My journey began simply.
Smitten as a boy by tales of early military aviators, adult curiosity later had me wondering about World War I German fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen. It’s easy to see why a kid like me was intrigued with this man best known as The Red Baron. Pilots like him were the astronauts of their time. Little more than a decade after the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, Richthofen and other knights of the sky were aloft in largely unpredictable machines, shooting and being fired at under perilous conditions.
To a young boy, it seemed like “Cowboys and Indians” or “Cops and Robbers,” just with different weapons. As for me, all political considerations were off the table. It mattered little that The Red Baron fought for the “other side,” long ago in a far away war I knew nothing about. In my little boy hall of fame, the sheer and utter bravery of Manfred von Richthofen put him at the top of my hero list.
In the course of his relatively short aerial career, Richthofen is credited with downing 80 enemy aircraft, or “confirmed kills.” Unofficially, he is thought to have downed even more. This made Richthofen the most decorated German pilot of World War I and earned him his country’s coveted medal, the Pour le Merite, or Blue Max. Richthofen gained the Red Baron moniker by painting his airplanes bright red, making him easier to identify. By all accounts, he enjoyed the notoriety of sporting a veritable bulls-eye on his aircraft.
As I approached middle age, I wondered if this aerial knight was still remembered in his homeland, so many decades after guns of the “war to end all wars” had gone silent. I also hoped to pay respects to this aviator who made his valiant—though deadly—mark at a key time in world history.
“…it would take me longer to locate Richthofen’s final resting place than the time it took to fight the entire First World War.”
German leaders of the time like von Hindenburg and Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to be seen with Richthofen. He was a celebrity and good for the German war effort. That being the case, tracking down this daring figure would be easy, or so I thought. Yet it would take me longer to locate Richthofen’s final resting place than the time it took to fight the entire First World War.
In my defense, I began the hunt in 1989, when the challenge of globe-trotting from the United States to East Germany was particularly formidable. Far-reaching political considerations—like the cold-war’s icy winds—would come into play. That’s because the Red Baron was buried in then-communist East Berlin, or so I thought. But first, a little background.
Born into a family of old Prussian nobility, Manfred von Richthofen was killed over French territory in 1918 during the final months of World War I. Whether he was shot by ground troops or an enemy aviator is still a topic of debate. Shortly after his death, a lone pilot flew behind German lines to drop a message. It informed Richthofen’s comrades that the ‘Ace of Aces’ was dead, adding he received a full military funeral with honor guard. Richthofen was thus ceremoniously laid to rest in a nearby cemetery at Bertangles, France.
Rarely mentioned is the 1918 transfer of Richthofen’s remains after World War I to a German cemetery in Fricourt, France. This was done for the purpose of consolidating foreign dead on French soil. In 1925, the Red Baron’s body was exhumed yet again, this time to a heroes’ welcome. Accompanied by a parade from a grateful Germany, Richthofen was laid to rest at Berlin’s Invaliden Cemetery alongside some of Germany’s great warriors.
So on a sunny day in 1989, I headed to Invaliden Cemetery as relatives I’d visited near the north German town of Hamburg waved me goodbye. The final leg of my journey to locate Manfred von Richthofen’s resting place was at hand and I felt ready. I’d researched Richthofen—including his final burial site—with Prussian-like precision worthy of the man. Or so I thought.
Journey Into The Unknown
But while I knew security would be tight, I didn’t realize just how tight, until our bus crossed into communist East Germany. In 1989, three of Berlin’s four sectors, known as West Berlin, were under the aegis of either England, France or the United States. Yet the entire city of Berlin was still located deep within the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR—East Germany. Thus, West Berlin was quite literally an island of freedom within a Soviet-administered sea. Travel there either required crossing East German terrain or airspace. My bus route in followed one of several closely-monitored access corridors leading into West Berlin.
Many years earlier, the Soviets tried to cut Berlin off from the free world by closing all access routes. The American response was the Berlin airlift. The Soviets relented and flights were resumed. But ground access remained tightly guarded and totally under communist control. Mid-way through the several hour bus ride, our coach was stopped and boarded by a team of especially stern-looking East German volkspolizei, or “vopo’s.” These were the so-called “people’s police.”
