German Historians on Frontlines of Politics 

Historian Jens-Christian Wagner was stunned when he received a telephone call this month from the public prosecutor’s office in the northern German town of Göttingen:  He was being investigated for defaming the Wehrmacht, Nazi Germany’s army. The prosecutor told Wagner he had received a 27-page complaint against him and was taking the defamation allegations seriously. The complaint was about a book Wagner published last year to accompany an exhibition at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp detailing the role of the Wehrmacht in the Holocaust and how Nazi Germany’s armed forces had committed crimes against humanity during World War II.  “He said he was starting an investigation against me for alleging ‘dishonorable facts to the detriment of the Wehrmacht soldiers.’ I could only think he had no knowledge of German history. The prosecutor seemed oblivious to the ridiculousness of the complaint,” Wagner told VOA.   FILE – Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburg, Prince Philip (L), are show the memorial site of former Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen by memorial site director Jens-Christian Wagner (C), on June 26, 2015.An email from VOA to the public prosecutor’s office seeking comment has gone unanswered. Wehrmacht atrocities have been extensively documented. But a wave of Nazi revisionism casting doubt on German war crimes is once again emerging, said Wagner, director of the memorial at the Buchenwald concentration camp who specializes in the politics of memory. After an outcry on social media prompted by Wagner’s November 9 tweet about the defamation probe, the state prosecutor for Lower Saxony halted the investigation, saying there was no case to answer.  Culture war  Wagner and other historians of the Nazi era say they feel they are on the frontlines of a culture war and that the defamation investigation is just one incidence of a campaign of harassment, including death threats.  Earlier this year Wagner, among other directors of Holocaust memorials, revealed that tour guides at concentration camps were frequently being challenged by hecklers who claim detainees starved because food supplies were disrupted by Allied bombing. Other critics questioned the veracity of the Holocaust, saying the death count of the victims was exaggerated.  FILE: Inmates are seen lying on bunks in a barrack at Nazi German death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau after its liberation in 1945, in this undated handout picture obtained by Reuters, Jan. 19, 2020. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem Archives)“Sometimes, the tour guides ignore them. But sometimes, we have to tell them to leave. It is impossible to debate them — their minds are made up,” Wagner said. Fifteen former concentration camps on German soil have been turned into memorial sites, including Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Neuengamme.  FILE – German Chancellor Angela Merkel observes a moment of silence as she lays a wreath at the memorial in the former German Nazi concentration camp in Dachau to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp.The Wehrmacht Wagner said he thought the debate about the Wehrmacht’s war crimes had ended long ago.  In the 1980s, three revisionist German historians presented a picture of a “clean” Wehrmacht in a series of works, arguing the army had been highly professional and an apolitical force. They portrayed army generals and soldiers as victims of Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler rather than followers or accomplices.  German, British and American historians pushed back, adding to the already extensive historical research on the Wehrmacht’s systematic war crimes, which included massacres of captured soldiers and civilians, mass rape, the exploitation of forced labor, the murder of 3 million Soviet prisoners of war and participation in the extermination of Jews.  FILE – Prisoners too weak to stand lie on a bank, some dying or already dead, beside one of the huts at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, in April, 1945.According to British historian Richard J. Evans, Wehrmacht officers were often zealous National Socialists, with a third of them being Nazi Party members in 1941. Wehrmacht crimes have been documented across Nazi-occupied Europe, from Belgium to the Balkans, Poland to Greece. While Nazi SS forces have been held most responsible for the genocide of Jews, the Wehrmacht not only aided the SS but committed its own atrocities, the bulk of them on the Eastern Front, historians say. Writing in his book “Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in comparison,” British historian Ian Kershaw noted, “The Nazi revolution was broader than just the Holocaust. Its second goal was to eliminate Slavs from central and eastern Europe and to create a Lebensraum [living space] for Aryans.” Kershaw added that most of the Wehrmacht’s 3 million men on the Eastern Front, from generals to ordinary soldiers, “Helped exterminate captured Slav soldiers and civilians. This was sometimes cold and deliberate murder of individuals [as with Jews], sometimes generalized brutality and neglect. German soldiers’ letters and memoirs reveal their terrible reasoning: Slavs were ‘the Asiatic-Bolshevik’ horde, an inferior but threatening race.” In the 1990s, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research organized touring exhibitions of the Wehrmacht’s role in war crimes. The exhibitions prompted protests and even a bombing, but commentators and historians, including Wagner, thought the message had gotten through to the wider public.  Now, he is not so sure and fears “it has become socially acceptable again to talk about a clean Wehrmacht.” In his book accompanying last year’s exhibition at Bergen-Belsen, Wagner wrote about several Wehrmacht crimes. They included the army’s involvement in guarding concentration camps and the running of its own prisoner-of-war camp at Bergen-Belsen, where 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war died.  FILE – A memorial stone for Margot Frank and Anne Frank is pictured on the grounds of the former Prisoner of War (POW) and concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, March 18, 2020.He said the return of the myth of the clean Wehrmacht and other historical revisionism, including Holocaust denial, has coincided with the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), as well as fake information on the internet.  Several AfD leaders have condemned the culture of atonement for Nazi crimes.  Bjoern Hoecke, the regional party leader in Thuringia and a former history teacher, has called for a “180-degree reversal” in German remembrance culture, labeling the Berlin Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame.”  

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