Stone tablets to the 1st World War

Anyone who enters the main building of the RWTH, at Templergraben 55 next to Super C, and climbs the stairs to Aula I, past the Rector’s Office, walks directly toward the RWTH’s most central memorial. The inscription “Als es galt fürs Vaterland, treu die Klinge war zur Hand, war es auch zum letzten Gang” (When it was time for the fatherland, the blade was faithfully at hand, even if it was for the last course) is emblazoned above the door. Below it are some 170 names carved into large stone slabs, members of the RWTH who died in World War One. As the university’s most present place of remembrance, in the main building, just a few meters from the Rector’s office, in the heart of the RWTH campus, the plaques have been the cause of controversy within the student body and between the student body and the university on several occasions. The history, time and circumstances of their creation were unclear for a long time after the Second World War and could only be clarified in more detail in the 1990s.

After a description of the history and circumstances of the creation of the plaques, this article will also describe the later handling and criticism towards the memorial. More than a historical classification, however, it is also about a look at the culture of remembrance of the RWTH, the handling of its own role in the First World War and the lapses. The final question is how to deal with the fallen of the First World War and with the stone plaques in the main building in a contemporary way.


The RWTH in the First World War

When the First World War broke out on July 28, 1914, there was also a great willingness among students and other members of the RWTH to go to war. As at many universities in the Empire, the start of the war triggered “a wave of national pathos and enthusiasm for war” in Aachen as well. The political orientation of students, especially in corporations (fraternities), can be described in particular as “loyal to the Kaiser, anti-democratic, antisemitic […] and anti-French.” 1 For many, the fulfillment of the duty to defend the fatherland was the central motive for going to war; the proximity to the border in Aachen in particular probably reinforced this. 5,6

Shortly after the outbreak of the war, on August 1, 1914, the then rector of the RWTH, Adolf Wallichs, called for participation in the war in the “Echo der Gegenwart,” a Catholic daily newspaper that also attracted national attention:

Fellow students! In a difficult hour, the king calls the people to arms in defense of the beloved fatherland. Enthusiastically we follow this call! Boys out! If it is a matter of the fatherland, then faithfully the blades to the hand! You have sung so often, make this vow quickly into action! For we have enemies all around us. Thanks to our people’s strength we will defeat them, if all citizens are on the spot. Students, don’t miss! Let’s get to work! Fellow students, who have not yet been drafted into the army, sign up for voluntary enlistment! The list is available at the castellan in the main building.

The rector’s call was answered by about 300 students, which corresponded to almost 40% of the students in 1914, and two professors, though exact numbers cannot be reconstructed today. Those who remained in Aachen also supported the German army, so the Talbothalle, a gymnasium of the university built in 1914, was converted into a military hospital, professors’ daughters helped out as nurses. Of the members of the RWTH who performed military service in the First World War, about 200 fell.7

World War I is considered one of the first highly mechanized wars. For the first time, tanks, aircraft, poison gas, and other modern weapons systems were used in large numbers. David Lloyd George, former British war minister and prime minister, even referred to the war as the “war of the engineers.” The technical expertise of RWTH students was valued by the military and put to good use in the technical fields. Remarkably, it was students from technical universities who deplored the mechanization of the war, with one student from the TH Charlottenburg writing of an “industry of commercial human slaughter.” 8

However, the RWTH’s contribution to World War One encompassed much more than the use of its students and faculty. Materials (metals, illuminating petroleum, etc.) and “machines essential to the war effort” were also needed and provided by the university. Electrical machines and apparatus were subject to mandatory reporting and had to be turned in when needed. Some assistants and lecturers were drafted into armaments companies as foremen, so that teaching could no longer be maintained to the same extent as before the war. Lectures with two to three students were not uncommon, and the oral part of the doctoral examination was eliminated. Due to a lack of lecturers, many courses had to be shortened, and the course of study was cut back to an emergency course. In some cases, professors from other disciplines had to take over subjects from lecturers in wartime service. 9,10


