“We see by the gathering of the NPD that not everybody has received the lessons of history.”
The documentary The Unknown Soldier from Michael Verhoeven covers the controversy stirred by the exhibition Crimes of the German Wehrmacht. The exhibition’s premise was to reveal the role of the Wehrmacht in the systematic extermination of the Jews. According to exhibition organizer Hannes Heer, and many fellow historians who share his view, it was simply not possible for 6 million Jews to be eradicated without the explicit assistance of the Wehrmacht (“The SS could not have carried out this crime without the help of the German Army”). There’s the feeling that charging the Wehrmacht (and by extension the average German soldier) with crimes of extermination somehow “broke the taboo” on the subject.
The original exhibit opened in 1995 and then was closed in 1999 in order to answer charges that some of the photographs were faked. The exhibition reopened in 2001 after an investigation revealed that some of the documentation contained inaccuracies, but that there were no forgeries and that the overall presentation was correct.
When I heard about this documentary, I didn’t immediately grasp the level of controversy involved–after all, it makes perfect sense to me that the German Army assisted the SS. The filmmaker captures the outrage of the emotional crowds outside of the exhibition. Members of the fascist NPD (National Democratic Party) gather outside of the exhibit–along with old soldiers, their surviving family members, and riot police. Many of the old soldiers spew forth fascist venom, and some of the sons and daughters of deceased Wehrmacht soldiers hug photos of their fathers stating categorically that they were heroes who do not deserve to have their reputations tarnished.
Interviews are included of various historians who argue both sides of the controversy, and in the middle of it all, Hannes Heer is accused of having a Commie agenda.
The film includes some amazing archival footage, and some of it is quite brutal–mass executions and graves. Some of the most damning evidence is found in footage from the Ukraine. Of course, detractors argue that the photos of the German soldiers in front of mass graves are just proof of guilt by circumstance, and they argue that the Soviets executed the Jews and that the Germans just found the graves. Another argument is that the bodies were from allied bombing raids and that they were dragged out of the rubble and used for propaganda. But this doesn’t explain away all the evidence (or the letters sent back home), and then there’s the fact that there were 3.4 million Soviet POWs in 1941, and by the spring of 1942, 2 million were dead. The film argues that “a strong infrastructure of collaboration” existed between the SS and the Wehrmacht, and to me–a non-German whose father did not fight for the Wehrmacht, it seems obvious. But then again I have no emotional stake in nursing an image of my father as a WWII hero.
One of the most interesting parts of the film reveals how various section commanders reacted to the order to execute Jews. The film touches on the idea that officers could refuse orders to execute Jews but that for the average soldier, this failure to follow an order meant death. The idea of soldiers who deserted rather than follow out orders is mentioned. To those of us who are non-German, it’s probably a lot easier to accept the idea that the Wehrmacht had a role in the extermination of Jews. But then again ALL soldiers have opportunities to off civilians. War isn’t pretty, and so it seems in some ways the horrified reactions to the German exhibit are a reflection of the idea that wars are heroic and clean cut. You know, the good guys against the bad guys, but common sense should tell us that war creates opportunities for mass murder. Just look at some of the abuses that are leaking from the current debacle in Iraq–Abu Ghraib, Haditha and the murders in Mahmoudiya of an entire Iraqi family.
The film could have used a few clips about the forced enlistment of men into the Wehrmacht. For example, between 1941-1944 140,000 Alsatians between the ages of 17-38 were forced to enlist and most were subsequently sent to the Russian Front. Some tried to escape (most were shot), and several officers refused to enter the SS (they were shipped off to a concentration camp). One of the most interesting aspects of the film, and one that was perhaps not emphasized quite enough is the idea of “The Unknown Soldier.” While the film goes into the history of this symbolism, it hints that the term can mean something else entirely–the horrendous brutal murders that take place by “unknown” perpetrators–soldiers whose uniforms create anonymity and whose crimes remain unsolved, but it should also refer to those few soldiers who refused to cooperate and died for their defiance.