There’s little indication from looking at it that a pillar in a cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was erected by representatives of Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II.
It bears no swastika. Its inscription in German makes no mention of the Third Reich, a master race or even a message glorifying war, as the Nazis were known to do.
Unlike monuments to the Confederacy – many of which were erected decades after the U.S. Civil War – the Nazi German government erected the monument in Chattanooga before the world knew of concentration camps, the Holocaust, blitzkriegs and fire bombings.
Members from Nazi Germany’s diplomatic mission to the United States quietly installed the pillar in 1935 to memorialize German prisoners of war who died in America during World War I.
It stands in the Chattanooga National Cemetery among the graves of the German POWs, on the side of a hill surrounded by rows of white tombstones for American veterans.
The full story of how the monument came to be lies in old newspapers living in microfilm at the Chattanooga Public Library and the original, typewritten monthly reports by the cemetery’s superintendent, which sit in the archives of the nearby Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
In February 1933, The Chattanooga Daily Times reported that the German government was planning to place a monument in the Chattanooga National Cemetery.
Days before, on Feb. 4, the remains of 22 German sailors who died in Hot Springs, North Carolina, were reburied there, joining the graves of dozens of German POWs who died in nearby Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. A local Presbyterian minister delivered a prayer service.
Their remains were buried in secret, with the local papers only learning of the reburial the next day.
This came five days after a certain Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany. A few weeks later, a fire started by arson burned the German Parliament building, which led to the suspension of civil rights in the country. A few weeks after that, the Nazi paramilitary organization SS started the first concentration camp for political prisoners, Dachau.
Meanwhile, the German diplomatic mission to the United States was changing hands. Friedrich Wilhelm von Prittwitz und Gaffron, the last ambassador who represented Germany’s Weimar Republic, resigned shortly after Hitler took power.
Thanks to restructuring under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the U.S. military handed control of the Chattanooga cemetery to the Department of the Interior on Aug. 10, 1934 – between the time that the German POWs were reburied and when the placement of the monument began in earnest.
Then, the German consul from St. Louis, Missouri, paid a visit on Dec. 3, 1934.
According to records from the cemetery superintendent at the time, Reynold Freytag visited the graves of the Germany POWs and made plans “for the erection of a monument in their memory.”
The U.S. Quartermaster General at the time, Maj. Gen. L.H. Bash, approved those plans in a March 21, 1935 letter to a military officer at the German consulate in Washington, D.C., who had sent the quartermaster a sketch of the proposed monument, according to a memo in the archives of the German War Graves Commission.
On April 11, 1935, Otto Denzer from the St. Louis German consulate visited the cemetery for two days, cemetery records show. The vice consul’s mission was to arrange for a monument to stand among the 76 graves.
Denzer helped support Nazi Germany’s efforts to spread fascism in the United States in the years leading up to World War II, according to a report issued by Congress in 1940 that explored Germany’s propaganda efforts in those pre-war years.
In his report for the month of May 1935, the Chattanooga cemetery superintendent wrote, “The monument in honor of the 76 German prisoners of war interred in this cemetery has been erected by the German government.”
The Daily Times photographed the granite monument, reporting in its May 5 edition that it was standing in the cemetery.
It is a simple memorial, as far as monuments go. The names of the Germans buried there are etched on the sides, along with 14 others not buried there. Then, a message in German: “During the war years died here far from home, and Germany will ever remember you.”
It stood with little attention for four years while Nazi Germany passed race laws and declared Jewish passports invalid. The monument stood as Nazi Germany invaded Austria and some of the world powers struck a compromise with Hitler – the Munich Agreement, which handed Germany a portion of Czechoslovakia. It stood as Hitler Youth and SS soldiers smashed Jewish shops, cemeteries and houses of worship on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938 – now referred to as Kristallnacht, or “the night of broken glass.”
Then, on March 13, 1939, Nazi German diplomats made a surprise visit to Chattanooga. After a four-year delay, diplomats would finally dedicate the monument.
As Steven Luckert, senior program curator for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, pointed out in an email to Courthouse News, the consul generals visited on “what the Nazi regime termed, Heldengedenktag (memorial day for heroes).”
About 20 people took part in the dedication ceremony that unveiled the monument and laid a wreath before it.
What was said has been lost to history, at least when it comes to what was recorded in the local papers, because they were not told about the ceremony beforehand.
At a dinner after the dedication, a reporter from the Daily Times asked what St. Louis Consul General Herbert Diel had said in front of the graves and the monument. Diel said he merely laid a wreath and “said a few words.”
Germany’s consul general for New Orleans, Baron Edgar Von Spiegel, also stood in the group at the 1939 dedication ceremony, according to the Daily Times. The former World War I U-boat captain unsuccessfully offered books to the University of Miami on behalf of the Nazi regime, according to a story in the Anniston Star in August 1939, in exchange for the opportunity to vet the school’s German professor.
That fall, Nazi Germany launched a blitzkrieg into Poland, triggering World War II.
The monument stood as the cemetery transferred hands in 1944 to the War Department. By 1973, ownership of the cemetery and the monument was transferred once again, this time to the Department of Veteran Affairs and the National Cemetery Administration.
There are other monuments in the United States that commemorate German POWs of World War I. One stands in Asheville, N.C., and another in Utah.
Unlike the pillar in Chattanooga, however, they were erected with the help of the American Legion and their inscriptions include messages in both English and German.
Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of war monuments stand in Germany. After World War II, symbols of Nazi Germany were scraped away. The large swastika above the stadium in Nuremburg was packed with explosives and demolished.
But according to JÃ¶rg Echternkamp, a historian and research director of the German Military History Research Office, a monument like the one in Chattanooga would have survived the purge.
“The inscription does not imply ideals in its messaging that reflect specifically national socialist values,” he wrote in an email. “Nor is there any formal approach to glorify the soldiers as heroes as it would be typical for the Nazi era. The monument does not call for sacrifices or combat readiness in the view of another war.”
According to Loretana de Libero, who sits on the board of the German War Graves Commission, monuments to the country’s fallen soldiers have always included diverse messages.
Even today, monuments erected by Nazi Germany are sites of controversy. Neo-Nazis cherish those locations. It’s not uncommon for left-wing groups to vandalize them.
Young Germans see them as “dark places,” de Libero said. Older Germans “look upon them only as memorials for their fallen fathers and grandfathers and do not like to be [reminded] of the deadly ideology behind such monuments,” she wrote in an email.
After World War I, many German groups worked to erect monuments to the people they knew and loved who died fighting in the conflict. The projects often crept along or were tied up with disagreements on how the memorial should look or where it should stand.
“Then the Nazis came to power and occupied the idea and forced it through,” de Libero wrote.
From time to time over the past several years, representatives of Germany’s consulate in Atlanta have traveled up to lay a wreath at the monument in Chattanooga. Every year, a detachment of German soldiers stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, visits the graves of the POWs.
As for the monument itself, there are no plans to move or remove it.
“Federal statute directs [the Department of Veteran Affairs] to maintain all cemeteries, memorials and monuments transferred to the department,” Jessica Schiefer, a public affairs officer with the National Cemetery Administration, wrote in an email. “In keeping with national shrine standards, these sites are maintained in the same manner as other gravesites.”