Tombs of the Unknown Soldier in Central and Eastern Europe

Prof. Michał Chilczuk
of the Working Group
on Central and Eastern Europe, SCEA



Throughout our history and pre-history thousands of wars have been fought and millions of people lost their lives in those wars. Some, an insignificant number of victims, had their monuments erected; about a dozen victims have been remembered for several hundred years; those who started wars, rulers, intriguers and deceivers of public opinion have been remembered even longer. The "unknown soldier", millions of those who died, have been remembered only recently. It can tell us a lot about the mentality of Homo sapiens as a species.

Only after the First World War, a French patriotic activist Frederic Simon elaborated a project of commemorating the unknown victims of the war with a "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier". The slogan was purely patriotic. He meant to commemorate a French soldier, not millions of dead.

The idea was presented on 9 November 1918, two days before the capitulation in Rethondes. It was accepted by the French parliament which resolved that on the second anniversary of the capitulation the French will pay homage to the "unknown soldier". A special procedure of selecting the unknown hero was adopted in order to avoid a recognition of the victim in the future (DNA analysis was still unknown).

Eight delegations chose eight bodies at eight fronts most hard-fought on; the bodies were brought to Verdun where one coffin was selected. The coffin was decorated with flowers, brought to Paris and solemnly placed under the Arc de Triomphe on 11 November 1920.

A similar ceremony took place in Westminster Abbey in London on the same day.

Within ten years similar tombs were erected in other countries as symbols of patriotism. Nothing units people better in our common consciousness than monuments which strengthen national identity and let future generations read and learn the history of their nation.

Americans learnt of the French project when it was still in the draft phase. American logistics corps declared that 1 237 unidentified bodies of American soldiers were left in Europe, but all of them were subject to a complicated identification procedures the result of which was hard to foresee. A selection of a truly unknown soldier would be doubtful. This delayed the implementation of the initiative, which was criticized by many politicians. In September 1921 the logistics corps was ordered to start the selection procedure. 8 American soldiers from 4 cemeteries were exhumed. It was made sure that they were soldiers who died in actions or as a result of injuries suffered in combat. The selection was completed on 23 October 1921 in Chalons-sur-Marne. After a numerous American delegation, and representatives of the French army and society paid their homage, the bodies were transported by a special train to Paris where paying the homage was repeated, and the train left to Le Havre. There the bodies were transported aboard the USS "Olympia" cruiser which escorted by destroyer "Reuben James" and eight French ships sailed off to America. The orchestra played Chopin's funeral march. On 9 November, the cruiser anchored in the navy harbour on the Potomac in Washington. On 11 November, the ceremonies were conducted in front of the Capitol, and then the funeral procession led by president Harding accompanied by numerous military and civil officials moved to the Arlington cemetery. The photograph shows the last moments before closing the tomb by a stone plate.

A detailed description of American funeral ceremonies, both military and civilian, can be found in the source study by B. C. Mossman and M. Stark: The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals 1921-1969, published by the Army Department and available in the Internet.

Before the Second World War, the idea of erecting Tombs of the Unknown Soldier quickly spread worldwide, including the countries of Central and Eastern Europe - Bucharest (Romania), Warsaw (Poland), and Budapest (Hungary).

After the Second World War, in this part of Europe, many Tombs of the Unknown Soldier were erected not only in state capitals, but also in capitals of individual provinces. The best known Tombs of the Unknown Soldier include: Moscow (Russia), Kiev (the Ukraine), and Sofia (Bulgaria).

Each Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has its own history of erection. They are usually located in the most popular parts of the city. They have become main places of celebrating national holidays, ceremonies of wreath-lying by foreign official delegations, but also places of tradition for younger generations, e.g. laying flowers by the newly wed, lighting votive lights, etc. Apart from their memorable aspects, the pre-war tombs have their sad histories from the time of war - they were often destroyed by the invaders, e.g. in Warsaw - or after the war when sad events were connected ideological aspects, e.g. in Budapest and Bucharest.

Below you can find a description and short characteristics of some selected Tombs of the Unknown Soldier in Central and Eastern Europe.


The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was opened in Sofia on 29 September 1981, i.e. on the 1300th anniversary of the creation of the Bulgarian state in 681. It is a plate placed on the wall of St. Sofia church, close to the Alexander Nevsky Square, a work of Bulgarian architect Nikoła Nikołow.

Every year on Saturday following 8 November, the so-called Archangel All Souls Day is celebrated, which includes official ceremonies of wreath-lying and lighting candles to commemorate soldiers who gave their lives for their homeland.

On 23 may 2002, the Pope's throne was located before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to honour John Paul II. Behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier there are walls of the church of the Divine Wisdom, the oldest church in Bulgarian capital, erected in the 5th century when Christianity was not yet divided.


In 1929, at the Heroes' Square in Budapest, a monument of the Hungarian Heroes was erected which was later re-named the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In 1942, the Hungarian Parliament extended the name to include soldiers who died after 1938.

After the Second World War, the Memory Day of the Hungarian Heroes was cancelled under the Soviet influence, as the dead Hungarian soldiers supported Nazi Germany. In 1956, a monument commemorating dead soldiers on the Heroes' Square was changed into another monument. At present, the Memory Day of the Hungarian Heroes is celebrated on 27 may.


The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was erected at the initiative of general Władysław Sikorski, the Minister of Military Affairs. It is located on the Józef Piłsudski Square. On 2 November 1925, body of an anonymous soldier from the Cemetery of Lwów Defenders of 1918-1919 was placed. The coffin was placed in the crypt under the plate featuring the inscription: "Here lies a Polish soldier who died for Homeland". When the plate was closed, President of the Republic of Poland, Stanisław Wojciechowski, lit the eternal fire in the central votive light and laid the first wreath. The tomb was surrounded by urns containing earth from other battle fields.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw was erected under the colonnade the Saski Palace which then served as the General Headquarters of the Polish Army (at the Saski Squre, now the Józef Piłsudski Square).

