenance. Gardening had to be kept to a minimum, bearing in mind that in most cases the goodwill and assistance of local volunteers had to be relied on for regular maintenance like mowing the grass.

The Volksbund Today

The work of the Volksbund is now officially carried out on behalf of the German government although the Volksbund is still funded by donations from the German people and the membership. For more information visit www.volksbund.de


Acknowledgements

Text translated from articles printed in 'Stimme und Weg', magazine of the Volksbund.

Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V., Werner-Hilpert-Strasse 2, Kassel, Germany

Copyright Joanna Legg & Graham Parker © 2000 All rights reserved