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The German People’s Day of Mourning

Gabriel Fawcett investigates how the Germans commemorate the losses they sustained in the First and Second World Wars.

'I had an invitation for the ceremony here, but now I see it was for yesterday not today. Shame, I would love to have taken part,’ says a woman in her mid-seventies. We are standing in a war cemetery in the Neukölln district of Berlin. It is the second Sunday before advent – Germany’s annual ‘Volkstrauer-tag’ or the ‘People’s Day of Mourning’.

With a girlish smile, the woman has agreed to be interviewed. She is dressed in pink and wears a lot of perfume. ‘Do you have a personal reason for being here?’ I ask. ‘Yes.’ Her face falls suddenly, silent. When she speaks again it is in a pained whisper: ‘I lost my two brothers in the war. And my father. And my grandparents. All five of them … I can’t go on, let’s not talk any more’.

The evening before, several hundred people had gathered at dusk to remember ‘the victims of war and tyranny’. The cemetery of over 6,000 war dead contains a tomb where a giant wreath of gold and silver leaves rests. Politicians and ambassadors placed garlands of flowers in front of it. Most people struggled to find their voice or the words for the national anthem to close the ceremony, but seventy-three year-old Elizabeth Bauer sings lustily: ‘I hate all war and cruelty and that’s why I am here. Love your neighbour as you love yourself. If you accept that, you have nothing to fear.’

‘I fought in the war,’ says Herr Hoehne, ninety and ex-Luftwaffe. ‘It was pointless bloodshed. Most of my generation feel the same. We didn’t really understand what was happening. You assumed the national leadership knew what they were doing and I had a duty to defend my homeland. That was the great frenzy then. It doesn’t fit with a war of aggression but we youngsters believed it all right. It was an adventure, and I loved flying. That what we were doing was really an injustice was the last thing to cross our minds’.

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