The “Graves of the Victims of War and Tyranny” in the Westfriedhof
With approximately 3,800 war graves, the Westfriedhof (Western Cemetery) is one of the most significant places in Cologne that serve as a memorial to war victims and the victims of National Socialism. Most of the people buried here died in the greater Cologne area between 1939 and 1945.
The war grave sites were laid out here from 1945 until the 1960s. As a result, two large burial sites were created as well as smaller area where most war victims and those of National Socialism had been buried before 1945. These were the burial site for German civilian and military war victims, the burial site for German and foreign victims of National Socialism and the burial site for foreign prisoners of war.
According to the “Law on the preservation of the graves of victims of war and tyranny” – first passed in 1952 and updated in 1965 – these graves are protected and will be forever maintained using public funds.
Around 200 graves of German soldiers and air raid victims are no longer preserved; the victims were probably buried privately at the request of their families.
Over 800 graves of German and foreign NS victims are also no longer preserved. For various reasons, these people were not taken into consideration when the list of war graves was drawn up and the cemetery complex was designed. This includes numerous victims executed in Klingelpütz Prison and Displaced Persons – foreign forced labourers, prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates who were liberated in 1945.
You can find out about the victims of war and National Socialism who were buried in Cologne cemeteries at www.kriegsgraeber.nsdok.de.
More information can be found at the places marked on the layout plan.
From June 1940 until the arrival of the Americans in Cologne on 6 March 1945, over 1,500 German civilians – victims of air raids – were buried here. Additional resting places were created after 1945 meaning that today this burial site has a total of 1,894 graves in the war graves list.
The major air raids on Cologne, which began with the “1,000 bomber raid” carried out on 31 May 1942, claimed even more civilian victims and presented the NS regime with logistical problems. So as to rescue those trapped in the rubble and bury the dead as quickly as possible, prisoners from Buchenwald concentration camp we forced to work alongside German troops.
In 1943, due to the increasing destruction of the city and the ever-increasing number of victims, the regime went on a propaganda offensive to boost morale of the people. From then on, civilian war victims were also described as “the fallen” in the same way as German soldiers. In staged commemorations in the city centre and the cemeteries for “burying the fallen”, the “front” and the “home front” were supposed to come closer together. Dying in an air raid was declared “self-sacrifice” for the Fatherland in an attempt to strengthen cohesion within the “national community”.
Once the war ended, the complex was completed in the style of the war grave sites as introduced in the 1920s by the
Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (Commission for German War Grave Maintenance). The monumental, symmetrical complex runs towards
a high cross, which symbolises Christian comfort, while the design of the gravestones is borrowed from the Eiserne Kreuz (Iron Cross); a medal for bravery awarded to soldiers.
During the design work for the cemetery complex, many remains were exhumed and reburied in other cemeteries. Resting places were also created on the plot to the right of the high cross. These were for civilian air raid victims, who were initially buried in private graves, and air raid victims who could only be dug out of the rubble at the end of the war. Around 100 German soldiers were also buried in this grave site after the war. Most of the people buried here are men who were sentenced to death by the NS military court and were executed in Klingelpütz Prison in Cologne or at the shooting range in Cologne-Dünnwald.
In front of the burial site is a sculpture by Ossip Zadkine (1890 Vitebsk – 1967 Paris), an artist and sculptor who lived in France since 1910 and who was exiled to the USA between 1941 and 1945.
The City of Cologne was initially interested in obtaining a copy of Zadkine’s most famous work; a 6.5 metre bronze sculpture entitled De verwoeste Stad (The Ruined City). This was erected in Rotterdam in 1953 and serves as a memorial to the destruction caused by the German Luftwaffe in 1940. Both the City of Rotterdam and the artist himself opposed the idea of erecting a copy of the sculpture in a German city. Following this decision, the City of Cologne acquired a copy of the sculpture Die Gefangenen (The Prisoners) in 1959. Zadkine created this work in New York in 1943 in view of the suffering of the French population under German occupation.
2 Burial site for German and foreign victims of National Socialism
As of February 1943, a plot of land in the Westfriedhof behind the composting plant, was used as the “Foreigners’ Graveyard”. Until then, deceased foreign civilian workers were buried among the German dead in the main north-eastern section of the cemetery.
Establishing a separate burial site was probably decreed by the Cologne State Police Department. A piece of land belonging to the neighbouring Jewish cemetery was seized for the purpose. The Rhineland Regional Employment Office that operated an “invalids’ camp” in Cologne-Gremberg was also involved in this operation. The deceased from this notorious “death camp” were buried in this graveyard.
