Administration out of control: District of Düren now also bans photos of the fallen in uniform at military cemeteries in Hürtgen Forest (Published on 18/08/2023)


I. District of Düren: Amendment of the cemetery rules is not planned

Already in the context of the court proceedings at the Administrative Court Aachen and the Higher Administrative Court of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia on the admissibility of the so-called flower ban on the military cemeteries in Hürtgen and Vossenack, the District of Düren, led by district administrator Wolfgang Spelthahn (Conservative party), had confirmed, that “at present” they would not intend to change of the cemetery rules of 13/09/2022 (“FO 2022”) which are considered to be illegal for several reasons here. However, it was announced that a “service instruction for the cemetery administration and the cemetery warden” would be issued, which would provide that “signs of mourning from relatives and from the circle of acquaintances of those buried on the war grave sites always fall under the exemption in sec. 4 no. 5 FO 2022, as long as they are not mourning expressions with right-wing messages”.

What purpose this is supposed to serve remains unclear. A large proportion – according to reports around 40 percent – of the officially more than 5,300 dead buried in both military cemeteries, are unknown anyway, so that relatives or “acquaintances” cannot be identified for them. As almost all of the dead died about 80 years ago, referring to an “acquaintance” with them is grotesque from the outset, because “acquaintances” with them are hardly likely to still be alive today. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine a legitimate reason why the placing of “signs of mourning” in said cemeteries by relatives and “acquaintances” of the dead should be flatly permissible, but that made by any third party flatly impermissible, cannot be conclusively justified from a legal point of view.


II. The „Dienstanweisung für die Friedhofsverwaltung und den/die Friedhofswärter/-in der Kriegsgräberstätten Hürtgen und Vossenack“ (“Service Instructions for the Cemetery Administration and the Cemetery Warden of the Hürtgen and Vossenack War Gravesites”)

As became known recently, the District of Düren under district administrator Spelthahn has issued the announced service instruction on 16/03/2023. A corresponding communication to the public or a publication of the instruction seems not to have taken place so far, the version published here was made accessible after a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

The already telling title of the instruction is “Dienstanweisung für die Friedhofsverwaltung und den Friedhofswärter/-in der Kriegsgräberstätten Hürtgen und Vossenack”, it takes the level of legal mischief entered with FO 2022 to a new dimension.

At its beginning, the purpose of the service instruction is described as follows (translated from German language):

“In the course of a year, but especially on Memorial Day, relatives or acquaintances of the buried place signs of mourning at their graves. These are wreaths, floral arrangements, flowers, grave lights, photos of the deceased, etc..

There is a need for regulation here for a clear handling by the cemetery administration and the cemetery warden.”


Now one should actually assume that the cemetery rules satisfy just this need for regulation, but not at the District of Düren. Here, not the technically bungling cemetery rules are replaced by a lawful new version, but the regulatory madness is further increased instead. Thus, the District of Düren pronounces a “determination” with regard to the FO 2022 (translated from German language):

“a) With regard to the above-mentioned acts and actions, the District of Düren determines that signs of mourning by relatives and from the circle of acquaintances of the buried, such as wreaths, flower arrangements, flowers, grave lights, photos of the deceased, etc., fall under the exemption pursuant to sec. 4 no. 5 of the cemetery rules and do not require prior approval.

b) In general and also for the above-mentioned group of persons, mourning expressions with right-wing messages or photos in Wehrmacht or SS uniforms are not permitted.“


This is followed by a “Work Instruction for the Cemetery Administration and the Cemetery Warden” (translated from German language):

“Expressions of mourning according to item 2a) are permitted. The cemetery administration and the cemetery warden are required to remove the objects of mourning [sic] after four weeks at the latest.

Furthermore, right-wing messages and photos in Wehrmacht or SS uniforms are to be removed immediately, according to paragraph 2b).”


What “objects of mourning” are supposed to be remains unclear. However, the fact that the District of Düren does not even master the terminology it has established itself is not surprising.


III. Asessement

First of all, it is noticeable that the service instruction expands the “signs of mourning” expressly determined in FO 2022 to include photos of the deceased and that the placement of certain photos in said military cemeteries is now generally prohibited, this based on an unpublished internal service instruction.

