War memorial in vollen: the ss henchman from east frisia

A war memorial in the province turns out to be a problem. There, an SS mass murderer is celebrated as a hero.

A detail of the monument in East Frisia Photo: Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/dpa

In the East Frisian town of Vollen, there is a monument like thousands of others in Germany. It is built of red brick and, with its three name plaques, is probably not coincidentally reminiscent of a three-winged altar. On the plaques are names of deceased Germans, many names. Above them is emblazoned the inscription "To our fallen heroes".

Now, there are already legitimate doubts as to why the soldiers who fought and died for the Nazis should have been "heroes." A hero, according to popular belief, has performed a positive service – but what should that have been? Weren’t the Wehrmacht soldiers in truth stooges of military raids, volkisch-nationally justified expansionist desires, the oppression of entire nations and, last but not least, mass murder? But the public is usually not bothered by this contradiction. People have become accustomed to such monuments.

Now, however, the list of "heroes" on the Vollen monument includes a very special name. It is that of Johann Niemann, the deputy commander of the Sobibor death camp, where about 180,000 Jews were murdered. Before that, he was a concentration camp guard and involved in the murder of disabled people. Niemann was not killed in action, but was killed with axe blows during the uprising of the Jewish prisoners of Sobibor on October 14, 1943.

Gunther Eden, chairman of the civic association Vollen, which is responsible for the maintenance of the structure, claims to have learned only recently that Niemann was involved in the Holocaust. However, the role of the SS-Untersturmfuhrer has been known at least since the Sobibor trial in Hagen. And that ended 55 years ago.

A reminder of what?

After protests from the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Eden now wants to renovate the memorial. An information board is to provide information about Niemann’s crimes. Instead of "Our fallen heroes" it is thought that in the future "The dead admonish" will be written there.

But what is Johann Niemann supposed to be warning about? About the fact that one cannot act carefully enough in extermination camps to protect oneself from being killed by the prisoners? That a career in the SS might not be worthwhile after all?

Johann Niemann was a mass murderer. His name should be erased.