Individual and Group Identity in WWII Commemorative Sites

Madeleine Mant & Nancy C Lovell. Mortality. Volume 17, Issue 1. 2012.


Commemorating an individual after their death in the form of a headstone or memorial is an important task for survivors, a task that is further complicated when the number of dead is in the thousands, or when the bodies cannot be recovered. In the circumstance of a large-scale mortuary event, defined here as an occurrence that results in an effort to commemorate at least 1000 dead, how do the survivors effectively celebrate the lives of the deceased? Do cemeteries and memorials serve to socially bind the victims together? Is individual identity erased in the process? And, what factors influence the organisation and presentation in these large-scale memorials? In order to address these questions, five memorial sites (the American military cemetery at Normandy, France; the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl Crater Cemetery) at Honolulu, Hawaii, USA; Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, USA; the former site of Treblinka, a Nazi concentration camp outside Malkinia, Poland; and Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi concentration camp outside Oświęcim, Poland) were chosen because they are internationally recognised and have iconic status as memorial sites. Information on these sites was gathered through personal visits by the authors and interviews with representatives of the sites. Although these cemeteries and memorials were created or expanded during the same era, each situation presented unique challenges to those responsible for the memorials.

Our analysis focuses on historical context, geographic location, spatial organisation, and the presentation of individual and collective identities. Identity and memory have been the focus of much discussion related to their nature as representations that have an innate existence or universal validity, versus social or ideological constructions that are multiple and mutable. We aim in this work not to argue the relative merits of theories that see identity as self, socially, or culturally defined, or that stress the experiential quality of identity and memory, but rather we hope to contribute to the scholarship on these issues. Our analysis diverges from previous work that has emphasised the discursive role of social memory in identity politics or the symbolic dimensions of public monuments, and that has concerned itself with the controversies surrounding the competing aspirations of different religious, ethnic, and political groups in the development of commemorative sites (see e.g. Bourke, 2004; Johnson, 2004; Milton, 2001; Mitchell, 2003; Webber, 2006), although all of these issues are likely to be subject of continued debate as they come more to the fore with developments in battlefield archaeology and tourism, particularly with respect to the World Wars (Osgood, 2005; Ryan, 2007; Saunders, 2004, 2007). Instead, we follow Brubaker and Cooper (2000) in using identity and memorialisation as analytical categories as we assess the construction of identity in three American military cemeteries and the construction of prisoner and victim identity at two Nazi concentration camp sites.

The nexus between the five memorial sites is WWII. Four of the sites were created specifically to memorialise aspects of the war; Arlington Cemetery was created nearly 80 years earlier, but includes WWII dead. Estimates of total casualties in WWII vary greatly due to ineffective record keeping during the war and the loss of many primary documents, but it is widely agreed that between 35 million to 60 million people died. The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) estimates that there were more than 400,000 American casualties. In our analysis we first consider the staggering losses that presented a huge dilemma to the United States government in terms of collecting bodies, transporting bodies to burial sites, and memorialising the dead. We then consider the memorialisation of the victims of two Nazi death camps.

Identities of American War Dead

A person gives up much of his or her personal identity when joining the military, becoming a small part of a greater whole, a group that is distinct from the rest of society. Between 1900 and 1945, ‘countries relied on mass armies … based on conscripts with a cadre of professional military officers, noncommissioned officers, and certain technical specialists’ (Moskos, 2000, p. 18). The military was supported by the public and was viewed as ‘an institution legitimated in terms of values and norms based on a purpose transcending individual self-interest in favor of a presumed higher good’ (Moskos, 2000, p. 27). This distinct group is, however, based on an entrenched system of inequality. In the American army, positions are ranked within enlisted personnel, warrant officers, and commissioned officers. Among commissioned officers, for example, the lowest rank is Second Lieutenant and the highest is Five Star General of the Army, with nine ranks between them. Each rank commands a different level of respect, pay, and responsibility. An individual’s identity is thus based on three main factors: exclusivity (identity as the ‘other’); rank; and distinctions such as awards or medals of valour. Using these aspects of identity, we assess the construction of identity in military cemeteries, specifically those designed to inter a large number of military dead.

