The New York Times

November 6, 1999, The New York Times

Bitterness Stalks Show on Role of the Wehrmacht

The decision to postpone the United States debut of “The German Army and Genocide” exhibition puts a spotlight not just on the difficulty of using archival photographs as historical evidence but a keen sensitivity within Germany about questions of national honor as well.

The exhibition of photographs, personal letters and documents, which had been scheduled to open on Dec. 2 at Cooper Union in Manhattan, challenges a belief widely held in Germany and Austria that the World War II German Army was the sole decent institution under the Third Reich. Since it opened four years ago, the show has enraged conservative politicians and diplomats; right-wing extremists bombed it and rioters sought to shut it down.

The exhibition’s ability to ignite such a furor arose from its harrowing photographic component. Nearly a million Germans and Austrians have visited the display. In so doing young and old alike have searched for and sometimes found depictions that seemingly implicated themselves or their relatives in wartime atrocities.

Still, historical photos purport to show “the way it was,” but as any viewer of television documentary film can attest, archival images can be deployed to support a multitude of intentions. Thus once the credibility of even a fraction of the exhibition’s images was clearly shaken, the independent Hamburg Institute for Social Research, which organized the event, decided it was best to suspend future presentations and subject all of its materials to careful review. The institute announced on Thursday that it was postponing the exhibition in New York and in several German cities after admitting that a small proportion of the photos had been inaccurately captioned.

“Whatever mistakes and errors there are have to be corrected as quickly as they are presented,” said the Cooper Union historian Atina Grossmann, who added that a consortium of academics from Cooper, Columbia, Princeton, Rutgers, New York University and the New School were determined to proceed with plans for a major symposium next month on war crimes organized in conjunction with the show, including a workshop on the complexities of photographic documentation of such misdeeds.

The average American may have long ago assumed that Hitler’s army played a key role in the Holocaust, but Germans and Austrians have commonly held that the murder of European Jewry was solely the handiwork of SS fanatics and extermination squads. And although Germans in recent years have grappled with many aspects of their dark past, the exhibition hit a nerve so raw that it has had “the effect of a national purgatory,” said the University of Chicago historian Michael Geyer.

More than 1,000 photos, 80 percent of them taken by individual soldiers, form its core. Some show smirking infantrymen grabbing and cutting off the beards of elderly Jews or executing innocent bystanders at gunpoint. Other images chronicle the plunder and torching of villages by military forces as well as troops’ carrying out hangings.

The exhibition includes official army documents directing German military units to wipe out Jewish communities. There are also personal letters, like one of 1941 from an infantryman to his parents boasting that his unit had killed 1,000 Jews in Ukraine and adding, “That is far too few for what they have done.”

Soon after the exhibition began its tour, critics charged that the photographs were forgeries or incorrectly labeled.

Last month a Polish historian, Bogdan Musial, published an article in a German academic journal stating that some of the images depicted victims of murders in Ukraine committed by Soviet forces, not German troops.

By the time Mr. Musial’s article appeared, the Hamburg institute said it had conducted additional research and rephrased captions in the English-language edition of the catalog to indicate that some corpses in the relevant photos were murdered by the Soviet secret police while others were Jews killed by Germans who later occupied the area. The institute’s research director, Bernd Greiner, said that 10 pictures — of a total of more than 1,100 — had been recaptioned or removed since the exhibition originally opened.

Andre Schiffrin, director of the New Press, which published the English-language exhibition catalog, said 10,000 copies had already been shipped to United States bookstores. “We have nothing in the catalog, to my knowledge, that is not historically correct,” Mr. Schiffrin said.

While postwar Germany has reached a consensus on the need to commemorate the crimes of the Nazi regime, resistance to acknowledging broader military involvement in genocide remains fierce, since 20 million men — a cross-section of society — served in the armed forces. The exhibition has helped break down a psychological fire wall between history at large and family experience.

To be sure, the idea that the army had maintained a sense of professionalism and ideological detachment throughout the war had already been dealt a heavy blow in academic circles. Over the last three decades historians have documented with increasing precision how soon after taking power the Nazi regime indoctrinated the Wehrmacht and then used it as a policy tool until 1945. But not until the exhibition began its tour in 1995 did this knowledge seep into German popular consciousness.

The exhibition unexpectedly became a historical event in its own right. As it wended its way through Germany, still more evidence came to light as visitors responded by rummaging in their attics and coming forth to donate dozens of additional wartime photo albums to the Hamburg institute. Many of these were to have been displayed for the first time in New York.

Other sectors of German society balked at the exhibition’s conclusion that not all but a significant part of the armed forces hardly deserved the unsullied reputation made popular in postwar films and novels. The Defense Ministry expressly barred active soldiers from participating in symposiums about the exhibition; extremists bombed it in Saarbrucken last March, and riots erupted at several stops on its travels.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroder never visited the exhibition and was quoted as saying, “I find it impermissible to say that the bulk of the army was capable of committing such crimes.” After the chancellor declined an invitation to accompany the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy on a tour of the show, pleading a prior social commitment, Mr. Levy wrote in Le Monde that the Social Democratic leader’s priority was “a party rather than remembrance and history.”

Historians at the Hamburg institute said that the disputed photos came from Eastern bloc archives and that they had relied too heavily on those archives’ own captioning for the exhibition. “The vetting process did not go far enough,” the institute research associate Hannes Heer said at a news conference in Hamburg.

Omer Bartov, a professor of history at Rutgers who has written widely on German Army involvement in genocide, said, “It is unfortunate that some of the photos may have been mislabeled, but to my mind it casts no doubt whatsoever as to the facts as they are presented in the exhibition.”

He added that critics have “latched on to these few unfortunate errors, which have no bearing on the basic conclusions of the exhibition or what the historiography has shown.”