Research activities remained unaffected by the wartime cutbacks and restrictions: metallurgy in particular conducted war-relevant research on the production of new and well-known alloys in view of the scarcity of resources due to the impossibility of importing materials from abroad. The production of sulfuric acid with raw materials available in Germany can also be traced back to Aachen research. This coincides with the work of other technical universities, in particular Fritz Haber, who developed gas warfare agents at the TH Karlsruhe, called for their military use and played a key role in the gas war in the First World War. 11

Origin of the stone tablets

For a long time, it was assumed at the RWTH that the stone plaques in the main building had been erected together with the new construction of the assembly hall in 1939/40. 12 As research by some students later revealed, the unveiling of the slabs can be dated well before that. 13

Immediately after the First World War, the then Rector of the RWTH Friedrich Klockmann wrote a letter to relatives of the fallen as well as to departments of the university. In the letter, dated July 17, 1918, he requested that “a picture[s] of your fallen son” be sent for the purpose of making an album of RWTH relatives who had died for “the Fatherland. “14 The university received subsequently numerous letters from family members, fraternities, and institutions. 15

Professor August von Brandis of the Faculty of Architecture was given the task of designing a memorial to the fallen of the First World War. 16 This goes hand in hand with a large number of monuments in the Aachen districts that were built in the 1920s and 30s. The best-known example is certainly the monument to the fallen of the First World War, unveiled in 1933 in a tower of the former city wall in Ludwigsallee. 17 The stone tablets, made according to the designs of von Brandis, were unveiled on July 2, 1925, even then in front of the hall of the main building. 18 In the following years there were some adjustments to the plaques, for example, in 1928 targeted corporations (fraternities) were contacted and missing names of fallen were added 19 and in 1929 the plaques were made more legible by toning the lettering.20

When the auditorium, and with it the entrance portal and staircase, were rebuilt in 1940 thanks to a donation from Aachener und Münchener Feuerversicherungsgesellschaft (Better known as AachenMünchener Versicherung, since 2020 Generali as the parent company. Aula I is still called Aachener und Münchener Halle), 21 the stone plaques were also renewed and missing names were added. 22 This was to be the last change to the plaques to date, apart from occasional sprucing up, for example on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the RWTH in 1995. 23


The title of the plaques: “Als es galt fürs Vaterland, treu die klinge war zur Hand, doch es war zum letzten Gang” is taken from the song “Burschen heraus” (“Boys out”) which has been known and spread among German students since 1844. The song originates from times when German students fought for a united Germany. They rejected the feudal order and demanded a constitutional monarchy. The song was recast after the failed revolution of 1848 and especially during the Empire. There, the third stanza reads:

Boys out! Let it resound from house to house!

If it is for the fatherland, then faithfully the blades at hand,

And out with brave song, be it also to the last course!

Boys out!

In his appeal, Professor Wallichs also refers to this song, but omits the last line.24

At the unveiling of the plaque in 1925, Rector Hermann Bonin and Vice-Chairman of the student body Fraisewinkel make it clear in what form the fallen are to be commemorated. In his address, Bonin recites the above-mentioned third stanza of the song “Burschen heraus” (“Boys out”) and goes on to emphasize that all “men and young men fit for arms” had joyfully answered Wallich’s call.

With enthusiasm we heard about the hard battles, the brilliant victories in which our people participated. With shining eyes we heard that really the academic youth with courageous gait took the baptism of fire.

Further, there is talk of “heroic deaths” and “cemeteries of honor”; the mournful tone of the rector’s letters of 1918 has given way to a patriotic glorification of the war. Rector Bonin alludes to the Dolchstoß legend25 that was widespread and accepted among professors and students:26

And then came hard times; the collapse of our Wehrmacht! Fratricidal fights within, signs also of a moral decay.