Analyses of Three Military Cemeteries with Interred WWII Combat Deaths

Normandy American Cemetery, France

Ultimately, the cemetery’s location, atop a cliff overlooking the English Channel and Omaha Beach itself, provides a commentary on the casualties’ military goals and ultimate identity.

The Normandy invasion (Operation Overlord, or ‘D-Day’) commenced on 6 June 1944, with the landing of about 34,000 American troops at Omaha Beach. Roughly 2000 perished. Casualties were hastily interred in temporary cemeteries until the end of the war, when the temporary cemeteries were disestablished and the remains exhumed. Next of kin chose whether to have the remains returned to the US for interment in national or private cemeteries, or interred at the permanent overseas American military cemetery in the region where the decedent died.

Normandy was the first American cemetery constructed in Europe after WWII and is one of 14 permanent American WWII military cemeteries on foreign soil. It covers 172.5 acres and contains 9387 headstones. The Walls of the Missing list an additional 1557 names. Each grave is marked by a white marble headstone. Latin crosses are engraved on all except for the graves of Jewish individuals, whose headstones are marked by a Star of David. The headstones are carefully aligned and the main path through the gravesite area is in the shape of a Latin cross. The graves are arranged alphabetically, without regard to the decedent’s unit, date of death, ethnicity, rank, or race, thus providing the dead with an equality that they did not have during military life. The one exception to this posthumous impartiality is Medal of Honor recipients. This medal is the nation’s highest award made to members of the armed forces for valour in combat. Recipients of the award have the information on their tombstones engraved in gold leaf, but there is no special section of the cemetery set aside for them.

In addition to the graves, the Normandy cemetery includes a large central monument, which consists of a semicircular colonnade, displays of battle maps, and a large sculpture. The sculpture is a 22-foot bronze titled ‘The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves’ and is meant to represent the spirit of the soldiers who did not manage to rise from the waves but died on the beaches below the cemetery. The statue and memorial face a large reflecting pool that sits between two constantly flying American flags.

National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl Crater Cemetery)

The Pacific Theatre was one of four that saw action during WWII. The war along the Pacific Rim was a maritime war where American and Japanese armed forces clashed for control of resources and water space. Events such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, the Battle of Midway (an atoll near the Hawaiian chain of islands), and the Battle of Iwo Jima (an island southeast of Japan) occurred here. Tens of thousands of Americans perished in Pacific Theatre action between 1941 and 1945.

Although the war ended in 1945, the remains of thousands of WWII personnel were still awaiting permanent burial several years later. The first interment was not made until 4 January 1949. This cemetery has a unique setting and for that reason was chosen as the central burial location for American servicemen and women who served and died throughout the Pacific Theatre during WWII. The cemetery covers 116 acres and is situated in a volcanic crater created some 75,000-100,000 years ago. It is located at Puowaina Drive, Honolulu, Hawaii; the Hawaiian name ‘Puowaina’ translates literally as ‘Hill of Sacrifice.’ The crater has a centuries long history of sacrifice, dating back to ancient Hawaiians, suggesting a symbolic link to what is commonly referred to as the ‘ultimate sacrifice’: giving one’s life in pursuit of a common good.

Remains of servicemen and women from all over the Pacific Rim, including Japanese prisoner of war camps, were brought to the cemetery for burial. When the remains were in the process of being recovered, families of the deceased were given the option of burial in the NMCP or returning the remains home.

There are 13,534 American soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel buried in the NMCP. An additional 18,093, either Missing in Action or known to be deceased but their bodies not recovered, are memorialised in the Courts of the Missing of the Honolulu Memorial. There are also 2075 unidentified remains buried in the cemetery, their graves marked ‘unknown.’ All of the headstones are flat, granite markers. Each headstone for identified remains contains the deceased’s name, rank, branch of service, war periods (if any), valour awards (if any), and date of birth and death, as well as a religious emblem if the family requests one. The headstones are divided into sections and arranged in the order of the bodies’ arrival at the cemetery. All soldiers are buried equally. The headstones of Medal of Honor recipients are, however, inscribed in gold leaf.

