Tension Between Mourning and Memorialization

The British Cemetery at Bayeux (photo by Ian Mintz)

Some of the most emotional sites that we visited in France were the British, American, and German cemeteries for those lost in World War II.  The differences in the designs of the cemeteries revealed a lot about the intent of the builders and the nations that commissioned them.  The British cemetery was made up of thousands of personalized headstones for soldiers who hailed from all corners of the British Empire and died in France.  Each headstone included information about where the soldier was from, what unit he served in, when he was born, and when he died.  There was also an individualized quote from family members, friends, or the military if the soldier had no close connections.  The British cemetery felt incredibly personalized and seemed to be a place of mourning both for the nation as a whole and individual families of soldiers who had been laid to rest there.

The American and German cemeteries were much more uniform than the British cemetery.  While the British cemetery allowed

Max D. Clark’s grave, where I had the honor of planting an Ohio State flag alongside my roommate and friend Ashton Cole

unique inscriptions on the headstones, the American and German cemeteries included only standardized information on the largely identical grave markers of the soldiers buried there.  The American graves were labeled only with the soldier’s name, regiment, state of enlistment, and date of death.  Each gravestone was either a cross, if the soldier identified as Christian or Protestant, or a Star of David, if the soldier identified as Jewish (these were the only three choices of religion). The German cemetery had only small square grave markers laying flat on the earth that simply dictated the soldier’s name and dates of birth and death.  These less personal, more standardized  tombstones made the American and German cemeteries feel more like wartime monuments than the final resting place of people’s loved ones.

Overall, I think the intended function of the British cemetery as opposed to those of the American and German cemeteries are different.  British families were and are more likely to visit their nation’s cemetery and mourn those they lost in France due to their proximity to northern France, so the British cemetery was designed to be more welcoming and personal, while still retaining a militaristic dignity.  The British remember World War II as the “People’s War”, one in which each person’s sacrifice mattered, which is reflected in the design of their cemetery.

The American Cemetery at Normandy

American families were and are less able to visit the cemetery frequently, and even if they do make the pilgrimage to their loved one’s burial site, the cemetery workers remove anything placed at the headstones once a week to maintain the graves’ neat and uniform appearance.  It seems as if the American cemetery therefore was designed more as a military monument for the nation, rather than a place for mourning a family member or friend.  Instead of treating each soldier as an individual, the Americans chose to remember its lost military members en masse.  This layout seems to speak more to American military worship than to the supposed passion for individualism that the United States claimed made it superior to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The German cemetery is similarly uniform, as German culture is historically militaristic, and the French government likely did not feel compelled at the time to allow Germany to represent its fallen soldiers as anything more than that –

soldiers.  Remembering them as people who were loved and died for a lost cause would have been more painful for both nations.  Germany struggled to cope with the loss of the war and another generation of men.  Its simple cemetery reflects the nations destroyed hopes for greatness while maintaining the need to remember each soldier, as many a grave was inscribed with “Ein Deutscher Soldat” – a German soldier, anonymous in death but still worth memorializing.

Using these cemeteries as primary sources that provide insight into the objectives of each nation allowed me to better speculate on each nation’s intention for their wartime dead.  Whether they were to be remembered as individuals with complex lives that were tragically cut short or as soldiers honoring their country by giving their lives revealed to me how each country wanted to memorialize the fighting in northern France directly after the war.  While each cemetery was emotional for me to visit – seeing the tombstones of people my age and younger really drove home how terrible the war was – it was also interesting to consider their differences and analyze why each cemetery might be so unique.

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