January 25, 2022

Memorial endgame

The 2nd exhibits addition of textual explanation was seen by some (including the first exhibitions director) as a concession to the far-right critics of the very first, which had actually provided photos uncommented and had occasionally lacked historical accuracy. However, the basic opinion was that, far from relativizing the criminal activities of the Wehrmacht, the second exhibition represented major development in public debate about the German past. That both exhibitions were themselves historical occasions is the property of the current problem, writes editor Jens Bisky.

Mittelweg 36 takes a look at the historical significance of the second Wehrmacht exhibit twenty years after its opening in Berlin in November 2001. Unlike the first exhibit, which opened in 1995 and stimulated heavy debate prior to being withdrawn by the organizers in 1999, the second, extended variation mostly happened in an environment of consensus and neutrality.

From politics to historiography

Why did the Wehrmacht exhibitions produce far more public feeling than previous arguments about the German past? For 2 reasons, according to Jureit. Initially, the participation of the Wehrmacht in Nazi criminal activities affected the personal memories of a far larger swathe of the German population. However, second, since the dispute about the very first exhibit had actually stopped to be unbiased. After a specific point, there was a failure to compare the Wehrmacht as an organization and private Wehrmacht soldiers, i.e. over 18 million individuals. Among veterans, but likewise within politically conservative and reactionary circles, the viewpoint formed that in the very first exhibition former Wehrmacht soldiers were being insulted wholesale.

From 1999 onwards, says the historian Ulrike Jureit, the Wehrmacht debate ceased to be mostly a political one and became a historiographic one. This was the factor for the decision of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research to reconceptualize the exhibit in its totality, rather than simply appropriate mistakes.

Realignments and mobilizations

Wherever Neonazis marched, so did the anti-fascist Left. Julia Hörath reconstructs three such counter-demos: in Berlin in 2001, in Munich in 2002 and in Hamburg in 2004. Rather than underpinning a mainstream anti-Nazism, the main impact of the counter-demos was to split the anti-fascist Left, an area of which declined any such consensus.

This article belongs to the 19/2021 Eurozine review. Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get updates on evaluations and our newest publishing.

One can see the two Wehrmacht exhibits as the conclusion of the classical stage of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (dealing with the past). We can observe this occurring in various forms in other countries, for example in the USA in the argument about memorials or in European nations about the colonial past.

The Wehrmacht exhibits also played a main function in the development of the far-right in Germany, argues Janosch Steuwer. After years in which reactionary demonstrations had actually rarely numbered over 200 participants, the exhibitions provided a new opportunity for political mobilization. The big NPD demonstration that met the opening of the very first exhibit in Munich in 1997 was duplicated throughout the nation as the exhibition visited.

The huge NPD presentation that met the opening of the first exhibition in Munich in 1997 was duplicated across the country as the exhibition toured.

The second exhibitions inclusion of textual explanation was seen by some (including the first exhibitions director) as a concession to the far-right critics of the very first, which had provided pictures uncommented and had actually occasionally lacked historic accuracy. The basic viewpoint was that, far from relativizing the criminal activities of the Wehrmacht, the second exhibit represented major progress in public dispute about the German past. Why did the Wehrmacht exhibitions generate much more public feeling than previous debates about the German past? Among veterans, however also within reactionary and politically conservative circles, the opinion formed that in the very first exhibition previous Wehrmacht soldiers were being insulted wholesale.