There came times when it seemed almost harder to live for the Fatherland than to die for it; times when we almost envied those who rested under the cool turf in enemy territory.

It also reveals a dislike of Weimar democracy that was widespread in society and especially among students.27

On the form of the monument, Bonin explains

Not a memorial stone standing outside our university, not a removable or imaginable plaque shall show the names of our heroes, but they shall be firmly and intimately grown together with our university itself, and as we hope that this building will still reach into the centuries and educate generations of capable German engineers, so shall their names live on into the centuries as a shining example of the utmost fulfillment of duty for future generations.

And he concludes his unveiling speech with the words:

It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland.28

This phrase comes from the poet Horace and is an example of the patriotic glorification of the horrors of war, which in this form also took place among other warring parties.

The speech of the rector is followed by that of the vice-president of the student body Fraisewinkel. He too praises the patriotic efforts of the soldiers for “Germany’s happiness”.

Looking ahead, let us courageously set about building anew on their work. […] So we want to vow at this point to our dead that we will honor their memory and carry on their work in earnest.

For Germany must live!29

There is no longer any talk of mourning, death is dismissed as “fate” and there is no intention of remembering the horrors of war.

The Dolchstoß legend refers to a conspiracy theory propagated by the Supreme Army Command after the end of the First World War. Instead of admitting the defeat of the German Reich, they claimed to have been “undefeated in the field” and accused Social Democrats, other democratic politicians and “Bolshevik Jewry” of treason. These “fatherless” had stabbed the German Reich in the back. The “stab in the back” legend is considered a deliberate falsification of history and fueled antisemitic, anti-democratic and anti-socialist resentment among the population.

Criticism of the stone tablets

This form of commemoration and the inscription above the plaques led to criticism and protests against the memorial in the entrance area of the main building several times since 1989.

The impetus for the protest was repair work on the stone plaques at the beginning of 1989. There was a heated discussion within the student body as to whether this form of commemoration could and should have a place at RWTH. At the suggestion of the MAI (Mechanical Engineering Initiative, a group from the Mechanical Engineering Student Council), a letter was written which was supported by various student councils. On May 10, it was also passed by the student parliament of the RWTH and sent to the then rector Klaus Habetha:

Dear Mr. Habetha,
since the beginning of the year, the repair work on the hero memorial plaques at the entrance to the assembly hall has led to discussions among students

We believe that this monument to heroes should be removed as soon as possible. Such glorification of heroic death and war cannot be reconciled with the principles of a peaceful and democratic society.

The university should erect a modern memorial at this site, commemorating the crimes of National Socialist Germany. It should be dedicated to those who suffered and were murdered because of the culpable involvement of individual university members and the RWTH as an institution.

Through such a memorial at the entrance to the assembly hall, the university would express a critical and vigilant awareness of history and at the same time stimulate discussion about the past.
We therefore propose that a commission be established to hold a competition to redesign the entrance to the auditorium and then to present various proposals. All university members should be able to participate in the choice of the concept that is ultimately to be realized.30

Subsequently, the demands of the students were discussed in the senate. In response to a question from student senator Debener, the rector explained that the demands had been discussed in the rectorate, but that the decision had been reached not to replace the plaques. “One does not recognize any hero worship […] in the commemorative plaque. Moreover, one should not so lightly remove such testimonies arising from the history of the local university. These commemorative plaques would reflect the opinion of the members of the university at that time.”31 The debate in the Senate is characterized by the false assumption, made due to the poor data situation, that the stone plaques were created together with the new construction of the assembly hall in 1940 and thus during the National Socialist era. Senator Demmer explained that the student parliament was also divided on how to deal with the plaques; 21 of the 41 members were in favor of their removal, while the remaining 20 were against it. Here, the RCDS should be mentioned in particular, which considered a removal to be “smoothing over history” and accused the other groups of trampling on the fallen of the war.32 As a compromise, Demmer proposes the installation of an information board next to the monument, so that one could encourage reflection without covering the traces of the time in retrospect. Professor Johannes Erger accuses the group arguing for removal of the monument of wanting to change historical events retrospectively. No agreement is reached in the debate.33

The debate in the Senate prompted the philosophy student body to publish a few theses for discussion in its magazine PhilFalt. The main point of discussion was the argument often put forward that the World War was in itself misanthropic and wrong, but that the soldiers should be honored as individuals. The authors point out that the fact that many soldiers went to war voluntarily, even euphorically, is all the more reason for reflection and critical questioning today.

