Volkstrauertag was introduced by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (German War Graves Commission, founded in 1919), at the suggestion of its Bavarian branch, in order to remember those who had fallen in the First World War. The motivation was not grief “by order” but a means of enabling those who had suffered no loss to display visible solidarity with the survivors of the fallen.
The first official ceremony took place in the German Reichstag in Berlin in 1922. The Reichstag president of the day, Paul Löbe, made a speech, highly regarded both at home and abroad, in which he confronted a hostile environment with the idea of reconciliation and understanding. Under the aegis of the Volksbund, a committee whose members included every kind of association from the major religious denominations to the League of Jewish Women, arranged for Volkstrauertag to be held on the same day in the majority of German states, namely the fifth Sunday before Easter, known in Germany as Sonntag Reminiscere.
In 1934, the National Socialist authorities enacted a law making Volkstrauertag a national holiday and renamed it “Heldengedenktag” (commemoration of heroes day). Until 1945 the organisers were the Wehrmacht (armed forces) and the Nazi party. Guidelines covering content and execution were laid down by the Reich minister of propaganda. After the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany, Volkstrauertag was reintroduced by the Volksbund. Alongside many regional variants, an inaugural ceremony was held in the plenary chamber of the German Bundestag in 1950.
By agreement between the federal government, the federal states and the main religious denominations, the date was moved to the penultimate Sunday in the Evangelical church year, corresponding to the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Catholic liturgical calendar. The day is protected under federal state law. The Volksbund sees this day of commemoration, particularly as we move further away from the war in time, as a day of mourning. Volkstrauertag has also, however, become a day when we think about reconciliation, understanding and peace.
Accompanying discussions and educational events therefore take place within the context of the main commemoration ceremony in Berlin but also in many other places throughout Germany. These bring the historical themes, individual lives and issues around mourning and the consequences of wartime experiences to a broader public. As a result, traditional forms of commemoration are complemented by new and interactive formats such as remembrance walks, peace stones and name tiles.
Volkstrauertag is honoured at German war graves sites throughout the world by the German embassies, communities abroad and Volksbund branch offices. Both larger and smaller events take place with the involvement of international partners and often the municipalities and residents of the cemetery locations.
And the central commemoration ceremony in the Bundestag also involves contributions by international speakers or youth groups depending on the particular theme of remembrance. Thus President Emmanuel Macron of France spoke in 2018 at the 100-year anniversary of the end of the First World War, the former president of Breslau/Wrocław, Dr. Rafał Dutkiewicz in 2019 at the commemoration of the beginning of the Second World War and HRH the Prince of Wales in 2020 to mark the end of the war 75 years ago.
Today, the Volksbund, on behalf of the German government, looks after the graves of some 2.8 million war dead at over 832 war graves sites in 46 countries. In this it is supported by more than a million members and sponsors as well as by the German government. Its motto is:
“Reconciliation over war graves – working for peace”.