Germany’s Atonement and France’s Blind Spots

By the end of our time in Berlin, I couldn’t handle the huge paragraphs of text that German museums presented me at every turn. I often thought that several museums would be more effective with their information placards printed and bound in a book rather than hanging on walls. Why do the Germans dote upon documents and details? Why don’t the French or British?

It’s hard to be peppy in Germany when museums are filled with chilling thoughts instead of glowing triumphs. The Topography of Terror museum, for example, exhibits the below photo of Kurt Meyer, commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division and supervisor of war crimes in Normandy, celebrating at a reunion for Waffen-SS soldiers. Like many SS men convicted by West Germany and the Allies, Meyer’s sentence got his sentence commuted. He was free by 1954.

Kurt Meyer (front left), war criminal, celebrates with other former members of the Waffen-SS in July 1957. The Topography of Terror museum prominently displays this photo along others of Nazis who “got away with it.”

The French deal with war criminals in their museums, but not with their Meyer equivalents. Moreover, they almost never mention their own men who participated in the Holocaust (save Laval), let alone draw attention to the leniency that the Republic showed the perpetrators. Instead, they choose to overstate the role of the Résistance in liberating France, despite the group being militarily irrelevant for most of the war. Funnily enough, the Deutsches Historisches Museum and Topography of Terror exhibit had greater documentation of French collaboration with the Nazi occupation than did the French themselves. Recent French media, like the film La Rafle (an account of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup in Paris), have begun to deal with the realities and complexities of resistance and collaboration, but most museums lag behind.

In this candid, a French gendarme confers with an SS officer. Source: not a French museum, but the Wannsee House, in Potsdam. The French prefer to devote space to the Maquis of the Resistance.

The French also have a messy totalitarian legacy in Pétain, dictator of the “French State” in World War II, but they don’t have Germany’s neo-Nazi/Holocaust-denier problem. Germany has volunteered its leadership in combatting the bad history of those above plus others who perpetuate myths like the “clean Wehrmacht.” That added anti-Nazi goal can alone explain why the nation’s museums stick so closely to documents: it’s hard for an apologist to argue with a huge body of primary sources. Like the Poles at Auschwitz, the Germans seek to warn the world far more than entertain: the Deutsches Historisches Museum spends as much space on the rise of Nazism as it does on its effects of the war.

“Officers of Tomorrow.” The Germans do not point at old propaganda with glee, as many French may with old signs for Free France, but with abjection. One might remember that boys were indoctrinated in the Hitler Youth so that they would die for the state by the millions. The most glee propaganda in the German museums is also the most chilling.

The Wannsee House’s exhibit ends with a series of quotes from Holocaust survivors and their families. One stuck with me, from Joseph Wulf: “I have published 18 books here about the Third Reich, but this had no impact. You can publish things for the Germans until you’re blue in the face, there may be the most democratic government in Bonn, but the mass murderers wander about freely, have their little houses and grow flowers.” Mr. Wulf, perhaps not enough Germans had learned the lessons of the National Socialist dictatorship by the 1960s, but today, the Germans go to the ends of the earth to disprove Holocaust-deniers and apologists with exhaustive and unflinching documentation.

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