German remembrance cards, a.k.a. death cards (Sterbebilder) from both world wars that should not be mistakenly referred to as KIA notices are still widely available in the market and represent a narrow though quite popular niche in collecting of militaria due to their relatively low cost in comparison with photos or documents. Significance and main elements of remembrance cards will be dealt with in this article.
Remembrance cards being religious tributes to a deceased member or members of family represent historical tradition not only in Germany but other European countries as well as in the USA. Death cards dedicated to military personnel perished during global conflicts are just constituent elements of culture and are not reserved exclusively for Armed forces.
Death cards were manufactured privately in several dozen copies numerous local printing offices throughout the whole Germany and distributed to those attending funeral service as well as sent by post to friends and relatives of a deceased person who were not able to be present at the ceremony. Thus those cards made of paper or thin cardboard were printed in quantities sufficient enough to reach every member of a family or community. Nevertheless two cards dedicated to the same person but bearing different design can be seldom encountered. Two main explanations for this atypical occurrence are that all initially printed copies were distributed and additional cards were manufactured in another workshop, or different design was ordered for another burial service held in a certain time interval.
Necessary introductory remarks being set out let’s concentrate on the main elements of remembrance cards dedicated to the memory of German military personnel putting aside civilian ones. It’s worth mentioning here that standard pattern for such paper items didn’t exist and design depended entirely on relatives’ will, their financial conditions and production potential of a local printing office. Thereby two absolutely similar death cards differing just in name of a soldier are nearly impossible to be found.
Remembrance cards were usually dedicated to one particular person but cards in memory of two, three, four and even five members of the same family were produced as well. In that case portraits and information on all those persons appeared on one card that was significantly wider.
German death cards can be categorized according to their design as following.
1. Single, double sided. The following varieties are known to exist:
- Obverse: small portrait and basic information on a KIA soldier. Reverse: religious, mourning or patriotic motives.
- Obverse: two small portraits in military uniform and civilian clothes, basic information. Reverse: religious, mourning or patriotic motives.
- Obverse: information on a deceased person. Reverse: large photograph.
- Obverse: information on a deceased person. Reverse: small portrait.
- Obverse: information on a deceased person. Reverse: small portrait accompanied by religious, mourning or patriotic motives.
- Obverse: small portrait and basic information on a deceased person. Reverse: blank.
2. Folded, double sided.
Its exterior side or cover carried religious or patriotic images and sometimes a photo of soldier’s grave. Portrait and information on a deceased person were printed inside the card, i.e. on the spread.
3. Folded, double sided. Dedicated to relatives, e.g. brothers, father and son or daughter, etc.
4. Folded, double sided. Booklet in memory of up to five relatives, usually brothers.
5. Cards of unusual shape and size, e.g. folding envelope, postcard-size or even bigger.
In most cases printed portrait of a fallen solder in his uniform remained central element of a remembrance card. There were several exceptions though, e.g. full-length portraits, portraits in civilian clothes as well as a total absence of a photograph. Cards with glued real photos, small square and large rectangular, are considered to be the most rare ones.
Some cards bear portraits of soldiers whose uniform contradicted to their branch of service. This mismatch was caused by relatives who provided inaccurate portrait to printing office due to one of the following reasons: either they just haven’t had a latest photo of their youngling wearing correct outfit or they wanted to abstract from the military service as a hostile institution that was blamed for taking life of their relative. The latter attitude stiffened by patriotic nationalist sentiments is responsible for printing of fallen Austrian soldiers portraits in imperial uniform dating back to WWI.
Obverse of any card always carried name and last name of a deceased person. Nevertheless there’s one death card in my collection dedicated to a certain “Obergefreiter B.Schneider” who died in the WWII and another to a certain “Friedrich” perished in the Great War. Absence of full names in both cases remains mystery to me that won’t ever be solved.
Moreover I’ve got a card that features only a portrait of a KIA soldier without any personal details!
Black color Gothic or Roman types or their combination were normally used in printing obverses of cards while red and sometimes more colors can be found on reverses.
Another important and probably the most interesting element for the modern day collector is personal information of a fallen soldier. It consisted of his military rank, awards (if any), occupation before draft or that of his parents, date and place of birth and finally data concerning his death. Some cards have detailed list of mourning relatives.
Indication of an exact unit of KIA is by far a distinctive feature of WWI remembrance cards, e.g. “Unteroffizier im 20.Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment, 2.Kompagnie”.
Security reasons imposed during the WWII led to a strict ban on such indications and since 1939 laconic terminology was widely used, e.g. “Gefreiter in einen Panzergrenadierregiment” or “Oberleutnant und Kompanie-Kommandeur”, etc. It was considered that publicizing of such info on death cards might allow enemy to determine strength and actual losses of German war machinery. Nevertheless death cards bearing complete information do exist but are really scarce and should be considered as highly desired collectible items.
Cause of death being another sensitive issue was widely published during the Great War (“fatal head wound”, “mortar shrapnel wound”, etc.) but was generally omitted on WWII-era cards. Instead various pathetic rhetoric was used to describe the cause of death, e.g. “sacrificed his life for the Great Germany”, “fallen during heavy battles in the prime of his life”, etc.
Nonetheless places of untimely deaths were published more or less correct, sometimes up to the name of a little-known village somewhere in the boundless Russian territory occupied by German troops. Cards bearing extracts from letters sent to the relatives of a fallen soldier by his commander also exist. In case of a demise provoked by fatal wounds an unspecific field hospital was mentioned as a place of death. Death during imprisonment in a POW camp was indicated as such.
Remembrance cards dedicated to civilians including women and young girls non-related to military service who perished during the war are sometimes seen on the market. In this case allied air raids were the most common cause of death according to the information printed there.
Mentioning of awards earned by a fallen soldier depended entirely on relatives. Some cards provide nearly complete list of military decorations, some not even though medals and badges are clearly seen on a portrait.
Combat experience of a KIA soldier was frequently published in general terms, e.g. “participant of battles in France and Russia”, “West front and East front veteran”, etc.
Address of the printing office and its name were nearly always published at the bottom of each card as advertising is always the engine of trade even in mournful times.
Various religious imprints as well as patriotic and mourning images together with vesicular passages are characteristic features of German death cards. Incidentally those images sometimes are more interesting for non-militaria collectors who pay no attention to photo of KIA and related data and concentrate almost on design.
Colorful reverses on remembrance cards dedicated to military personnel are not often seen though exist as well especially on items related to WWI.
Identification of authenticity of collectible items is an inevitable question every collector faces sooner or later in his career. But due to the inexhaustible range of death cards on the market and relatively low prices remembrance cards aren’t on the fraudsters’ radar yet. Only exceptionally rare cards fall prey to unscrupulous sellers but they can be easily detected by a black light as post-WWII paper contain special whiteners that are sure to glow.
Magnifying glass is an indispensable tool that can help identifying fakes multiplied using printers.
Death cards dedicated to memory of former Waffen-SS personnel, paratroopers, submariners, famous ships’ crewmembers often fall prey to fraudsters. The same applies to cards commemorating holders of numerous or highest awards.
Nevertheless it’s necessary to bear in mind though that remembrance cards were legally produced even after the war ended and due to the shortage of paper in post-war Germany those cards were sometimes reprinted.