“Who is exploiting and who is being exploited – the line is hard to draw”

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The Battlefield of Ukraine in World War II: Kyiv as it was in 1943, two years after the German occupation. © imago

A History of Violence in Europe in Focus: Raphael Gross on the Manipulation of Memory and the Planned Documentation Center for the Occupation 1939–1945.

Given the horror of the Holocaust, the violent history of the occupation of Europe between 1939 and 1945 remains largely unknown. This gap will now be filled by a documentation center being set up under the direction of the German Historical Museum (DHM) in Berlin. We spoke to Swiss historian Raphael Gross, who has served as DHM’s head for the past five years, about the project and the new urgency brought about by Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Mr. Gross, against the backdrop of the relatively well-lit history of National Socialism, the history of war and occupation appears almost as a black hole, despite notable works such as “The End” by Ian Kershaw. Is the assumption true and what are the reasons for that?

I think the impression is correct. One can certainly say that there is a wide body of research in Germany on National Socialism, on many aspects of the Holocaust and the war from a military historical point of view. In contrast, the history of the professions is very weak. This certainly has to do with the fact that the dimensions of the crimes are brutal and varied. It can be said that most of the victims of the war were civilians and did not die in the course of hostilities. In light of this, the occupation of states and the politics of occupation as a whole are not well researched, and most people in this country hardly know the suffering that lies behind it. In fact, 230 million people in 27 countries are affected.

What we are currently witnessing very intensely is the change in the memory of World War II, and the tyrant Putin is also involved in that.

How will the new Trust Center deal with this?

It should help make the gap, which is still quite large, understandable. I would like to give an example from Poland in September 1939. The city of Wielun was bombed on the first day of the war, followed shortly thereafter by Warsaw and 150 other sites that were not military targets at all. From this we can see that the population became the target of attacks very immediately at the beginning of the war. There were German units that burned entire villages, and the Jewish population in particular became the target of unbridled violence. Early on September 8, the synagogue in the city of Bedzin was set on fire and the escapees were shot. As many as 200 people fell victim to this excessive violence. At a very early stage, there was also a targeted hunt for social elites. By the end of 1939, in a few weeks, 60 thousand people were killed in this way. Behind them are stories that need space. But we do not want to focus on the national aspects of crimes against Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Russians, Dutch, etc. Instead, we will try to look at the phenomenon as a whole and its system.

Where should the documentation center be built and when should it be ready?

The concept project accepted by the new government, which was submitted to the old government, speaks of a site in the center of Berlin. Then a specific location is determined in coordination with the federal authorities. In terms of the time frame, I got the impression that the federal government is very serious about the project. Chancellor Olaf Schultz has stated explicitly that he supports the plans. I am optimistic that we can start implementing it very quickly. We can draw on a lot of what is already available at DHM, from management to group specific aspects. Hence a permanent exhibition and the development of the changing offerings are planned.

Raphael Gross, President of the German Historical Museum in Berlin.
Raphael Gross, President of the German Historical Museum in Berlin. © Sabine Judath / Imago

When depicting the history of war, the violence caused by the occupation is often overlooked. The Wehrmacht’s occupation of Paris, for example, appears no less than through the images in it, like a kind of company outing. We deal mostly with documents from the perpetrators. How will the Documentation Center deal with the methodological challenges that result from this?

We held an international symposium this year specifically devoted to this question: How do you expose violence? How accurate is crime showing? Or does one risk obscuring it by reconsidering the offender? At the conference, for example, travel guides were presented to the soldiers, which provided guidance on linking the war with tourist interests, so to speak. This says a lot about underestimating horror. Incidentally, at the conference it was also discussed that the first exhibitions of the atrocities of the occupation were shown in some countries in 1945. This reminded me of a photo I first saw in the UK in 2006. The picture was taken by Wolf Suchetsky, an Austrian-British photographer and photographer, in London shortly before the end of the war. Depicts the entrance to an exhibition entitled “War in Wax”. Even before the end of the war, attempts were made to ban acts of Nazi violence with the resources of the Wax Museum. Suschitzky said it was the most outrageous photo he had ever taken. So the question of how to show horror is always there.

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Raphael Gross, born in Zurich in 1966, was president of the German Historical Museum (DHM) in Berlin for five years. Between 1986 and 1990 he studied history, philosophy and literature in Zurich, Berlin, Bielefeld and Cambridge.

He headed the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt from 2006 to 2015 and was also director of the Fritz Bauer Institute there. In his publications he has dealt frequently with German-Jewish history and the history of the Holocaust.

European history of violence became frighteningly horrific as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Last but not least, it shows how history is used and reinterpreted. What is the current state of the possibilities for historical enlightenment?

The concept of exploitation is not sufficient in this context because it is difficult to draw the line between who is exploited and who is exploited. There is no pure use and no release from it. The project, commissioned by the German Bundestag in 2020, certainly saw a very urgent need due to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. What we are currently witnessing most intensely is the change in the memory of World War II, and the tyrant Putin is also participating in this transformation. This is not a new phenomenon, we very clearly see the explosive power of rewriting and changing historical narratives. It is crucial that a democratic society intervene in these processes with the means of research and museum exhibition. We now see more than ever that Russia alone was not responsible for the success and suffering of the Second World War in the Soviet Union, as Russia recently claimed great success for itself and also found many defenders in this country. But it is now clear that this perception has been severely blinded. In fact, the German occupation also affected Belarus and Ukraine. A reinterpretation of World War II is taking place, if you will, at this very moment and under tragic circumstances. And in the context of changes in this picture, responsible scientific observation will be even more important. The bloc of the Soviet Union that covered the various memories is in the process of disintegration.

Now, Putin’s efforts to falsify history are one thing. On the other hand, shouldn’t one also speak of the inertia that has largely suppressed the history of violence in Eastern Europe, at least in public perception?

Yes and no. Not much has been explored yet. Example. We know a lot about T4, the killing of patients in Germany. But what do we know about the killing of patients in occupied countries? Have they ever been researched at all? Regarding Ukraine, we know at least that the horrific killings of patients were perpetrated by German task forces. Thus, the concept of the Documentation Center will also include the so-called fellowship programmes, through which researchers from different countries can exchange views on these topics. Most of what we want to show is unknown to the German population. This will also require a great deal of mediation.

Let me digress on another topic. In an exhibition, the DHM Museum successfully dealt with the history of the Documenta art exhibition in Kassel, as the exhibition organizer Werner Haftmann systematically deleted the works of murdered Jewish artists in the first three shows in 1955, 1959 and 1964. Against this background, how do you see the current allegations of anti-Semitism against Documenta ?

It was my decision to let the DHM exhibit on Documenta finish in the 10th edition. Realism is not my duty. There is a connection between the exhibition and the present, but it should not and should not be confused with current events.

Interview: Harry Knott

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