A somber place
We got out of the van and stepped into a cold, rainy French afternoon. Our group was mostly silent, save for Lisa, our tour guide, who gave us some of the details about the La Cambe Cemetery where we had just arrived.
Lisa pointed to the sets of five dark crosses, some not even two feet high. Near the base of each group of crosses were headstones bearing the names of soldiers who had died fighting in World War II, and had been laid to rest in the Normandy soil. Two names on each stone were nearly all that we would know about the young men who had fallen shortly after the D-Day invasion in June 1944.
“We needed to do this,” Lisa said. “The war was terrible and the cemetery reminds us of that.”
These weren’t the names of young men from America, Britain or Canada, those who made up the bulk of the Allied liberation forces. Those buried at La Cambe are German. To the French, they weren’t liberators, but invaders.
Like all cemeteries, La Cambe is somber. However, a visit also brings up a conflict of feelings that are different from those experienced at the nearby American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer. More than 9,300 Americans lie in that burial ground, yet that cemetery’s ever-present pall of sadness is at least tempered with the knowledge that each grave marker bears the name of a soldier who, by virtue of giving his life in Normandy, became a hero to America and France.
Heroism is not a word that comes to mind when we think about the Germans who died in the war. That’s because during warfare, there’s usually one side that is considered good and the other evil. Without a doubt, the Nazis were the bad guys.
Walking among the crosses of the more than 21,000 German soldiers buried at La Cambe, a visitor is pushed to reevaluate his thoughts about the young men who, more than sixty years since the end of the war, are by rights still the enemy.
Looking at the names of those who never made it back home, the first thing I thought was, “Why?” Not as is in “Why did these men have to die?” but more like, “Why are they here? Why would the French allow this?” Few nations are more despised than Nazi Germany, so why would the French want the bodies of these unwanted occupiers to remain in their land?
Buried where they fell
The history of La Cambe dates back to the days when World War II raged across the fields of France. It was inevitable that with the Allied invasion of Normandy, there would be tens of thousands of dead on both sides. The sheer mass of the Allied armies fighting their way through four years worth of built-up German defenses created logistical nightmares. Keeping track of the dead had to be a secondary concern for both sides fighting for their lives.
Often the Allied and German dead would be buried together where they fell. La Cambe rests on what was once an American cemetery, where the dead from both sides found their way into the same graves. After the war ended, the American dead were taken from the original burial ground and re-buried at the nearby American cemetery, probably the most famous of all the Allied cemeteries in Normandy.
With the war over, the question arose about what to do with the German soldiers still there. World War II was the third war fought between France and Germany in 70 years; by the end of the conflict animosity was high between them. France even became one of the occupying powers in post-war Germany. But reconstruction of the two nations took precedence over the need for vengeance against the Germans buried on French soil. The dead were largely left where they fell.
By 1954, the official occupation of Germany was near its end. German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, assigned the German War Graves Commission the task of locating previous German military cemeteries, and setting up new burial grounds around the world. Germany and France soon reached an agreement to move the German war dead, who had been buried in more than 1,400 French villages, to six locations in the Normandy region. La Cambe would become the largest of those German cemeteries when it was finally dedicated in September 1961.
Honor and Apologies
The commission that officially cares for La Cambe and the other German cemeteries in Normandy is an all volunteer group. Its work isn’t meant to glorify what the German army represented. Instead, the commission tries to honor the men who had their lives cut short; a way of apologizing to those men who were sent to fight in France and never returned home.
The centerpiece of La Cambe is a large cenotaph, or memorial, under which is a mass grave of nearly 300 German soldiers, most of whom are unknown. There are no German flags. The only symbol on display that can even be considered somewhat close to political is the giant Maltese cross that stands atop the grave. On each side of the cross are two dark, sad-looking figures meant to represent the parents of all the German dead buried below.
We spent time walking among the German graves, nearly all of it in silence. I looked at one of the grave markers where two soldiers were buried together:
Major Jakob Wickert: Born: June 16, 1908, Died: July 28, 1944.
Unteroffizier Gunther Rumberg: Born: November 17, 1915, Died: August 10, 1944.
It was hard to know what, or if anything should be said about the soldiers of the Third Reich. Their cause certainly wasn’t honorable, but more than 60 years later, it might be possible to separate the feelings about the men who died fighting for Germany from the ideals of their leaders that brought them to Normandy and to their deaths. Like all who have died in war, they deserve an apology.
If you go, trains run several times a day from the Paris St. Lazare station to Bayeux, where many Normandy tours begin. The train ride is about two hours. Prices start at $98.00. More information on trains to Bayeux can be found here.
Rex Crum's bio can be read at this link.