How war shaped the Alter Südfriedhof

bataille de hohenlinden

Part Grave Thoughts Indeed – Part 2

Small German towns have monuments to the dead of the two world wars, sometimes combined into one, with all the names of the locals who died. The Alter Südfriedhof has no such monuments or graves. But war left its impact nonetheless, beginning with one that came centuries before.

World Wars – the prequel

Long before the twentieth century, another conflict raged across Europe so deadly that it too is sometimes referred to as a “world war”: The Thirty Years’ War.

Nearly every German town bears scars from it, less noticeable but more dramatic. In a town near where I live, the only trace of a castle destroyed in this war is a plaque in the ground. The Mariensäule column with a statue of the Virgin Mary that still stands in the center of Munich was erected to thank God for sparing the city from the ravages of the Swedish army. God may have had a hand in it, but I’m guessing the tribute paid to the feared Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus and the fortified double wall and moat did their part, too.

muenchen merian li
Sendlinger Tor gate, just steps from the Alter Friedhof, is circled in red.
Munich engraving from 1642, by Mattheus Merian the Elder

To protect the city of Munich from the enemy, it was no holds barred. Men and women were conscripted to help build fortifications, property near the city’s edge was confiscated and taxes were levied repeatedly to pay for defenses. But there was one problem: the Alter Südfriedhof, just outside the Sendlinger Tor city gate, offered the perfect hiding place for an army. Behind its walls the enemy could easily assemble out of sight, waiting for the perfect moment to attack. So the city did the logical thing: it tore down all the cemetery’s walls and buildings. This makes sense particularly when you consider how long this war lasted – from 1618 to 1648. It wasn’t exactly a sneak attack.

A French fatality

Other wars left their mark as well. Centuries later, the French Revolution sent shock waves across Europe as other crowned heads feared for their power (and their, you know, heads). The Napoleonic Wars followed close behind, traces of which are still visible, sometimes in the most unexpected places. Like my backyard.

Riding my bike through the Ebersberger Forst park, I keep my eyes peeled for an Eber (a wild boar), half hoping, half fearing to see one of the animals that gave their name to the park. They aren’t usually dangerous but certainly look it, with an impressive-looking set of tusks. But had I been biking here 221 years earlier, a boar would have been the least of my worries. Instead, I would have run straight into Austrian and French troops doing battle among the trees in the Battle of Hohenlinden, an important conflict of the Napoleonic Wars.

combined pic hohenlinden boar
Which of these would you rather run into on a bike tour?
Excerpt from Bataille de Hohenlinden, Palace of Versailles. Wild boar – Pixabay

Of course, I probably would’ve raised a few eyebrows since the bike hadn’t been invented yet, as any born-and-bred Ohioan like myself would know. Ohio was the home of the Wright brothers, inventors of the airplane and bicycle-builders by profession. You probably think I’m going to say that they invented the bicycle, which was absolutely what I intended to do. But much to my dismay, I have now discovered that it was a German who invented the bicycle in 1817.

I don’t feel bad, though, since none other than President Obama caused lots of snickering across Germany by claiming that American car companies couldn’t be allowed to fail since America had “invented the car.” It was Daimler and Benz. The Germans. Again. At least we’ve got Henry Ford, inventor of the assembly line (and raging anti-Semite, but I’m pretty sure the Germans were better at that, too).

So what does the Alter Friedhof have to do with all this? In the very center of the cemetery is a grave with an unusual inscription: mort le 26 Nivose de l’an 9, unrecognizable as a date in any European language. The man it commemorates, General Bastoul, fell in the Battle of Hohenlinden. The reforms instituted by the French Revolution included a complete reboot of the calendar to remove any religious references. This new calendar started from year one and the months were given fanciful new names. Nivose comes from the Latin nivosus, snowy, and ran from mid-December to mid-January. The unfortunate General Bastoul died of his wounds in Munich during that month, some 40 km from the site of the battle. This decisive French victory is marked by this single grave in a Munich cemetery. The battle was even commemorated in a poem.

grave of general bastoul
General Bastoul died shortly after the French Revolution, hence the unusual date written in accordance with the French Republican Calendar. Photo: Brenda Arnold

Nun left

The age of Napoleon ushered in many major reforms, including secularization. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this bureaucratic word. All church property was confiscated and monasteries and nunneries were closed; monks and nuns were turned out onto the streets. In Germany, major territorial restructuring known as mediatization reduced the mind-boggling number of 300 German states to just 39.

No wonder they had such a hard time fending off the Swedes! They probably couldn’t even decide who got to ride in front.

“Heinrich always goes first. No fair!”

“Fritz, stop poking me with your bayonet!”

Verdammt, here come the Swedes…”


For the Alter Südfriedhof, secularization meant that Protestant burials would now be allowed. In 1818 the first non-Catholic burial took place when the wine merchant Johann Balthasar Michel, a Protestant, was laid here to rest.

Listen to the ladies

The cemetery also has a link to more recent wars, but not an obvious one. The Hitler Putsch took place in Munich, the capital of conservative Bavaria. The year was 1923, just 50 years after the proud duchy ended an 800-year streak of independence by becoming part of Germany. Taken together with the general political and economic chaos of the time, this helps explain why Hitler, sentenced to five years of prison for this attempted coup, was granted mild prison conditions and released after serving just nine months.

ellen amann
Ellen Amman could have saved us, if they had only listened

But if a coalition of female Bavarian parliamentarians had prevailed, Hitler never would have gotten the chance to putsch in the first place. Swedish-born Ellen Ammann, a pioneer of women’s suffrage and education, spearheaded this group that called for Hitler to be expelled from Germany for seditious acts. This was in January 1923, nine months before his attempted coup. It was also under pressure from these women that the Bavarian Parliament deemed this coup to be an act of treason.

Ammann, a little-known hero, is buried in the Alter Südfriedhof. She died in 1932, just one year before Hitler came to power, so she was spared the sight of Hitler rising to power to unleash his horrors on Germany and the world.

World War II

Around 60% of Munich was destroyed in Allied bombing raids. The Alter Südfriedhof was not spared. As majestic as it looks today, its true splendor has been lost. The grand obelisk that originally graced the French general who died in the Napoleonic Wars was ruined, along with many other ornamentations. Considering that the cemetery is in the center of the city, it’s fortunate that it wasn’t completely destroyed.

Coming up next: Aristocratic scandals among the stones

Brenda Arnold

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The ladies, the rest home and the bombs

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