Germans halt controversial exhibit on Hitlers army

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BERLIN — An exhibit on Hitler's army will not come to New York next month due to charges that some of the atrocities depicted in the exhibit were not committed by German soldiers.

Last week, the show was closed amid allegations that some of the exhibit may actually depict victims of the Soviet secret service.

This week, the head of the institute mounting the exhibit admitted that one of the atrocities covered in the show — the 1941 murder of 4,500 Jews in a Soviet town — was actually committed by Lithuanian Nazis, not the German army.

The exhibit, which is meant to illustrate the role ordinary German soldiers played in the Holocaust, includes photographs, letters and other documents from World War II.

Opponents claim it brands all veterans of the wartime German army, the Wehrmacht, as criminals instead of honoring the vast majority for serving their country.

During its tour of Germany and Austria during the past four years, the exhibit has generated heated protests — and, in some cases, violence.

At almost every stop, the exhibit has attracted neo-Nazis who handed out fliers claiming that the photos were falsified and that "our grandfathers were not criminals."

Jan Philipp Reemstma, the head of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, which mounted the exhibit, announced last week the delay in sending it to New York. Researchers will spend at least three months researching questions recently raised about some of the photographs in "The War of Extermination: Crimes of the Wehrmacht from 1941 to 1944."

The show was set to open Dec. 2 at the Cooper Union School of Art.

Supporters say the exhibit has raised awareness of a taboo chapter of German history because it proves that ordinary German soldiers, and not only the Nazi SS, were responsible for committing atrocities during World War II.

Historian Andreas Nachama, leader of Berlin's Jewish community, said this week he thought the exhibit has been "overestimated by both its friends and enemies."

"We knew there were many historical mistakes in it," said Nachama, the former director of the Berlin museum Topography of Terror, an archive and exhibit located at the site of the Gestapo's former headquarters.

"It is important to present such material to the public. But you have to be very careful, especially if it is something new for the general public."

The involvement of the Wehrmacht in World War II atrocities has long been known. But discussion of this involvement was brought to the fore by the exhibit, which presented evidence of these acts to the general public.

More than 800,000 visitors in Germany and Austria have seen the exhibit, which contains some 1,400 photos, more than half of them portraits.

Reemstma's announcement last week that the show would close came after an appeal by Michael Glos, a leader of the Christian Democratic Party, that Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer "use all necessary means" to stop the exhibit from being sent to New York.

The Foreign Ministry should be working to help build a positive image of Germany abroad, Glos said.

He added that the exhibit would only heighten prejudices against Germans and could damage the good relationship between the United States and Germany.

Reemstma admitted that a "loss of credibility" threatened to undermine the exhibit's thesis. He added that researchers had too often depended on archival descriptions of photos. But he denied that any photos had been falsified.

In the past two years, several captions have been corrected.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.