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LANGEMARCK a myth was born

The name Langemarck, a small village in Belgium, grew in significance in the years following the war. Many Germans were unwilling to accept that they had been defeated, preferring to blame politicians and industrialists who were said to have ‘stabbed them (the army) in the back’; for the veterans Langemarck came to stand for victory out of defeat, a spiritual or moral victory gained by self sacrifice, a victory of innocence and youth pitted against hard professionalism, a victory of idealism in the service of the nation.

What became know as ‘Kindermord’or ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ took place during the first battle of Ypres in the early days of the war. Enthusiastic and inexperienced students came fatally face-to-face with battle hardened British soldiers.

Beyond Langemarck cemetery’s gateway decorated with the insignia of every German university are the mass graves of 25,000 student soldiers. They represent the tens of thousands of bourgeois Germans who after this battle were disabused of the belief that the war would be short, cheap and glorious. The brutal disillusionment was the work of the much smaller number of British soldiers. These were veterans of the Boer war - working-class, long service, shilling a day men with little education. They shared nothing of the mystical patriotism of their German opponents who had ‘left the lecture rooms and school benches to be melted into a great inspired body gripped by war like an intoxicant.’ Their patriotism was to their regiment, their first loyalty to their barrack room friends. Few pre-war regular soldiers were to the war’s end.

In the years following the war German veterans, students and young people came together and organised commemorative events with a lot of flag waving and singing ‘Deutschland über alles’ in which a brutal battle was mythologised into a redemptive event. A conscious ‘handing down’ of a tradition and memory was established and later carried through into the Hitler Youth organisation.

In 1928 a student group on a visit to Langemarck found the German cemetery in a state of neglect and launched a four year public campaign to raise funds for its reconstruction with the aim of disseminating the ‘Spirit of Langemarck’ as an expression of the willingness of the individual to sacrifice himself for others. In 1932 on the anniversary of Langemarck, as the Weimar Republic was losing power, Hitler’s Storm troopers, many of who were veterans, made a week long pilgrimage to Langemarck and the battlefields.

After 1933 when Hitler took power the myth of Langemarck helped to blend the tradition of the front line soldier with the new state ideology of National Socialism and thus give it historical legitimacy. In 1938 a compulsory monthly contribution, the Langemarck Pfennig was introduced for all members of the Hitler Youth to help swell the commemoration funds. Commemorative events were reinforced by the daily use of the name Langemarck for streets, squares, and schools.

As the Second World War developed the myth Langemarck began to lose its potency. Youthful idealism and the spirit of self-sacrifice were not the qualities in greatest demand on the Eastern Front in the winter of 1941.