Honouring the Dead in Berlin’s Westend

Robin Oomkes takes a trip out West to visit two of Berlin’s war memorials…

Follow the Strasse des 17. Juni all the way west from Brandenburg Gate and after about 10 km you will find yourself in the leafy area of Berlin’s West End.

There are two poignant war memorial sites here: the 1936 Olympic complex with its Langemarck Hall, honouring the German dead of World War I, and the 1939-1945 Berlin Commonwealth War Cemetery.

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The Langemarckhalle – Hitler’s link between soldiers dying in WWI trenches and the 1936 Olympic Games. Image by Robin Oomkes.

Berlin’s sports complex for the 1936 Olympics and the Langemarck Hall

Berlin’s huge Olympic site in the West End is one of those projects, like the Autobahns, that are usually credited to Hitler but which were actually conceived in the era of the Weimar Republic. Hitler knew a good idea when he saw it but would normally add his own perverted twists.

In the case of the Reichssportfeld, this involved turning the original design for the Olympic Stadium, which was Bauhaus-inspired with lots of steel and glass, into the traditional Nazi design language of forbidding stone cladding and intimidating Doric columns.

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View over Berlin from the top of the Glockenturm. Image by Robin Oomkes.
Hitler also added the Maifeld to the west of the stadium, a huge parade ground where the Party could marshal hundreds of thousands of people for mass gatherings, and an amphitheatre for open air performances (known as Waldbühne today and still used for performances). Then there was the Olympic Bell Tower (Glockenturm) overlooking the Maifeld and the Olympic Stadium.

But the structure most telling of Hitler’s belligerent intentions, already as early as 1936, was the Langemarckhalle, at the base of the Bell Tower. Langemar(c)k is the name of a Flemish village near Ypres, where one of the first entrenched battles of World War I took place in October 1914.

Many young German volunteers lost their lives, and in Germany the name became symbolic for the horrors of war but also for the heroism of the soldiers who died.

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Outside view of Langemarckhalle, at the base of the Glockenturm. Image by Robin Oomkes.
The Nazis used Langemarck in their propaganda whenever the topic of World War I arose – which it frequently did, as the platform on which the NSDAP had come to power was the shame of Germany losing WW I, and the Stab-in-the-back myth of Socialist and other mainstream parties agreeing the November 1918 armistice, where, if left to fight on, the German army could have won the war.

But in the runup to the 1936 Olympics, Hitler took Langemarck propaganda one step further in creating a direct link between sportsmanship and the heroism of fighting and dying in battle. By building this rather grim memorial to the dead of World War I at the centre of the Reich’s most prestigious sports facilities, he managed to frame the Olympics, for the German population at least, as a kind of preparation for the struggle to come.

The 1939-1945 Berlin War Cemetery

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The modest entry path to the Commonwealth Berlin War Cemetery on Heerstrasse. Image by Robin Oomkes.
A different, and far more peaceful, kind of war memorial is the 1939-1945 Berlin War Cemetery, managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Just over a kilometre away from the Bell Tower, at the northern edge of Grunewald forest, this site is the central burial place for British and Commonwealth airmen killed over Eastern Germany, as well as for killed prisoners of war.

Most of the fallen at this cemetery were bomber crews – the survival rate of flying staff in the R.A.F. was only 44%. Crews lie buried together whenever possible. The cemetery was opened in 1945 and bodies of airmen were soon collected from all over Eastern Germany to receive their final resting place here, in what was then the British sector of West Berlin.

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1939-1945 Berlin War Cemetery. Image by Robin Oomkes.
Visiting the cemetery is a familiar experience for anyone who has been to a Commonwealth war cemetery before: the same headstones, the same simple descriptions of rank and date of death, and often an inscription chosen by the dead man’s relatives.

The grass and flowers are meticulously kept by the cemetery’s groundsmen, and the atmosphere is very much one of peace, sadness and gratitude for those that gave their lives.

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“Their name liveth for evermore” – Rudyard Kipling, who lost a son in World War I, was asked by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to choose a suitable text for use in the cemeteries. He chose this quote from Ecclesiasticus. Image by Robin Oomkes.
There couldn’t be a more different approach to honouring a country’s fallen soldiers than between the Langemarckhalle and the Berlin War Cemetery.

Visiting them together makes for a fascinating half day away from the bustle of central Berlin. The stark contrast between the two memorials is a great reminder of the power and the dangers of propaganda, and clearly shows the difference between how democratic and totalitarian countries come to terms with their history.

Bell Tower and Langemarckhalle: Am Glockenturm, 14053 Berlin, admission 4,50/2,50 Euros.

Berlin War Cemetery: Heerstrasse 139, 14055 Berlin.

Both sites can be reached by S-Bahn S5 from Friedrichstrasse – be sure to get off at Pichelsberg, not Olympiastadion.

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