“Er starb den Heldentod fürs Vaterland”: Why did Hessian soldiers die in the Great War?

Knitting&Death
8 min readJan 3, 2021

This is Part VI in a series about the Great War as seen from through the prism of death notices in German newspapers. Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V.

With hindsight, a cruel though accurate answer to the titular question is “for nothing.” After all, Germany lost the war. At the time that many of these soldiers died, however, Germany’s ultimate defeat was far from obvious. Yet even if victory seemed assured at times, families still struggled to rationalise and ascribe meaning to the deaths of their sons, fathers, husbands, and brothers. Even the limited space of the death notices bore witness to those attempts. Three explanations stand out: the defence of Kaiser and Fatherland, the will of God, and the war itself.

“For Kaiser and Reich”
Throughout the war, soldiers were said to have died for the causes of the Fatherland, Kaiser, and the Reich (empire). Alban Engelman died at Verdun “for Kaiser and Fatherland.” Robert Boll died “for Kaiser and Reich.” Kurt Loewe died “on the Western Front for his Kaiser and his beloved Fatherland, for whom he had enthusiastically hurried to the flag when war broke out.” Kurt Voss had “barely healed from his wounds from an assault on the Yser” before he “rushed back to the front and died a hero’s death for his beloved Fatherland.” Only the Fatherland was beloved. Although newspapers talked about the “beloved Kaiser,” on the personal level of the death notices neither the Reich nor the Kaiser were granted that kind of affection.

In August 1914, newspapers propagated the idea that Germany was being unwillingly pushed into combat and only took up arms to defend herself. Yet the idea that soldiers died defending Germany is usually not made explicit. The “young hero” Wilhelm Buchenau was an exception; his parents described him as “a brave and proud defender of German soil.” Bernhard Breiden, killed by enemy machine gun fire, “sacrificed all his mental and physical strength…for the defence and victorious liberation of our German fatherland’s hearth and homeland.”

Death notice for 24-year-old Bernhard Breiden, which in its entirety is wholly predictable, completely over-the-top, and heartbreaking all at once. Kreis-Blatt für den Unter-Westwald-Kreis, 23 November 1916.

The federal states of Germany, which were united under the Kaiser, were ruled on a secondary level by a variety of kings, dukes and grand dukes, and princes. Soldiers could therefore die for a king, or for the Kaiser, or for both king and Kaiser. The above-mentioned Wilhelm Buchenau died having been blown to pieces by an artillery shell; he had left home “with enthusiastic devotion for king and fatherland, for emperor and empire.” Heinrich Kutscher had died “for king and Fatherland.” Whether the omission of the Kaiser indicates political dissatisfaction or an unwillingness to recognise the Kaiser as the ruler of Germany is unclear; after all, Hesse-Nassau was part of the Kingdom of Prussia, and the King of Prussia and the Kaiser were one and the same.

Closely linked to Kaiser, Reich, and Fatherland was the concept of Heldentod, or a hero’s death. Google now overwhelmingly associates this term with the Nazis, but its roots can be traced back to Greek Antiquity as well as Norse/Viking mythology (think Valhalla). During the late nineteenth century in Germany, it formed the nexus of a hero cult that celebrated sacrifice and military prowess. Anyone who fell in battle; who died of wounds sustained in battle; or who succumbed to an illness acquired in a hospital while recuperating from wounds sustained in battle could be said to have died a hero’s death. The phrase “he died a hero’s death for Kaiser and Fatherland” is, in death notices, practically a fixed expression.

“Auf nach Walhall” by Franz Stassen, 1869–1949

“God’s Unfathomable Wisdom”
Defence of the Fatherland and the culmination of a soldier’s duty in his Heldentod was just one way that families coped with the loss of a life. God — especially his infinite wisdom — also figured in their rationalisations and understanding of death. “In accordance with God’s unfathomable wisdom…Johan Böhm died a hero’s death for the Fatherland on 9 April in the Carpathians” — “It has pleased God, in his unknowable wisdom to fetch…Alfons Rosenthal home to eternity” — “In accordance with God’s holy will…Otto Hagemann died a hero’s death for king and Fatherland.” A common sentiment, often printed as an epigraph to the death notices, reminded readers that “the counsel of God has decreed it necessary to part from that which one loves most” (“Es ist bestimmt in Gottes Rat, / Dass man von Liebsten, das man hat, / Muss scheiden”).

Soldiers were not merely bystanders (victims?) to God’s infinite wisdom. They took active steps to ensure their own salvation. Josef Wilhelm Bauer, after living a “virtuous Christian life,” died of his wounds in a field hospital “well-prepared [for death], having received Last Rites.” Ludwig Hofheinz died “on the field of honour in a battle in Russia, believing in his Saviour.” After Friedrich Nau’s death from gas poisoning in September 1917, the division priest wrote to his parents; that letter “gave us great comfort…that he had received the holy sacraments on the day before” he died. Death notices for Catholic soldiers asked for prayers for their souls, and sometimes specified the time and date of a funeral mass.