The Honolulu Memorial was added to the NMCP in 1964 to commemorate the sacrifice of American soldiers in the Pacific during WWII and the Korean War. It is a mammoth piece of architecture, rising over the graves and including ‘a nonsectarian chapel, two map galleries … two flag poles in a Court of Honor; a monumental stairway leading from the crater floor to the Court of Honor; ten courts of the Missing, five flanking each side of the stairway; and a Dedicatory Stone centered at the base of the stairway’ (Honolulu Memorial, 2007). The ABMC commissioned a large statue to appear on the front of the chapel; ‘a 30-foot female figure standing on the symbolized prow of a US Navy carrier with a laurel branch in her left hand’ (Honolulu Memorial, 2007). The memorial is designed to communicate the losses suffered by the United States during WWII and later conflicts; it includes information on the total number of American casualties during WWII and describes the battles in which they lost their lives.

Arlington National Cemetery

The Arlington National Cemetery falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Army. There are burials of those killed in action from every world conflict in which the United States has been involved, from the American Revolution to the recent war in Iraq. The land was claimed on 15 June 1864 for use as a military cemetery, and WWII dead were integrated into this already operating cemetery.

Today the cemetery covers 200 acres and there are over 300,000 burials, including past presidents, astronauts, freed slaves, and war dead from the Civil War, the two World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the recent Iraq conflict. The cemetery is still in operation for the burial of veterans as well as those killed during military service. More than 7000 funerary ceremonies occur each year.

There are over 2000 World War II burials in Arlington Cemetery. Each grave has a standard, government-issue headstone on which is inscribed the decedent’s name, dates of birth and death, rank, and specific organisation within the military (if applicable). The WWII graves are all located in Section 12 of the cemetery and are organised in the order in which the bodies were received. These repatriated bodies are buried in the cemetery because their families requested they be brought back from overseas for interment. Recipients of the Medal of Honor are not buried in a separate section, but the information on their headstones is inscribed in gold leaf.

The Arlington Cemetery includes a number of monuments, owing to the wide range of burials it includes. Those applicable to WWII include the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and several memorial trees. The Tomb of the Unknowns includes an unidentified soldier from WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and, until 1998, one from the Vietnam War. In 1998 the remains were exhumed and identified by DNA analysis; the tomb remains vacant. These white marble tombs are inscribed with Greek figures that represent ‘Peace, Victory and Valor.’ In addition, memorial trees, interspersed among the burial areas, commemorate WWII losses.

Integrating Military Identity Into a Military Cemetery

The three military cemeteries studied are very different, but a similar vein of identity construction runs through each. The concept of exclusivity is important and, although the government-issued headstones in each cemetery may be of a different design (i.e. upright marble crosses or flat granite markers), their conformity and quantity make the military cemeteries unlike civilian cemeteries. Symmetry is used in each of the cemeteries to give a balanced look. The concept of marking military identity by rank is absent in the spatial organisation of these cemeteries, although the decedent’s rank is inscribed on the grave marker. The bodies were interred either in alphabetical order (Normandy) or in the order in which they arrived at the cemetery (NMCP and Arlington).

These cemeteries champion anonymity and afford an equality that military personnel did not find in military life. The epitome of this attitude is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument that ‘allowed national leaders to commemorate the “average” soldier as a uniquely “American” figure that remained above the ties of race, religion, class, and region’ (Piehler, 1994, p. 175).

In the military context, identity is a complex subject. Collective identity is created upon an individual’s entrance into military service, and military cemeteries are designed to represent the collective loss suffered. This focus fails to highlight individual identity. Although each headstone displays personal information about the decedent, the construction of the headstones and the cemeteries serves to impede recognition of the individual; from a distance, one observes only a sea of identical headstones.

The Construction of Prisoner and Victim Identity

When a person becomes a prisoner, either because of a crime committed or for political reasons, his or her original identity is stripped away and replaced with a single socially sanctioned label, that of ‘prisoner.’ Groups of prisoners tend to lack a common social identity; however, upon entering prison, society labels the individual as deviant, criminal, or prisoner. In the particular cases analysed here, the constructed identities are those of political prisoners.

