November 1914

The myth of Langemarck. Young people and war as a sacrifice for the homeland

By Gustavo Corni

"Exalted by nationalist rhetoric, and convinced that it was necessary to sacrifice themselves for the homeland, thousands of young Germans signed up as volunteers. Their baptism of fire was at Langemarck. Thus began a long-lasting myth, exploited by National Socialism."

"In the west of Langemarck, young regiments, accompanied by the singing of Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, attacked the first line of the enemy and conquered it.” This passage from the bulletin of the German Command on November 11th, 1914 opened the road to a lasting myth. The battle itself was modest. In the northern part of the Flanders front, the German, English, and French armies were competing in the “race to the sea.” The objective was to take control of the Franco-Belgian coast. Approximately 7,000 soldiers, largely volunteers, launched a bloody and successful attack on the British positions. Many were high school students, some under-age. In truth, the clash took place in the vicinity of Bixschote, about seven kilometres from Langemarck. The latter, perhaps due to its German-sounding name, was chosen to commemorate the battle. The clash was ensured mythical dimensions from the outset, enhanced by propaganda. The newspapers adopted the biblical theme of the "slaughter of the innocents," exalting the valour of the young, poorly trained volunteers, who sacrificed themselves, spurred by patriotic enthusiasm. The enemies called these units schoolboy corps.

The myth reflected the mood of the time: strong support by young people in war intended as a personal sacrifice in favour of the homeland in danger. Many had enrolled as volunteers; this was a major phenomenon in Britain. The battle of Langemarck reflected this spirit. This generalisation served the military and the politicians to legitimise war. Thus, the story of Langemarck became a long-lasting myth. Each year, memorial ceremonies were held, a coin was issued commemorating Langemarck and monuments were inaugurated in many German cities.
The myth was strengthened in the post-war period. Right-wing nationalists contrasted the enthusiasm and the spirit of sacrifice of the young people in Langemarck to the treachery of the leaders of the Weimar Republic that caused the defeat in 1918. The exaltation of the fallen of Langemarck became a topic of political struggle. It was used by the right and recounted by a successful writer, Ernst Jünger, in his bestseller In the storms of steel (1920). Between 1928 and 1932, a committee of citizens restored the Langemarck heroes’ cemetery housing 11,000 bodies. 

In 1924, another piece was added to the puzzle of the myth. In prison after the failure of the coup in Munich on November 8th-9th, 1923, Adolf Hitler referred to the battle in a passage of Mein Kampf : "We heard the metallic rifle fire, singing and shouting, and with possessed eyes we surged forward and further forward until battle body to body broke out in the rape fields. We heard the sound of a far-off song, approaching ever closer to us, passing from one company to another, and then, just when the men were dying around us, it also spread through our ranks and passed onto others: “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles, über alles in der Welt.”

The future dictator imagined himself among the ranks of those young people. This does not correspond to the truth, since Hitler, the soldier, did not participate directly in the battle of Langemarck. No matter, after the advent to power of National Socialism, the myth became even stronger. It was placed at the centre of a complex system to honour the fallen of World War I, of which National Socialism was declared an heir. In November 1933, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, rector of the University of Tübingen, was the official speaker for the anniversary celebrations. During the construction of the Olympic stadium in Berlin, a space was dedicated to the memory of the regiments engaged in the battle, to enhance the link between war and sport, the cult of the body and sacrifice.

The head of Nazi Youth, Baldur von Schirach, urged young people not to “talk” of Langemarck, but to “live” Langemarck. Thus, a link of continuity was traced between the sacrifice of the young people in the war and the commitment of young people in the Third Reich. 

On May 29th, 1940, a press release from the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht announced that from that moment on, the flag of the Third Reich would fly across the fields of Langemarck. A few days later, Hitler paid homage to the cemetery. The circle had been completed. The "martyrs have returned home and have found eternal peace" - proclaimed von Schirach in his speech at the cemetery on November 11th, 1940.