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Germany: No Forgery Found In Controversial Exhibition

  • Roland Eggleston

A special commission of historians has found no basis for accusations of forgery against a controversial photo exhibition showing ordinary German soldiers committing atrocities in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans during World War II. The exhibition -- when it began in 1995 -- punctured Germans' belief that wartime crimes were mostly the work of special units and the SS, and not of the ordinary army -- or Wehrmacht. RFE/RL's Munich correspondent reports on the exhibit and the controversy it has raised.

Munich, 23 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A special commission of historians has found the vast majority of photographs in a controversial German exhibition showing ordinary soldiers committing atrocities in World War II are genuine.

The commission -- made up of seven German historians and one American -- said only a few of 1,433 photographs in the exhibit should be excluded because they show Soviet -- and not German -- forces committing atrocities.

The exhibition portrays soldiers hanging civilians and committing other atrocities in the Soviet Union, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Balkans and participating in massacres of Jews and prisoners of war. Entitled the "Crimes of the German Army between 1941-44," the exhibition began touring German and Austrian cities in 1995 and has been seen by more than 850,000 people.

The exhibit was halted last year, however, after critics claimed that some photographs were fakes and that others portrayed victims of Soviet -- rather than German -- forces.

The grainy black-and-white photographs were taken either by military photographers or by individual soldiers who sent them home to families as souvenirs. The photos are supported by copies of documents and personal letters. Among them is a letter from a young soldier boasting his unit had killed a thousand Jews -- "and," he wrote, "that was not enough."

For some Germans the shock was unbearable. When the exhibition opened in Munich in 1997, one woman, Brigitte Moeller, broke down in hysterics after recognizing her father helping to hang a woman in Minsk. She told journalists she had always honored her father, who was killed before the war ended.

The exhibition met with strong opposition by former soldiers and officers who said it besmirched the image of the Wehrmacht. They said that most ordinary soldiers were not involved in the serious crimes shown in the pictures.

In his report, the German chairman of the historical commission, Gerhard Hirschfeld, said ordinary soldiers were involved in killing Jews in the Soviet Union and in atrocities committed against Soviet prisoners of war and civilians. But he said records show only a minority of the huge German army was involved in such activity.

A commission spokeswoman, Helga Fischer, estimates it was only about 1 or 2 percent of the army:

"It is true that some members of the German army committed atrocities against Soviet prisoners of war and against civilians in occupied countries. But one should not overlook it was only a small minority that did so -- about 1 or 2 per cent of the total German army. That means between 100,000 and 200,000 men were involved. But just the same it was only a minority."

The millionaire businessman behind the exhibition, Jan Philip Reemtsma, says the commission's ruling vindicates him and that he will resume the tour next year. Reemtsma said he was already involved in negotiations and would announce his plans in a few days.

But the possibility of the exhibition continuing has prompted a new round of political discussions about whether old war wounds should be reopened in the 21st century.

Those who oppose a resumption note that while the commission acknowledged the photographs are genuine, it does criticize the overall approach of the exhibition for not presenting more balance.

A respected conservative German newspaper the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" said in future the exhibition should contain more documents to present a background to the atrocities. It said above all the exhibition should avoid a blanket condemnation of the Wehrmacht.