On a recent trip to Northern France with the RAF I got the opportunity to visit a German Military Cemetery. This is something, which I have not had the chance to do before and the difference between British, American and German cemeteries of the Second World War is quite stark. I think that the design and layout of these cemeteries tend to reflect our national opinion on the war itself.
American cemeteries are managed by the American Battle Monument Commission and there are only 24 cemeteries worldwide. The reason for this is that the American policy is to place as many dead soldiers in one big cemetery as exemplified by the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. This is extremely triumphalist in design. Not only is it large with 9387 graves but there is a grand memorial to the war. To me this represents the American image of their war and their victory and that they wish to celebrate it as much as possible, similar to how the Second World War is portrayed in Hollywood films. While this is no bad thing I do believe it is representative of the American image of the Second World War.
British war graves are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and certainly in terms of the Second World War the British policy is to bury soldiers as near to where they fell as possible this has lead to there being 116 graves in the Calvados region. Many of these cemeteries are quite small. The biggest is Bayeux with over 3000 graves. To me this shows the understated nature of British remembrance to the Second World War. It represents the idea that it was a war we had to fight but not one that was any good for the nation. There are no grand monuments to the war. Yes there are some monuments but nothing that is similar to the American cemetery over Omaha.
The most stark example of the national attitude to the war must come from the few German cemeteries in France. When in Normandy I had opportunity to visit the cemetery at Maringy. It was very sombre and understated with the cemetery itself encased in trees so that it can not be seen from the road. There is nothing triumphalist about this in the least. It almost says to the visit that we are sorry that we are here and to that end the cemetery tries to make as little impact upon the landscape as possible as the photos show of the grave stone. It was quite an experience.
This is an interesting topic, which I think needs to be explored more. Quite a lot has been written on the subject with reference to the First Worlds War but I do think that memory and memorialising needs to be examined in the context of the Second World War.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission – www.cwgc.org
American Battle Monuments Commission – www.abmc.gov
German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge) – http://www.volksbund.de/