Reading Death and Sacrifice in the Berlin
Völkischer Beobachter , February 1942–March 1943
Part I of Robert Terrell's Paper
An excerpt of Robert Terrell’s paper appears below.
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Robert Terrell is a historian of European history at the University of California, San Diego.

Historian Michael Geyer argues that by 1942 many Nazi leaders and ideologues intentionally pushed the military toward mass death as a means of protecting and preserving Nazi ideology. In their romanticized and aestheticized view, to die on the rubble of one’s dreams immortalized the dream itself. Men die but ideas live on.
On October 9, 1942 the front page of the Berlin Völkischer Beobachter, the official paper of the National Socialist German Workers‟ Party (NSDAP), featured an article about the memory of Horst Wessel. In the twelve years since his death in 1930 Wessel’s legacy, including his song, Die Fahne Hoch, served as a reminder of the struggles and sacrifices of National Socialism and the German nation. In the article, Joachim Schieferdecker, a spokesman for the propaganda ministry, criticized frequent and mindless singing of the Horst Wessel song.

He argued that such practices diluted the notions of heroism and sacrifice which the song embodied. Wessel’s death and sacrifice, Schieferdecker argued, should not constitute trivial or tenuous routine, but should serve as a concrete example of the proper conduct of a German. From Wessel’s death in 1930 until the destruction of the Third Reich, propagandists such as Schieferdecker consistently reformulated the rhetoric and imagery of Wessel’s life and death to preserve the ideological function of his legacy.

By (re)assigning meaning to his life and death, such propagandists constructed an image that diverged from reality for the sake of a political agenda. This split between image and reality represents the “fundamental work of Nazism,” of aestheticizing an existence in which “myth [takes] the place of objectively conceived history.” The labor of propagandists to produce subjective meanings to historical realities blurred the lines between the real and the myth.

This essay probes the work of propagandists in the Berlin Völkischer Beobachter (VB ) as they constructed and reconstructed subjective meanings of war, death and sacrifice. The chronology spans from Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, to Heldengedenktag , or Heroes Memorial Day in March 1943.

Within this period the Wehrmacht initially won a long line of victories leading to Moscow and subsequently suffered their first major defeats in Moscow and Stalingrad. In Berlin and Germany, bombings were rare, the material standard of life remained relatively high, and daily life was surprisingly stable.

Still, Germans had to make sense of newspaper reports, radio broadcasts and personal stories about the enormous death tolls in the East. For readers, the VB represented an episteme: a body of knowledge or information, and a resource for rationalizing or making sense of the world around them. Reading the VB, however , meant consuming and interpreting the iconography and aestheticized reality created by propagandists.

Historian Michael Geyer argues that by 1942 many Nazi leaders and ideologues including Hitler, Goebbels, and Alfred Jodl intentionally pushed the military toward mass death as a means of protecting and preserving Nazi ideology. In their romanticized and aestheticized view, to die on the rubble of one’s dreams immortalized the dream itself. Men die but ideas live on. Furthermore, acts of sacrifice and sacrificial death became a marker of German identity under National   Socialism. Sacrifice, as Geoffrey Cocks writes, was “proof of loyalty and racial worth.”

In the Berlin VB , the penchant for death as a means of victory or immortality extended beyond military and political officials. From Barbarossa to Heldengedenktag 1943 , the VBincreasingly advocated the act of sacrificial death and promoted it as a means to achieve victory and immortality.

Dying for the Reich

In April of 1942 the party chancellery ruled that the words “wounded” and “fallen” could only be used in military obituaries. In addition, obituaries for air raid victims were deemed unworthy of the Iron Cross which previously accompanied them. Monica Black argued that this ruling suggests that the death of a soldier– a much more “active death” than the relatively “passive death” of a civilian – denoted a higher level of commitment to the cause.

Across Germany, the repercussions of the invasion had inspired the colloquialism “we are beating ourselves to death” – and indeed, by the end of the first year of Barbarossa, over 1,300,000soldiers were wounded or dead; almost 40% of the campaign’s original manpower. In this period, the state became anxious about how Germans made sense of war and death. The VB faced the task of legitimizing unparalleled levels of soldierly death and sacrifice on the battlefield.

Failing to capture Moscow represented the first major strategic failure in the East. In the aftermath of the loss, the VB printed a letter on February 4, 1942 from field correspondent Hannes Goditus to Joseph Goebbels. The letter only passively mentions the German dead as necessary sacrifices, and suggests that the Soviet dead outnumber their German counterparts; suggesting perhaps, the death ratio legitimized the dead.

In the wake of the Battle of Moscow, the VB portrayed the war in the Soviet Union in an optimistic light—and death and the dead as a mere necessity of victory. Subsequently however, the VB iconography manifests a dramatic metamorphosis from passively dying for military objectives to actively dying for the Volksgemeinschaft and Heimat.

A brief interlude to unpack the above terms will help flesh out the sources and arguments throughout the rest of the essay. Volksgemeinschaft or People’s Community or Racial Community should be read as the racialized interpretation of Ferdinand Tönnies’s Gemeinschaft or community. It represents a community which rests on organic development and a unity of human wills; something like the bond between a nuclear family of the early modern period, one linked to work and through generations of toil and communalism.

In its racialized form, members of the Volksgemeinschaft are those deemed racially pure. Heimat refers not only to the homeland as it might be translated, but also to the specifically Nazi view of Heimat  as being about “blood and soil” – a connection between the Volk,  or people, the land of their ancestral lineage.

Taken together and in conjunction with struggle and war, the words suggest the roots of German identity and foundation of the National Socialist Weltanschauung, or world view. Propagandists in the VB attached these highly ideological sentiments to the imagery and rhetoric of war, death, and sacrifice.

