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Understanding the Unknown Soldiers

Ahead of the of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, Professor Christoph Mick, from the University of Warwick’s Department of History, examines the story of the Tombs of the Unknown Soldiers.

WWI soldiers

The proliferation of centrally placed Tombs of the Unknown Soldier is a result of the democratisation of war remembrance in the wake of the Great War. It started in France and Britain in 1920 and was soon taken up in other European countries and the United States of America. After 1945 it became a global phenomenon. Today more than 50 countries have a war memorial housing the remains of an unidentified soldier. These tombs have become national shrines, with the Unknown Soldier standing at the heart of a political cult of the dead.

Dignified burial

Although more people were killed in the Great War than in any war before, there was a general consensus in both the victorious and the defeated countries that every fallen soldier was entitled to a proper burial and that the nation had to ensure that his name was not forgotten. Millions of soldiers had died in foreign lands but they still had the right of a dignified burial place.

Often, a proper burial was not possible as many bodies were torn to pieces and could not be identified. The inability to identify the remains of so many soldiers led to the problem that hundreds of thousands of names could not be linked to a body or grave. The names of these missing soldiers were eternalised by writing them in books of remembrance or inscribing them on the walls of cemeteries or monuments, but this did not resolve the fact that there was no tomb for the bereaved to visit. This problem was solved by the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

National and individual mourning

The Unknown Soldier linked national meaning with individual mourning. The pride in a hero who had sacrificed his life for his country could comfort the bereaved and give a meaning to his death. The families of missing soldiers could pay their last respects to the Unknown Soldier as if he were their own son, husband, or father.

The central monuments of Unknown Soldiers and their local representations became places of national demonstrations and private mourning. In Britain, on 11 November 1920 hundreds of thousands went on a pilgrimage to see the Cenotaph and visit the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. This was no different in France, and later in Italy, Poland or other countries.

In the national interest

In Britain, the Unknown Warrior, and France the Unknown Soldier were potentially able to represent the whole nation. But – as almost everywhere – political parties quarreled about the right interpretation and the proper place for their monument. In France right-wing groups did not want to leave the symbol in the hands of the Republic. Instead of the Panthéon they successfully proposed a site beneath the Arc de Triomphe. The public response was tremendous and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier became one of the most important French memorial places.

The tomb of the British Unknown Warrior was placed in Westminster Abbey. Here he rests among the great men and women of the nation. In the first week after the burial between 500,000 and 1 million people visited the tomb. But as a site of national memory, the tomb of the Unknown Warrior was overshadowed by Lutyen’s Cenotaph in Whitehall, built in wood and plaster in 1919 as a provisional memorial for the peace celebrations, later becoming permenant and crafted in Portland stone.

A national symbol?

In Eastern Europe ethnic conflicts limited the integrative effect of the symbol. The overlap between the First World War and the subsequent state building wars had its own particular impact on the cult of the Unknown Soldier. In Poland the Unknown Soldier did not die in a battle of the Great War. Only a soldier who had died in one of the wars of the newly founded Polish Republic could be chosen, because these were the only wars in which soldiers had fought exclusively for Poland and not for one of the imperial powers. The Ukrainian minority of the Second Polish Republic did not participate in the commemoration of the Unknown Soldier. Everyone knew that the Polish Unknown Soldier was killed by a Ukrainian bullet. The Polish Unknown Soldier had helped destroy the Ukrainian efforts to build a state on former Habsburg territories.

Neither the Weimar Republic nor the Third Reich developed a cult of the Unknown Soldier. The right-wing parties and veterans’ organisations criticised the idea of the Unknown Soldier as a symbol of the victors and not compatible with German traditions. In Nazi Germany, Hitler absorbed the reverence for the Unknown Soldier. In some Nazi publications Hitler is explicitly called the German Unknown Soldier.

Undermine and annoy

Attempts were also made to undermine the instrumentalisation of the Unknown Soldier for national purposes. Examples from France include a mock court trial organised by Parisian Dadaists in 1921, when an artist pretending to be the German Unknown Soldier was jeered by the audience, and an incident when an American war veteran was arrested after smashing a bottle of wine at the tomb of the French Unknown Soldier. The American soldier defended himself by saying that he had just wanted to have a drink with his dead comrade-in-arms. In Britain George Bernard Shaw annoyed his countrymen by speculating whether the British Unknown Warrior might actually be a grenadier from Pommerania.

Published: 8 November 2018


Christoph Mick is a professor of history at Warwick whose research focuses on the modern history of Russia and Eastern Europe, especially Poland and the Ukraine. He has a particular interest in the symbol and cult of the "Unknown Soldier" and how it adapts to changes in society and politics.

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