Britain’s View of the German Cult of the Dead: A Media History Perspective

In September 1943, at a time when the Second World War was turning into a military debacle for the German Wehrmacht, the Leicester Evening Mail published an article entitled ‘The New German Valhalla: Nazis’ Pagan Cult of Death’. In it, the author analysed the current state of German wartime society and focused in particular on the central importance of the cult of death in German warfare:

Understand Germany’s morbid addiction to the Nibelungenlied, and you will understand also Germany’s official mood after Stalingrad, when for weeks the radio played funeral marches and newspapers, newsreels and Nazi speakers wallowed in a revolting orgy of death, morbidity and shameless self-pity . . . This sadistic longing for the ‘glorious’ and universal death is a dangerous element in the German make-up we must not forget, however much we may despise it . . . Everything that comes out of Germany these days reveals that the cult of death and immolation is spreading in the Reich . . . But perhaps, with bombs raining from the skies in ever-increasing volume . . . the Germans may yet learn that death is far from sweet and glorious even under a tyrant of their own making.1

The article is primarily an example of the journalistic observations and characterizations of the military enemy that were regularly published in British newspapers during the war. A special feature of the text, however, is its precise analysis of the German cult of death and sacrifice. The military successes and fighting morale of the Wehrmacht were not only dependent on military strategy, manpower, and advanced weapons, but also on the ideological and propagandistic influence exerted on German soldiers. Particularly in the second half of the Second World War, when the phase of quick and successful blitzkrieg was over, specific strategies were needed to motivate soldiers to fight in a war that was increasingly hopeless, and also to legitimize the high number of victims. In this respect, the cult of the dead played a special role in Nazi propaganda. One element of these strategies was the promise that the deaths of soldiers who had given their lives to preserve the German Volksgemeinschaft (the Nazi ideal of the racially unified society in which individual interests were subordinate to those of the nation) would be afforded the highest heroic honour. The article in the Leicester Evening Mail therefore rightly emphasizes the danger and military consequences of German soldiers’ tendency towards fatalism and fanaticism.

Despite its contemporary journalistic perspective, the text addresses two remarkable aspects that touch on historical research into the National Socialist death cult and its propaganda. First, the history of National Socialism is not only a history of mass killing, but also of mass death. Over time, the society of the Third Reich was confronted with the deaths of countless people, but also—especially in a military context—with a willingness to sacrifice and die. While contemporary perceptions of National Socialism and historical research have focused primarily on investigating German soldiers’ willingness to kill, examination of their willingness to sacrifice and die—which was regularly demanded of them in political, ideological, and military contexts—has tended to take a back seat.2

Second, the Nazi cult of the dead has so far been analysed primarily from the perspective of national historiography in the context of examining the Nazi dictatorship.  The focus has mainly been on annual commemoration days in the Third Reich, monuments to fallen soldiers, and the commemorative work of the NSDAP and its propaganda institutions. For all its diversity, however, this research has remained confined to a national context and has barely taken into account the foreign reception of the National Socialist cult of the dead.3

Image of an article from the daily newspaper Hallische Nachrichten, 11 March 1939, covering Heldengedenktag (Heroes' Memorial Day)
Fig. 1: Extract from an article on Heldengedenktag (Heroes’ Memorial Day) in the daily newspaper Hallische Nachrichten, 11 March 1939.
Credit: Provided by the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Halle

Project Focus

A media history perspective, as I am pursuing in my current research project on ‘Dying and Death as a Media Event: A Media History of Heroic Sacrificial Death, 1930–1950’, not only concentrates on media representations of the commemoration of the dead (which have so far been only partially investigated), but also reveals the transnational scope of the topic. The Reich Propaganda Ministry and its subordinate Deutsches Nachrichtenbüro, the official German news agency, always sought to feed reports and material about the commemoration of the dead in the Third Reich into the global news agency network. The foreign media work of Nazi organizations ensured therefore that the Nazi propaganda about dead heroes and the fundamental significance of their heroic sacrifice was not only consumed within the borders of the Reich but also attracted global media attention.

There are two main reasons why it seems obvious and productive to look in particular at German–British media relations when analysing the transnational media reception of Germany’s commemoration of the dead. For one thing, even before the twentieth century, Germany and Great Britain had a long history of close media relations, characterized by intensive exchange and mutual influence.4 For another, the media relations between the two countries intensified once again during the world wars, as a result of which mutual observation and reception reached a new level of intensity. The specific relationship between the two countries during the Second World War, characterized by political hostility and military threat, played a decisive role here, and this was also reflected in their respective national propaganda policies. The history of German–British relations is therefore a useful backdrop for an investigation of the British media’s external perception of German propaganda policy during the Second World War and, consequently, of the National Socialist death cult.5

As the aforecited example in the Leicester Evening Mail shows, the National Socialist commemoration of the dead and the idea of heroic sacrifice were closely observed and thematized in the British media. British daily newspapers regularly published articles reporting on commemorative rituals in Germany, sometimes in great detail, and quoting extracts from political speeches given on such occasions. In addition to foreign correspondence, which was mainly based on agency reports, there were also numerous commentary articles in which the National Socialist cult of the dead was viewed with distanced fascination, disconcertment, disdain, or undisguised amusement. This reveals a twofold media interest on the British side: the memorial days of the Third Reich were fundamentally both political and propagandistic events. In particular, the commemorative speeches held on these occasions by high-ranking representatives of the Nazi regime usually included major political or military announcements that were always relevant to foreign reportage and were therefore regularly watched, or listened to, by British correspondents.