Constructing identity for death camp prisoners requires knowledge of the special circumstances involved. Prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps were gathered from all corners of Europe and brought to the camps to work as slave labour or to be killed immediately. Identity in the camps was two-fold: prisoner and victim. The identities of the prisoners were reduced to labels associated with the reasons why they were imprisoned: ‘Jews … communists, anti-fascists and other resistance fighters; rebellious juveniles, “anti-social individuals”, Gypsies, criminals, homosexuals; the physically and mentally handicapped; … and prisoners of war’ were the most likely candidates for imprisonment and death (Non-Jewish Victims, 2000). They were persecuted because of what they were, demonstrating the Nazi hatred for certain group identities, and because of what they were not: members of Hitler’s ‘Master Race.’ Considering these diverse concepts of identity, what can be said about the construction of identity in the former death camps? Further, what can be concluded about commemorating large numbers of dead whose bodies have been lost?

Site Analysis of Two Nazi Death Camps

Treblinka II, Poland

Treblinka II, the death camp (as opposed to Treblinka I, a work camp), is located approximately 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, Poland; the site was chosen by the Nazis because it was sparsely populated and in a heavily wooded area (Treblinka, 2007). This site is important not only because most of the bodies are missing, but also because the memorial is located in what is now an empty field.

The camp was built as a killing centre, the sole purpose of which was to exterminate Jews. It was one of three camps in which 1.7 million Jews were killed between March 1942 and November 1943. Deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka ended on 19 August 1943, but not before 870,000 to 925,000 people had been killed at the camp. Throughout the autumn of 1943, SS guards forced the remaining prisoners to destroy all signs of the camp, then shot them and camouflaged the site as an agricultural farm (Arad, 1987, p. 373).

The Treblinka memorial does not include traditional headstones due to the untraditional event that is memorialised. An obelisk of granite blocks stands eightmetres high, cleaved from top to bottom, and is accompanied by 17,000 granite shards. The shards are arranged in a circle around the main monument, surrounding the space where gas chambers and crematoria once stood. Several hundred of the shards include names of communities from which Jews were deported to Treblinka. The stone inscribed with the name ‘Warszawa’ stands taller than most, indicating the large number of Jews delivered directly from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camp. The memorial also includes a row of granite stones, each two to three metres high, which display the names of the countries which lost Jewish citizens to the crematoria of Treblinka: Poland, Germany, France, the former USSR, and Yugoslavia (Young, 1993, p. 189). Only one stone displays an individual name, that of Janusz Korczak, ‘head of a Jewish orphanage who chose to accompany his charges to Treblinka’ (Young, 1993, p. 192). A stone plaque sits near the base of the granite obelisk that reads ‘never again’ in Yiddish, Russian, English, French, German, and Polish (Young, 1993, p. 189).

The memorial at Treblinka is accompanied by a set of concrete railroad ties that symbolise the tracks that once led to the death camp. Other monuments are not present at the site, but the Umschlagplatz monument in Warsaw (found at the corner of Karmelicka and Stawki streets) is directly connected. The Umschlagplatz monument marks the spot from which 350,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were deported to Treblinka. It is made up of disjoined 10-foot tall white marble walls (the height of the Warsaw ghetto walls) inscribed with the first names of all the recorded victims.

The memorial at Treblinka is a symbolic Jewish cemetery, as the victims gassed here were almost entirely Jewish. Many Jewish cemeteries throughout Eastern Europe were razed during WWII by the Nazis in an attempt to entirely erase the memory of the Jews (Young, 1993, p. 189). The Treblinka memorial is a direct response to these atrocities and stands in place of those who were killed.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

Although some effort was made by the Nazis to cover up the extent of their crimes at Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz-II, many original buildings remain, including barracks and the remains of gas chambers and crematoria. Polish Army barracks were located in Oświęcim, Poland, and, in April 1940, occupying German forces both reinforced and electrified the fences surrounding the encampment (Young, 1993, p. 128). This would be the site of Auschwitz-I, the concentration and forced labour camp. Some gassings took place at Auschwitz-I, but Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, decreed that a larger camp should be built as a concentration camp with the express purpose of gassing and burning Jews (Dixon, 2005, p. 12). This camp, called Auschwitz-Birkenau, was just three kilometres away from Auschwitz-I, and comprised a complex of barracks, gas chambers, crematoria, and burning pits (Young, 1993, p. 128). Nearly 1.6 million people were sent to their deaths here. In November 1944, the Germans dynamited the crematoria, set fire to many barracks, and fled the site, forcing the able-bodied on long marches and leaving behind the sick and dying.