Working their way through the bus, they closely examined each passenger’s travel documents. By the time they got to me, I was sweating. My passport and visa were demanded and I surrendered them. For what seemed like a very long time, but probably no more than a minute or two, an especially serious guard stared directly into my eyes, then at my passport photo, then my eyes, then my photo again. If he meant to intimidate me, it worked. Later inside West Berlin, I secured a hotel room for the night and retreated to a restaurant for dinner and a cold beer. It tasted excellent. All German food is outstanding, or so I thought.
There would be some time for sightseeing and shopping. Yet given stringent travel restrictions, I couldn’t stay overnight in East Berlin. Unsure of what to expect from testy East German border guards if I repeatedly crossed their border, I resolved to tour East Berlin in one very full day. My plan was to walk as much as I could in hopes to satisfy my curiosity about the Red Baron and get a feel for the city. My feet almost wore out, but I saw quite a bit.
The Infamous Checkpoint Charlie
Because of my American passport, I was instructed to enter East Berlin through “Checkpoint Charlie,” administered by the United States. I’d seen old gruesome photos of Germans who died fleeing, ensnared in barbed wire. Upon arriving in Berlin, I approached the East German wall, with that barbed wire, plus imposing guard towers, alert German Shepherds, and “shoot to kill” orders. It was chilling to stand before such a massive, booby-trapped border while armed guards ensured citizens couldn’t leave their own country. This is the East Germany I would voluntarily enter.
Early the next morning, I walked into East Berlin through “Checkpoint Charlie” with little trouble. I was required to exchange money—$15 or so—for East German marks and given a receipt for my ‘deposit’ (good luck getting your money back) with the East German state bank.
This currency was so flimsy, right away it reminded me of incredibly cheap children’s play money. And while forbidden to leave East Germany with any of it, I later absent-mindedly exited their country with a few coins in my pocket. Fortunately, I wasn’t searched. Once inside East Berlin, there wasn’t much to buy, anyway. Given the bereft East German economy, it was a genuine challenge to find items of real worth. After much searching, I found some postcards (with dramatic photos of things like East German broadcast antennae) and a classical music tape performed by the East German state orchestra. So far, so good. But I’d traveled half way across the globe to find Invaliden Cemetery.
Given my time spent hunched over maps, I knew where it was located—on Invalidenstrasse, or Invaliden street. But touring this Soviet bloc nation with a map was not welcomed and before long I was stopped by an East German policeman. My grasp of the German language was then especially basic. Even so, I quickly understood. In his very loud voice, he wanted to know: What I was doing with a map inside East Berlin?
I’d read about the communist fear of spies taking photos of bridges and military installations, but hadn’t considered a common tourist map as forbidden. Stammering in response with a basic “kinder-Deutsch,” I reverted to my native tongue. He sputtered English! and turned on his heel before storming away. Things got stranger. On this day I’d later recognize as mere weeks before the Berlin wall’s fall, I witnessed an eerie site as dozens of military officers—most in dress uniform—streamed out of a building after some sort of meeting. Only later would this make sense to me.
…I noticed building after pock-marked building, still defaced from bullets of World War II.
Given East Berlin’s spartan appearance, it was clear the Soviet Union didn’t want Germans under their control living too comfortably, even four decades after the final battle. Walking through the town, I noticed building after pock-marked building, still defaced from bullets of World War II. After a particularly long and grisly war, the Soviets wanted revenge. So they packed up what remained of entire German manufacturing plants and shipped them east on railroad cars. Heading toward Invalidenstrasse, I came across a food vendor with goods on a wheeled pushcart. It wasn’t fancy and the line to buy his fare was long. He sold cooked sausages and an uncarbonated Kool-Aid type drink from paper cups. The sausages were bland and the drink was flat, but I was hungry and ate it rapidly. While eating, I could only think: What someone with a Coke or Pepsi franchise could do here.
Invaliden Cemetery is small as cemeteries go, so after a while it seemed strange to take so long in locating von Richthofen’s gravestone. I found plenty of other noteworthy Germans, but no Red Baron. It’s hard to describe my sinking feeling, but darkness fell with it. I’d traveled so far. With night in the air, I simply had to report back to “Checkpoint Charlie.” I was so close. Or so I thought.
Brush With Greatness
The way out through the checkpoint was much like my way in. Wait in line. Hand over your papers. Wait until motioned into a booth-like room equipped with an electronic buzzer lock. Then wait some more until your documents were reviewed. Joining me during my exit in such a cramped room on his way into East Germany was ABC television broadcaster Peter Jennings. He was gracious and we spoke briefly. Mr. Jennings revealed that something strange was going on inside East Germany, so he and an aide were there to report on it. That’s when I realized the military contingent I’d witnessed was something more than a veteran’s banquet.