During the NS era, the burial site consisted of two sections. There was a “Slavic Site” where forced labourers from occupied Poland and the Soviet Union were buried, and next to it was an area for citizens of Western Europe – for the “Romanics” (French and Walloons), Italians and also “Germanics” (Flemings and Dutch). This segregation corresponded to the National Socialists’ racist hierarchy of different “races”. “Slavs” were generally seen as “subhuman”, with whom the “Aryan” population should have no contact.
Most of the men, women and children buried in the “Foreigners’ Graveyard” did not enter the German Reich willingly and were brought in as forced labourers. The “Slavs” in particular were heavily monitored by the Gestapo and suffered terribly due to their very bad treatment. As a result, the number of deaths rose constantly during the war. Furthermore, the forced labourers wearing a “P” for “Pole” or an Ost (East) symbol on their clothing were forbidden from seeking shelter in bunkers during air raids.
The forecourt is an enclosed space surrounded by concrete walls; it directs your gaze to a sculpture and the burial sites beyond. The sculpture by Kurt Lehmann (1905 Koblenz – 2000 Hannover) Mutter mit totem Sohn (Mother with Dead Son) was designed in 1962 and erected here in 1964. It is carved in the style of a pietà, a sculpture usually depicting the suffering of the Virgin Mary as she holds the dying Jesus in her arms. Together with the trees planted here – a birch tree and three pine trees – the area is intended to be a place where you can pause and reflect.
The sculpture by Heribert Calleen (1924–2017) was erected in 1968 to mark the end of construction on the former “Foreigners’ Graveyard”. Due to the nationwide importance of the complex, the sculpture was commissioned and financed by the Federal Government in 1966. A Christian symbol was also chosen here. Three young men who refused to worship a statue of a Babylonian King were thrown into a fiery furnace – however, according to the Old Testament, they survived. A 1968 exhibition organised by the City of Cologne stated that the sculpture represents “inextinguishable human free will”.
From the summer of 1943, the “Foreigners’ Graveyard” was also used as a burial site for anyone sentenced to death and executed by the NS Special and Military Courts. As of 1944, the bodies of hundreds of people murdered by the Gestapo in the yard of the EL-DE House – the Gestapo building in the city centre – or in other detention facilities were buried anonymously in this section of the cemetery.
In January 1946, the British military government tasked the City of Cologne with the planning of a “grove of honour” for the “Foreigners’ Graveyard” section of the cemetery. The first memorials were erected by Polish and Soviet representatives. Survivors and particularly the Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes / Bund der Antifaschisten (Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime/Federation of Antifascists) campaigned for a specific memorial for the victims of National Socialism.
Since the 1950s, graves have been relocated, new resting places created, headstones erected, ledger stones laid, and plants and paths introduced. As a result, four separate burial sites have been created that are dedicated to the various groups of victims. The entire complex was finished in 1968.
The short inscriptions on the gravestones are written in the style of the times and are somewhat confusing. As additional resting places were created and graves were relocated after the ledger stones were laid, the numbers do not necessarily correspond with the amount of people buried there.
As a result of the redesign of the burial sites as a complex “to honour the memory of those buried here, the victims of tyranny and the war of 1939–1945”, the former “Foreigners’ Graveyard” was modified. Instead of the previous two burial sites that did not contain any individual gravestones, four burial sites were created.
The spelling of the names on the gravestones is often incorrect. This particularly applies in the case of foreign victims. Furthermore, all the names in one burial site were written using the Cyrillic alphabet even though Polish citizens were among the victims buried there.
1 Victims of various nationalities
Here lie / Two hundred and eighteen citizens of various nations / Victims of tyranny and the war of 1939–1945.
During the NS era, this burial site was used to bury citizens of western European states. These were usually “Western labourers” from Belgium, Netherlands, France and Luxembourg who came to work in the German Reich. Some of them came willingly but most them came under duress. Italians, who were initially viewed as allies, were also buried here; however, after the Italian ceasefire with the Allies in September 1943, they were taken into German custody as “Italian military internees”.
Between 1945 and 1960, most of the dead were repatriated; therefore, only around 30 individuals, who were buried here before the end of war, actually remain here today. The others, approximately 170 people, had their graves relocated here from other burial sites in the Westfriedhof. Most of these were Poles or Soviets; more than half of them died after the liberation of Cologne, most of them in a camp for “Displaced Persons”.
2 Victims of the Gestapo and the NS judiciary system
Here lie / Seven hundred and twenty-eight citizens of various nations / Victims of the Gestapo
Only after 1945 was this burial site designated a separate “Gestapo Site”. It is actually the second section of the “Slavic Site”. From 17 June 1944 until 28 February 1945, a total of 636 people were buried here.
