Beyond the stories of French WWII POWs? German city grapples with history museum | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 11.09.2019
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Beyond the stories of French WWII POWs? German city grapples with history museum

If walls could talk, what stories would — and should — they tell? In the case of Nazi-built, ex-POW barracks in the German city of Soest, the answer has been complicated by overlapping layers of 20th-century history.

The German city of Soest, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Dortmund, is full of rich medieval and Hanseatic history. Tourists come to admire its half-timbered houses, unique churches, and 12th-century city walls.

Just a five-minute drive beyond those walls lies a fenced-off area of grey buildings standing in a row. The complex's forlornness belies the many historic stories it, too, could tell, starting with construction by the Nazis.

A small plaque on one building identifies it as a barrack for Belgian troops over four decades of the Cold War. There is no similar sign indicating the historic gem nestled in this same building's eaves: A chapel with floor-to-ceiling murals painted by French officers held as prisoners of war (POW) during WWII. Today, the chapel is a protected memorial to victims of the Nazi regime.

A religious mural covers the walls of the French Chapel in a building for former POW officers in Soest (DW/C. Burack)

The French Chapel murals were painted by two prisoners in 1940. It was first open to the public in 1995, once the Belgian army left the building it is in

Over the past years, the city of Soest has wound its way towards installing a permanent museum next to the chapel. Yet there has been strong disagreement over what exactly the museum should commemorate, as the story of the French prisoners is only one of a series of important events that took place on the site and make up the 20th-century history of the city.

Family stories of French officer POWs

A key player in the museum push has been a non-profit historical organization known as the Geschichtswerkstatt Französische Kapelle (GFK), or French Chapel History Workshop. Since 1997, the GFK's volunteers have cared for the chapel, researched the lives of French officer POWs and other camp inhabitants, and educated chapel visitors, who include descendants of people held there.

One recent visitor was Pierre Laurent, who was invited by the GFK to visit: Both his father and his uncle had been imprisoned in the Soest complex during WWII when it was a POW camp for officers.

Pierre Laurent uand his wife, France, stand in front of the mural of the French Chapel (Familie Laurent)

Pierre Laurent's uncle and father were both prisoners in the Soest complex. He and his wife, France, visited the chapel in May

"My father practically never talked about what he lived through in that camp," Laurent told DW. "Our visit in May to the officer camp was particularly moving for us because we learned many things we were totally ignorant of," Laurent said. He was also touched by the GFK's fraternity and how it cared for the memory of the French prisoners.

The experiences of French officer POWs are not widely known. Like Laurent's father and uncle, many prisoners rarely spoke of their experiences after returning home, and WWII researchers have focused on other victims who suffered greater persecution under the Nazis. 

Read more: Belarus: An unknown story of the Holocaust brings forgotten camp 'back into Europe's conscience'

'Illuminating the whole room'

The GFK initially wanted a museum to focus exclusively on the chapel and French prisoners, furthering Franco-German understanding. It would have been the first of its kind in Germany, but the city decided it wanted to incorporate the history of the Belgian troops stationed there during the Cold War, as well.

Ulrike Gilhaus, a leading expert at a regional museum agency, was asked by the city of Soest to provide recommendations. She ended up suggesting a far more holistic approach.

Focusing on the French prisoners alone would have been insufficient, she told DW. "All the layers of a historical place over time must be represented," she said. Doing otherwise would be "like going into the cellar and shining a flashlight at just one element. Then you have not experienced the whole room," Gilhaus added. "For me it was about illuminating the whole room."

In this case, the whole room — the former military complex the chapel building is part of — has many elements: The barracks were built in 1938 under the Nazis. During WWII, many Soviet officer POWs were also imprisoned there alongside French, Belgian and Dutch ones. Yet unlike their western European counterparts, the Soviets were not protected by the 1929 Geneva Convention on war prisoners. They faced much worse conditions including abuse, starvation and unchecked illness.

A finger points to the Block III building on a map that shows the former POW officer camp in Soest (DW/C. Burack)

The French Chapel is located in the Block III building. It was just one part of the former officer POW camp, or 'Oflag,' that also held Russian officers during WWII

After WWII ended, the former barracks first housed some of the 300,000 freed forced laborers that had passed through Soest, followed by ethnic Germans driven out of Central and Eastern Europe and into Germany. Then, from 1951-94, the Belgian soldiers were stationed there.

Read more: Berlin Airlift 70 years on: When occupiers became protectors

From construction to today

Gilhaus said the museum must start with the complex's construction and trace its use and inhabitants all the way up through the present, all the while connecting what happened within the fenced-in site to the history of the city beyond it.

Explaining the different experiences of French and Soviet officers is particularly important, she emphasized, as the latter's degrading treatment must be understood as a hallmark of Nazi racial ideology.

"Some are worthy of receiving better treatment, and others are located all the way at the bottom of an ethnic hierarchy and received minimal support in all of life's essentials. Such an ethnic hierarchy is a typical characteristic of Nazism," she explained. 

Gilhaus' proposals caused the GFK chairperson pushing for a narrow focus to step down, but the group's current acting head, Werner Liedmann, welcomes the holistic approach.

"In order to comprehend history, all groups of victims must be included," he told DW. Liedmann believes the French prisoners and chapel are highlighted sufficiently thanks to the museum's installation next door.

"With a focus on contemporary history, we leave this place and create new connections" whether with foreign visitors or even the city of Soest, he said. 

Werner Liedmann, the acting head of the GFK, stands in front of a posted in the attic of the Block III building on the former POW camp in Soest (DW/C. Burack)

Liedmann is the acting head of the GFK, which used to meet with and educate student groups in the building where the French Chapel is located

Developing a culture of remembrance

Liedmann believes forging a connection to Soest is crucial, as the city lacks awareness of its 20th-century history. "We have very little culture of remembrance in the city," he said.

A museum would be in part "about making the people of Soest aware that this [the complex] is part of their history, what happened here, and not some phantom that randomly landed in Soest."

Gilhaus agrees it's important for the city to have a space that lays out its history during the Nazi era. "We have a whole series of museums in Soest," she said. But "there is no place today that really deals with the history of National Socialism."

Read more: Holocaust remembrance in Germany: A changing culture

A room in an attic in the Block III building of the former POW barracks in Soest, Germany (DW/C. Burack)

This attic room next to the French Chapel could house a museum in the future. French POWs used them when they were imprisoned there for exchanges and lectures

Connecting people through educational exchange

Soest has three city-run museums, and with a population of roughly 50,000, money is an issue. The proposed museum, which must be cost neutral, will not be possible without external funding, Maria-Luise Pepinghege, the chairperson of the city government's committee for culture, told DW. Her committee will decide on the future museum's size and breadth on September 12. A bigger space is essential for the broader approach but will take more resources.

Pierre Laurent and GFK representatives stand outside a building (Familie Laurent)

Three generations of the Laurent family met with GFK volunteers in May. Such visits are part of the outreach and education activities that the GFK does

The GFK is anxiously awaiting the decision. Liedmann has made it clear that the GFK will only stay onboard if the resulting proposal provides enough space and resources for the group to carry on with the face-to-face educational work it has been doing for years with chapel visitors.

Communicating history "can only be done in exchange with people" and especially young people, Liedmann said, adding that such work contributes to living together peacefully. "And what could Europe possibly need more?"

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