The monument was designed by a Warsaw artist - sculptor Stanisław Ostrowski.

In December 1944, German forces destroyed both the palace and the monument. The middle part of the colonnade which housed the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was re-built and maintained as a historical ruin.

Four urns contain earth with ashes of soldiers of the Second World War taken from 24 battle fields where Polish soldiers fought. The columns feature marble plates with names of places where Polish soldiers fought their greatest battles (from 972 to 1945). Some plates commemorate heroes of fights of 1939-1945. The re-built monument was solemnly opened before the Victory Day on 8 May 1946.

Military march pasts take place on the Piłsudski Square on national holidays and one can watch changing of the gourds every hour every day. The tomb has become one of the most important national symbols.

Before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier guards of honour are held, military honours are presented, guards are solemnly changed, and rolls of the dead are read on national holidays.

Flowers and wreaths are laid before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by representatives of social organizations and state authorities and by foreign and diplomatic delegations.


After the First World War, Romania was one the first states concerned to elaborate the legislation on the memorial graves and works of war.

In 1919 the situation of the war cemeteries was brought under regulation through a document entitled "Rules for the cemeteries organization" and in the same year the Homeland Cult Society was set up through the decree-law No. 4106/12.09.1919. Its purpose was to identify, centralize, and arrange on the Romania's territory the graves of all the Romanian and foreign soldiers who fell during and a consequence of war.

At this institution initiative there was adopted the decision to construct the Unknown Soldier Memorial as a symbol of the sacrifice of all the unknown heroes who dies in the war.

The ceremony of choosing the Unknown Soldier took place at Marasetsti (Mausoleum similar to Verdun) on 14 May 1923.

On 17 may 1923, the remains of the Unknown Soldier were brought to Bucharest and buried during a ceremony on the plateau in from of the former Military Museum from the Carol I Park.

The project of the funerary complex of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was executed four years later in 1927 according to the sculptor Emil Willy Becker's plans.

According to this project, the enclosing of the tomb was made of eight marble ornamental pillars connected by chain of bronze loops. The funeral stone made of Carrara marble was 15 cm deep, 1.20 cm wide, and 2.23 m long, and was placed upon the ferro-concrete plaque kept from the burial.

On the slab there was the following inscription: "Here rests, happily unto Lord, the Unknown Soldier, extinguished from life in the sacrifice for the unity of the Romanian people. On his bones lies the land of united Romania 1916-1919".

At the same period, by the care of the Homeland Cult Society, a votive light with an eternal flame has been lightened.

During the night of 22/23 December 1958, due to political reasons, the Unknown Soldier's funerary monument was dismantled and moved from Bucharest to Marasesti and the remains were buried in front of the local Mausoleum.

On 25 October 1991, the bones of the Unknown Soldier were brought back to the Carl I Park, but at almost 250 m away from the original place.

As a reparatory deed, on 25 November 2006, due to the efforts of the National Office for Heroes Memory the coffin containing the remains of the Unknown Soldier was moved onto the original place, during a military and religious ceremony.

The Guard of Honour at this monument is assured by the 30 Regiment Guard and Protocol "MIgai the Brave".

On the National Day (1 December), Memorial Day (the 40th day after the Ascension), and the Army Day (25 October), the Romanian Government organizes at this place official ceremonies during which wreaths, garlands and flowers are laid down. On these days, any other commemorative activities are allowed only after the official ceremonies.


The Russian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was erected much later than the Warsaw one, but the idea itself was copied. When one of Russian party bosses saw that monument in the capital of Poland, he suggested a construction of a similar memorial in Moscow.

The remains of soldiers were placed there in the beginning of December 1966 to commemorate the battle of Moscow in 1941. Historians keep arguing about the breaking point of the Great Homeland War. Some think that the breaking point was the battle of Stalingrad, others think that it was the battle of Moscow when on 5 December 1941 undefeated German army which rules Europe was stopped and forced back. Soviet soldiers started to liberate gradually villages and towns.

The ashes of soldiers were brought to Moscow from a grave near Krukovo village (41 km from Moscow) and then laid by the Kremlin wall in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The monument was solemnly opened in the spring 1967 on the Victory Day, i.e. 9 May.

The following words are engraved on the monument: "Your name is not known, your heroic deed is eternal". On the right side of the monument there are urns with earth from towns named Town-Heroes of the Great Homeland War (1941-1945).

One can see often the newly wed laying flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier - it has become a tradition. Young people pay their homage to the heroes of the war.


The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located in one of the most beautiful and largest parks of Kiev. It is called the Park of Glory and is located on a terrace over the Dnepr river. After the Second World War, the park was re-constructed and enlarged from 4 to 10 ha in order to turn it into a memorial with the Eternal Glory monument at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which was opened on 6 November 1957 on the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a 27 m obelisk covered with granite. The eternal fire is lit under it. A wide alley with tombs of 34 generals and officers who fell in combat or died in hospital of wounds - mostly during the defence of Kiev in 1941, leads to the obelisk. In 1984 the area of the park was further enlarged to 18 ha.

Official state ceremonies take place under the monument on 9 May - the Victory Day, 6 November - the anniversary of the liberation of Kiev from German occupation, and 6 December - the Ukrainian Army Day. Representatives of foreign delegations visiting Kiev lay wreaths there.

Flowers are also laid there by the newly wed and the monument is often visited by students and tourists.

Note: Some photographs are available for every tomb discussed here.


ul. Bukowa 2, 02-708 Warszawa, Poland, tel./fax: (+4822) 8483350,