The Wall Street Journal Europe
March 7, 1997
Copyright 1997, Dow Jones Company
by Anne Midgette
Munich -- Neo-Nazis marching in the streets; political debate in every house: Munich has entered a time warp in the last couple of weeks. The cause is the opening of "War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1945" at City Hall on Feb. 24. In the show's first week here, Marienplatz, the city's central square, was graced with two new features. One was a line of people waiting for hours to get in. The other was a crowd gesticulating, arguing, shouting at each other. They ranged from an elderly lady, emphatically and tearfully proclaiming that the show must take place, to an old man in a fur cap who thought all the pictures in the show were Hollywood forgeries: "I saw the helmets. They didn't look like that."
And yet this isn't a new show. In fact, it's been traveling around Germany for two years; Munich is its 16th stop. But nowhere else has it gotten anything like the reaction it's gotten here.
The show is a collection of photographs, videos and texts documenting wartime atrocities of the Wehrmacht, the German army. Leaning heavily on long explanatory texts, with most of the photos displayed in their original small size, it tries to steer away from overt sensationalism; in a couple of cases, you even have to think a minute to figure out what "crime" is depicted. There's nothing ambiguous, however, about photographs of partisan shootings, or the excerpts from letters home from the front ("Today was a record! This morning we shot 122 Communists and Jews in Belgrade").
For a long time, Germany wanted to believe that the army, unlike the bad guys at the SS, was a clean machine; thus images of "our boys" gunning down Jews in cold blood, or writing home to boast about it, are a shock. Opponents of the show condemn it as "one-sided," "defaming 20 million Germans" with its "blanket condemnation" of the Wehrmacht. In Munich, a few special conditions have worked like agar to nurture the bacteria of this line of argument.
For one thing, there's the venue. "Crimes of the Wehrmacht" is a private show organized by the Hamburg-based Institute for Social Research, founded by left-wing tobacco millionaire Jan Philipp Reemtsma. Some of the show's most vociferous opponents claim they'd tolerate it if it were displayed in a neutral venue; but liberal democrat (SPD) mayor Christian Ude shouldn't have let it into City Hall.
This highlights another special condition: Bavaria's right-wing political leanings. This state has its own conservative party, the Christian Socialists (CSU), who are affiliated with but politically right of Germany's governing Christian Democrats (CDU). Bavaria was also an early stronghold of the ultra-right-wing Republikaner party. Enter Peter Gauweiler, Munich's CSU party chief and class clown, a local politico who in a February speech lit into "foreigners" who take advantage of the social services by spending huge sums on their "Afro-look" dreadlocks. He also noted that Mr. Reemtsma would do better to mount a show about "those dead and wounded by the tobacco he's sold" than to sully the honor of so many honest German people.
Statements like these explain why most people no longer take Mr. Gauweiler seriously. But no major CSU politician -- not Minister President Edmund Stoiber, not party head Theo Waigel, Finance Minister in Bonn -- has made any move of apology or retraction. In fact, the party's official paper, Bayernkurier, subsequently supported Mr. Gauweiler's view in an article titled "How Germans Are Defamed," which averred that "the left wing is augmenting the punitive measures Nuremberg took against Germany, and leading a moral attack of annihilation against the German people."
For the NPD, the National Democratic Party of Germany, spiritual heirs of the NSDAP or Nazi party, the to-do was a perfect way to draw attention to their own activities. The culmination of the fracas surrounding the show's first week in Munich was a mass demonstration of NPD members nationwide. Thus it was that some 5,000 neo-Nazi skinheads, bearing black flags or placards defending Germany's brave Wehrmacht soldiers, marched through the center of the city once known as the "Capital of the Movement," the birthplace of Nazism. The difference between 1933 and the present was that between 8,000 and 10,000 left-wing demonstrators marched against them, and there was an active exchange of views -- from the left, at least -- in the form of anti-Nazi slogans, tomatoes and stones. In the end, the confrontation was not unlike the discussions that had occupied Marienplatz throughout the week: satisfyingly dramatic, truly frightening, and mercifully free of actual bodily harm (except for two left-wing protesters, who fell out of the trees they had scaled for a better vantage point).
Political protests will always come and go; the real issue of the Wehrmacht show is the popular reaction, symbolized by the angry discussions on Marienplatz. Alas, this is nothing new. The U.S. TV miniseries "Holocaust"; Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List"; Daniel Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners": Each sparked a whole new, heated debate in Germany, and brought to the surface a side of Germany many people would rather not know about. Every time someone lifts the lid on Germany's past, it seems, Germany's emotions boil over. But at some point the water will boil away. In the crowd arguing in front of City Hall, the angriest people were 65 and up -- the age group with direct experience of the events.
I went up to a handful of them individually and asked them to tell me why they were against the show. Every one of them looked at me, paused, and proceeded to pour out, not polemics against the show, but personal stories about their fathers and brothers, their war, themselves. Stories they'd clearly been aching to tell all along. Healing is not a straightforward process.