How are soldiers missing in wars?

Missing people in World War II: lost and found again

Karl Cramm will never forget this day in June 2019: Then he received a message that he had no longer expected. The 83-year-old remembers how he opened the letter and read in amazement that his father's remains had been found. The sender of the letter was the Federal Archives in Berlin, which helps clarify the fate of missing persons. 76 years had passed since his father, a Wehrmacht soldier, was missing in Stalingrad. "The last time I saw him I was five years old."

The father's last field post arrived at the beginning of January 1943 in the small town of Groß Lafferde near Braunschweig, where the family still lives today. Then the letters came back unread that the mother had sent to Stalingrad, 3,000 kilometers away. "There was great sadness."

There was no sign of life from his father, who had been drafted by the Wehrmacht in 1939 and sent to the front. At the beginning of 1942 the corporal received the order to march to Russia. The battle for Stalingrad, which the Wehrmacht attacked on their Russian campaign and besieged in the icy winter of 1942/43, was one of the most terrible and costly of the Second World War.

The crushing defeat of the Wehrmacht in the Battle of Stalingrad was a turning point in World War II

Childhood without a father

In the years after the war he missed his father very much, says Karl Cramm. "I was very sad when I saw other children with their fathers and knew my father would not come back." In order to earn the money to attend school, he helped with the harvest. "While other children were playing, I was in the field with my mother."

He later worked as a commercial clerk and started a family himself. And hoped to find out something about the fate of his missing father. He asked the "Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge", which looks after the war dead and looks after their graves. The Volksbund estimates that 1.3 million German soldiers are still missing today.

But all inquiries were in vain - until he suddenly held the letter from the Federal Archives in his hands last summer. "At first I couldn't believe that there was any more news," says the 83-year-old. "Of course I was perplexed and started crying."

Found during construction

His father's bones were discovered during construction work in Volgograd, as Stalingrad is called today. They were in a mass grave, together with the bones of more than 1,800 other German soldiers. For Karl Cramm it borders on a miracle: "I was very happy." When and how his father died could no longer be clarified. "But I'm glad I know where he's gone."

The dog tag and a photo of Karl Cramm's father

The brand was still there

The fact that the fallen from the mass grave in Volgograd could even be identified as Karl Cramm's father is thanks to the identification tag that was found on the bones. It is true that every soldier in the Wehrmacht had to wear such a mark on his body so that he could be identified in the event of his death. But after decades in the ground, the marks are often badly damaged or no longer exist.

In this case, the oval piece of metal was still there, somewhat weathered but legible - a godsend. Now the brand only had to be deciphered. Because on it is not the name of the soldier, but only his personal number.

To give back their names to the dead

For this purpose, the stamp was sent to the Federal Archives in Berlin, the only place in Germany where it can be decrypted. Specialists like the historian Robert Balsam take care of that. In his research, he draws on a unique archive treasure: a comprehensive index of all soldiers in the Wehrmacht, from private to field marshal.

"There are more than 18.5 million cards here," explains Balsam as he pulls one of the light gray filing boxes from the shelf. The card index was created and gradually and supplemented during the war. This includes personal and military details of each soldier and the number of the dog tag. In the case of missing persons, the address of the relatives is also noted. "There are still enough people who are looking and for whom that is part of their lives," says the historian.

A huge index of all Wehrmacht soldiers is the most important source when Robert Balsam identifies missing people

1200 identifications per year

The chances that a fate will be clarified 75 years after the end of the war are not so bad: Large numbers of fallen soldiers are still being rescued, be it during construction work, during excavations on former battlefields or during reburial. "Every year around 1200 soldiers are identified here who are classically still missing," Balsam sums up. Every identification of a missing person is "a totally special moment" for him. Because then a family would get certainty again and a place where they could lay flowers and mourn their loved ones. Only then could many say: "Now this is finished for me, because I now know where he is."

"A piece of him"

This is what happened to Karl Cramm. After receiving the letter from the Federal Archives, he set off for Russia. Together with his son he traveled to Volgograd, where his father's bones were buried at the German war cemetery at Rossoshka. He attended the ceremony, laying down a bouquet of white lilies and a photo of his father. He also brought flowers to the memorial for the Soviet soldiers - as a token of reconciliation.

Thanks to an agreement between Germany and Russia, the fallen can be buried in military cemeteries in the other country. This is where the fallen from the mass grave, in which Karl Cramm's father was found, are buried in Rossoshka near Volgograd

"The biggest thing for me was that they could give me my father's identification tag there," he says. "He wore this brand from the beginning of the war to the end, it is a piece of his." The 83-year-old now keeps the stamp in his room, where he can see it every day. "My father came back for me."