(D2-2) Local Martyrs of the ‘Third Reich’: The Funerals and Veneration of the ‘Old Fighters’ in Westphalia and of the July Putschists in Upper Austria

It is one central finding of recent research not to dismiss the stagings and the Führer cult of National Socialism as pseudo-religious, but to interpret it religio-sociologically, instead: the Manichean worldview, messianic expectations as well as rituals and symbols such as commemoration of the dead, party conference liturgy or the “Blutfahne” (blood flag) are given as arguments. In this context, reference is also made to the NSDAP “martyrs” who lost their lives either in the conflicts with the communists (Horst Wessel) or in conflicts against the “system” (the Munich putschists). From 1933 to 1945, commemorating rituals referred to their “sacrificial deaths” which helped make the seizure of power possible (“After all, you did prevail!”). Memorials, tombstones and the “Ehrentempel (honour temples) for the fallen members of the movement” pledged the living to act in accordance with the wishes of the dead.

The project takes up this approach but changes the perspective: instead of the great heroes and the practice of veneration at central NSDAP locations, the investigation will focus on local “martyrs” as there were also party and SA bigwigs in the countryside who lost their lives in the election campaigns, after 30 January 1933 and, in the case of Austria, in the July Putsch in 1934. The analysis is not aimed at the actual death, however, but at the (re)interpretation, that is, the construction of a saint’s life and of martyrdom. The starting point of the considerations is that the interrelationship of religious longing for salvation and political context may be fathomed in detail by means of regional studies. The areas of study are Westphalia on the one hand and a key region of the Austrian July Putsch on the other.

The following three research stages are scheduled:

  1. The commemorative addresses delivered by the local NS bigwigs will be retraced from the “Kampfzeit” (time of struggle) until autumn 1938 as to the contouring of the martyrdom, the relationship with the “mission of the Führer”, and the appeal to the living people’s permanent readiness to make sacrifices. Thus, the Reichskristallnacht as an event in the wake of a commemoration and the establishment of NS rule in Austria after the “Anschluss” also come into focus.
  2. The honouring of the dead, that is, the collective memoria, will be analysed as to the idea of the real presence of the dead, to liturgy and social functions.
  3. Conflict and the coexistence of religions are to be identified: how did the Christian churches and the faithful church believers act as regards the NS martyr cult? In particular, the funerals of the “Alte Kämpfer” (Old Fighters) will be analysed with regard to the NS liturgy and church agenda specifications.

The Project is part of coordinated project group Martyrdom and the cult of martyrs.