The Unknown Soldier

Photo: Soldier’s grave in a vineyard
Soldier’s grave in a vineyard, photo, published 1935
German National Library, signature: 1935 B 2874

The Un­known Sol­dier

The comrade from Naumburg had been wounded by a shot in the leg. And Fricke from Jessen, who is related to Seidel’s Frieda, received a shrapnel wound to his right upper arm. Some Naumburgers are already dead.

Erich Donath in a letter to his family, 1915

The First World War cost the lives of around 10 million people, not including civilians. More than 13 million men went to war for the German Reich. Around two million of them never returned. 

The field-grey uniform was worn by schoolteachers, house painters and young students. Farmers sat beside academics in the shelters, urban and rural populations waited beside each other in the trenches. Catholics, Protestants and Jews all prayed for a safe return home. 

The German Army was a reflection of German society – albeit not in the same relation. However, despite all of the diverging biographies, world views, personal ideas and wishes, each soldier had at least one thing in common: the abandonment of civilian life and the assumption of life as a soldier, constantly confronted with the danger of death. Each of them had to find their own personal way of dealing with this permanent state of emergency. 

In public memory, the individual among the millions of soldiers in the First World War was commemorated as the “Unknown Soldier”. The number of simple soldiers who – often literally – lost their lives anonymously was just too large. However, the “Unknown Soldier” left behind a large amount of diaries, field letters and memoirs. In these documents, the young volunteer justified his entry to the army, the pastor reported on hours of hope and social democratic workers pilloried the mass killings and deaths.