An enduring myth about the Second World War is the canard that the Germany Army, the fabled Wehrmacht was an apolitical organization largely innocent of Nazi crimes. In his definitive The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality, Wolfram Wette dismissed this view: while the Wehrmacht treated prisoners of war on the Western front honorably, on the Eastern front, its campaigns were barbaric.
This was a view that the Germans themselves were uncomfortable with, until very recently. When an exhibition “The War of Annihilation. Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944” opened in Hamburg in 1995 and toured 33 German and Austrian cities in the following two years, it was greeted with protests, denunciations, and even violence in Munich and Bavaria.
At the center of controversy were photos taken by Gerhard Gronefeld, showing an execution in the Yugoslavian town of Pancevo on 22nd April 1941. They showed an ugly, uncomfortable truth: that the ordinary soldiers were just as lethal as the SS in exterminating Jews and civilians. In the photos, executed civilians lie next to a cemetery wall as a Wehrmacht officer pointed his gun at the dying, as a SS-officer looked on. Thirty-six civilians were executed — 18 men were shot, and 17 men and one woman were hanged. The “most terrible scene which I photographed ever,” Gronefeld recalled, and he did not submit the photographs to the army magazine for which he was working. He secreted the photos until 1963, when they were published.
Controversial though it was, the 1995 Exhibition was a landmark moment. As it toured across Germany and Austria, many veterans, ex-servicemen, and their families donated letters and photos and came forward to recall how the army had been deployed as state executioner. Gronefeld’s photo ran on the cover of Der Spiegel on 19th March 1997. Christian Social Union, the natural party of government in Bavaria, denounced it as an insult to the Wehrmacht, as neo-Nazis marched through Munich to protest the exhibition. An academic at Germany Army’s Bundeswehr University came out defending Pancevo as an act of defense, allowable under the international law*. As for Pancevo, it was once again in the news in the 1990s as the Balkans spiraled once more into a fratricidal war.
* See: Franz Seidler, Crimes Against the Wehrmacht (1997). p.18-19.