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Collecting German (Prayer) Death Cards

Updated on December 21, 2014

WW1 and WW2 German Military Death Cards

A little information about WW1 and WW2 German Soldier Death Cards to help the new collector ease into acquiring originals for his collection; What they are, who printed them, the basic requirements.

What Exactly Are Death Cards?

In Germany, Death Cards are sold on the flea markets and collected as much for the religious scenes on the reverse as for the faces on the front. In German language, they are called "Sterbebilder". They are still, today, a Roman Catholic tradition not only in Germany but also in the United States. When a person attends a funeral, he or she is given a Death Card, as a remembrance of the deceased. When a friend or family member cannot attend the funeral, a Death Card is sent to them. Needless to say, Death Cards were produced in quantity.

Some collectors make the mistake of thinking a Death Card does not conform to rules. Well, there were no rules. They were not a military creation. They were a religious tribute. The only rule to which I am aware is that during WW2, for state security purposes, a soldier's specific unit was not listed on the card. During WW1, soldiers units were usually listed on the cards. Additionally, in WW1, a graphic cause of death was often listed on the card: mortar shrapnel to the head. During WW2, this type of graphic detail was discouraged because the German government felt it hurt morale. On WW2 cards, one most often finds heroic phrasing like, "Sacrificed his life for the Fatherland," so it was more a morale booster than a deterrent.

Cards were printed on all sorts of paper and even thin cardboard. Sometimes the printer's name and city appeared in tiny text at the bottom, but not always. How can one tell the card wasn't printed recently? Modern paper contains whiteners ( I have read whiteners were introduced after 1947). A cheap hand-held blacklight will illuminate differences in old paper and new paper. Old paper doesn't reflect the light and new paper seems to glow. This works with photos and well as documents, Prayer Cards, etc.

Card sizes vary greatly. I have had cards measure from as small as about 2.5 x 2.5 inches to about 7 x 9 inches. I say "about" because cards measure accurately in metric and not inches. However, most collectors are not on the metric system and have no means to measure them accurately. The usual single card measures about 2.75 x 4 inches. Some are a little wider or a little taller. There was no standard.

The photographs most often were in military uniform. It varies as to if the photographs were studio done, home done or field done. WW1 cards sometimes have actual photographs glued onto the cards. Many collectors find this especially desirable. When I have encountered WW1 cards with the deceased wearing civilian clothing, I think the family probably had no photographs of the deceased in military uniform. On WW2 cards, the photograph is most always in uniform. Some late 1944 and 1945 cards picture the deceased in civilian clothes. It is my assumption this happened when a soldier was killed during the war, but, news of his death reached his family after war's end and the family tried to disassociate themselves with all things from the 12 Year Regime.

Cards most often have religious scenes on the backs. Some have a prayer and a cross. Some have military scenes like a row of soldiers grave side. Typically WW1 cards have Jesus or an angel appearing to a wounded soldier or Jesus or an angel appearing on a battlefield. Some WW2 cards have political sayings and images while others have Jesus with a crown or thorns or a crucifix. WW2 cards seem to emphasize Jesus' suffering, while WW1 cards tend to emphasize comfort in Jesus' love. Some WW2 cards have a rendering of the soldier's grave with his name on the marker. Sometimes the backs on both WW1 and WW2 cards are printed in color, though that is somewhat rare.

Especially interesting are when multiple family members appeared on one card. I have seen 5 brothers on one WW2 card. That had to be especially tragic for the poor family. I have seen a father and a baby girl (father killed on Russian Front & baby killed at home in a bombing raid) on one card. I have seen father and son on a single card. I have seen a widow and late husband on a single card (she died 1950s & he died during the war). I have seen WW2 uniformed veterans pictured on cards from the 1960s. I guess the war years were the best and worst times of their lives.

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