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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created