The tip of an iceberg

Die Welt am Sonntag NEWS BACKGROUND

Sunday, 24. October 1999.

General Field Marshal Keitel, Chief of the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht

[9 photographs with fake captions]

Captions: Boryslaw, Tarnopol, Lemberg, Zlocwow: the victims shown in the photos were allegedly murdered by members of the German Wehrmacht. In reality, they were killed by the Soviet secret police, or NKVD.

Bogdan Musial: Proves Nine Fakes


The Polish historian Bogdan Musial considers the Wehrmachts [photo] exposition in its present form to be “not very professional”.


Q: Mr. Musial, you are a scholar at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw and the most acute critic of the controversial travelling photo exposition “War of Extermination. Crimes of the Wehrmacht” of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. How did you become so critical?

A: BOGDAN MUSIAL: When I visited the exposition, with its frightful photographs of shootings and other atrocities, with a group of Ph.D. candidates, in Bremen, two years ago, some of the photos shown there attracted my attention. They showed German soldiers looking at bodies laid out in rows. Upon closer examination, I noticed bloated faces and limbs. This led me to suspect that the corpses may possibly have been exhumed. But why should German soldiers first shoot people, then bury the bodies, and then dig them up again? This seemed improbable to me. I knew from my research that the Germans, in the first weeks of the Eastern campaign, often exhumed  the bodies of victims killed by the Soviet state security service — the NKVD — and, in so doing, took many photos — partly for propaganda purposes, but in some cases for private use as well — so it was possible to assume that the organizers of the exposition had mis-captioned the photos.

Q: As an historian, did you examine the matter more closely?

A: Yes. The result of my very exhaustive research, partly at the locations of the cruel atrocities, was devastating. Although I have not examined all the photos in the exposition by far, I found a whole series of incorrect attributions. To put it plainly: victims of the Soviets had been turned into victims of the Wehrmacht. I documented nine of these cases of “confusion of identity” in the Quarterly for Contemporary History.

Q: Why didn’t you examine them all?

A: Because I had only twenty pages at my disposal, and the proof is very complicated. I am however convinced that the errors found by me are only the tip of the iceberg.

Q: Did you talk to the exposition organizers about the errors?

A: Yes, several times, directly, and indirectly, through historian colleagues, who have attempted to mediate. Hannes Heer, who is responsible for the exposition, later took legal proceedings against me, but in no way relevant to the pertinent facts. Rather, he opened up a secondary theatre of war by having me barred from saying that he had not reacted to my comments. At the same time, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research introduced a regular campaign against me, with the simultaneous aim of smearing me as frivolous. I obtained an injunction and am now working on a rebuttal.

Q: How do you explain such a drastic reaction?

A: The reputation of the Hamburg Institute, which has become known to a more general public only through this exposition, stands and falls with this exposition; I think that is why they are fighting so doggedly.

Q: Must your research findings have consequences for the exposition?

A: The strength of their exposition lies in the weakness of its critics. I think that the exposition is no longer tenable in its present form. What the exposition organizers, who call themselves scholars, have dished out as their research results, in my opinion, has little to do with scholarship. If I worked like that, I could just as easily prove that the Wehrmacht never committed any crimes at all, without even having to manipulate any sources — simply by leaving out incriminating material.

Q: Was the Wehrmacht a criminal organization as a whole? After all, this is the impression given by the exposition to its visitors.

A: It is known that crimes were committed in the Wehrmacht. It is not possible that no crimes were committed among millions of soldiers — above all, under the conditions of the war. But there are also the uncounted millions of decent soldiers. These things must be considered in a differentiated manner. Sweeping judgements are not applicable in this regard.

Q: A year ago, had Martin Waiser warned of an “instrumentalization of the Holocaust”. Are the exposition organizers instrumentalizing the exposition?

A: Yes, obviously. The method is not unknown to me. That is how things were done in Communist Poland.

Q: How do you explain that broad parts of the political classes in Germany have reacted so positively to the exposition?

A: I have the impression the Germans have difficulties in dealing with certain realities. There is a prevalent climate of victimization; precisely this is favourable to people like Hannes Heer or Daniel Goldhagen. No one dares to examine their arguments according to scholarly criteria. Anyone who, like myself, dares to take an unprejudiced look at things, runs the risk of being condemned as a revisionist. On the other side the great response to my work gives me the hope that it will finally be possible to begin to discuss this period of contemporary history, objectively and without prejudice, in Germany.

Interview conducted by Ralf Georg Reuth



Translated and made available by Carlos W. Porter /

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