Langemarck Streets in Germany
Today there are thirty-three streets or squares named “Langemarck” in German towns, mostly concentrated in the western regions of the country. Where does the name originate from, and when and why were streets named after “Langemarck”?
The legacy of the First World War
Langemark or Langemarck (as the German military spelled it) is a village located five miles to the north east of the medieval city of Ypres/Ieper in West Flanders (Belgium). In the First World War the area around Ypres was intensely fought over in five major battles between 1914 and 1918. During the battle of Langemarck (the First Battle of Ypres) the German advance in the west ended in a stalemate in autumn 1914. The battle gave birth to what is the most enduring myth of the First World War: the Langemarck myth about the self-sacrifice of Germany’s youth. At Langemarck, so the story goes, young regiments composed of volunteers had stormed willingly to their death, singing “Deutschland über alles” during the attack. There was no substance to this narrative, though. The German official historians had no time for such nonsense, but in the aftermath of the First World War all attempts to debunk the myth were in vain.
Langemarck came to enshrine a story of heroic failure, one that transcended conventional notions of victory and defeat. The military setback became reinterpreted as a moral victory. It was a useful myth for a defeated nation. Already a powerful symbol in last years of Imperial Germany, Langemarck was revived during the Weimar Republic. In nationalist circles 11 November – Langemarck Day – became a fixture in the calendar and an antipode to both Armistice Day (11 November, observed in Britain and France) and the founding day of the republic (9 November).
However, it was during the Third Reich that Langemarck was elevated to a state-sponsored myth. Hitler fashioned himself as a veteran of Langemarck. He invoked the myth in Mein Kampf, inaugurated the monumental Langemarck Hall during the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and paid a visit to the First World War cemetery in June 1940. In the Second World War the legacy of Langemarck became implicated in the racist war on the Eastern Front through the actions of SS-Sturmbrigade “Langemarck” and SS-Grenadier-Division “Langemarck”. War crimes were committed in the name of “Langemarck”.
Many Langemarck streets had been created during the Weimar Republic; after 1933 their number increased exponentially. This was to a large extent a suburban phenomenon, concentrated in housing estates on the outskirts of growing cities. Yet in some cases, for instance in Bremen, main roads were named after Langemarck too. The Nazis ensured that Langemarck became part of the fabric and rhythms of urban life. Langemarck began to leave its mark on the paraphernalia of quotidian life such as business cards and roadmaps. People waited at bus stops called “Langemarckstrasse”, and the names of these stops were shouted out on public transport. The intention was to create organic forms of commemoration that would subtly infiltrate the everyday.
After the Second World War
After the end of the war most Langemarck streets were renamed. In the Soviet Zone of Occupation all visible reminders of Langemarck were swiftly removed from street signs and the official address books. By contrast, in the western occupation zones confusion was ripe, compounded by the fact that the western Allies themselves were not entirely clear about how to interpret Control Council Directive No. 30 concerning the liquidation of German military and Nazi memorials. Did it, or did it not, include commemorations of the First World War? Dortmund’s administration adopted a stringent interpretation of the directive, implementing it without delay in July 1946 (when both Flandernstrasse and Langemarckstrasse were renamed). However, in nearby Gelsenkirchen Langemarckstrasse was inexplicably overlooked. The percentage of Langemarck streets that were renamed is difficult to establish with precision. Statistical evidence is available only for Westphalia where 14 out of 16 streets dedicated to Langemarck or Flanders were given new names between 1945 and 1949.
Langemark and Ieper today
Today both Langemark and Ieper are dedicated to peace. At Ieper the In Flanders Fields Museum keeps the memory of the First World War alive. This internationally renowned museum with more than 200,000 visitors per year represents the First World War in an inclusive and socio-cultural way. Personal stories are central to the museum concept. And so is the latest scholarship: a research centre is attached to the museum. Moreover, the terrible fate that befell Ieper in the First World War inspires the city to actively work for peace, with a specially dedicated peace department. The municipality of Langemark-Poelkapelle, to which the village of Langemark belongs, is also active in this field. For four years, from 1914 to 1918, the front line was on its territory and today it houses the most visited and probably most famous German military cemetery of the First World War. Just outside the cemetery, a monument calls for peace and reconciliation. It was created in 2016 through the cooperation of 200 blacksmiths from all over the world. The village is often the scene of peace demonstrations.
For an overview of the history and memory of Langemarck, see Mark Connelly and Stefan Goebel, Ypres (Oxford University Press, 2018). The same authors discuss the post-1945 legacy in their article ‘Forgetting the Great War? The Langemarck Myth between Cultural Oblivion and Critical Memory in (West) Germany, 1945–2014’, Journal of Modern History (2022). Background information on the First World War can be found on the website 1914–1918-Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War. Those planning to visit West Flanders should consult the website of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper.