During the Second World War, Germany executed many 0f its own citizens — the exact number is hard to come by, but at least 23,000 military members were put to death. They were executed for crimes such as treason, failure to follow orders, and desertion. Various categories of condemned men have received posthumous pardons for their actions. In 2002 a general pardon was issued for those who had deserted the Wehrmacht during the War. But already, monuments had been erected in their memory.
Possibly the first was set up in Bremen in 1986 by a veteran’s group opposed to NATO’s First Strike policy. The statue may wear a NATO helmet.
The first official memorial for the Unknown Deserter was meant to be placed in Bonn, capital of West Germany, but was finished just after the Wall came down and was set up in Potsdam. Since then, at least twenty memorials have been erected all over Germany and Austria.
Some 400,000 soldiers attempted to desert during World War II and 30,000 or so were caught and sentenced to death, though only 23,000 of these sentences were carried out before the War’s end. In 1998, the Bundestag pardoned those convicted of refusing to join the Nazi armed forces. Over the next few years other categories of resisters were also pardoned. Deserters joined the list in 2002.
The last category of resister to finally receive pardons was that of Treason. Some of those convicted of treason included men who had criticized the Hitler regime. One — an unnamed soldier — attempted in 1944 to transport thirteen Jews from Hungary to save them from the sweep that was sending Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. There was some opposition to pardoning this last group by Bundestag members who protested that traitors put the lives of others in danger, but investigation has shown that claim to be false.
In 1925, when monument building for World War I veterans became a national industry, Kurt Tucholsky wrote:
Of all the missing plaques, we specially miss this one:
This is for a man who refused to kill his fellow men.
In 2009, architect Ruedi Baur constructed such a memorial in Cologne. It is a transit shelter with these words on the roof:
Homage to the soldiers who refused to shoot at the soldiers, who refused to shoot at the people, who refused to torture the people, who refused to give information against the people, who refused to brutalise the people, who refused to discriminate against the people, who refused to ridicule the people, who showed civil courage while the majority kept silent and toed the line.