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.