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April 1997

End of a Legend: The lost honor of the saubere Wehrmacht

The current exhibit about Wehrmacht in Germany raises tensions of the public

At Jakobs-Platz, leftists sang the socialist anthem The International, threw eggs and taunted the 4,500 marching heirs to the National Socialist cause, yelling "Piss off, Nazis, nobody misses you!" The right-wing ultranationalists responded with signs and slogans of their own: "Our grandfathers were no criminals," they shouted. "We're proud of them!" Near Odeonsplatz, Mayor Christian Ude joined 7,000 Social Democrats, trade unionists and Greens in protesting the neo- and old-school Nazi demonstration. And a younger group of left-wingers-Antifas (antifascists), Autonome (anarchists) and Jusos (young socialists) wound through the backstreets of Munich in their own informal protest to everything. All told, the demonstrations on March 1, known now as "heißer Samstag" (Hot Saturday), drew 15,000 participants and 2,000 police, and left the rest of Munich buzzing about the feud; even CNN got in on the media frenzy. The demonstrations were sparked by an exhibition at the Galerie im Rathaus about perhaps the only German institution under the Third Reich unscathed by charges of Nazi collaboration: the Wehrmacht, Germany's World War II army. War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1945 is a collection of photos, films, army records and soldiers' letters home drawn largely from recently opened Russian and U.S.-government archives. The catalog of accusations is posted on metal partitions that, when viewed from above, form an Iron Cross, the Wehrmacht's highest decoration. The Eiserne Kreuz is also the de facto emblem of what last month's demonstrators were skirmishing over: the honor of a generation of German men. The exhibition focuses on three stages of the army's push into eastern Europe: the invasion of Serbia in 1941, the Sixth Army's attempt to take Stalingrad in 1941-42, and the campaign against White Russia (now Belarus) from 1941-1944. In clearing the way for the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the Balkans, the legendarily saubere (clean) Wehrmacht reportedly waged no "normal war" but a "criminal" war against partisans and civilians alike. In May of 1941, the army's high command ordered "ruthless and vigorous action" against Bolsheviks, saboteurs, criminals and Jews; five months later, an order from the commandant of the advance in White Russia called for the "liquidation" of Jews "from all villages... at all costs." Wehrmacht soldiers were encouraged by higher-ups to see partisans and criminals at every turn. According to army manuals, women carried guns under their skirts; children could be insidious spies; and Jews and partisans were outright criminals. The result was an irregular war against a civilian population whose rights under the Geneva Convention, in the view of the Wehrmacht high command, had been forfeited. Particularly disturbing is evidence that the fabled Sixth Army, whose members have long been seen as heroic victims of Hitler's failed war of conquest in the east- committed some of the worst atrocities. According to the exhibition, the Wehrmacht cut a swath through eastern Europe littered with mass graves, public hangings from makeshift galleys, "bloody marches" from towns under siege (during which the weary were ordered to be shot), and retaliatory killings in which a hundred civilians were killed for every one German soldier shot. In the end, 1.5 million Jews were killed and three million Red Army POWs starved, worked to death or executed at the hands of the Wehrmacht between 1941 and 1945. War of Annihilation toured 15 other German cities in the last two years, including Nuremberg, but nothing approached last month's local eruption of inflamed sentiment. In Munich, the exhibition's impending opening brought to the surface long-standing tensions between the city's ruling liberals, the SPD (Social Democrats), and Bavaria's ruling conservatives, the CSU (Christian Social Union). A week before the demonstrations, the two major party bosses staged a political shouting match in the city's newspapers. CSU chief Peter Gauweiler said the exhibition's institutional sponsor, left-wing historian and tobacco-fortune heir Jan Philipp Reemtsma, "should instead present an exhibition about the deaths and harm caused by tobacco." Like other Wehrmacht apologists, Gauweiler complained that the exhibition "disparages all members of the Wehrmacht" with "irresponsible generalizations about war crimes." Then he turned his ire on Ude, adding that the exhibition's stint at the Rathaus turned it into a "state-sponsored occasion." The CSU silently concurred with Gauweiler's