This isn’t a photo as such, but a card given to family members and other attendees at the funeral (or funeral service) of a soldier killed in battle. Giving away Sterbebilder (“death cards”) as mementos of the deceased is an old tradition, mainly in the Catholic parts of Germany and in Austria, and one that has continued to this day. It isn’t a military tradition as such, but as there were millions of Wehrmacht soldiers killed during WW2, there are countless cards with soldiers around, and they are a special interest for some collectors. They measure about 65 x 105 mm, and can be a single page or two (130 x 105 mm unfolded).
The card above was part of a lot of five cards I bought off eBay for 15 Euros. As the cards don’t mention the units the deceased belonged to or where they fell (except in very general terms; I guess the reason for that was operational secrecy), they present a puzzle to anyone trying to research them. Of the five cards I got, I’m fairly certain that I’ve managed to identify the unit of the young soldier above. Further research might help me figure out the units of the other four.
I made a search on Volksbund, the German war graves commission, where soldiers killed or missing during WW1 and WW2 are listed. Looking for “Michael Riedler” drew a blank, so I entered his first name, place of birth, and month and year of his death. This is what I found:
It appears like Volksbund got his surname wrong, which is known to happen sometimes due to the amount of records handled. Anyway, the place of death was listed as “Sanko. 1/82” in Nikolskoje. There are dozens of places named “Nikolskoje” (or rather “Nikolskoye”) in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union, so that wasn’t any help. There wasn’t any location of his grave listed, so the next best thing was to identify the field hospital where he died. I went to Lexikon der Wehrmacht and looked up Sanitätskompanien (field hospital units), abbreviated “Sanko”, and found Sanitätskompanie 82. It was part of the 2. Panzer-Division. Looking up the Division in question, I noticed that the Panzergrenadier-Regiment 304 had been formed from the Schützen-Regiment 304, which had been raised in Wehrkreis XVII in 1940. That military district was one of two in Austria, and the one were Ridler’s place of birth was located. Bingo!
In July, the 2. Panzer-Division took part in Operation Citadel. Also known as “the Battle of Kursk” or “the Battle of Prochorovka”, the battle was a strategic loss for the Germans. They went on the defensive, and the Division fought off attacks in the Orel – Bryansk area, and from 8 August in the vicinity of Yelnya. It was probably here that Michael Riedler was mortally wounded, leading to his death in the field hospital. Due to the heavy fighting in the area, there was probably little time to bury him properly, which is why there’s no known location of his grave.
His card reads (with somewhat gnarly syntax):
There follows a verse: “I have to die far from my home, the enemy’s bullet brought death to me, I fell in the midst of my comrades and moved with them to the dear God. Dear parents and siblings do not weep, comfort yourself in your deep hurt. It will only be a little while before I see you all again.” Under his photo, there’s another poem: “Mother, dry your tears! When the cold ore struck me, my last thoughts were with you. Do not break, do not break, mother-heart! Grant me the death of the hero, wear as heroine your pain! One could call you more beautiful! Do not break, do not break, mother-heart!”
On the front and back, the card says: “His faith was called Germany!”, and “Death is conquered in victory”.
The verses and quotes sums up the hero worship and cultish admiration of death so often seen in Nazi thinking, mixed with German sentimentality. Michael Riedler was one of millions of soldiers who didn’t return to his family, and this is one of the few memories he left behind.