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.

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A Brotherhood of Soldiers? Concepts of Comradeship 1914–1938

Whether we watch movies, read novels, play video games, look at paintings, or listen to podcasts about the First World War, we encounter expressions of what we consider to be the comradeship of the trenches. The idea of the soldiers holding fast together through all hardships, living together, and loving each other like brothers, even dying for one another, has become a central part of the collective memory of the ‘Great War’.1 The social relationship we are shown in these media representations is most often that of best friends. By defining the relationship between soldiers in this way, media productions are creating relatability for non-military users as well as avoiding the rather less clearly defined term ‘comradeship’. The most recent example of this is the film 1917 directed by Sam Mendes, which tells the story of the First World War through the eyes of two soldier friends on a special mission. What it does not show is the daily lives the soldiers had to lead with those they did not consider to be their friends, for whom they did not feel sympathy, or were just not emotionally close to. Those people they called ‘comrades’ and this relationship is almost entirely absent from cultural representations of the war. Media productions therefore replace the social relationship of comradeship with the concept of friendship in our cultural memory of the Great War because they only show one kind of relationship at the front.

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  1. See Aleida Assmann, Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit (Munich, 2006), 23–6; available in English as Shadows of Trauma: Memory and the Politics of Postwar Identity, trans. Sarah Clift (New York, 2016). []
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