Is war really the great exemption? In its name, under its aegis, the common soldier will commit the greatest crime – murder—with impunity. He will kill in the name of defense, duty and discipline, and be free from the penalties of civilian law. Punishment, guilt, morality—enlistment and service exonerates the soldier from all this. This is not news. And as long as this killing is restricted to enemy combatants, it is generally accepted as, if not right, at least necessary, by the rules of war.
But what about when the scope widens? When the soldier is no longer firing just at enemy combatants, but upon civilians, upon women and children who live in the path of the army on the march? Upon innocents whose only “crime” is their religion, their race?
Is this the point when wartime killing reverts back to murder, when individual culpability is again part of the equation, when the traditional rules of war finally bend completely and break? Or does the soldier still get to claim special exemption, that he is just following orders, doing his duty for the defense of his country?
I guess these seem like obvious, maybe even naïve questions, but they are big ones, and important ones – and too often forgotten ones. We forget because, though we can vilify the leaders who recklessly court war, and we can condemn ranking officers for giving out unconscionable orders, there seems to be a certain immunity imparted to the soldier.
He is the everyman hero, the common man who enlists, fights, and dies to protect and serve those he leaves behind. No matter the course of the war, or the righteousness (or lack thereof) of the nation he fights for, he himself is always righteous. This view of the soldier, strong during time of war, only solidifies as the years pass, propped up by nostalgia and myth. Sure, war itself is terrible, but the soldiers—they are great men.
And nowhere has this moral quandary been thrown into more glaring relief than in post-WWII Germany. In the 50 years since the end of the war, historical assessment of the great atrocities of the war have all tended to focus on the Nazi Party and its various extensions that penetrated the military, most notably and notoriously the SS, which initiated and carried out the great abominations of the Holocaust.
There has been a tendency, both within Germany and without, to give the regular German army, the Wehrmacht, well, not so much a free pass, but special status. That army has been viewed as sacrosanct, a body rich in tradition and pride that fell under the thrall of the Nazi regime, but was not to be included in the Nazi’s culpability. The members of the Wehrmacht were not totally guiltless, but nor were they sociopathic monsters that the Nazis were.
In 1997, an exhibition of newly unearthed photographs, films and letters entitled War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944 debuted in Munich to a curious and anxious German public. Culled from family collections and lost archives, the exhibition’s claims of the true extent of the army’s involvement in the Nazi program of total extermination of the Jews, prisoners of war, and even the general population in the eastern theater of war—from officers down to common soldiers—immediately ignited a storm of controversy.
If the exhibition were to be believed (and there were questions about its veracity, which led to it being closed down and then reopened after more research and verification), the Werhmacht, from top to bottom, not only condoned the Nazi atrocities, but was instrumental and integral, directly abetting and carrying out mass exterminations.
After decades spent purging national guilt and depositing all blame squarely upon the Nazis, the Germans were once again forced to confront their past – but one where blame and guilt was much more widespread, and ran much deeper, than previously thought. Reaction, understandably, was extreme and volatile, and ran the gamut from outrage at the historical myopia that covered these startling revelations, to outrage at what was construed as an unjust, unpatriotic smear campaign.
In Michael Verhoeven’s documentary The Unknown Soldier—which both documents the brouhaha surrounding the Wehrmacht exhibition, and serves as an extension of the exhibit itself—all sides of the debate are heard, from historians; to the exhibition’s organizers; to reactionary neo-Nazis; to surviving soldiers themselves; to surviving Jews. The depth of passion and vehemence of response is palpable and strong, as if these events didn’t transpire half a century ago, but were of the immediate past.
Verhoeven (who has a made a career of making films about Germany’s relationship with its past) is fairly evenhanded in giving fair time to both sides of the divide (though the neo-Nazis are generally rather tight lipped, refusing to be interviewed extensively), but it’s fairly obvious where his sympathies lie from the get go. The chilling opening frames of the film, a blurry old reel of German soldiers dragging civilians through the streets, is only the first of an relentless barrage of startlingly graphic footage of ordinary soldiers engaging in extraordinarily horrific acts.
Again and again, we see soldiers lining civilians up for execution, or posing smilingly in front of Jews hung from a tree, or beating naked women, or shooting and dumping bodies into mass graves. Using these old films and photographs as dramatic punctuation to the talking points of the various interviewees, the result is a film that is not so much a documentary as a polemic, a salvo against the forces of obfuscation and historical revisionism.
If Verhoeven’s—and the exhibition’s—contentions and concerns eventually become a bit dryly tedious and even a bit obvious, it’s probably that, watching it from outside of the cauldron of German society, it seems just one more piece in an overwhelming amount of information about World War II and the Nazis. And indeed, the general importance of all this might be localized and dependent upon context.
But think of how seismic it would be if suddenly, overnight, Americans were transported to some biazarro alternate universe, where the United States’ army during WWII, and its soldiers—so lionized in American culture as the great heroes of the 20th century—were suddenly condemned as its greatest villains. What if Americans had been fed one history and suddenly were presented another contradictory one, where its fathers, or grandfathers, were suddenly the bad guys, were suddenly guilty of the most heinous crimes known to history? What if the Greatest Generation became the Most Infamous?
At one point, one of the neo-Nazis laments that the exhibition is trying to make the point that Germans themselves, as a “race”, are predisposed to being criminals, sociopaths, monsters. The far right, the reactionaries, see this as an attack on the whole nation, the whole people. But this is not what the film, or the exhibition, is getting at, at all.
Extracting all the local circumstances and national context, the real point here, the overall universal point, is about what Hannah Arendt famously coined the “banality of evil”, about how ordinary men can be so easily led down a path to committing hideous war crimes not out of fanaticism or malevolence, but by unquestioningly following orders and duty. Verhoeven’s contribution is to show to just how large an extent this was true, and how it happened with such seeming ease. And for viewers it shows that it can, and does, and will continue to happen, anywhere and everywhere, unless vigilance, and the truth of the past, is maintained.