The headstones located in Auschwitz-Birkenau are unique because they arememorialising large groups of people, many of whose names have beenlost to history. Groups of four polished black marble headstones read:

To the memory
of the men, women, and children
who fell victim to the Nazi genocide.
Here lie their ashes.
May their souls rest in peace.

The message is displayed in English, Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew. There are several sets of headstones, one in front of the ash pond, one near a slough next to Crematorium I, and others in front of fields where human ashes were scattered. In addition to the headstones, there is one major monument and several smaller monuments. The largest monument is dedicated to the victims of fascism, and consists of a row of block-like sarcophagi, similar in form to the boxcars used to deport prisoners, along with a square of polished black marble, marked by a trianglein the middle. Twenty stone tablets are aligned in front of the monument, reading:


in 20 different languages. On the site there is also a monument to the Russian POWs, the first to die in the gas chambers, as well as a monument established by the French government to memorialise the French prisoners killed at Birkenau.

Something from Nothing: Constructing Identity without Remains

The two death camp sites are extremely different in terms of the format of commemoration, but both deal with the same challenge: memorialising a large-scale mortuary event without traditional graves or bodies. The construction of the prisoner/victim identity is complex and controversial. The idea that prisoners form a heterogeneous group is hard to depict at these sites, because the lack of bodies and primary documentation makes it difficult to separate individual identities from overall statistics. At Treblinka, Umschlagplatz, and Birkenau, the victims are represented first and foremost as part of the overall death toll that occurred at the site. Identity in terms of nationality and religious affiliation is always secondary.

At Treblinka, however, the victims are more than numbers; they are members of communities, the names of which are engraved on the memorial stones. Umschlagplatz goes as far as attempting to give the victims their names, while Auschwitz-Birkenau recognises that people of many nations, but especially Jews, died at the site. In addition, inscriptions concerning the events are presented in many different languages. These efforts assign the dead to general categories, be they regional, religious, or linguistic, but the lack of bodies and the number of dead make it impossible to appreciate a single person as anything more than a member of a larger group.

The overall design of these monuments is unbalanced; symmetry is not present, giving the sites a somewhat disturbing aesthetic. Jagged edges, scattered headstones, and undulating lines in the memorials serve to produce unease in the viewer, an emotion appropriate for honouring the painful Holocaust history. It has been said that ‘a memorial against fascism … would have to be a memorial against itself’ (Young, 2003, p. 63), demonstrating the difficult balance the monuments must find between denouncing the actions of the perpetrators without legitimating them.

When bodies are missing but the crimes are apparent, most attention appears to be placed on acknowledging the loss and determining the most accurate death statistics. Lesser emphasis is placed on identifying the dead, partly because of the enormity (and, in some cases, impossibility) of the task, and partly because the memorials are inherently political and must advertise the collective, national, or religious loss. The sets of four headstones at Birkenau are anonymous, and constructed so that the visitor can see his or her self reflected in the marble—an innocent face confronting the loss of many more innocents. There is an inherent equality at these sites; everyone is equal in death and stress is placed on images rather than words.

The struggle between individual identity and collective loss is evident at the memorials of death camps. Individual identity is mostly lost in these commemorations and the heterogeneous nature of the prisoners is not recognised outright. An attempt is made to replace the prisoner or victim labels with those of innocents and martyrs. The reason for the large number of deaths is explicitly explained, restoring general identity to the dead in terms of broad groupings. The challenge of effectively remembering a great deal of people is met through simplicity—in essence, acknowledging that the number of dead can never be properly recorded or recognised.