The “Representative for the care of the war grave sites Vossenack and Hürtgen as places of a democratic culture of remembrance and commemoration” (“Beauftragter für die Betreuung der Kriegsgräberstätten Vossenack und Hürtgen als Orten einer demokratischen Erinnerungs- und Gedenkkultur”), appointed by the District of Düren under strange circumstances, had already appeared some time ago with an undated pamphlet in which he announced that he had removed photos of fallen soldiers from the military cemeteries in Hürtgen and Vossenack that he disliked. In addition to an illustration of the photos he had removed, he stated there (translated from German language):

“I was also accused of having pictures of the dead removed that relatives had placed on the Hürtgen war gravesite. That is true. But the outrage about it is simply – as already mentioned above – an expression of ignorance and/or right-wing ideological overzealousness. Because what kind of pictures were these? (…) They were exclusively pictures of buried people in Wehrmacht uniforms. Thus one does not only remember those buried there, but one lets the Wehrmacht revive again by a number of pictures; particularly since these portrait photos have the character of Wehrmacht propaganda photos, showing the pictured soldiers in a cheerful and/or determined manner. Why not use pictures in normal clothing instead, which relatives surely also have? Why pictures of soldiers in uniform, on which in some cases the swastika is still visible?”


Of course, only the others act “ideologically overzealous”. Political zealots have a long tradition in Germany. It is not least this drooling, know-it-all, almost compulsive need to lecture others, that appears in the respective state’s desired ideological character of the day, on which, again and again, the world is supposed to heal and that instead ends in a catastrophe with constant regularity.

Nevertheless, precisely this missionary-like eagerness is legitimized by the District of Düren and its Conservative-party district administrator Spelthahn in the service instruction: According to this instruction, it is apparently considered a violation of the cemetery rules and possibly also a misdemeanor subject to a fine (cf. sec. 7 FO 2022) to place a photo at the grave of a fallen soldier that shows him in uniform during his lifetime, i.e. in the clothing that he was wearing with some probability – and presumably not infrequently forced to wear – also at the time of his death. In accordance with these times, the last picture of the deceased was probably in uniform in many cases. For the District of Düren this does not constitute a problem. On their ideological mission, they penetrate unaffectedly into the most personal affairs of the citizens and dare to prescribe to them in which clothes pictures of their fallen relatives are legitimate and in which not. According to the service instruction, the uniform as typical clothing of a soldier is not legitimate for a soldier buried in a military cemetery. Such senseless regulatory encroachments into the smallest details of the personal lifestyle of citizens are familiar from totalitarian dictatorships.

Just as interesting as telling about the protagonists at the District of Düren is also the fact that, in the court proceedings, they had defended the comprehensive prohibition of the deposit of “signs of mourning” on said military cemeteries, amongst others, with the allegation that an examination of each individual grave decoration deposited there was “not possible and would not be compatible with the dignity of the place”, which is why, for the avoidance of “grave decoration with right-wing extremist background”, they claimed that the deposit of any grave decoration must be forbidden generally for everyone. As is well known, neither the Administrative Court Aachen nor the Higher Administrative Court North Rhine-Westphalia took offense at this. Now, however, the District of Düren obliges its own cemetery administration and the cemetery warden to determine for each individual piece of grave decoration whether it originates from a relative or acquaintance of one of those buried in the cemetery. So while a check of the individual grave decoration is allegedly “not possible”, the recognizably much more complicated determination of a relative or even acquaintance relationship, for which in most cases not even an ID check should suffice, is possible without further ado? Cemetery administration and cemetery warden as controllers of the relationship of relatives and acquaintances of the cemetery visitors with the dead? Completely absurd.

Moreover, the service instruction – like the cemetery rules – suffers from the fundamental constitutional defect of lacking certainty, which renders every such norm unlawful. For example, it prohibits “expressions of mourning with right-wing messages” without, however, specifying what is to be understood by this. This is hardly a coincidence. The District of Düren presumably wants to reserve the unimpeded right to decide on this, although in the interpretation of what is considered to be “right-wing” they are quite generous, at least according to previous experience.

It is also noteworthy that the service instruction does not prohibit all political messages, which would actually be required by the principle of equal treatment, but only those of a “right-wing” nature. Are left-wing messages permitted, perhaps even desired, in military cemeteries? In any case, they are not forbidden according to the wording of the service instruction. It is worth recalling that the head of the Düren district administration is a Conservative-party politician.


IV. Outlook

It will be interesting to follow the machinations of the Düren district administration under district administrator Spelthahn. As usual, the political protagonists act slowly and only until they feel relevant resistance. As long as this does not happen, said service instruction will not be the last strange regulation issued by the District of Düren with regard to the military cemeteries in Hürtgen and Vossenack.


(Head picture: Candle at the grave of an unknown soldier
at the military cemetery Vossenack, summer 2023)


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