Claudia Heinermann PHOTOGRAPHY









Millions killed

During the Second World War, millions of German soldiers were deployed to the Eastern Front to combat the Soviet threat. The war had its its horrifying, canonised episodes like ‘Stalingrad’ and ‘Leningrad’ and, in addition, thousands of battlefields and conflicts, that are less well known in which a great many soldiers lost their lives. In the Soviet Union alone, there are an estimated  2.2 million German war casualties with death and grave notification is known for only 1.8 million. The Wehrmacht (German armed forces) was able to maintain a high degree of organisation despite the extremely difficult conditions they faced. Amidst the chaos of the battlefields the wounded were cared for and the dead were buried. The Wehrmacht  took precise notes of the lay-out of each war cemetery. The name, id number, cause of death and grave number of each soldier buried was documented. However, if they were still in active combat zone they were sometimes forced to abandon the soldiers who had been killed. These soldiers were either buried without being registered or were left to be buried in a mass grave by others. A large number of these soldiers are still, even now, considered to be missing in action.


On the Soviet side there were so many more millions killed that it made the process of burying the dead and its documentation impossible. In just four years time, the areas between northern Murmansk and the south-eastern Caucasus became an enormous field of bones, filled with the remains of soldiers and civilians from many different nationalities.


The country lay in ruins after the Second World War and needed to be rebuilt, and thus the Soviet Union had other priorities than caring for German war cemeteries. During the cold winters, the wooden crosses marking the German graves were burned for heat. Within a very short period of time the German war cemeteries were not recognisable. The ground was put into other use and built on.


During the Cold War, there was no permission granted to Germany regarding locating or maintaining their war cemeteries within the Soviet Union and it was not until communism fell that the Volksbund could start searching for them. Now there are employees are stationed in various places throughout this vast area. Their task is to find where the soldiers were originally buried, dig up the remains, attempt to identify them (usually through id badges), and to rebury the remains in one of the forty new burial grounds. More than 200.000 dead soldiers have been reburied over the last seventeen years and surviving relatives can now enquire at the Volksbund to find out if their family members have been found and reburied.



Plundering the graves

With respect, care and a near archaeological approach the Volksbund team dug up the soldier’s remains and relics. When opening a grave, besides the id badges and ammunition, one often finds the soldier’s personal possessions like boots that are still intact, rings, wallets, pocket-knives, lighters and pencils. On occasion one may even find clothes that are still recognisable.  Sadly there are times that the graves have already been plundered before the Volksbund gets to them.  Many of the plunderers are after gold teeth and German memorabilia; an SS pin, id badge or other various relics earn good money on the internet. Of course, they work quickly and carelessly and this makes  identifying the remains an impossible task for the Volksbund.




After the soldier’s remains have been identified, they are then laid in a small wooden coffin for the reburial. At the end of the yearly reburial period, there are as many as 6.000 soldiers who find there final resting place at the newly laid-out war cemeteries. Representatives of the Volksbund try to give surviving relatives a chance to commemorate their family members in the same dignified way that is done in war cemeteries around the globe. However, the placing of stone crosses at each individual grave, as is common in other war cemeteries, is not permitted in Russia, so surviving relatives sometimes put up their own temporary wooden cross at a new grave. In order to give a proper remembrance there are monuments placed at the cemeteries with the soldiers` names, and their dates of birth and death engraved on them. These are austere and impressive monuments representing the dradful number of lives that were lost during this war.