German Photo Exhibit Prompts Thousands of Angry Words

The evidence isn't new, and no modern German denies what happened. Yet more than 50 years after the end of World War II, a photography exhibit of Nazi atrocities now touring Germany has provoked a national outcry.

"War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944" sets out to destroy the myth of an Army that fought honorably, while behind the front lines, specialized terror units went about the unsoldierly business of genocide. In hundreds of photographs, as well as contemporary documents, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research traces the active participation of the Wehrmacht, the German Army, in atrocities against millions of Jews, prisoners of war, and civilians in Serbia and the Soviet Union.

The exhibit made few headlines when it opened in Hamburg in 1995. Like the flame on a long fuse, the exhibit began a tour of 16 cities in Germany and Austria. Only when it reached Munich in February did the bomb explode.

Bayernkurier, the party organ of Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union, denounced the exhibit's organizers as waging a "moral campaign of destruction against the German Volk [people]." A furious debate ensued.

Like Daniel Goldhagen's recent book "Hitler's Willing Executioners," the exhibit has put the Nazi past in a disturbingly personal light. Mr. Goldhagen's book positing a peculiarly Teutonic anti-Semitism, and the exhibit on the misdeeds of ordinary soldiers, challenge the perception that the majority of Germans were the hostages of a mad dictator, Adolf Hitler.

The Wehrmacht exhibit's critics accuse the organizers of defaming a generation with sweeping generalizations. While none deny that atrocities were committed, they claim that by branding the Wehrmacht a criminal institution, the exhibit makes all 20 million men who served in Hitler's armed forces potential criminals. If it should exist at all, the exhibit should be called "Crimes in the Wehrmacht," critics say.

Hannes Heer, director of the exhibit, remains adamant that, after the Nazi party, the armed forces were the "second pillar" of Hitler's regime. " 'Crimes in the Wehrmacht' would imply thievery or beatings among soldiers," Mr. Heer says. "When we talk about 'the Catholic Church' we also don't mean every single member. Here we mean the Wehrmacht as an institution, not each individual soldier," he says.

The daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has served as the battleground for the conservative counterattack. Commentators targeted the exhibit's organizers for past involvement in leftist causes. One reviewer accused them of playing on visitors' voyeuristic curiosity with graphic documentation of atrocities.

Other critics compared the Wehrmacht crimes to the Russian Red Army's rampage across Eastern Europe or the Allied bombing raids on German cities. Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union went beyond traditional war aims, however. "The goals were the extermination of Jews, the decimation of Slavs, and the pulverization of Soviet society," Mr. Heer says.

Historians have remarked that Wehrmacht atrocities have been known for decades. But it was the organizers' intent to break the public silence surrounding the role of the Wehrmacht.

Prominent members of the war generation are speaking up. Former German President Richard von Weizscker and ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt both served in the Wehrmacht. Mr. Weizscker has warned against the "self-righteousness of the successor generations." Mr. Schmidt has stressed the importance of remembering the context of the times.

Heer agrees that self-righteousness is a danger. He says he is "against an ahistorical judgment of 1997 - which doesn't mean you have to give up your moral principles." The goal of the exhibit, he says, is to reconstruct the facts and let justice come about through individual dialogue.

Such a dialogue occurred in the Bundestag, the German parliament, in March. In heartfelt speeches, members of all parties revealed how the war had touched their families. Some suggested the exhibit could liberate the war generation from the burden of the past.

While conciliation between the generations may have been set in motion, partisan politics returned soon enough. Parliament was unable to reach a resolution on the controversial exhibit.

Since the ruckus in Munich, the Wehrmacht exhibit has traveled to Frankfurt. Originally planned as a one-time exhibition in Hamburg, it has traveled to 18 cities - attracting 230,000 visitors - and is booked to tour until mid-1999.

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