In addition, the intense media observation from the British side was based on a specific fascination. Because the Nazi death cult, with its highly symbolic and militaristic staging, was an especially publicly visible part of Nazi propaganda, it naturally attracted foreign interest. British commentators and correspondents often described it as an absurd or macabre spectacle. However, they were attentive to these productions precisely because they believed them to be an authentic and vivid expression of National Socialist ideology. This fascination and disconcertment was further enhanced during the war by the fact that British politicians and military staff associated the constant thematization of heroic self-sacrifice with the morale of German soldiers. In this respect, it was important for them to observe the media presence of this ideological narrative, as it had direct relevance for the strategic planning of the British military’s psychological warfare and propaganda.6

Archival Work

During my six-week stay as a scholarship holder at the GHI London in October and November 2023, I was able to examine numerous sources in archives and libraries to gain insight into the presence and reception of the Nazi death cult in British media, as well as evaluations of and reactions to it by political and military actors in Great Britain. Of particular importance to me was my research at The National Archives in Kew, where I examined documents from the Ministry of Information, the War Office, and the War Cabinet containing memoranda, analyses, and evaluations of German and British propaganda activities. The material forms a basis for considering the transnational perception and evaluation of the German cult of the dead in my study, and, with its decidedly external perspective, also contributes to a more profound understanding of German propaganda activities.


Featured image: Heldengedenktag (Heroes’ Memorial Day) ceremony in Berlin on 25 February 1934. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25366 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 

  1. ‘The New German Valhalla: Nazis’ Pagan Cult of Death’, Leicester Evening Mail, 22 Sept. 1943, 3. []
  2. See Michael Geyer, ‘Eine Kriegsgeschichte, die vom Tod spricht’, in Thomas Lindenberger and Alf Lüdtke (eds.), Physische Gewalt: Studien zur Geschichte der Neuzeit (Frankfurt am Main, 1995), 136–61. []
  3. See Sabine Behrenbeck, Der Kult um die toten Helden: Nationalsozialistische Mythen, Riten und Symbole 1923 bis 1945, 2nd edn. (Cologne, 2011); Alexandra Kaiser, Von Helden und Opfern: Eine Geschichte des Volkstrauertags (Frankfurt am Main, 2010); Jay W. Baird, To Die for Germany: Heroes in the Nazi Pantheon (Bloomington, IN, 1990); Alon Confino, Paul Betts, and Dirk Schumann (eds.), Between Mass Death and Individual Loss: The Place of the Dead in Twentieth-Century Germany (New York, 2008); and, recently published, Jesús Casquete, Politics of Death: The Cult of Nazi Martyrs, 1920–1939 (New York, 2023). []
  4. See, with numerous further references, Frank Bösch, ‘Zwischen Populärkultur und Politik: Britische und deutsche Printmedien im 19. Jahrhundert’, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte, 45 (2005), 549–84; Dominik Geppert, Pressekriege: Öffentlichkeit und Diplomatie in den deutsch-britischen Beziehungen (1896–1912) (Munich, 2007), and Frank Bösch and Dominik Geppert (eds.), Journalists as Political Actors: Transfers and Interactions between Britain and Germany since the Late 19th Century (Augsburg, 2008). []
  5. See Thomas Wittek, Auf ewig Feind? Das Deutschlandbild in den britischen Massenmedien nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg (Munich, 2005); and Nelson Ribeiro and Stephanie Seul (eds.), Revisiting Transnational Broadcasting: The BBC’s Foreign-Language Services during the Second World War (London, 2017). []
  6. See Christian Götter, Die Macht der Wirkungsannahmen: Medienarbeit des britischen und deutschen Militärs in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts (Berlin, 2016); Falko Bell, Britische Feindaufklärung im Zweiten Weltkrieg: Stellenwert und Wirkung der ‘Human Intelligence’ in der britischen Kriegsführung 1939–1945 (Paderborn, 2016); Michael Balfour, Propaganda in War, 1939–1945: Organisations, Policies and Publics in Britain and Germany (London, 1979). []

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Kay Schmücking (July 1, 2024). Britain’s View of the German Cult of the Dead: A Media History Perspective. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/11wsc


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Kay Schmücking

Kay Schmücking is a research assistant at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. He is currently working on a PhD project on ‘Dying and Death as a Media Event: A Media History of Heroic Sacrificial Death, 1930–1950’. His research interests lie in the history of National Socialism, media history, and the culture of remembrance in the twentieth century.

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