The fact that the soldiers in the First World War were perpetrators, even “murderers,” does not exclude the possibility that they may also have been victims. But only the acknowledgement of complicity enables a path towards an anti-militaristic and pacifistic consciousness and thus towards an effective resistance of society against totalitarian tendencies. The argument that the plaques are a historical document misses the reality, according to the authors. “1. After the Second World War, all swastikas and imperial eagles were dismantled, and 2. there was an explicit demand not for their removal without comment, but for their permanent documentation […]”, the “historical ‘value'” of the plaques would thus be preserved, it was more a matter of abolishing this form of heroic commemoration that wanted to cover the horrors of war with a semblance of “honor”.34

The conflict could not be resolved. Opponents of removal argued that the plaques showed that “in war everyone is always a victim” and kept alive the memory of thousands dying on the battlefields. The stone tablets are a memorial to peace, and removing them would be tantamount to trying to rewrite history. Those in favor of their removal saw the plaques as a form of war glorification and linked them to anti-democratic and nationalistic sentiments.35

In the Senate meeting of December 6, 1990, the rector explained, in response to a renewed question from the student senator Diepers about the state of affairs regarding the stone plaques, that a special commission had discussed the issue with the participation of students. There, the decision had been made to let the tablets work for themselves as a historical document, especially in view of the knowledge that the tablets had already been unveiled in 1925. This had been discovered by a student during research. Research had also revealed that the university had donated a statue in 1953 to commemorate the victims of National Socialism (see weeping youth). A plaque was feasible, but not desirable.36

The memorial gained renewed attention in 1991 through an action by students of the student body for teaching. On the occasion of student action days on the Gulf War, they attached a banner and thus a new heading to the panels, and for a few hours the slogan “Death is a master from Germany37 was emblazoned over the auditorium. The main topics of the action days were the arms exports of the FRG and the question of arms research at the RWTH.38,39

To accompany the 125th anniversary of the RWTH, former and then active students published an anthology of essays on the history of the university. This took a critical look at the university and was intended as a counter to the official commemorative publication. In his essay “Süß ist es und ehrenvoll, für’s Vaterland zu sterben” (It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s fatherland), the former student senator of the RWTH, Hermann-Josef Diepers, deals with the stone tablets. He summarizes the discussions about the tablets in 1989/90 but also how they came into being. The essay concludes with the words:

The RWTH must therefore be asked how long it will continue to commemorate the perpetrators and call this a commemoration of the victims. A worthy memorial should be dedicated to those who opposed inhumane war policies (not only those of the National Socialists) and were therefore also persecuted within the TH, as the example of Professors Meusel40 and Blumenthal41 shows.

The boards in the auditorium should be removed!42

For the last time to date, the topic was taken up in the student newspaper Kármán No. 38 of 2008. In the editorial titled “New Heroes for the RWTH – Why the saying above the Aula I is problematic”, the authors demand that the tablets not be left uncommented, but be placed in their correct historical context by means of an information panel. Provocatively, the article concludes with the question “whether the RWTH has no other ‘heroes’ to offer than war dead”. The article did not remain without effect, and the RWTH placed a plaque next to the stone tablets.

Alfred Meusel had been a full professor of economics at RWTH since 1930 and was dismissed in 1933 for political reasons, the reason being his closeness to the KPD and former membership in the SPD. The dismissal followed denunciation by the AStA. Meusel was able to flee and died in East Berlin in 1960.

