Wolfgang Schneiderhan is sometimes surprised by what war reveals, for example when digging trenches. In Ukraine we are currently seeing that the motto “reconciliation beyond the grave” is timeless, says the 77-year-old. It is the motto of the German War Graves Commission, and Schneiderhan has been its president for six years. Schneiderhan believes that Ukraine and Russia will also face this process at some point.
He sits in an old office on Berlin’s Lützowufer, an old tiled stove stands in the corner. From here he can look across the Landwehr Canal to his former office in the Federal Ministry of Defense. “At 77, I am more of the average age in the Volksbund,” says the former Inspector General of the Bundeswehr.
The Volksbund was founded in 1919. In addition to caring for war graves, his job is to clarify the fate of fallen soldiers who were buried anonymously. After disinterment, the remains are usually buried in military cemeteries in the respective countries. There are more than 5.4 million recorded German war dead and missing and around 830 German war cemetery sites in 46 countries. The war graves agreement between the Federal Republic and the Russian Federation has existed for around 30 years. It is the most important of the 44 agreements, most recently Serbia and Kosovo were added.
The past and the present are currently colliding in Ukraine
In these months, when the situation threatens to become darker for Ukraine, Schneiderhan is thinking a lot about the epochal break since February 24, 2022. “We have people on both sides of the front who were paid by the Volksbund and who worked for us as local staff,” says Schneiderhan. “You just have to imagine the madness.” The war repeatedly leads to events that also affect his work for the Volksbund, where the past and present collide.
For example, the body of a German Wehrmacht soldier was found in the Kharkiv region when Ukrainians were digging a trench. “The Ukrainian soldiers handed over the dog tags to us,” says Schneiderhan. This is how the identification was successful. The dead man would normally be buried in Kharkiv. Since it is too dangerous there at the moment, he should be buried in a cemetery in Kiev.
Another example are discoveries made after the Kakhovka dam was blown up in Ukraine, says Schneiderhan. “We saw steel helmets on the dry ground in pictures and photos that could possibly belong to the German Wehrmacht.” However, they were blurry social media posts. “We currently have no chance of verifying this. The dam is in the so-called red zone,” he emphasizes.
The Volksbund can also continue to work in Russia at the moment
Despite the war, 972 dead Wehrmacht soldiers found in Ukraine have been disinterred since February 2022. In 2021, according to the Volksbund, there were 1,475 deaths in the year before the war. Perhaps the most amazing thing: Even in Russia, the Volksbund can continue to work despite the German-Russian tensions over its support for Ukraine. And mass graves of German soldiers from the Second World War appear there again and again, for example when a large construction pit is being dug for a shopping center.
“I recently received news that we recovered and reburied 3,321 Germans who died in the Second World War about 40 kilometers outside of Volgograd,” reports Schneiderhan. Volgograd is the former Stalingrad, the destruction of the German 6th Army by Soviet troops and the surrender in early 1943 was one of the turning points of the war. “We work at a very low-threshold level in Russia, but we work,” emphasizes Schneiderhan. Nevertheless, according to the Volksbund, more than 5,750 dead German soldiers have already been recovered this year alone.
Schneiderhan was the 14th Inspector General of the Bundeswehr from 2002 to 2009. He still remembers how people had great hope in Vladimir Putin. Those who are now criticizing Russia policy are missing the ability to put themselves in the situation at that time. “We were collectively wrong,” he says, “but we were full of hope that we could change something for the benefit of the people in Russia through this policy.” That may have been an illusion, he says. “There was a phase, still under Boris Yeltsin, when some people talked about Russia in NATO.” At that time, it was hoped that the relationship would finally develop from an opposition to a partnership, says Schneiderhan. “And that was destroyed.”
The Volksbund reaches thousands of students from all over Europe at work camps
Schneiderhan also points out that the economic ties, keyword natural gas, “have also contributed to our prosperity.” Nobody was upset about it for a long time.
When Schneiderhan talks to students, he always says: “A war is breaking out” – that is a wrong formulation. “War never breaks out. A war is prepared by people, in all its facets, right down to the timely disdain of the later opponent, right down to the economy, right up to rearmament.” It’s not like a thunderstorm. It has not yet been decided for Russian society how it wants to cope in the long term with what Russians are currently doing and what is becoming visible. “There are parallels to us. How long did it take us until we realized that the Wehrmacht also allowed itself to be abused? History is still ahead of them. That’s very clear,” he says.
The return of war leads to a new interest among young people in the Volksbund. This is also what is needed to continue the work. The Federal Foreign Office is currently supporting the work with around 18 million euros. The federal government reaches more than 18,000 students from all over Europe every year at youth meetings and work camps. When they remove moss from gravestones in cemeteries, many people realize, “God damn, he was as old as I am now,” says Schneiderhan.
With a view to the Ukraine war and the timeless goal of reconciliation, he imagines a role for the Volksbund as a mediator. With very simple things. “I have remarkable letters from young people who were on a work assignment with the People’s Association in Poland,” he says. There were also people of the same age from Ukraine and Russia. Now they asked him what happened to a teenager from Russia and a Ukrainian girl. “Following up on that, bringing them together with other young people from Europe, that could be interesting.”