Factors Affecting Commemoration

The five memorial sites described above were not created in a vacuum. As John R. Gillis aptly states, ‘commemorative activity is by definition social and political, for it involves the coordination of individual and group memories, whose results may appear consensual when they are in fact the product of processes of intense contest, struggle, and, in some cases annihilation’ (Gillis, 1994, p. 5; and see also Buckham, 2003, for a discussion of how commemoration can be used to express social affiliations). The effects of religious groups, politics, and pressure by family members cannot be overlooked or understated. The families of the deceased can have an effect on memorialisation. After the end of WWII, families were given the option of having the remains returned home or transported for burial in a government-funded cemetery. Many families elected to have their loved ones’ remains buried in their hometown cemetery, but there were also thousands that chose to have the remains interred by the government. This intervention by family members means that today it is impossible to find exact statistics on death tolls in areas such as the Pacific Theatre. Many families apparently selected Arlington and other state-funded cemeteries after WWII for their prestige value. In contrast, G. Kurt Piehler argues that, starting in WWI, many families rejected the ‘official memory of war’ (1994, p. 170) created by government memorials and chose instead to commemorate their family member in a more individualistic way. This choice gave some of the dead a more individualised posthumous identity than those interred in government-funded cemeteries.

The political situation of a country has a profound effect on how memorials are created because they ‘express symbolically our political and emotional response to war and peace’ (Mayo, 1988, p. xvi; see also Grant, 2005, and Wertsch, 2008, for a discussion of collective memory). The best example of political pressure in the five case studies is that of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the construction of the Monument to the Victims of Fascism was plagued with controversy from the start. The state-appointed committee agreed that the main message should convey the dead as ‘the sacrificial martyr’ and also ‘the heroic resistance fighter’ (Huener, 2003, p. 155). The final monument form was chosen and mounted in 1967. At the last moment, a group of abstract human-like figures were moved and ‘replaced by a great polished square of black marble with a triangle in the middle’ (Young, 2003, p. 141). No official explanation has ever been made concerning the change, but James Young posits that ‘the different sizes of stones in the initial sculpture suggested children, who could not have been killed as political prisoners, but only as Jews’ (1993, p. 141), a fact that would not be lost on the audience and would negate the idea that the monument represented all victims of fascism. The memorial at Birkenau was being built while Poland was under Communist rule, and the inscriptions on the 20 tablets originally read: ‘Four million people suffered and died here at the hands of the Nazi murderers between the years 1940 and 1945’ (Young, 1993, p. 141). In the early 1990s when the democratic Polish government was instated, the messages on the tablets were corrected to read 1.5 million dead (described above).

Creating an Interpretive Framework

There are a striking number of similarities between how identity has been constructed in the aforementioned military cemeteries and the death camp sites. Each case of identity construction in a large-scale mortuary event will be affected by unique factors (such as contemporary political regime or physical location) and every conclusion drawn cannot be expected to apply to every memorial. There are benefits, however, in drawing some general conclusions in order to study additional sites and the factors that may make a memorial different from those we have discussed.


The locations chosen for large-scale memorials are rife with symbolism. The locations evoke memories of the mortuary event in an attempt to affect how the viewer considers the identity of the people involved. The three military cemeteries demonstrate this characteristic—burying the war casualties above the battle site where they died, in a crater symbolising sacrifice, or near the nation’s capital among past war heroes. The death camps chose to memorialise their mortuary events where they took place, directly identifying the dead with the location. These settings represent what was being fought for—a specific piece of land at Normandy, the nation as a whole at Arlington—or the selflessness of the war dead (the sacrifice at Punchbowl Crater), even the innocence lost in the war machine (the death camps). Monuments to large groups of people are positioned in places of great symbolic significance in accordance with the event.

The geographic locations of the military cemeteries possess great symbolic power. The cemetery at Normandy is located on the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach, the site of a major battle on D-Day. The dead were laid to rest on land they intended to claim, providing a sense of victory even in the face of incredible loss. The NMCP is quite fittingly located on a literal ‘hill of sacrifice.’ Arlington National Cemetery was not designed specifically for WWII dead, but it is located purposefully near the nation’s capital.

