View of Laboe from the Sea.

The German Naval Memorial in Laboe

The German Naval Memorial in Laboe, a coastal town in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, is dedicated to those who have lost their lives at sea. It was first envisioned as a national memorial to German sailors who were killed in the line of duty during the First World War and has developed into an international site to commemorate civilians and military personnel alike.

I first heard about it in 2018, when I met the historian Dr Jann M. Witt at a conference hosted jointly by Gateways to the First World War and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Dr Witt kindly offered me work experience at the Naval Memorial, and in 2023 I finally made it to Laboe.

While the museum today seeks to tell a global history of warfare at sea and international work towards peace, its origins can be found in a decidedly nationalistic memory culture. The idea of a memorial for fallen sailors was put forward in 1925 by Wilhelm Lammertz, who had been a petty officer during the First World War. It was quickly taken up and funds were raised by donation, primarily from those who had lost family, friends, or comrades during the First World War.

The tower was designed by the expressionist architect Gustav August Munzer, who described the structure as ‘rising to heaven like a flame’. This is somewhat contrary to the impression it leaves on many visitors, who assume it represents the mast or prow of a ship, or the conning tower of a submarine. Construction began in 1927, and in 1929 the tower was complete. However, money ran out during the Great Depression, and the building project was halted until its revival in 1933, which saw the addition of the parade ground and underground memorial hall. In 1936 the memorial was finally completed and opened. Hitler attended the ceremony but refused to speak, as he felt the project was kitschy and a relic of the Weimar era. Instead, Admiral Erich Raeder gave the inauguration speech.

After the Second World War, Laboe came under the British zone of occupation, where most of the militaristic memorials were destroyed. However it was acknowledged that the Naval Memorial at Laboe had been publicly funded and it was given leave to remain. In 1954 the memorial was handed back to the reformed German Naval Association (Deutscher Marinebund), whereupon the then President, Otto Kretschmer, dedicated the memorial not only to German sailors lost at sea, but to all allied losses as well. This was the start of a new tradition of international remembrance.

Today the Naval Memorial receives around 200,000 annual visitors from across the globe. The German Navy uses the underground memorial chamber, which feels like a hallowed space, for private services and the laying of wreaths. Passing ships, primarily naval but also commercial, signal to or salute the memorial on the way past. The memorial is also dedicated to learning, with the historic hall and spaces within the tower hosting exhibitions.

The tower of the Naval Memorial
The tower of the Naval Memorial, May 2023. Photo by Maxine Hart.

One of the first features within the grounds of the monument are three memorial stones. One commemorates American submariners who did not return from the Second World War. The second commemorates the crews of the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney II and the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran. The third cements the friendship between the German and Japanese navies, with reference to the visit by the training cruiser SS Deutschland in 1965 to the (now contentious) Yasukuni Shrine in Japan. Planted around the stone are three gingko trees—gifts from the Japanese. Unfortunately, the trees have struggled with the climate on the Baltic Sea coast, so those that stand there now are second-generation trees.

The first room in the tower houses the somewhat controversial foundation stone. In his speech in 1927, Admiral Reinhard Scheer dedicated the planned memorial ‘Für deutsche Seemannsehr, für Deutschlands schwimmende Wehr, für beider Wiederkehr’ (To the honour of German sailors, to the German fleet, and the return of both), the hope being that, one day, the German Navy could be built up again to full strength after the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles. During my visit I was most taken by the second room in the tower. The number of German sailors lost during both the First World War and the Second World War are displayed either side of the door. The walls are then engraved with images and numbers of Germans ships that were sunk. This poignant and visual representation really drives home the scale of both conflicts, especially in close comparison. Memorials usually convey the names of individuals—I’m thinking here of local memorials from the World Wars, and grand structures like the Menin Gate in Ypres—or the names of ships, for example, on the National Destroyer Memorial at the Historic Dockyard Chatham. The fact that figures and images have been used here seems quite unique.

The second room of the tower.
The second room of the tower. Photos by Maxine Hart.

Upstairs there is a permanent exhibition of flags from the different iterations of the German Navy. Unlike in Britain, where there is a consistent naval tradition going back to the mid 1500s, German naval history is more piecemeal, with arguably eight or nine different navies: the 1848 Reichs Fleet, the Prussian Navy, The Navy of the North German Confederation, the Imperial Navy, the Reichs Navy, the Kriegsmarine, the People’s Navy (of the GDR), and the Navy of the Federal Republic of Germany. After reunification, the German Navy was renamed and incorporated personnel from the former GDR.

For anyone wishing to read up further on the history of the German navies or the history of the Deutscher Marinebund, you can now do so at the German Historical Institute London. Thanks to this impromptu collaboration and the generosity of Dr Witt, the following publications are now available at the GHIL Library: Von Schwarz-Rot-Gold zu Schwarz-Rot-Gold is the companion book to the exhibition currently in the Historic Hall in Laboe and the basis of much of this blog post. During my work experience I helped to copy edit the English version, and I hope to see this in print in the future. 125 Jahre Deutscher Marinebund is Dr Witt’s comprehensive history of the German Naval Association. Finally, the book that goes to the top of my TBR pile is Scarborough Bombardment: The Attack by the German High Seas Fleet on Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool on 16 December 1914.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Maxine Hart (January 24, 2024). The German Naval Memorial in Laboe. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/vnyk


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Maxine Hart

Maxine Hart completed an MA in First World War Studies at the University of Kent and wrote her dissertation on the photographic representation of women workers at Chatham Dockyard during the First World War. She now works at the German Historical Institute London.

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