History Today, April 2002, Volume 52 (4) p2

 The Wehrmacht Exhibition

 ‘I can’t believe that. I can’t believe it. They were shot at, they had to defend themselves… they had to. I don’t believe these pictures of arbitrary shootings and hangings. I don’t believe my uncles are murderers’. The woman walks away from her interviewer, then turns to the camera, adding for good measure: ‘I don’t believe my grandfather was a murderer either. I can’t believe it. Otherwise I would have to hang myself.’ This scene is played on a video clip at the recently overhauled Wehrmacht exhibition held in Berlin and Bielefeld this winter. The woman was a visitor to the exhibition in Vienna in 1995 and the video clip of her reaction to it is now an exhibit. 

Organised by the Hamburg Social Research Institute, the travelling exhibition began in 1994 and by 1999 had visited thirty-three cities in Germany and Austria, drawing a staggering 800,000 visitors. It wasn’t just the SS, the Wehrmacht exhibition showed. It was full of graphic photographs of ordinary German army or Wehrmacht soldiers involved in war crimes and genocide in the East. Though this was nothing new to German historians, it hit the German public like a bombshell. Queues stretched for hours to see it. Impassioned arguments broke out at the venues displaying the exhibition, on television and even in the German parliament. Conservatives (and the extreme right) mobilised against what they saw as a slur on a whole generation of soldiers, ‘most of whom were merely fighting for their country’. There were demonstrations in Munich and Dresden. Elsewhere the exhibition was vandalised and in Saarbrücken in March 1999 right-wing extremists actually bombed it.

The Hamburg Social Research Institute denied that the exhibition accused all Wehrmacht soldiers of war crimes, but stuck by its thesis that the German army had abetted genocide. Then, in October 1999, disaster struck. The very images that had caused the sensation came under scrutiny, specifically a series of photographs of German army and SS men in the town of Tarnopol in 1941, supposedly shown standing before their Jewish victims. A historian countered that the bodies were actually Ukrainians murdered by Stalin’s retreating NKVD before the Germans arrived on the scene. The ensuing scandal over the authenticity of the pictures forced the organisers to close the exhibition pending a report by an independent commission. The commission concluded that the organiser’s thesis was correct but that photographs had been carelessly sourced and sloppily used.

Thoroughly re-worked, the exhibition has now returned – and so have the queues. This time, every care has been taken to avoid doubts. The Institute has taken all the photographs and tried to pin them down to precise locations and times, matching them to a known war crime incident. ‘Where we have been able to do that, then we have re-used the picture in the new exhibition’ explains curator Peter Klein. It’s a wake-up call to historians using images that this scrutiny entailed losing 95 per cent of the original images. ‘Say you find a powerful photo in a Russian archive, but the caption just says “fascist German hordes on temporarily occupied Soviet soil violating the peace-loving Soviet people” then you don’t really know anything about this photograph.’

 The 15 curators (the old exhibition had four) have solved the riddle of Tarnopol. The corpses in this photo are indeed victims of the NKVD and not of the Germans. But the boy in the centre of the picture wearing a black waistcoat is Jewish, and probably later died in a pogrom launched by the townspeople and the German forces in ‘revenge’ for the NKVD killings. The re-titled Tarnopol pictures appear in a section of the new exhibition called ‘Photos as Historical Sources’. Particularly intriguing are a few lines explaining that these images have long been on show in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in L.A. Both museums may now want to check their captions.

The experience of the Wehrmacht exhibition holds stern warnings for our hyper-visual culture and a media that demands ‘pictures now’ and doesn’t ask questions later. Perhaps the immediate warning is for Holocaust museums. ‘The Holocaust Museum in Washington has always had the highest standards. I can’t think of a completely dubious photo there. But there are two or three at Yad Vashem’ says Klein, ‘and there are lots of little Holocaust centers in the US in various cities and they can use photos very carelessly’. Even when photos are just illustrations ‘we must be sure that the soldier really is a German and not a Finn - something else that happened here. We can’t be making these sorts of mistakes’. Quite. it’s not the sort of thing you want left to David Irving to point out. 

 But after all this research, is Klein any closer to understanding why German soldiers acted with such inhumanity in the USSR? In occupied France, he says, the Wehrmacht would shoot civilian hostages after at least a veneer of legal process. In Russia some sergeant could decide to raze a village. ‘It is the behaviour of German soldiers. There is a clear difference from the moment they are transferred from the West to the East. Always when they arrive in the USSR they tended towards brutality and utter disregard for international laws’. It was not just about orders from the top, Klein emphasises: ‘It has everything to do with prejudices about the dark east: “Asia starts here”. They felt they were in an unknown land and they could behave differently. They felt their enemy were not civilised, but fanatics living under tyranny who had been agitated against the West by Bolsheviks. These prejudices are terrifyingly easy to awake in a modern, educated population and then to deploy for political ends. It was even easier than they thought’, he says, referring to the Nazi leadership. 

 Back in the exhibition, text has to shoulder more of the burden of explanation, but it is read avidly. The remaining photographs still shock: ‘good old-fashioned war photography,’ Klein says, ‘showing what war does to people: burning houses, fear, bodies. You don’t see much of that today’.  Another video clip shows an old man examining a photo. He sees the interviewer approach and a kindly smile of something like absolution broadens across the ex-soldier’s face. “I was with the 6th Army and these pictures, they are true. There are lots of pictures of Kharkov. People were hanged from the balconies there. It was minus 20 degrees and the bodies froze. It was madness how the wind blew around them and they knocked together – I remember they sounded just like blocks of wood.”

Gabriel Fawcett