This weekend, German officials will travel to Russia for the opening of the latest in a long line of war cemeteries containing the graves of Wehrmacht soldiers killed on the Eastern Front during World War II. The cemetery, located near the western Russian city of Smolensk, will eventually be the final resting place of 70,000 soldiers and is just one of 20 similar sites in Russia, commonly known as “concentration cemeteries,” that have been created in the country since the fall of the USSR two decades ago.
The cemetery is operated by The German War Graves Commission, or Volksbund, which was founded in the wake of World War I and authorized to locate and identify the graves of German dead under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. With nearly 90 percent of Germany’s 1.9 million fallen soldiers buried outside of the country, the commission’s early work was mostly limited to organizing commemorations and decorations at foreign-based cemeteries. However, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, which saw more than 4 million German military deaths (with some estimates as high as 5.3 million), the Volksbund’s work intensified and its aim shifted to the arduous search for the dead in Western Europe and North Africa. This work eventually led to the establishment of more than 400 cemeteries in Germany and nearly 500 cemeteries in 45 other countries.
Similar efforts in what was the war’s 1,000-mile long Eastern Front were stymied for nearly 50 years because the West German-based Volksbund was denied access to Soviet records documenting the burial sites of the nearly 3 million Wehrmacht soldiers (and 1.4 million German citizens) who were killed during the brutal fighting that followed Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the opening of the formerly sealed off Eastern Bloc nations finally gave the Volksbund the opportunity to locate and, in many cases, identify its long-lost dead. In the last 20 years, it has repaired more than 300 cemeteries in the former USSR and has reburied more than 800,000 soldiers in 82 massive war cemeteries where internments number in the tens of thousands.
The Volksbund had relied on both governmental assistance and the help of local citizens to locate and identify the graves of German soldiers, but the process has not been without controversy. Seven decades after the war, anger and resentment still lingers over the Nazis’ vicious treatment of a Slavic population that they considered both racially and morally inferior. Hitler may have failed in his ultimate goal of complete obliteration of the Untermensch (or “sub-humans”), but more than 11 million Soviet soldiers and 15 million civilians were killed. Unlike Germany, however, Soviet officials paid little attention to the commemoration of individual war dead, instead erecting mass monuments and cemeteries honoring collective groups. One example is the enormous Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in St. Petersburg where just 186 mass graves contain the bodies of nearly 500,000 civilians and soldiers who died during the legendary siege of the city during World War II.
The Volksbund, which relies on private donations and thousands of volunteer workers to supplement its full-time staff, has said that the Smolensk cemetery will be the last cemetery to be constructed in Russia, but that it plans to continue its work elsewhere. It expects to recover an additional 150,000 bodies and continue the search for 250,000 more believed to be buried in remote locations or scattered throughout the Eastern European countryside. (The commission is only able to investigate burial sites believed to contain the remains of more than 50 soldiers). Last May, the commission launched an online database that contains records of more than 4.5 million German soldiers who were killed or went missing in action during both World Wars, providing family members with new insight into how and where their loved ones died.
Germany is not alone in their ongoing efforts to commemorate their war dead. The United Kingdom and its Commonwealth member states have a similar war graves commission. France’s Ministry of Defense maintains cemeteries containing the graves of French, German, English and American soldiers; and since 1923 the American Battle Monuments Commission has established nearly 60 overseas military cemeteries, containing more than 120,000 graves—including the nearly 10,000 Americans buried in Normandy, France.