From autumn 1944, the Gestapo executed a large number of mainly Eastern European citizens; most of the executions took place in the courtyard of the EL-DE House. Therefore, there is a disproportionate number of Gestapo victims buried on this site, which explains why it was later named the “Gestapo Site”.
At the end of the war, more victims’ graves were relocated here. These include around 30 victims whose bodies were found in Klingelpütz Prison, in the courtyard of the EL-DE House, in the anatomy department of the university or among the rubble and were determined to be foreigners and/or NS victims. Furthermore, around 150 urns, which were originally stored near the depot, were transferred to this site. These were remains of victims who were imprisoned in an external camp belonging to Buchenwald concentration camp, prisoners from the Gestapo camp in the trade fair building as well as forced labourers who died in the invalids’ camp in Gremberg.
While the dates “1939–1945” have been inscribed on the ledger stones in the other burial sites in this complex, this has not been done here. The reason behind this is probably due to four young communists, who were sentenced to death in a mock trial in 1933 and whose graves were relocated here after 1945. They are the only political victims of the NS regime from the period between 1933 and 1939 who were buried in a war grave site.
This burial site has another particular feature: There are no individual gravestones showing the names of the dead. This conveys the impression that it is a mass grave where the bodies were buried anonymously and were no longer identifiable; however, this is not the case. A plan from 1954 actually exists that includes the locations of the graves and the names of the deceased. The locations of the graves of the Gestapo’s unknown execution victims are also included in this plan.
3 Victims of NS euthanasia
Here lie / One hundred and sixteen defenceless German victims of tyranny and the war of 1939–1945.
72 men and 44 women aged between 14 and 69 are buried in this site; they were murdered as part of the National Socialist euthanasia programme between 1940 and 1941. Most of them previously lived in Cologne. They were murdered using gas – over half of them in the Hadamar extermination facility near Limburg and the rest in the facilities in Bernburg on the River Saale, Brandenburg on the River Havel, Grafeneck and Sonnenstein.
These people were victims of one of Adolf Hitler’s murder programmes that were assigned to doctors in 1939. The programme was carried out in great secrecy and was implemented using cover organisations. The headquarters of the euthanasia programme was located in Tiergartenstraße 4 in Berlin. The victims mainly were housed in various psychiatric institutions and doctors registered them at the “T4 Centre” as being “unworthy of life”.
The victims’ relatives were deceived with fake information about their loved ones’ accommodation and place of death as well as the manner of their death. Attempts to check the causes of death were also thwarted as the victims were cremated immediately following their death. On request, relatives could pay to receive an urn containing the supposed ashes of their loved ones. In actual fact, the urns never contained the ashes of one single individual. Numerous relatives requested the urns and buried them in their family grave plots. When the urns were not requested, they were sent from the extermination facilities directly to the cemeteries in the victims’ home towns. The urns were then interred in rows of graves.
Thanks to the dedication of the sister of a man killed in Hadamar, the victims of the NS euthanasia programme were included in the list of war graves in Cologne. However, this burial site represents just a small part of this group of victims, which is estimated to include many hundreds of people from Cologne. The cemeteries did not register all the urns from the extermination facilities as being for transfer to this complex.
4 Polish and Soviet forced labourers and their children
Here lie / Five hundred and thirty-six men, women and children from the USSR / Victims of tyranny and the war of 1939–1945.
The burial site originally intended as the “Slavic Site” began at the back section of the complex as seen from the entrance and from February 1943 until June 1944 was used for burying adult forced labourers. Their children were buried in the section against the wall. The victims mainly came from the western areas of the German-occupied Soviet Union. However, around a third of those buried here are Polish, meaning that the inscription CCCP – the Cyrillic equivalent of USSR – is not correct.
Around half the victims died in the Rhineland Regional Employment Office’s “invalids’ camp” in Cologne-Gremberg. This was a special camp that was set up at the beginning of 1943. Here, seriously ill foreign workers from the occupied Soviet Union and Poland were kept until they were deemed fit again for “work assignments”. The majority of the inmates suffered from tuberculosis, typhus or other infectious diseases and received hardly any medical treatment.
Many of them, often young people, died after just a few days or weeks in the camp. Pregnant women were also sent to the invalids’ camp to have their children. In autumn 1944, the number of deaths of so high that the dead from Gremberg were cremated in the crematorium at the Westfriedhof so as to save space in the burial site.
