The next two Sundays, November 17th and 24th, are the German memorial holidays of Volkstrauertag and Totensonntag. Please join Keepapitchinin and its guest posters as we explore the experience of the German Latter-day Saints during and after the war years.
We will also include a lighter look at some of the contributions German-speaking members have made to the culture and history of the Church, including a poetry competition, so sharpen your pens and pull out your rhyming dictionaries.
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While manning the trenches on November 21, 1915, Karl Hoffmann found some paper and a pencil and wrote a few lines to his mission president, Hyrum Washington Valentine. The letter passed the censors and was printed in Der Stern, the periodical of the Swiss-German Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Karl Hoffmann had been baptized five years before at age 28, and was a member of the Leipzig Branch in eastern Germany. When the war started he qualified for service in the elite Royal Saxon Reserve Jäger Battalion No. 13.1 As he set off to war, Karl would have donned the distinctive uniform of his battalion, complete with black horsehair plume.
The day Karl wrote his letter was a religious holiday called Totensonntag, Sunday of the Dead, or Remembrance Sunday. Held the week before First Advent, it is similar to our Memorial Day.2
Karl noted in his letter to President Valentine:
Here in the trenches we have so much work that is almost impossible to think of writing, but I will not let the time pass, and today, on Totensonntag, will express my thoughts and feelings….
Totensonntag is a heart-rending word, if you think about those whose loss we remember this day. Thousands are now at the graves of their dead and tens of thousands weep today over their loved ones who have fallen on the battlefield. Today an inconsolable beloved wife undoubtedly sits at home gazing on the image of her dearly beloved husband, who has sacrificed for her and their children … She wants to control himself, she wants to ignore the sorrow, because she says to herself: This is not a final parting! …3
As already mentioned, she wants to conquer [her feelings], but it is impossible for her, because the greatest commandment, which the Lord taught his disciples … remains in her. It is love!
Well, my dear brothers and sisters, what do you say? Are your hearts not breaking from grief and pity, do you not want to bring her the message, that message mocked and hated by the world, but the truly joyful and happy and peaceful doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the dreaded Mormons)? How infinitely happy she would be if she knew where her husband was gone, and what she could do to redeem him, yea, and also what she must do, to be happy herself!…
[Karl then discusses the doctrine of baptism for the dead.]…
May Father in Heaven hear my prayer, and strengthen my testimony, because I know that I can only come back into the presence of our Heavenly Father through the Gospel of Mormonism, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ…
I wish and hope that we may see one another again in Leipzig, or later in Zion, and I remain … your brother in the work of the Lord,
After the First World War ended, Germany began to observe a secular holiday similar to Totensonntag, but held in the spring. It was called Volkstrauertag, the National Day of Mourning, and was held until the National Socialist (Nazi) Party discontinued it in favor of an observance called Heldengedenktag, the Day of Commemoration of Heroes. After the Second World War, the German government ended Heldengedenktag and resumed Volkstrauertag, but moved it to November to break tradition with the Nazi regime.
Volkstrauertag is now a day to remember military dead as well as victims of despotism and war throughout the world. The national and state observances normally include the playing of the German national anthem and the song “Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden” (“The Good Comrade”).
Ten months after Karl wrote his letter to President Valentine, he was killed at the Battle of the Somme. His branch president, Friedrich Hornberger, wrote to Der Stern:
Brother Karl Hoffmann was in the field since the beginning of the war and was a diligent preacher of the gospel. For his faithful performance of duty in the service of his fatherland, he was decorated with a variety of medals and promoted to corporal. He was faithful in all things, and often sacrificed his breaks to share the good news of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ with his fellow men. On 11 September  the Lord called him to the other side for a better work in his vineyard, when he fell on the battlefield, hit by shrapnel.4
This upcoming Sunday, November 17, the German people will remember the millions who lost their lives in war and violence, including Leipzig Branch’s beloved soldier-missionary Karl Hoffmann, who, like so many other soldiers from around the world, lies buried in a grave in Europe, having made the ultimate sacrifice for his homeland.
A Very Approximate Pronunciation Guide:5
Volkstrauertag = ‘folks-trauw-eh-tok
Totensonntag = ‘toe-ten-zohn-tok
Heldengedenktag = hel-den-ge-‘denk-tok
Jäger = ‘yay-gah
The picture of the two soldiers from Karl’s Reserve-Jäger-Bataillon Nr. 13 setting off to war is from Flickr, courtesy of “paranoid-womb.” For an idea of what Karl’s life would have been like in the service, don’t miss paranoid-womb’s amazing collection of WWI photographs, and also those of drakegoodman.
- Jägers, literally “huntsmen,” were fighting forces, armed in World War I with rifles and machine guns. Ludwig Karl Hoffmann is a common name, so it has been a challenge to track down details about his service, but his Battalion was part of the 24th Reserve Division and he would have participated in the Great Retreat, the First Battle of the Marne, the Second Battle of Champagne, and the Battle of the Somme. A history of the 13th Battalion can be found in Keil and von Littrow, Das Kgl. Sächs. Reserve-Jäger Bataillon Nr. 13 im Weltkriege (1934), but unfortunately I do not have access to a copy. [↩]
- Advent is the season before Christmas. Each of the four Sundays before Christmas is numbered; the fourth Sunday before Christmas is First Advent; the third Sunday before is Second Advent, etc. This year First Advent is December 1, so Totensonntag is November 24. [↩]
- The written German language tends to use exclamation points much more than English does, so do not read Karl’s use of exclamation points as an affectation. [↩]
- Karl is buried in the Maissemy German War Cemetery, Block 5, Grave 1266, surrounded by the peaceful fields of Maissemy, France. [↩]
- With apologies to Duden. [↩]