Image of a session at the Bundeshaus in Bonn in 1949

Trial and Error: The Federal Republic of Germany’s Failed First National Day of Remembrance and Where to Go from There

On 7 September 1950, the improvised West German parliamentary building—the Bundeshaus in Bonn—was packed with people. The Federal Chancellor with his cabinet, the majority of both chambers of parliament, as well as a significant number of honorary guests from high society had come together for the first ‘National Day of Remembrance of the German People’ (Nationaler Gedenktag des deutschen Volkes). Even the Allied High Commissioners were there.1

When the main speaker, Federal President and Head of State Theodor Heuss, took the stage, however, he did not even try to conceal that he was unimpressed. He openly admitted that to him the day seemed to have been picked randomly, overemphasized artificially, and to have lacked what he then called the ‘force of history’ (Geschichtswucht).2 He took this inadequacy of the date as an indicator of the ‘tragedy of German history’,3 but even then, this narrative felt forced. He settled on vaguely referring to the notion of German victimhood and suggesting that it would get better with democracy. When taking a closer look at the event, however, it turns out that the date was but one of its many problems.

The situation it was supposed to be a response to was as follows: after the war, nearly every family had cause for bereavement—regardless of whether they or their loved ones had worn a Nazi uniform or were themselves victims of the Nazi persecution. Additionally, the public was far from thrilled to now be living in ‘half a Germany’, which had also, once again, as many felt, had democracy imposed upon it.4 It was essential that this be visibly acknowledged on a national level.

The need for public mourning was initially met by the ‘Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Fascism’, the biggest commemorative day in the years directly following the war. While originally a non-partisan event, by the late 1940s it had shifted further and further to the left.5 By 1950, as tensions between East and West were rising quickly and communist delegations were expected to attend the event, Home Secretary Gustav Heinemann saw it as a ‘serious threat to the inner peace and the security of the Federal Republic’.6

In proposing that the West German government organize a new day of remembrance—to be held only a week before the other—the conservative Heinemann’s main goal was to compete with leftist initiatives focused on interpreting the loss of life in the war. In the end, the issue came down to basic party politics.7

Heinemann’s approach to commemoration, however, also differed substantially from the existing event. The press release announced that ‘all victims of the recent past’8 shall be remembered: ‘There can be no difference between those who gave their lives as victims of the bombing at home or as soldiers or prisoners or for political, racial or religious reasons.’9

Image of representatives of a GDR 'fighting group' (Kampfgruppe) on their way to a memorial event on the Day for the Remembrance of the Victims of Fascism' in East Berlin
Representatives of a GDR ‘fighting group’ (Kampfgruppe) on their way to a memorial event on the ‘Day for the Remembrance of the Victims of Fascism’ in East Berlin, 7 September 1957. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-49494-0001, licensed under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

The generalization of the commemorated groups was one thing, but listing the civilian casualties of the allied bombing first clearly supported the narrative of German victimhood. The rather implicit inclusion of the victims of the Nazi crimes was little more than a fig leaf.

The year being 1950, the end of Nazi rule and the Holocaust a mere five years in the past and Germany still under occupation, it was felt that there could not be a commemorative event without remembering the victims of the atrocious Nazi crimes. That this stood in clear opposition to, and was impossible to combine with, the commemoration of the fallen German soldiers was either not noticed or did not bother the organizers all that much.10

 While this was already quite a lot to reconcile in one event, Heinemann did not stop there. He felt that the ‘memory of shared hardship’ had to be used to ‘strengthen a feeling of community’, which in turn would entail a ‘commitment to the new democratic order’11 among a West German public that was yet to be impressed by the Federal Republic. So, his plan was not only for a day of remembrance; he proposed to merge this with a national holiday.

The liberal Theodor Heuss tried to intervene, but succeeded only in moving the date away from a Sunday because he felt a free workday would be better.12 As the new date fell on the anniversary of the first parliamentary session, this was soon communicated as the occasion that was to be commemorated, generating a tension between (flawed) commemoration and celebration.13

In short: in 1950 the question of a West German day of remembrance was rushed, and an improvised ‘one size fits all’-approach was taken.