Almost all of the children buried in the rear site were born in one of Cologne’s numerous forced labour camps and died within days or weeks of their birth. The causes of death often listed on the death certificates are “lung disease”, “tuberculosis” or “frailty”. The victims also included young children who were brought to Cologne with their mothers or parents and died here. Because these children were not viewed as war victims, these types of graves did not usually survive beyond 1945. However, as the site for dead children was already designated a mass grave before 1945, it survived here. The names of the victims are not included in the list of war graves, though.
The monument with the star was erected soon after the war and bears the following inscription:
Здесь похоронены /
728 Русских военнопленных /
И рабочих замученных /
Немецкими фашистами /
С 1941 г. По 1945 г. /
Памятник поставили /
(Here lie /
728 Russian prisoners of war /
And workers, who were tormented /
By German Fascists /
From 1941 until 1945 /
This monument was erected by /
(Eternal memory / The Soviet citizens / Victims of Fascism)
was erected in the 1970s by the Soviet embassy.
3 Grave site for foreign prisoners of war
From the beginning of the war, around 330 soldiers belonging to enemy armies of the National Socialist German Reich were laid to rest on various sites within Plot W. They came from Poland, the Soviet Union, France, Belgium and the USA.
The first prisoners of war buried here were soldiers belonging to the Polish army. They were brought to Cologne at the beginning of October 1939, just over a month after the invasion of Poland by the Wehrmacht on 1 September 1939. They were held in a prisoner of war camp in the Cologne trade fair from where they would be assigned to forced labour assignments. Most of the young men buried on Site 81 died from diseases that were caused by the abominable conditions in the prisoner camp.
The next group were French prisoners of war who found themselves in German captivity from May 1940 after the Wehrmacht invaded France. Many of them died in reserve military hospitals in Cologne-Nippes or Cologne-Hohenlind due to the wounds they received during battle. The French were buried on Site 90 along with some of the Belgians.
Site 81a holds the largest group buried here. It is the final resting place of around 140 Soviet prisoners of war, who were brought here after the Wehrmacht invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The prisoners survived the detention camps, which were often set up outside and fully open to the elements, and were brought to the German Reich to work as forced labourers.
Finally, there is a group of around 50 American pilots, who were shot down with their aircraft during air raids, were found dead or died in Cologne as a result of their wounds. They are buried in Site 90a.
Of the four grave sites for foreigner prisoners of war, only two exist today. As American soldiers should not really be buried in enemy territory, the bodies were transferred to cemeteries outside of Germany in April 1946. The bodies of French soldiers were mainly returned to France, but a few of them were transferred to the burial site for NS victims.
The burial site for Polish prisoners of war remained and at the end of the war some Polish citizens that had been buried in the “Foreigners’ Graveyard” were transferred here. Some Poles who died in Cologne after the liberation also have their final resting places here – a total of 43 men and two women are buried here.
The site for Soviet soldiers also remained intact. No further burials took place there after the war ended.
Just after the end of the war, former Polish forced labourers who had lived in the Etzel barracks – a camp for “Displaced Persons” in Cologne-Junkersdorf – had a memorial and individual gravestones made. The memorial is inscribed with the names, dates of birth and death and the following epitaph:
“Tu spoczywaja zolnierze polscy / ufundowalo spoleczenstwo polskie obozu Etzel 1945” (Here lie Polish soldiers / Donated by the Poles from Camp Etzel 1945).
On the grave site for Soviet prisoners of war there are two memorials. The grey granite one with a stone cross was erected shortly after the war and bears the inscription: Здесь похоронено / 137 Советских граждан погибших / В фашистском неволе / В 1941–1945 (Here lie / 137 Soviet citizens who died / Under Fascist oppression / 1941–1945). The red granite stone was probably erected in the 1970s at the instigation of the Soviet embassy. Its inscription reads: Советским гражданам / Жертвам фашизма (Soviet citizens / Victims of Fascism).
4 Grave site for those executed in Klingelpütz Prison
Between 1933 and 1945, Klingelpütz Prison in Cologne was of significant importance as a place of execution. Around 1,000–1,200 death sentences were carried out at the behest of NS Special Courts in the Rhineland, Westfalen, occupied Luxembourg, the People’s Court in Berlin, the Reich Court in Leipzig as well as NS military courts. Most executions took place from the beginning of the war.
As far as we know today, between one third and one quarter of all those executed in Klingelpütz Prison were buried in the Westfriedhof in Cologne. A similar number of bodies were sent to the anatomy institutes at the Universities of Cologne, Bonn and Münster for teaching purposes. Relatives of the victims were also allowed to bury them in private graves provided they covered the costs themselves.
