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
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all