Otto Blumenthal had been a professor of mathematics at the RWTH since 1905 and was dismissed in 1933 for political reasons, the reason being his Jewish grandparents and membership in the “German League for Human Rights”. The dismissal followed denunciation by the AStA. Blumenthal died in 1944 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.                                           


Contrary to what was assumed in 1989, the stone tablets were not created during the National Socialist era but 8 years before Hitler came to power, in 1925. However, the question of whether this type of commemoration is still appropriate today remains.

When teenagers and young men went to the front for Germany in 1914, they often did so under misconceptions about the war that awaited them and because of a socially widespread patriotism. For many soldiers at the front, the “war frenzy” was soon over, and several million lost their lives in this highly technical war, sometimes in hopeless position battles; some perceived the war as a veritable industrial slaughter.

But these horrors and atrocities of war were not brought up in the aftermath immediately following the war. Instead, the deployment of German soldiers was exaggerated into a patriotic, almost martyr-like act. The youths and young men had died for the “happiness of the German nation. The treaty concluded with the victorious powers was seen in many circles as a betrayal of the German people.

The memorial to the fallen of the First World War at the RWTH is also in this tradition. The plaques clearly venerate the fallen as heroes, which is particularly evident in the unveiling speeches. Nationalist ideas and the glorification of the war permeate the speeches of the then rector and the student leader. They make it clear: our heroes, the heroes of the German people, are to be forever firmly linked to the university, ideologically and architecturally.

Several times students voiced their criticism of this “Heroes Monument”, the university never took up the objections. At first, they simply refused the requested replacement, accusing students of trying to purge history. Later, they did not want to see hero worship in the plaques. Even when the criticism was renewed in 2008, the response was not a discussion of the monument, but a small information board with a link to a Wikipedia article. All this is not a successful handling of history, but a poor attempt to appease student protest.

In its basic order, the RWTH emphasizes to pursue exclusively peaceful goals and to make its contribution to a sustainable, peaceful and democratic world.43 The First World War and the commemoration of the soldiers of this war in a laudatory presentation that conceals the atrocities of the war are at least in conflict with this principle. The location and form of the memorial make the stone plaques in the main building the most visible and present form of commemoration at RWTH. Particularly in view of the number of students who walk past the almost uncommented plaques every day, it is at least questionable whether the university is living up to its claim to itself here and whether there might not be better objects of commemoration. Or in other words: Does the RWTH have no other heroes to offer than war dead?



Special thanks without separate hierarchy:

  • The university archive of the RWTH
  • The Aachen City Library
  • The Philosophy Department for the provision of issues of PhilFalt
  • Mr. Hermann-Josef Diepers and all participating authors for “…from all politics conceivably far away”, an example and role model for engaged student body and definitely an exciting read


Aachen den 2.05.2022 (fg)


Autorenkollektiv (1995), …von aller Politik denkbar weit entfernt – Die RWTH – Ein Lesebuch, Aachen.

Ricking, Klaus (1995), Der Geist bewegt die Materie – Mens agitat molem. 125 Jahre Geschichte der RWTH, Aachen.

Klinkenberg, Hans Martin (1970), Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen 1870|1970, Stuttgart.

Zirlewagen, Marc (2008), Wir siegen oder fallen – Deutsche Studenten im Ersten Weltkrieg, Köln.

