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Controversial Wehrmacht Exhibition Back on Show

On Thursday, a controversial exhibition on the role of the German Wehrmacht opens to the public. The display, which was first on show in 1995 but was suspended due to structural mistakes has undergone thorough revision.

A glimpse of the revised exhibition in BerlinImage: AP
German Wehrmacht soldiers file past a heap of corpses – just one of the photos on show at an exhibition which has been the cause for intense debate in Germany and has outraged Neo-Nazis since it was first opened six years ago. The exhibition is now on display in Berlin.

The exhibition "Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941-44" was first on show in Hamburg in 1995. Until 1999, the exhibition toured the country and was shown at 33 venues in Germany and Austria.

The exhibition was designed and drawn up by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research as part of the research project "In the Light of Our Century: Violence and Destructiveness during the twentieth Century". The project was launched in 1995 - fifty years after the end of World War II and five years before the end of the Twentieth century. According to the Institute, the year 1995 "seemed to suggest itself as an opportunity for reviewing the history of the twentieth century, a century characterized by unprecedented destructiveness."

The aim of the project was to present reflections on this history of violence to a broad public, an ambition which involved, apart from the exhibition, lectures, conferences and discussions.

The exhibition was extremely successful in one aspect – controversy. The display ignited debate throughout the country – and abroad. The researchers involved in the exhibition were convinced that by focusing on the Wehrmacht – the largest military organisation in the "Third Reich" – the exhibition would yield an insight into the way Nazi Germany and its violent regime worked.

Serious flaws

However, in one section of the exhibitions, photos of corpses were shown, corpses said to have been assassinated by the German Wehrmacht. But in 1999, three historians concluded that a significant number of the photographs did not show victims killed by the Wehrmacht at all. Various historians disclosed that the corpses were not Jewish progrom victims, but victims of the Soviet security police NKVD.

By this time the exhibition was in the centre of harsh criticsm. The subject was debated in several German state parliaments, as well as the German parliament, the Bundestag. The first debate held in the Bundestag was hailed by the press as "one of the few great hours of the parliament," with members relating the debate to their own personal family histories.

But it was throughout the country that controversy was sparked. The exhibition triggered a wider discussion about the crimes committed by Nazi Germany and the way post-war Germany dealt with its past. Never before had the debate been so intense.

According to the Institute, the photographs came from Soviet archives and were later said to have been found and confiscated by German soldiers. It is still not clear to this day why German soldiers should carry records of their own war crimes around with them – an ironic question which arose in various papers and online magazines.

Further investigations revealed that photos had been cut into segments, parts of the photos then being placed in different sections of the exhibition. The result was a distortion of the true sequence of events.

On November 4 1999, the head of the Hamburg Institute Jan Philipp Reetmtsma, announced the suspension of the exhibition. During the moratorium, a committee of academic experts reviewed the exhibition and finally presented its report to the public.

The committee report disclosed "1. structural mistakes, 2. inaccurate and careless handling of material and 3.", due to the way the exhibits were presented "too sweeping, suggestive statements". On November 23, the Hamburg Institute informed the public that the exhibition would be called off.

However, the committee could not find any "counterfeits in the main question and thesis" of the exhibition and therefore recommended a complete and thorough revision of the exhibition.

Now, three years to the month, the exhibition opens once again to the public. The display has undergone thorough revision, under the supervision of the academic committee which first reviewed the documents in 1999. The exhibition, titled "Verbrechen der Wehrmacht. Dimensionen des Vernichtungskrieges 1941-1944", is being shown at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, a gallery for contemporary art in Berlin's city centre. The gallery lies in a district where various Jewish institutions, buildings and cafes are situated.

As in 1995, the 2001 exhibition has sparked outrage with Neo-Nazis, who condemn criticsm of the German Wehrmacht and the Nazi regime during World War II.

According to Berlin security officials 4000 Neo-Nazis are expected to demonstrate against the exhibition on Saturday. Trade Unions and other left-wing groups have already announced anti-protests. The Neo-Nazis' protest route is expected to pass the exhibition gallery in August Strasse, a narrow road leading through an area in close proximity to various Jewish buidings and institutions. lb