The first national day of remembrance for the fallen of the world wars in the Federal Republic was therefore not only a national holiday but was dedicated to the memory of victims and perpetrators alike. It tried to unite the commemoration of enemies of democracy together with a celebration of democracy. Apparently, this was intended as a means of emotionally connecting to the public, promoting the state as something positive to identify with, and generally strengthening the position of government in the political discourse. Recognizing the problematic implications, the Central Council of Jews in Germany declined the invitation, and to make matters worse, they were consequently not invited back the following year.14

Eventually, the fundamental incompatibility of its components made the event awkward and its messages vague. Apart from the official event in Bonn, little else happened on that day in terms of commemoration.15 The whole thing completely failed to meet the emotional needs of the public and was not widely cared for, if at all acknowledged.

While the sources suggest that the organizers simply did not grasp the offensiveness of a combined commemoration, they were nonetheless aware that the event was a somewhat crude construct with little chance of serving its purpose.16 Since no one came forth with a more suitable plan, however, the ‘National Day of Remembrance of the German People’ was held several times. The name remained unchanged, but every aspect of commemoration of the dead was excluded.17 In the end, it was only a sort of depressing national holiday of little importance. In 1954, Theodor Heuss called the whole endeavor a ‘forced solution’,18 but confessed that no one had had a better idea. By then, it had already been dropped in favour of the quickly established ‘Day of German Unity’ in memory of the East German uprising of 1953.19

This awkward and little-known sidenote of history is an ideal starting point for further research. It shows that (national) days of remembrance and those of celebration are not necessarily as easily or precisely differentiated from one another as one might think. It exemplifies the role that national days of remembrance play on the political stage and in discourses of identity related to the past: they are by no means a stable, rigid medium but on the contrary are subject to frequent change. Accordingly, national days of remembrance—regardless of their success in establishing themselves as a tradition—can be a means of visualizing the powers at play in the politics of history on a national level. They are an essential part of the cultural memory of a society and a point of crystallization for a state’s relationship with its past and therefore with itself. Due to their annual repetition, they are an ideal tool for highlighting political, cultural, and social change.

While there is not actually a shortage of theoretical models of how a commemorative day works, the increasing temporal distance, the ongoing evolution of the medium itself, and the further development of the concept of ‘grief’ in the field of cultural studies suggest a re-examination would be worthwhile. In my PhD project, I intend to investigate languages of remembrance20 by examining national days of remembrance since the end of the Second World War. Ultimately, I aim to provide an updated, theoretically based and transnational perspective on this medium.

My main focus will be the Federal Republic with its heterogeneous culture of remembrance full of breaks and discontinuities. The UK, which I visited as a scholarship recipient of the GHIL in August and September 2022, will serve as point of contrast in an asymmetrical transnational comparison; the perspective of the victors, the existence of a monarchy, the much more present national symbolism, as well as the population’s huge degree of interest and participation in commemoration seem promising starting points.


The featured image shows a session in the Bundeshaus in Bonn in the year 1954. Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F002349-0009, licensed under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.



Cite this blog post
James Krull (2023, December 21). Trial and Error: The Federal Republic of Germany’s Failed First National Day of Remembrance and Where to Go from There. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved April 14, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vewi