The executed were victims of the notorious “short trials” and a judiciary that was fixed upon draconian deterrence and the "cleansing" of the "ethnic community". In many cases, non-political offences were punished with death, including petty crime. The accused were provided with no means of legal redress. An example of this NS injustice can be seen in the case of a 46-year-old woman, who was accused of taking a suitcase of clothes out of the rubble after the air raid on Cologne on 31 May 1942.
A large group buried in Plot U in the Westfriedhof were victims of the infamous Nacht und Nebel decree. They were arrested in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France and finally brought to the German Reich where they were condemned, murdered and buried anonymously. Their relatives were not informed. A large group of Wehrmacht soldiers are also buried here – they were accused of desertion, Wehrkraftzersetzung (subversion of national defence) or other offences and were sentenced to death by NS military courts.
Maurice Ripoche was born in Paris and took part in World War I as a pilot. After France was occupied by the Wehrmacht, he founded a resistance group called Ceux de la Libération (CDLL – Those of the Liberation). Most of the group’s members were officers of the French air force. In 1943, Ripoche was arrested by the Gestapo, brought to the German Reich and murdered. His relatives had his remains transferred to the family tomb in Paris in 1948. The commemorative stamp is part of a 23-stamp set issued by the French postal service between the years 1957 and 1961 to honour the “Heroes of the Resistance”.
Victims from Klingelpütz Prison were buried anonymously between January 1939 and September 1943 in a special grave site on Plot U. Later, until September 1944, they were buried in Plot R on Site 65 and in Plot B on Sites 4–6. None of these graves remain today.
The bodies of western European execution victims were quickly repatriated shortly after 1945 at the instigation of the countries of origin. The graves of German victims of the NS Special Courts were levelled off after a 20-year resting period. They were not seen as victims of specific NS injustices, but as “criminals” whose sentences were correctly passed. Only a very few of them were transferred to private graves or even war graves.
Almost all the executions in Klingelpütz were carried out using the guillotine. The prisoners were allowed to have a prison chaplain present when it was time for their appointment with death. In addition to the Evangelical Priest Johannes Kühler, Heinrich Gertges performed this duty for Catholic prisoners. Kühler and Gertges compiled lists of names of the dead so as to be able to inform their relatives, and at the end of the war they provided evidence of what went on in Klingelpütz.
5 Graves of Displaced Persons
At the end of the Second World War, approximately 150 children, women and men were buried at the Westfriedhof. They were liberated former forced labourers, prisoners of war or concentration camp prisoners. They were part of the group of 50,000–60,000 deportees that the Allies took care of in Cologne and the surrounding area in around May 1945.
These “Displaced Persons” (DPs) were initially registered and taken care of by the Americans who liberated the side of Cologne on the left bank of the Rhine on 6 May 1945 and then the other side around the middle of April. They subsequently organised the return of the DPs back to their home countries.
For this purpose, large “DP Camps” were set up, for example, in a barracks in Cologne-Ossendorf on what is today Butzweilerstraße for Soviets, and in the Etzel barracks on Dürener Straße in Cologne-Junkersdorf for Poles. From April, additional large-scale DP Camps were set up on the right of the river, for example, in Cologne-Mülheim (for Poles) and Cologne-Dellbrück (for Soviets). From June 1945, Cologne was part of the British occupation zone and thus the care of DPs was handed over to the British.
Citizens from France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands were the first to return to their home countries. The Soviet military administration repatriated almost all Soviet citizens by the end of August 1945. The Polish DPs remained in Cologne the longest; many of them did not want to return and wanted to emigrate to other countries. By spring 1946, the DP Camps for Poles in the Cologne urban area were closed.
Many of the liberated foreigners were in such a bad state of health that the military government made many Cologne hospitals take in foreign patients as a priority. However, many of them – often young people – died in the first months after the end of the war as a result of malnutrition or infections. The high mortality rate of infants and young children is particularly remarkable.
DPs were buried in the Westfriedhof in Plots A, D and M. While the bodies of the French were repatriated to France and those of the Italians were sent to Hamburg, a large majority of the dead – mainly Poles and Soviets – remained in the Westfriedhof. Many of them were transferred to the grave site for German and foreign NS victims during the mid-1960s.
However, around 40 dead infants and young children belonging to forced labourers from Poland and the Soviet Union were not transferred and they remain buried in Plot M on Site 42b. Most of them were born in the weeks following liberation and died just days or weeks later. As children of forced labourers did not fall under the protection of the war graves act, these graves were levelled after the resting period or were reused.