On March 15, 1942, the VBpublished a letter from the Eastern Front informing a German woman of her husband’s heroic death. More than anything, the letter made the case that the war dead constitute the necessary foundation of the living: both literally and figuratively.

The deceased, Werner, died a painless and iconic death: two shots to the chest and throat, and burial under a tall Birch tree. Yet, “like all the other fallen, he remains amidst our company forever. And when the company is down to the last man, all the wounded and dead are with him and he shall secure victory.”

Without defining “victory,” or exactly how the dead remain amongst the living, the letter continues to explain that dead soldiers construct a living reminder or memorial in the conscience of not only soldiers, but also civilians, men, women, and children.

As the letter continues, the memorial comes to represent that for which a soldier dies. The letter describes the war dead, Werner included, literally supporting German life, symbolically represented as a

broad and massive tower. As you approach, you see that the mighty pillars of the tower are people – dead soldiers. And among them you see Werner, as he was, facing you, steadying it vigorously. Radiant face, he is exalted in his blessed transfiguration. You know what he carries: our German countryside, the quiet villages and the lonely lakes, the cities and the industrious factories. And you also see light-hearted and happy children playing in a blooming garden.

The letter encourages the bereaved, not to wallow in the gloom of death, but to exalt the dead as bearers of the nation. The previously undefined “victory” can thus be taken to mean a post-death service for the Germanic peoples, their communities, and their livelihood; perhaps described as the immortalization of service to the Volksgemeinschaft .

The reminder or memorial of the dead becomes the foundation for building the future and sustaining German existence. Hymmen conjures the physical landscapes of the Heimat and portrays the dead as its foundational or structural supports. The letter encourages Berliners to find comfort rather than pain in death – the comfort that death facilitates life.

He writes that “what the dead require of you is that you not tell of the empty abyss of death.” Indeed for Hymmen, sacrificing one’s life represents the highest ideal. Through sacrificial death, soldiers fortify the sanctity and future of the Volksgemeinschaft and Heimat.

The letter, written by Friedrich Wilhelm Hymmen, a young writer serving on the Eastern Front, appeared in modified form in his book, Letters to a Mourner: The Meaning of Soldierly Death. Published by the NSDAP propaganda ministry, the book revolved around the “life-affirming power of heroic death.”

For example, one story portrayed soldiers burying a fallen comrade with an oak sapling over his heart so that it could be nourished by his heroic spirit. In this light, we should read the letter less as an actual piece of correspondence than as a promotion of a very specific aestheticization of death. For Berliners reading the letter, this propagandized image of sacrifice and death suggests a celebration of soldierly contributions to upholding communal sanctity; they die for the Reich – the telos of German history.

At the end of the month, the VB published the last letter of a dead field correspondent which ostensibly dealt with honoring the dead. Adopting what had become established rhetoric, the letter refers to the dead remaining among the living – aiding in, and supporting their struggle.

But beyond this repetition of rhetoric, the letter also suggests that Berliners on the homefront have a responsibility to soldiers, specifically dead soldiers, on the battlefront. Perhaps in reference to Heroes Memorial Day, the fallen correspondent Herbert Staake argues that to honor the dead one day a year is insufficient.

“The sacrifice they have given is entitled to a different appreciation and has the right to guide and be the benchmark for what we do for the nation in everyday life. They are reminders of the fact that we have to measure our own work.” For Staake, it becomes not so much an issue of simply honoring the sacrifices of the dead, but how one does so.

Simple meditation on special occasions must be replaced by a recalibration of one’s entire life. By manipulating the meaning of death, Staake attempts to define, or “aestheticize” death, thereby assigning a specific meaning to, and a desired attitude toward the German encounter with it.

Throughout history, Staake writes, German hegemony has grown out of struggle and been paid for with the blood of fallen soldiers. Nevertheless, he continues, the unprecedented scale of death in the East does not suggest

that the sacrifice of life has become easy. With knowledge of the dangers of the struggle, [the dead] became heroes by consciously and determinedly crossing the narrow threshold of life into the infinity of death. Death on the battlefield alone is not heroic. Rather, heroism is taking on danger in the total knowledge of one’s own necessary sacrifice for the existence of the larger idea of the nation.

In other words, death and sacrifice require purpose driven action; the dead do not represent a faceless mass but a community of distinct individuals who have consciously participated in the work of sacrifice.

But for Staake that is not enough: sacrifice should not only be the work of soldiers. He writes,

It is easy to lose the ability to assess the deeds and allowances of the individuals in a war. [But] we can be proud of our dead heroes only when we are worthy ourselves, and only then do we have the right to remember them and their lives and their struggle for us. Then our fallen become reminders in the hour of seriousness and danger that demand the fulfillment of our duty, just as they have fulfilled theirs.

Here Staake encourages his audience not only to think of sacrifice as an individual act, but also to accept the notion that they may need to do the work of sacrifice as well.

Staake’s words carry a deeper sense of import or credibility due to the fact that they appear post-mortem. His plea represents not only a call to appreciate individual sacrifice but also a communication from the other side of death; advice from the dead on how to behave for the Reich. Thus at precisely the same time that military casualties were soaring, the Berlin VB nudged its readers toward embracing not just death en masse, but also the fact that it is composed of the work of individuals much like themselves.

Thus on the eve of the Soviet counter-offensive at Stalingrad, the Berlin VB encouraged readers to understand death as a conscious individual act which facilitated the perpetuation of the Reich: the embodiment of the National Socialist Volksgemeinschaft .