What is the National Day of Mourning in Germany (Volkstrauertag)?
The National Day of Mourning (Volkstrauertag) is a commemoration day in Germany for the victims of war and tyranny. It is therefore similar to the Remembrance Day marked in Commonwealth countries and Memorial Day in the US. But while the latter two memorial days are recognised by most as united moments of national pride, in Germany the matter of commemorating the war dead is naturally much more complex.
What is the National Day of Mourning?
Volkstrauertag (literally: the people’s day of mourning), is a day in Germany that commemorates members of the armed forces and civilians around the world who died in armed conflicts, terrorist attacks, and other acts of tyranny.
When is the National Day of Mourning?
The National Day of Mourning is observed every year on the second Sunday before Advent.
National Day of Mourning 2023
In 2023, the National Day of Mourning falls on Sunday, November 19.
A history of mourning day
The National Day of Mourning has a long and eventful history, stretching back to 1924, when the newly-formed German War Graves Commission (VDK) proposed the idea of an annual ceremony to honour the millions of victims who died in World War I. The idea was not to “order” people to grieve, but to give those who hadn’t lost immediate family or friends an opportunity to display solidarity with the fallen. The first official ceremony took place in the Reichstag in Berlin in 1922.
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Under National Socialist rule, the Volkstrauertag was renamed the Heldengedenktag (Heroes’ Memorial Day) and made into a public holiday. The character of the holiday also underwent a significant shift: rather than a solemn observance, it became a highly stylised moment to celebrate the war dead as heroes worthy of worship. The events of the day were organised by the Wehrmacht, with guidelines passed down directly from the Reich minister of propaganda.
Postwar: Day of Mourning moved to November
After the war, the Day of National Mourning was reinstituted in the Federal Republic of Germany in the early 1950s. To try to distinguish the day from the Nazis’ Heldengedenktag, the date of the Volkstrauertag was moved to the penultimate Sunday in the Evangelical church year. The scope of the commemoration was also widened to include not only those who had died in conflict but also those who died as a result of oppressive governments.
Since the 1950s, it has been observed each year in November as a special day of remembrance for the victims of both world wars and other acts of tyranny.
Day of Mourning events in Germany
Nowadays, the Day of National Mourning is an occasion for Germany to grapple with its turbulent past and pay tribute to those who suffered. According to the VDK, the day is not only a day of mourning and commemoration but also a day to think about reconciliation, understanding and peace. On the Day of National Mourning, flags are flown at half-mast throughout Germany on many public buildings.
Here is an overview of what you can expect on the day:
Mourning ceremony at Neue Wache
In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the federal government decided that Neue Wache (the New Guardhouse), a 19th-century structure in the centre of Berlin designed by Karl Friedrich Schinckel, should be designated as the Central Memorial of the federal republic of Germany.
Built in 1818, the building was originally intended to celebrate war victories and generals, a bombastic monument to national pride and overt militarism. In the 1990s, however, a 1930s sculpture by the artist Käthe Kollwitz was installed in one of the building's chambers, depicting a woman holding a dead child. This placement signified a change in emphasis for the building: from militaristic pride to mourning and sober reflection.
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The memorial at Neue Wache was dedicated on November 14, 1993. Every year since then, the victims of war are remembered there in a simple ceremony involving the federal president and representatives of the other federal constitutional bodies. Wreaths are laid and the president makes a speech.
Remembrance ceremony at the Bundestag
The official ceremony of the Volkstrauertag takes place in the Plenary Hall of the German Bundestag. Traditionally, the president of Germany gives a speech, with the chancellor, cabinet and other members of parliament present. The national anthem and the song "Ich hatt' einen Kameraden" ("I had a comrade") are then played. The whole ceremony is broadcast live on German television.
The ceremony, which revolves around a different theme each year, also involves contributions from international speakers. In 2018, French President Emmanual Macron spoke about the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I, and in 2020 King Charles II (then the Prince of Wales) spoke on the 75-year anniversary of the end of World War II.
The event is open to the public, although you have to request to attend in advance.
Other ceremonies across Germany
In other German cities, ceremonies are also held on Volkstrauertag, usually including processions, prayers, speeches, the laying of wreaths, and a military guard of honour. Since Volkstrauertag is a designated silent holiday, you may find that there are restrictions on other things on the day, for instance, certain events might not be allowed to go ahead.
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Events at other war graves worldwide
Volkstrauertag is also honoured at German war grave sites across the world by German embassies, communities abroad and VDK branch offices. The VDK, on behalf of the German government, looks after the graves of 2,8 million war dead at 932 war graves sites in 46 countries.
Volkstrauertag: The German Remembrance Day
Amid the current global context, it has perhaps never seemed so relevant to commemorate the victims of war and violence worldwide - and to think of those who are even now getting caught up in conflicts. Volkstrauertag offers a moment for us all to pause, reflect, and remember.
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