German cemeteries at the front overflowed not only with bodies but also with crosses, crucifixes, and Bible verses. At the same time, postcards of these cemeteries bear captions like “Heroes’ Graves in the Argonne Forest.” For all its pagan roots, Heldentod does not seem to have been viewed as incompatible with Christianity. In fact, many soldiers were described as having lived “virtuous,” “pious,” or “conscious” Christian lives before their Heldentod. The example of Philipp Zoth is typical: “well-prepared by an impeccable Christian lifestyle,” he died “a hero’s death in his thirtieth year.” Heldentod, it seems, had lost its pagan connotations and become a fitting end to a Christian life.

Opfertod — selfless, sacrificial death, a term often found in conjunction with Christ — sometimes took the place of Heldentod. 19-year-old Kurt Schneider’s parents and sister did not describe his life as “pious” or “virtuous” or “consciously Christian.” Instead they pointed to his deeds on the field: “With burning enthusiasm, full of holy ideals and desires for his dear Fatherland, he…went to war. Awarded the Iron Cross at the beginning of the war, this brave hero was promoted…to officer. Now God Almighty has found him worthy of a sacrificial death for the Fatherland.” Both newspaper articles and death notices portrayed Opfertod as a sacrifice made for the nation. Messaging from the church further encouraged interpretations of battlefield death in a religious light; in 1915, the Bishop of Rottenburg asserted that a good warrior’s death “is a holy death… It becomes an act of worship…such a death leads immediately to eternal life.”

In 1916, the Ministry of War — in an attempt to dissuade families from repatriating the dead — put forth the idea that “a sacrificial death on the battlefield for the Fatherland elevated a warrior from the narrow circle of family. He belongs not only to them but to the entire German people.” The nation, then, rather than the family should be tasked with the care of his mortal remains and final resting place. The death notice of Heinrich Veit, though it predated the Ministry of War’s announcement by a year, can be read as a repudiation of the notion that a soldier should be mourned differently and his corpse treated differently than that of a civilian. His sister and widowed father compacted their grief into a single sentence: “My dear, loyal son and my dear good brother Heinrich Veit died at the age of 32 far from his loved ones as a victim of this horrible world war.” They did not mention his rank, regiment, or cause of death. They also declined to call his death a Heldentod (though the newspaper did what they would not). Here a family’s loss of their son and brother superseded and even erased the Fatherland’s loss of a loyal serviceman. Interestingly, the German War Graves Commission has no information about Heinrich Veit’s current resting place. He may be buried as an unidentified soldier, but it is also possible that his sister and father managed to bring his body home.

The “Terrible War”
Although news articles referred to “the terrible war” (“der schreckliche Krieg”) with some regularity, this “terrible war” stayed, for the most part, well away from the death notices. Yet families who had lost more than one child sometimes referenced “the terrible war” or “this awful war.” One might think that, as the war dragged on, such references would become more commonplace and reflect not only the loss of life but deprivations on the home front as well. In fact, they are relatively rare and can be found as early as 1915.

Heldentod and “this terrible war” are fairly mutually exclusive in the sense that families did not use both terms in the same death notice. However, the circumstances of the deaths themselves did not markedly differ. Rather, the deaths that are said to have occurred because of “the terrible war” are framed in such a way that emphasises a different kind of violence to that of the battlefield. Heldentod conceived of the dead body as physically unblemished, but “the terrible war” permitted no such comfort: it “tears” and “rips” soldiers away from their families.

Soldiers seemed powerless to resist the war’s overwhelming force; it denied them agency in their own deaths. For example, in the spring of 1918, Eduard Gunkel was “ripped away from us at the age of 20 by this terrible world war.” A few months later, Conrad Fuchs was “torn away from us at the age of 25 by this terrible war.” After Johann Zott died in a field hospital, his parents announced that “our only son…became a victim of this horrible world war 8 days before his 19th birthday.” Lina Schulz, announcing the death of her husband Paul, wrote that he “fell victim to this terrible world war on 5 August. Those who knew him — know what I have lost.”

To call the war terrible did not necessarily imply that it was being waged for incorrect or immoral reasons. Rather, it was the war’s consequences, i.e. the death of a much-loved soldier, that made it terrible. Families did not express anti-war sentiments in the death notices, though they may have done so in private. In the press, at least, a strong sense of the morality of the German war effort prevailed. There was no acknowledgement that Germany and German soldiers had contributed to the awfulness. In fact, “the terrible war” absolved the family, the soldier, and the German nation. If a man had joined the army over his family’s protestations, they did not need to guilt themselves over not holding him back. The war had compelled him and its will outmatched theirs. Not to mention that against the wickedness of Britain, France, and Russia it was only right that Germany should defend herself. “The terrible war,” then, also functions as a blame mechanism — and that blame belongs solely to the nations of the “so-called Entente Cordiale.”

Final Thoughts
In addition to forming part of the mourning process, the death notices function as a kind of war propaganda. Besides exalting the deaths of heroes, they brag about the dead men’s patriotism (“50 months of loyal service,” from which one can calculate that he served since the outbreak of the war) and make explicit their heroism in service of Kaiser and country (“recipient of the Iron Cross, First and Second Class”). They confront readers: I sacrificed my beloved son for the Fatherland. What have you done for our Kaiser and Reich?

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Knitting&Death

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