Germans own up to horrors committed on Eastern Front

Steve Crawshaw, in the first of a series on how the country is coming to terms with its war history, visits an exhibition that shatters the myth about a `clean' Wehrmacht
In the entrance hall to the exhibition, the images are of innocence, heroism and pain. Magazine covers and adventure stories from the post- war years portray the decent, simple soldier during the Second World War. Man battles against the harsh elements, on the freezing Eastern Front. It is an image that has been cultivated in Germany in past decades. "I was on the Ostfront" has come to serve as a pensioner's shorthand for: "I suffered terribly, and my hands are clean."

According to this version of history, there were two German armies: millions of honourable Wehrmacht soldiers on the one hand and the baddies from the SS on the other. The army did the brave fighting. The SS committed civilian atrocities, which nobody else guessed at. Since only a small minority was in the SS, this version of events suited most people.

Now, 50 years after the end of the Second World War, the taboos have been exploded in an exhibition described by Die Zeit as "the most important historical exhibition for years". On entering the Hamburg exhibition, one is confronted with its theme. "In 1995, 50 years after the war, it is time finally to jettison this lie and to accept the reality of a gigantic crime. Between 1941 and 1944, the Wehrmacht did not conduct a `normal war' in the Balkans and the Soviet Union, but a Vernichtungskrieg - a war of destruction or extermination against Jews, prisoners of war and the civilian population, millions of whom died."

The exhibition seeks to destroy "the legend of the clean Wehrmacht". Using official documents, private photographs and soldiers' letters home, it makes a devastating case for the prosecution. "The Wehrmacht actively participated in the mass- murder ... Since it was impossible to hit the partisan movement, which had only come into existence because of the German terror, the Wehrmacht, together with the SS and the police, shot and burned to death women and children, the sick and the old and transformed the land around the German bases into a dead zone."

Secret military orders make it clear that all civilians were targets, because they might have been involved with the partisans, or with sabotage. Indeed: "Anybody who shows leniency is sinning against his comrades. He will be held accountable and court-martialled."

One soldier's letter home notes: "Yesterday, we and the SS were generous. Every Jew we caught was shot. Today, it's different ... They are beaten to death with cudgels and spades."

Another writes to his nearest and dearest: "These guys are as impudent as if it were still peacetime. More of these abortions of humanity [ie Jews] should be put up against the wall than has happened so far."

A third notes: "The day before yesterday a Wehrmacht car was shot at when it drove through a village. Thank God, they immediately torched the whole village and burnt it to the ground. The inhabitants were shot."

The "innocent Wehrmacht" was never a convincing version of history. If one talked to those who lived through the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, it was always clear that the differences between the army and the SS were differences of degree at best. Any wearer of a Nazi uniform was permitted or encouraged to use brutal violence against civilians. "Inferior'' races and nations deserved, after all, to be treated as such.

The Hamburg exhibition has broken a powerful taboo and may come to be seen as a turning-point in German perceptions. As Die Zeit noted: "It's a terrible thought. Suddenly, when looking into this photographic album of crime, and every wall, every corner, cries `Murder!', one might see one's own father or grandfather." Most visitors to the exhibition belonged to the post-war generation. They warmly approved and said the exhibition's theme had not lost its relevance.

The reaction of Melanie Detlefsen, whose school class visited the exhibition, was typical. "It still shocks me that something like this could happen. It's really important that it's shown. But I feel paralysed when I see what's happening in Yugoslavia today, and still one can do nothing."

Among the handful of old people at the exhibition, some fell back on the old, comforting defence. Erwin Groke, 80, a former architect, said: "One can always find such things. You could find such things in Britain, too. We acted according to the Geneva Convention. I don't think the exhibition has got it right. Who would have covered things up, anyway?"

But Heinz Denicke, 75, disagreed. "The `innocent Wehrmacht' was always nonsense,'' he said. ``People say `We didn't know'. But there are hundreds of thousands of letters home. There is a lot of self-protection among older people."

Tomorrow: Textbooks and the War