University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Germans coming to terms with the crimes of the past: the role of the Wehrmacht in World War II

In his dissertation third-year history student Tim Marsella studied the changing understandings and representations of the role of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces in World War II) within modern Germany.  He shows how a landmark exhibition in the 1990s challenged perceptions about the breadth of involvement in war crimes, but also how coming to terms with painful memories allowed German society to move on.

Wehrmacht soldiers training in 1942

Wehrmacht soldiers training in 1942

Most students are aware when they start their degrees that they will be required to complete a dissertation in the final year of their course, and this prospect can seem quite daunting.What I would like to share is both my inspiration for this work and what I gained from doing it.

For myself, deciding the topic was one of the most difficult tasks. I decided that I wanted to base my research upon one of the most well-known historical events, the Holocaust, but was unsure on what focus point to take. What I was particularly interested in was how a nation, which had been involved in such a widespread, and atrocious crime was able to deal with its past in the present day. I approached, Dr Mathias Seiter (who would later become my first supervisor) to discuss my ideas I had regarding my dissertation. He helped to point me towards the role of the Wehrmacht (the combined German armed forces of the Second World War) in the Holocaust’s perpetration, as this had been a controversial topic. It quickly became evident that the reason for this controversy was that by condemning the Wehrmacht, an entire generation of Germans would be condemned. This is because such a large part of the German population had been a part of the Wehrmacht.

Luckily, I had the opportunity to visit the city of Berlin in the summer leading up to my final year of study. I was amazed at the level of work modern Germany had put into commemorating it’s past, even the criminal parts of it. This is most evident by the large ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, which sits in the centre of Berlin. I was also impressed by the museums of the ‘Topography of Terror’ and the ‘German Historical Museum’. Both museums demonstrate past crimes of the German state and its populace, and important for my dissertation, both highlight the Wehrmacht’s role in crimes. It was evident to me, that modern Germany views its crimes very seriously.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Over the year I planned, researched, wrote and changed my dissertation on different occasions. It was not a straightforward process. Luckily, I had two excellent supervisors, Dr Mathias Seiter and Dr Brigitte Leucht who both helped me to better my work. It was also fascinating to listen to their stories as both had witnessed the exhibition at the centre of my dissertation first-hand. What resulted was a dissertation which took a focus point of the Wehrmacht exhibition entitled War of Annihilation: Crimes of the German Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944 (1995-1999) by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. This exhibition would be used to examine the changing perception of the Wehrmacht within the German public conscious and would fit into the wider debate of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Germans coming to terms with the past). The dissertation was divided into three chapters, which looked at the changing ideas of the Holocaust and the Wehrmacht prior to the exhibition, the exhibition itself as well as its reactions, and finally whether the exhibition was able to change the idea of the Wehrmacht in present German society. The analysis was primarily literature based, but used some key primary sources, notable representations of the Wehrmacht within German popular culture.

Visitors to the exhibition War of Annihilation: Crimes of the German Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944 held from 1994-9 by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research

Visitors to the exhibition War of Annihilation: Crimes of the German Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944 held from 1994-9 by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research

What this dissertation concluded was the Wehrmacht exhibition had a great impact on German society. The levels of guilt in which the Wehrmacht was implicated in varied between different representations, but no representation could deny the Wehrmacht being involved in crimes. Importantly, this idea of Wehrmacht being vital for the Holocaust is presented, the blame not just placed upon the ‘top Nazi’s’ and the SS. This has allowed Germany to be able to move on from its Wehrmacht’s criminal past and deploy as well as commemorate its new armed forces.

From doing this research I gained some valuable insights. What I discovered was the importance of both history and memory on human society. Notably, the exhibition caused a drastic change in perception for some individuals. For example, shockingly to some individuals, pictures of their relatives committing crimes were actually in the exhibition. Visitors were shocked to see their ancestors, who they believed were loving husbands, fathers or grandfathers committing atrocious crimes. People would tour the exhibition using magnifying glasses in fear of spotting a relative. Interestingly, people would react differently. Some wrote into the exhibition, sending in their personal family albums, some needed to visit psychiatrists or sought comfort through religion. Others would write into the exhibition team in defence of their family members, criticising the exhibition team, labelling them with names such as ‘communists’. Criticism reached a peak when there were clashes both inside and outside the exhibition venues, and there was even a bomb attack on the exhibition. A literal attempt at destroying the evidence. Importantly however, the exhibition was causing dialogue between generations and across all levels of society, all the way to the German Federal Government.

Photos of German officers during World War II

Visitors to the exhibition feared what they might find out about apparently loving family members.

Overall, what this dissertation has taught me is that daunting pieces of work can turn out to be very enjoyable. At the beginning, finding a place to start can be hard, and when ideas have to change throughout the topic, it can be tough. But by choosing a topic I enjoyed, and getting good supervision, I was able to complete a piece of work which I got great enjoyment from doing.


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