Various files of the RWTH University Archives, in particular file no. 584 for issues of the “Echo der Gegenwart” and the “Politisches Tageblatt – Aachener Anzeiger


1 abgerufen am 03.12.2021
2 Hermann-Josef Diepers, „Süß ist es und ehrenvoll, für’s Vaterland zu sterben“ in „…von aller Politik denkbar weit entfernt“, S. 81
3 Ebd., S. 85
4 Ralf Schröder, „Fragmente zur Geschichte und Gegenwart Aachener Studentenverbindungen“ in „…von aller Politik denkbar weit entfernt“, S. 17-22
5 Klaus Ricking, „Der Geist bewegt die Materie – Mens agitat molem. 125 Jahre Geschichte der RWTH Aachen“, S. 118 f.
6 Martin Biastoch, „Studenten und Universitäten im Kaiserreich – Ein Überblick“ in „Wir siegen oder Fallen“
7 Ricking, S. 119
8 Johanna Zigan, „Der erste Weltkrieg als Katalysator für die gesellschaftliche und politische Anerkennung der Ingenieurswissenschaft“ in „Wir siegen oder fallen“
9 Ebd., S. 119 ff.
10 Hans Martin Klinkenberg, „Rheinisch Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen 1870|1970“, S. 76 f.
11 Zigan, S. 112 ff.
12 Ebd., S. 110 und Diepers, S. 82
13 Ebd., S. 85
14 Letter from the rector, Hochschularchiv Akte 584
15 Ebd.
16 Politisches Tageblatt Nr. 504 vom 03.07.1925
17 Diepers, S. 97
18 Politisches Tageblatt Nr. 504 vom 03.07.1925
19 Note from the recto 13.01.1928, Hochschularchiv Akte 584
20 Letter from the rector to Prof. v. Brandis, Ebd.
21 Klinkenberg, S. 110
22 Letter Prof. Buchkremer an den Rektor, Hochschularchiv Akte 584
23 Diepers, S. 85
24 Ebd., S. 89
25 The Dolchstoßlegende refers to a conspiracy theory spread by the Obere Heeresleitung after the end of the First World War. Instead of admitting the defeat of the German Reich, they claimed to have been “undefeated in the field” and accused Social Democrats, other democratic politicians and “Bolshevik Jewry” of treason. These “fatherless” had stabbed the German Reich in the back. The Dolchstoß legend is considered a deliberate falsification of history and fueled anti-Semitic, anti-democratic and anti-socialist resentment among the population.
26 Boris Barth, „Professoren, Studenten und die Legende vom Dolchstoß“ in „Wir siegen oder fallen“, S. 377
27 Ebd. und Biastoch, S. 20
28 Unveiling speech of the rector Bonin from „Politisches Tageblatt – Aachener Anzeiger“ vom 03.07.1925
29 Unveiling speech by the vice president of the student body Fraisewinkel from „Politisches Tageblatt – Aachener Anzeiger“ vom 03.07.1925
30 Diepers, S. 81 f.
31 Minutes of the meeting of the Senate from 01.06.1989 S. 26 f., Hochschularchiv Akte 11139
32 Diepers, S. 82
33 Minutes of the meeting of the Senate from 01.06.1989
34 PhilFalt 9/89
35 Notes about PhilFalt, Fachschaft Philosophie
36 Minutes of the meeting of the Senate from 06.12.1990,
37 The words come from the “Death Fugue” by Paul Celan. The poem deals with the Nazi extermination of the Jews and is considered one of the best-known and most important German-language poems. The aforementioned sentence has become a frequently used slogan of left-wing peace protests.
38 Diepers, S. 81
39 More details on the subject of armaments research can also be found in the minutes of the Senate meeting of 07.02.1991, Hochschularchiv Akte 11209 sowie Diepers, S. 239 ff.
40 Alfred Meusel had been a full professor of economics at the RWTH since 1930 and was dismissed in 1933 for political reasons, the reason being his closeness to the KPD and his former membership in the SPD. The dismissal followed denunciation by the AStA. Meusel was able to flee and died in East Berlin in 1960.
41 Otto Blumenthal had been professor of mathematics at the RWTH since 1905 and was dismissed in 1933 for political reasons, the reason being his Jewish grandparents as well as his membership in the “German League for Human Rights”. The dismissal followed denunciation by the AStA. Blumenthal died in 1944 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
42 Diepers, S. 97
43 Basic Regulations of the RWTH in the version of13.03.2020, Präambel, S. 4