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Elisabeth Kuebler on The Discursive Construction of History. Remembering the Wehrmacht’s War of Annihilation

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:3-4 (Fall 2009)

Spring 1998: Two liberal-leftist history teachers took their 16 to 18 year old high school students to the Wehrmacht touring exhibition on display in Salzburg, Austria. The following day, the students’ geography teacher (a then outspoken supporter of Haider’s Freedom Party) entered the classroom with a TV documentary on the KGB prison in Moscow’s Lubyanka complex in his hands. Dryly he said. “You should know that not only your grandfathers were bad, the others were so too.”

I chose this personal anecdote because it epitomizes so clearly the Austrian (and German) discourse surrounding the First Wehrmacht Exhibition of the years 1995 to 1999.  Four years later, while the revised Second Wehrmacht Exhibition was still running (2001-2004), Heer, Manoschek, Pollak and Wodak published a volume entitled Wie Geschichte gemacht wird: Zur Konstruktion von Erinnerungen an Wehrmacht und Zweiten Weltkrieg [How history is made: On the construction of recollections of the Wehrmacht and Second World War].[1] In 2008, an excellent translation to English was published by Palgrave Macmillan, now under the more felicitous heading The Discursive Construction of History. Remembering the Wehrmacht’s War of Annihilation. Its editors are among the most prominent scholars of the Wehrmacht crimes and the respective post-war handing-down of the past, thus combining meticulous research of sources with a discourse-critical approach, as laid out in Heer and Wodaks’s theoretical introductory chapter.

The book is split into three sections: a. the Wehrmacht and the Second World War in the memory of the war generation; b. the Wehrmacht in collective memory after 1945; and c. reactions to the Wehrmacht exhibitions. The Viennese political scientist Walter Manoschek, who besides being one of the authors of the first Wehrmacht exhibition has also conducted trailblazing research on the extermination of Jews in Serbia and victims under Wehrmacht jurisdiction, opens the first section with a chapter recounting the crimes committed by so-called ordinary Wehrmacht soldiers in the war of annihilation on the East front. Manoschek juxtaposes the pure yet chilling facts with letters written by Wehrmacht soldiers to their relatives. Though these letters do not constitute a representative sample, they are evidence of the level of involvement of low-rank soldiers in the mass killings of Jews and other civilians (deemed “partisans”), and their deep-seated anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic beliefs (“The Crimes of the Wehrmacht in the Second World War,” 17-26, and “The Holocaust as Recounted in Wehrmacht Soldiers’ Letters from the Front,” 27-49).

While the official Austrian politics of the past – at least in relations with foreign countries – championed the claim of having been Nazi Germany’s first victim until the early 1990s, the veteran associations and deutschnational political camp favoured the narrative of Austrian Wehrmacht soldiers having defended their home country (i.e. the German Reich) during the Second World War. This crucial finding is supported by a survey among former Wehrmacht soldiers from the 1980s and Ruth Beckermann’s documentary East of War, for which she interviewed visitors of the birth cohorts 1915 to 1935 at the first exhibition in Vienna (see the contributions by Manoschek, “The Attitudes and Beliefs of Austrian Soldiers in the German Wehrmacht 1938-45,” 50-69, and Heer, “That is What Is So Terrible – That Millions of Soldiers Were There, Yet Today They All Claim They Never Saw a Thing,” 70-96).

Taking the constituency of ex-Nazis and, particularly, of Wehrmacht soldiers and their families into consideration, Austrian post-war governments were eager to grant them social benefits under the War Victims Benefits Act KOVG. In this atmosphere, Jewish survivors and resistance fighters were a quantité négligeable and consequently had to beg for charity, “whilst expellees continued to be disadvantaged with respect to pension entitlements into the 1980s, periods of military service were, for the most part, accredited without question for pension purposes – after a short time even for members of the SS. In this domain, some extreme cases can be cited: the widow of Adolf Eichmann’s collaborator, Alois Brunner, received a widow’s pension under the KOVG, as the widow of a supposedly ‘missing person'” (Sandner and Manoschek, “Defining the Victims of Nazism,” 99-131, here 116).

The recollection of the purportedly untainted Wehrmacht was transmitted through various channels of communication – family, mass media, school education, for example – and entered the collective memory of successive generations. The volume contains two extracts from Alexander Pollak’s PhD research on the depiction of the Wehrmacht in Austrian newspapers as well as in Austrian and German televised documentaries. The Wehrmacht defeat at Stalingrad in 1943 serves as the foundational myth for the persistent dichotomy of criminal SS and innocent young soldiers, who were sent to the battlefield against their will and sacrificed their lives to defend their fatherland (“The Myth of the ‘Untainted Wehrmacht’,” 132-155, and “All that Remains of the Second World War,” 175-204; see also Sabine Loitfellner’s examination of post-war schoolbooks, “The Appalling Toll in Austrian Lives…” 155-174).

One of the most captivating essays of the present publication is that of the two renowned socio-linguists Ruth Wodak and Alexander Pollak. It scrutinizes an episode of the popular German detective series Tatort [Crime Scene], set at the first Wehrmacht exhibition, in which family ties of the involved protagonists to perpetrators and victims of Wehrmacht crimes are gradually disclosed (“Crime Scene: Wehrmacht Exhibition,” 207-226).

In the final section, Hannes Heer compares the first Wehrmacht exhibition (The War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht, 1941 to 1944), which sparked fierce public debate and was revised due to historians’ protest at the mislabelling of single photographs, with its successor (“The Head of Medusa,” 227-251). Perhaps one could object that Heer, as co-curator of the first exhibition, is not the appropriate authority to pass judgement in this respect. However, Heidemarie Uhl also comes to the conclusion that the exhibition  aimed to achieve societal consensus in a clinical manner: by using long scientific explanations it distanced the visitor from the crimes documented. (“Interpreting the ‘War of Annihilation’,” 251-266).

The studies discussed here obviously contest the entirely false but pertaining image of the untainted Wehrmacht. On the contrary, the active involvement of ordinary soldiers in the extermination of Jewish, Russian, and Serbian men, women, and children can no longer be ignored or blamed on superior commanding officers. The research projects surrounding the Wehrmacht exhibitions have also challenged both historians’ and the public’s view that the Holocaust took place in sealed-off concentration camps, far away from the reality of the Nazi-German troops.

Several months after the publication of the German-language edition, another volume was released which focused on conveying history to young visitors to the stage of the second Wehrmacht exhibition.[2] It contains, among other articles, a striking survey conducted among third- and fourth- generation teenagers of how information about the Second World War and Holocaust was transmitted in their families and whether anti-Semitic, anti-Slavic, or revisionist language was used. Not all respondents had Nazi grandparents; some of them come from a migratory background.

The Discursive Construction of History is an accomplished collection of article is written on a high level with findings of scholarly interest. If it has one shortcoming, it is the relative lack of attention paid to commemoration and education in contemporary school and media settings.

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[1]. (Vienna: Czernin, 2003).

[2]. Renate Höllwart, Charlotte Martinz-Turek, Nora Sternfeld and Alexander Pollak, eds, In einer Wehrmachtsaustellung. Erfahrungen mit Geschichtsvermittlung (Vienna: Verlag Turia & Kant, 2003).


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ELISABETH KUEBLER is an associate lecturer at the Lauder Business School, Vienna, and lecturer at the Department of Government at the University of Vienna.