extemporaneous remarks; only one party member formally dissented. NPD, Republikaner and other neo-Nazi groups march in last month's protest to the Wehrmacht exhibition For his part, Ude accused Gauweiler of inciting heißer Samstag's right-wing demonstration. "Gauweiler has right-wing opinions and instigated a reaction among Germany's neo-Nazis," he told MUNICH FOUND. But if it weren't for Munich's history as the capital of the Nazi movement, he continued, right-wing agitators couldn't have gained broad national attention. Ude maintains that the exhibition is not a tribunal about the collective guilt of 18 million Wehrmacht soldiers, but an opportunity for dialogue about what has too long remained a taboo topic. For all the political posturing, what lies at the heart of the Wehrmacht controversy is the loss of a generation's self-image. For the last half century, German men who came of age during the Third Reich have been able to answer the questions of their children and grandchildren with the standard-issue response that they were simply ordinary soldiers during World War II. On a larger scale, the legend of a "clean" Wehrmacht was promoted not only by the German government, but by an American government willing to withhold evidence of Wehrmacht war crimes and eager to promote the Bundeswehr (the postwar German fighting force) as a bulwark against the threat of a cold-war era Soviet Union. Although suspicions of the Wehrmacht's complicity in the Holocaust have not been uncommon, the contention that Hitler's Gestapo henchmen and Himmler's SS and Einsatzgruppen did all the dirty work has remained a commonly held belief. Indeed, what emerges from the exhibition is nearly the opposite: not only did many members of the Wehrmacht (at least on the eastern front) know that genocide against Jews and other "undesirables" was taking place, they took part themselves. Here in the Rathaus are the forbidden snapshots they took of the army's victims decomposing in Russian streets; books brimming with anti-Semitic letters written to loved ones back home; and diaries recording what we now call atrocities. Along with the conclusions of Daniel Goldhagen's 1996 book, Hitler's Willing Executioners - namely, that Jews under Hitler weren't persecuted only by Nazis, but also by groups of "ordinary Germans" comprising the rank-and-file of the Ordnungspolizei - the last two years have seen a steady accumulation of new evidence indicting many sectors of German society under Hitler. Public debates have ensued in which generations of Germans have scuffled. The Wehrmacht-era men who've shown up daily in front of the Rathaus since the exhibition opened seem to have weathered the most recent round of disclosures with at least their dignity intact. Rain or shine, they've been there, many wearing green-felt Trachten hats and jackets. At first, they told anyone interested that the exhibition was one-sided and unfair. A week later, smaller circles of them stood huddled together in the rain; they argued, but mostly among themselves, and reminisced. Other members of this "first generation" walked through the exhibition alone, silent, the first to come and the last to leave. After the demonstrations and political posturing are over, War of Annihilation will remain a moving and disturbing exhibition about their lives and their honor. "Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941-1945" shows at the Galerie im Rathaus at Marienplatz until April 6. The exhibition stops next in Frankfurt, where it will stay from April 13 through May 20. VOICES FROM THE PAST The emotion most often expressed by the World War II veterans in Marienplatz is anger. "We aren't criminals," they say. "Why didn't the Allies do anything about this back then?" one Wehrmacht veteran asked me, "Why bring it up now?" But another man told me that it's important for young people to learn about the war "so they can't be seduced like we were." He said the SS repeatedly came to his school to sign up students for the Hitler Youth, sometimes coercing them into signing several times to swell numbers for propaganda purposes. German youths as young as 12 and 15 - this man included - were also pressed into service in the final days of the war in a doomed effort to stop the Red Army's advance through the streets of Berlin. An 83-year-old man told me how Goebbel's propaganda about the righteousness of the Nazi cause couldn't help him as he lay in a military hospital with shrapnel in his back from a hand grenade that killed the other members of his howitzer team in Yugoslavia; as a German from the Sudetenland (now part of the Czech Republic), he was ousted along with all the other ethnic Germans following the Nazi capitulation.

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