"The Unknown Soldier": Disturbing the Guilty Archives of the Wehrmacht (Documentary)

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“The Unknown Soldier,” a new documentary by Michael Verhoeven, takes on one of the comforting myths of postwar Germany: the idea that ordinary German soldiers were for the most part unaware of and uninvolved in the worst crimes of the Nazi regime.

In a version of history held by many Germans, the SS and other specialized organizations conceived and carried out policies of extermination against civilians, while the Wehrmacht rank and file went about the usual business of fighting the enemy. It was thus possible, after the war, to commemorate the service of fathers and grandfathers, and even to treat them with a measure of sentimental reverence, without condoning the atrocities of the Third Reich.

An exhibit that opened in Munich in 1997 explicitly challenged this view of history, and the controversy it provoked is the subject of Mr. Verhoeven’s film. Though his sympathies are clearly with the historians and curators who presented the German public with documentary and photographic evidence showing the extent of Wehrmacht participation in mass killings, Mr. Verhoeven allows all sides of the debate to be heard. Except, that is, for the far-right nationalist protesters whose leaders impose a gag rule, answering questions only with assertions that “the press lies.”

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