The sites used for the death camp memorials also are important. The Treblinka memorial is located on the razed site of the Treblinka death camp. Holocaust scholar and historian Jan T. Gross describes the site as ‘beautiful’ and ‘very effective,’ demonstrating the dichotomy the visitor encounters at Treblinka—the beauty of the monument counteracting the brutal reality of the history (personal communication, October 25, 2007). The Umschlagplatz memorial is located in the middle of the sidewalk, where the railway terminal once stood at the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto. The area is now a liminal place, demonstrating the uncomfortable history of the spot. Auschwitz-Birkenau differs from Treblinka in that many of the original buildings are still standing. The buildings are incorporated as part of the memorial, standing as a testament to the evil once committed inside those electrified fences.


The attention to symmetry is a key element in all five sites. While the cemeteries are organised in a balanced manner, the camp monuments are jarringly uneven. This is a primary characteristic of the memorials because it is the first trait that affects the viewer and therefore the idea of identity. Thousands of identical headstones indicate that each individual buried in the cemetery was a part of a greater whole. A circle of jagged stones of various sizes or a large, undulating monument show that a person represented was part of an event; the discomfiting visual provides the commentary that the event may have been negative or disturbing. These cases demonstrate that, aesthetically, symmetry has a great effect on the perception of identity since its use or disuse can provide visual information on loss and the message of the memorial.


The people memorialised in large-scale mortuary events are heterogeneous groups, a fact that causes difficulty when determining how best to represent the lives lost. Soldiers who enlisted or were drafted into the army, as well as prisoners who were forced from their homes, form a cross-section of society. These people come from different social, economic, and religious backgrounds and therefore cannot be easily symbolised in death. Due to the number of deaths that must be processed and memorialised, it is impossible to represent everyone. Memorials are thus organised into general categories in an attempt to give the dead a posthumous label. The military cemeteries can use the soldiers’ information such as name, rank, dates of birth and death, and religious affiliation to identify them; even unknown soldiers are given headstones. The death camps, where the bodies are lost and can never be properly identified, use broad categories: affected communities, at Treblinka; common first names, at Umschlagplatz; and various languages, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Every effort is made to give the dead back their identities, but in some cases the information is more specific than others, depending on the particular circumstance. Considering the number of people affected in these mortuary events, complete strangers are socially bound together in an unnatural manner.


The equality the dead encounter is utterly unlike the status they held in life. Once again, the number of dead poses difficulties and the easiest way to memorialise is to recognise everyone on the same plane. Aside from the Medal of Honor recipients at the military cemeteries and the acknowledgment of Janusz Korczak at Treblinka (whose memorial stone serves to emphasise the anonymity of all the others), no special status is awarded to any particular person interred in any of the five sites. This equality is superficial because it does not accurately embody the reality of the lives of the deceased. This artificiality can be extended to cover large-scale military mortuary monuments in general because all present a sanitised version of the event and brand the dead as heroes, martyrs, and victims, when many had no say in what role they played.


Our analysis suggests that large mortuary events can cause the plural and changing identities that have characterised a person’s life to become subjugated by the final role the individual played at the end of their life. Identity as a whole cannot be represented effectively, usually due to the number of people involved and the complex backgrounds they may have possessed. It is not necessarily a failing of the people responsible for the memorials, but, nonetheless, individual identity is suppressed into the idea of collective identity or collective loss. Memorials and cemeteries involving large-scale military mortuary events are generally placed on symbolic locations, use symmetry to send a message about the event, reduce a heterogeneous group of people to its most elementary categories, and assign an unnatural equality to the dead. If one is to investigate more closely, it is possible to find traces of individual identity, for example on specific headstones or in archival research on deportments. In the larger picture, communicating the identity of one person is perhaps not as crucial as demonstrating the shared loss. But, if one decides that it is impossible to restore identity to the dead, is that the same as admitting that the antagonistic element has victoriously erased the identity of the dead? Alternatively, do massive cemeteries or monuments to the missing serve as more powerful political statements? Often a deliberate choice is made to represent the dead as small cogs in a larger machine that they could not control.

Although distinctive factors such as religious and political pressures may affect the final product, overall, four commonalities are found in military memorials: a symbolic location, attention to symmetry for aesthetic and emotional effect, the heterogeneous nature of the dead being subsumed into the collective identity, and the dead being given an artificial equality. An individual’s final role in life becomes their eternal role in death.