Peter Jennings was kind enough to give me his autograph. Upon signing his name on the back of a German phrase sheet, he made note of our odd location by including: At Checkpoint Charlie.
After a long wait, we went our separate ways, he into East Germany and I into West Germany. It was quite a day. But where was the Red Baron? Exhausted back at my hotel, I considered another border crossing, but relented. In retrospect, my decision to stop was smart, because I wasn’t even close. Months after returning home, my bafflement continued: Where was Richthofen, the once world-famous Ace of Aces? By now, I was certain he didn’t reside at Invaliden Cemetery. So I reviewed my sources. Book upon book confirmed my original premise: Richthofen had indeed been buried in Berlin’s Invaliden Cemetery. But as I would later find out, not anymore.
The Internet by this time was coming into common use. On an obscure World War I Internet discussion board, several retired US Air Force personnel mentioned they knew where Richthofen was buried. A few noted they’d even seen Richthofen’s final resting place. They had my attention. But then I learned something really hard to believe. Richthofen’s remains had indeed been moved. But not once. Not twice. Not three times. But on at least four different occasions. With cemetery hopscotch like this, no wonder he’d been so hard to track down. That’s when I knew I’d have to see it for myself. But before returning to Germany, I once again brushed up on my history.
Richthofen’s best-known burial was indeed his initial internment near Bertangles, France and many photos were taken of the 1918 event. Later that same year, Richthofen’s remains were transferred to Fricourt, France soon after the war to consolidate enemy war dead. His 1925 exhumation brought Germany’s most-decorated aviator of the Great War home to a grateful nation in desperate need of heroes and still licking its wounds after defeat. Amid much fanfare, his coffin was paraded along the route to Berlin. Once there, the body of Manfred von Richthofen would rest at Invaliden Cemetery for half a century.
But several decades later at the conclusion of World War II, the German city of Berlin was divided in a negotiated settlement between the victors: Britain, the United States, France and the Soviet Union. So divided were the sectors that an eventual communist blockade of land access saw non-communist nations flying food and other supplies into free West Berlin via the Berlin Airlift. While all but Berlin’s Soviet-run eastern sector were “free,” Invaliden Cemetery happened to lie just inside the Iron Curtain. To make matters worse, Soviet-backed communists didn’t have much regard for Richthofen. Given his family’s aristocratic roots, they considered the Red Baron more a symbol of bourgeoisie capitalism than comrade-in-arms.
Equally bad to the Soviets, Richthofen represented Germany. But once the communist nation called East Germany was carved from the side of Deutschland after the Second World War, questions were raised about Richthofen’s gravesite. Plans were discussed to run the Berlin Wall through Invaliden Cemetery. Almost worthy of a spy novel, Manfred von Richthofen’s remains were spirited out of Invaliden Cemetery in 1976 during the height of the Cold War, to his final resting place at the family cemetery in Wiesbaden, Germany.
From Bertangles to Fricourt to Berlin and finally, Wiesbaden. I’d been close but had to go back. So on April 18, 1997, I boarded a plane in Portland, Oregon. With a brief stopover in Dallas/Ft. Worth, that afternoon I arrived in Frankfurt, Germany. Soon after picking up my rental car, I made the short drive to the town of Wiesbaden. Armed with directions from my Internet communiqué, it didn’t take long for me to locate the Sudfriedhof, or south cemetery. Before long, I stood at the grave of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. Considering how many times he’d been moved and what he’d meant to the German republic, I was surprised by the relatively normal nature of his grave. Yet, nearly 80 years after his death, a wreath honored the place where the ace fighter pilot now rested.
My curiosity was satisfied, for I now knew that others still remembered. Yet, something else during that trip left an even greater impression on me. For as I strolled amidst another group of headstones, I looked up. Before me lay a particularly grim reminder from a different world war. On the headstone were inscribed the names of a mother and her four sons. And while the mother lived a long life, each son was in his twenties when he died. But even though she was a doctor, this woman was never famous like Manfred von Richthofen. Yet, in her own way she sacrificed more than even the Red Baron. For instead of giving one life for Germany, she gave at least four. It was a quiet flight home.