Truth goes to the wall as German right makes a final stand for Hitler's army

'Independent' writers examine the uses and abuses of history in countries with a shadow hanging over their past
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Imre Karacs Dachau

They are re-enacting the Second World War in Bavaria's green fields. The outcome will doubtless still be the same as 52 years ago, except that this time the home side has high hopes of scoring a moral victory.

Apart from one street-skirmish in Munich, little blood has been shed so far, but truth has already become a casualty.

A motley collection of conservatives, opportunists and neo-Nazis is trying to convince Germans that Hitler's regular army has had a bad press. The Wehrmacht, they claim, had virtually nothing to do with the extermination of Jews and the mass murder of civilians.

Evidence to the contrary, as displayed in an exhibition in Munich about the "Crimes of the Wehrmacht", is concocted by Communist provocateurs, they charge. The "slanderers" are now being exposed by Bavaria's right- wing government and young minds are about to be cleansed of this filthy propaganda.

In the latest row about the exhibition, which has already been shown in 15 other German and Austrian cities without much fuss, Bavaria's culture minister, Hans Zehetmair, has taken aim at history lessons. Teachers, he suggested, should not cloud the pupils' vision with images of Wehrmacht officers executing civilians in occupied countries.

Teachers and pupils must be very confused, for the history textbooks approved by the very same culture minister are replete with the sort of pictures now hanging in Munich's town hall. Bavaria's conservatives are two decades out of sync.

"For 30 years after '45 the general view was that the Wehrmacht were clean," says Karl Bruckmayer, history teacher at Dachau's Josef Effner grammar school, a honeycomb-shaped architectural wonder less than a mile from Germany's eeriest monument. "But since the Seventies, the Wehrmacht's role in the Final Solution has been explored."

Mr Bruckmayer flicks through the books, revealing harrowing photographs of death camps and chapters of dense text on genocide.

You could not come away from it with the naive belief that the Nazis' crimes were perpetrated only by a few. Just in case the pupils do not get the point, there are field trips for the senior grades to the former concentration camp, and classroom discussions with Dachau survivors about the Holocaust. This year the 10th grade - 18-year-olds - also paid a visit to the Munich exhibition.

They enjoyed what they saw, in so far as one can enjoy such an outing, but profess not to have learnt much from it. "What we saw we knew already," one of them commented.

Perhaps coming from this infamous town on the outskirts of Munich has made them more knowledgeable than their contemporaries? "It's true that living here you get a slightly different perspective," Manuela Winkler, one of the 18-year-olds, says. But, judging from the fleet of school buses which crowd the memorial's car park, the locals are not alone in their inquisitiveness.

Tens of thousands of children have been to the Munich exhibition, which has broken all attendance records. The teachers' trade union reports an upsurge of interest in the period across Bavaria and the teachers themselves say they can barely keep up with their pupils' insatiable hunger for the grisliest details.

Many youngsters may well be doing for their final year history projects what Manuela has in mind: interviewing people in her village near Dachau about what they did during the war.

A lot of people will get hurt in this process; a lot of God-fearing Catholic folk who have always voted for Bavaria's eternal ruling party, the Christian Social Union. And not just former soldiers.

"If we look at the army's role, then we have to look at the role of doctors in this town, because Dachau was an extermination camp for handicapped people," says Mr Bruckmayer. "And if we look at doctors, than we have to look at the legal profession, who endorsed forcible euthanasia. And so it goes on."

Understandably, some conservatives want to put a stop to this quest for the ultimate truth. Thus do the Christian Socialists find themselves in the same camp as neo-Nazis, in a Quixotic battle for the honour of the dead and the dying. They must stand up for the wartime generation, because the wartime doctors, lawyers and other professionals who form the bedrock of the party's support will be next in the firing line.

The strategy will not pay off in the long term. The voters the CSU tries to protect are defecting to the Grim Reaper, and there are not enough hard-right Bavarians to replace them. The big cities, including Munich, are already in the hands of the Social Democrats and Greens, and the party is set to lose its absolute majority in the regional parliament next year.

The Wehrmacht exhibition, which Germany's most right-wing governing party tried to obliterate, may prove to be the conservatives' Stalingrad.