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East: World War II Exhibit Focuses On Atrocities By German Army

  • Roland Eggleston

Germany is once again debating World War II atrocities committed by some of its military units in Russia, Ukraine, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. A traveling exhibit of photographs and official documents has arrived in Munich, where it has won support from democratic groups and sparked sharp criticism from many war veterans. Right-wing and neo-Nazi groups have been given permission to protest the exhibit this weekend, and clashes are expected with a counterdemonstration by pro-democracy groups.

Munich, 9 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The exhibit is made up of hundreds of photographs taken by official photographers and German soldiers during the period from 1941 to 1944. The subject matter is controversial and often disturbing: the hangings of partisans and hostages, the torture of prisoners, and the deportation of civilians.

Other exhibit items include letters written home by young soldiers describing, sometimes in boastful tones, killings and other atrocities in which they had participated.

The photographs and letters are accompanied by documents from historians, psychologists, and other experts attempting to provide a backdrop to the atrocities described. They do not attempt to excuse what took place. The documentation also says that only a small percentage of German soldiers were involved in atrocities, sometimes against their will and under fear of execution if they failed to comply.

The exhibit is controversial because it focuses only on the role of the wartime German Army, the Wehrmacht, and not on special police units or the Gestapo or SS. Many Germans prefer to believe the Wehrmacht was only a fighting force and had no role in the World War II killings of thousands of civilians and other atrocities in clear violation of international law.

The exhibit has outraged many veterans and their children, who argue that the items on display serve to distort the reality of the Wehrmacht's normal operations.

Others said they were angry that exhibit organizers had not made it clear that ordinary Germans were compelled to join Hitler's army and were involuntary participants in the war.

Among them was Ralf Hornberger, who said his father and millions of others were not asked whether they wanted to help conquer the world for Germany. "Was my father asked by the Nazi beasts? [Did someone ask him], 'Wouldn't you like a little bit of war, Herr Hornberger, so that Germany can subjugate the world?' Were millions of German soldiers asked? Give us an answer, Mr. Organizer! Why don't you tell visitors to your exhibition that a man of military age, the father of a family, had no chance of resisting this terror regime," Hornberger said.

Hornberger said the exhibition should make clear that German soldiers were compelled to participate in what he called "repulsive actions."

Another protester, who declined to give his name to reporters but said he was a soldier in Russia during the war, carried a banner saying: "My father gave his life as a decent soldier. Who will protect him from defamation and collective judgment?" Another banner said, "No defamation of our brave soldiers."

The exhibit is divided into six categories: the murder of Soviet Jews, the mass killing of Soviet prisoners, the starvation of civilians, the deportation of forced laborers, the war against partisans, and repressive measures including the shooting of hostages.

The exhibit is the creation of the Hamburg-based Institute for Social Research, led by businessman Jan Philipp Reemtsma, and was put together by 15 teams of experts with access to a number of international archives. It has already been shown in some other German cities but is arousing particular interest in Munich, the city where the Nazi party was born. Organizers say they expect the exhibit, which will remain in Munich until November, to attract thousands of people, particularly young Germans born after the war.

The spokeswoman for the exhibit, historian Ulrike Jureit, said most young people are shocked when they view the photographs for the first time. "There is a sudden realization, the thought that, 'This could have been my father or grandfather,'" she said. "The first reaction is often anger and disbelief and a feeling that lies are being told. A more thoughtful consideration comes later, for instance, 'How would I have behaved in those circumstances? Or 'What opportunities were there under the Nazi regime for the ordinary soldier to resist, to disobey orders?'"

This is the second time the exhibit has been on tour in Germany. It originally opened in Hamburg in March 1995 and reached Munich in February 1997 after touring 16 cities in Germany and Austria.

More than 86,000 people visited the exhibit in Munich during its first showing, including 20,000 schoolchildren. A 61-year-old journalist who was sent to report on the exhibit broke down when she recognized her father as the soldier assisting in the execution of a young female partisan in Minsk.

The first exhibit was abruptly halted in November 1999 when Polish and Hungarian historians said that 14 of the 1,500 photographs showed Russian atrocities, not German crimes. The exhibit was then reviewed to include the current documentation explaining the background against which the atrocities took place.

The documents include statements by experts that only a very small proportion of the 18 million men in the German Army committed atrocities. Some experts estimate it was as low as 1 percent. But the Institute for Social Research said even this figure would imply that between 150,000 to 200,000 men were involved. However, it emphasized that it is not a goal of the exhibition to make a blanket condemnation of the Wehrmacht.

Jureit said the exhibit does not attempt to excuse the role played by some ordinary German soldiers, only to explain what happened. "The exhibition is not an indictment. Its intention is to make clear, from a critical viewpoint, the situation in which the German soldiers found themselves on the Eastern Front, without trying to excuse them," Jureit said.

Jureit said most Germans are well aware of what took place under Nazi rule. However, there is evidence that while veterans discussed certain aspects of the war at home with their families, they rarely discussed the crimes and atrocities that took place. She said this reluctance led to gaps in the understanding of ordinary Germans about what happened in the war.

Jureit said the Institute for Social Research hopes the exhibit will encourage young Germans to discuss among themselves how they might have behaved in similar circumstances and whether they would have had the courage to refuse to participate.

German civil rights activists have frequently called on Germany to honor soldiers who refused to participate in atrocities but with limited success. The most notable example was in May 2000, when an army barracks in the town of Rensburg was renamed for Anton Schmid, an army sergeant who was executed in 1942 for saving 250 Jews in the ghetto in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The opening of the exhibit passed without major protests. But right-wing and neo-Nazi groups have obtained permission to stage a march through Munich on Sunday to protest the exhibit.

Sebastian Groth, a spokesman for the Munich city council, said as many as 10,000 protesters might participate. A counterdemonstration by more than 70 democratic organizations is expected to win similar support.

Munich police say the march routes have been chosen to keep the two sides apart but have warned that violent clashes cannot be excluded. Law-enforcement officials are preparing to call in additional police from other cities if violence seems likely.

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