  1. See C. E. L., ‘Ein Tag wie jeder andere’, Die Zeit, 7 Sept. 1950, at [https://www.zeit.de/1950/36/ein-tag-wie-jeder-andere], accessed 12 June 2023. []
  2. Deutscher Bundestag (ed.), ‘Feier des Nationalen Gedenktages des deutschen Volkes: Im Plenarsitzungssaal des Deutschen Bundestages am Donnerstag, dem 7. September 1950’, Plenarprotokoll 01, special issue (Bonn, 1950), 3085–9, at 3086. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Lutz R. Reuter, ‘Political and Moral Culture in West Germany: Four Decades of Democratic Reorganization und Vergangenheitsauseinandersetzung’, in Kathy Harms, Lutz R. Reuter, and Volker Durr (eds.), Coping with the Past: Germany and Austria after 1945 (Madison, WI, 1990), 155–86, at 161. []
  5. See Henriette Schuppener, ‘Ihr trugt die Schande nicht / Ihr wehrtet Euch’: Das Gedenken an den 20. Juli 1944 im Wandel der Zeit (Augsburg, 2017), 66. []
  6. Gustav Heinemann, cabinet paper, 14 Aug. 1950, BArch B 106/77151. []
  7. This can be exemplified further by a handwritten note either from Heinemann himself or one of his state secretaries concerning the Communist Party (KPD): ‘Do not invite KPD MPs, otherwise everyone else’ (‘Nicht einladen KPD Abgeordnete, sonst alle anderen’), c. 22 Aug. 1950, BArch B 106/77151. []
  8. Press release No. 780/50, 30 Aug. 1950, BArch B 145/843. []
  9. Ibid. (‘Es soll kein Unterschied bestehen zwischen denjenigen, die als Opfer des Bombenkrieges in der Heimat, als Soldaten oder als Gefangene oder aus politischen, rassischen oder religiösen Gründen ihr Leben gegeben haben.’ []
  10. This is not really surprising, given that it was not until 1958 that the victims of the Nazis were mentioned at the Volkstrauertag (People’s Day of Mourning), which had been legally reinstated in 1952 and is still today the most prominent commemorative day in Germany. See Alexandra Kaiser, Von Helden und Opfern: Eine Geschichte des Volkstrauertags (Frankfurt am Main, 2010), 270. The myth of the ’clean Wehrmacht’ as well as the widespread coping strategy of viewing the Germans as Hitler’s victims also come into play here. See Aleida Assmann, Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit: Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik (Munich, 2016), 180; Norbert Frei, Vergangenheitspolitik: Die Anfänge der Bundesrepublik und die NS-Vergangenheit, (Munich, 1999), 403. []
  11. Heinemann, cabinet paper, 14 Aug. 1950 (‘Diesen Gedenkfeiern […] muß eine Richtung gegeben werden, die gleichzeitig im Volke die Erinnerung an die gemeinsame Not wachhält und damit zu einer Stärkung des Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühls und der gegenseitigen Verbundenheit beiträgt. Der Gedanke dieser Zusammengehörigkeit führt zu dem Bekenntnis zu der neuen demokratischen Ordnung […].’ []
  12. See Theodor Heuss, remarks, 14 Aug. 1950, BArch B 106/77151. []
  13. Heinemann to Schmid, transcript, 26 Aug. 1950, BArch B 106/77151. []
  14. See Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland to Bundesministerium des Inneren, transcript, 6 Sept. 1950, BArch B 106/77152 I. []
  15. See Bundesministerium des Inneren to Bundeskanzleramt, 6 Sept. 1950, BArch B 106/77151. []
  16. See Heuss, remarks, 14 Aug. 1950. []
  17. See Bundesministerium des Inneren to Innenminister der Länder, transcript, Bundespresseamt, 18 Aug. 1951, BArch B 145/843. []
  18. Heuss to Müller, 7 Aug. 1954, BArch B 122/2238. (‘Krampf-Lösung’ []
  19. See Deutscher Bundestag (ed.), Plenarprotokoll 01/281, 3 July 1953, 14070 f.; id., Bundesgesetzblatt Teil I, No. 45, 7 Aug. 1953, 778. []
  20. See Jay Winter, War Beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present (Cambridge 2018). []

Published by

James Krull

He studied for a BA in History, Politics and Society at Bonn University before completing his MA in International History of the Modern Era there. After having curated an exhibition at a memorial site, he is currently a researcher at Bonn University. His PhD dissertation on national days of remembrance in Germany and the UK is supervised by both Bonn University and the University of St Andrews.

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