Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Unknown Soldier

Taking advantage of the mini-break surrounding Thanksgiving, I further indulged my obsession with Nazi war crimes by watching "The Unknown Soldier," a documentary by Michael Veerhoeven that explores the reaction of the German public to the Wehrmacht Exhibitions that have toured that country in the past two decades. 

The point of the exhibition was to prove that the regular German Army played a huge and ongoing role in the extermination of the Jews, especially on the Eastern Front, i.e., Ukraine.  We forget that many of the Jews were not killed in death camp gas chambers, but were herded into ghettos (often established off the main streets of towns with hastily erected barbed wire), from which they were periodically, methodically, and openly marched through the towns to open pits or gullies a couple of kilometers away, and shot.  It is estimated that 100,000 Jews were disposed of at Babi Yar alone.  

The magnitude of these numbers always beleaguers my imagination.  When I lived in Grand Junction, there were 35,000 residents, and it seemed like a pretty big town to me (x 3? in one pit?)  

And much of this action was carried out by rank and file German soldiers.  Indeed it could not have happened without their direct involvement.  And their full and enthusiastic participation could not have been engaged unless they themselves were acting out their own ingrained anti-Semitic belief system.

The evidence of their involvement takes many forms, but most compellingly, in snapshots taken by the soldiers themselves and later lovingly preserved in family photo albums: "Grandpa's Service."  I was reminded of the shock that the Abu Ghraib photos caused, not only because they provided horrific evidence of war crimes by American soldiers (and American female soldiers at that!), but because the pictures had been taken and distributed so freely and joyfully.

The culpability of the common German soldier is not what I was taught in grade school, and it certainly came as a shock to Germans of my generation, whose fathers and grandfathers had been exonerated after the war.  Not surprising, then, that the Exhibit triggered protests, not only by neo-Nazi thugs, but by ordinary middle class Germans and even a few very elderly veterans themselves. 

I found the details of the documentary riveting.  For example, in one brief film clip, a German Red Cross nurse tenderly secures a blanket around a naked elderly Jew's shoulders as she calmly directs him into a mobile gas chamber... 

But the segment that made the greatest impression on me was the research that had been done on the fate of soldiers who refused to participate in the genocide: not a single one who refused to shoot Jews was disciplined in any way, much less court-martialed.  In other words, the soldiers of conscience -- and there were a few, there always are a few good people! -- suffered no negative consequences whatsoever as a result. Which puts the lie to the commonly cited belief that taking a moral stand always meant risking martyrdom.  In other words, the soldiers that shot Jews did so because they wanted to (or at least didn't mind doing so), and the soldiers that didn't shoot Jews did so because they didn't want to.

I hope German historians will continue to seek out and reward, if only posthumously, those individuals.  Because if there are important lessons to be learned by examining why, and how, people commit heinous acts, there are even more important lessons to be learned by examining why, and how, people resist evil.


  1. That bit you mentioned at the end about soldiers who refused to shoot Jews not being punished in any way for it astonished me. Given how wedded the Nazis were to the idea of exterminating the Jews (as I once heard it put, "Hitler didn't want to kill the Jews so he could win the war; he wanted to win the war so he could kill the Jews"), one wonders why they were so lenient on those of their number who refused to participate in their "crusade".

    I've always had conflicted feelings towards the Germans (indeed the Axis powers as a whole) during World War II. On the one hand, they were a disciplined and formidable fighting force that achieved many brilliant victories, at least during the first half of the war (even their much-criticized invasion of the USSR went swimmingly until either (depending on your point of view) their failure to take Moscow at the end of 1941, or their defeat at Stalingrad just over a year later); on the other hand, the atrocities they committed during that war turn the stomach. It's hard to admire their military prowess when you realize just what ends it was meant to serve.

    1. Yes, this was the most "shocking" revelation of the film; I actually played it three times because I could hardly believe my ears (eyes, rather, since I don't speak German, I relied on the subtitles).

    2. Weirdly, my first thought was that perhaps it meant that maybe, possibly the Nazis weren't quite as evil as I thought they were (ie maybe they were only 99.99% evil, rather than 100% evil). It's like the way I once heard that one of the reasons the Nazis didn't ever use the huge quantities of nerve gas (something German scientists had actually invented) they'd produced and stockpiled during the war was that Hitler had been gassed during the First World War, and didn't want to inflict the same misery on others (although, as a skeptic pointed out, that still didn't stop him from having gas used to kill the Jews).


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