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1995—2000:
Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944

The exhibition Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944 opened for the first time in March 1995 in Hamburg and was shown in 33 cities in Germany and Austria before finally closing in the fall of 1999. Approximately 800,000 people viewed the exhibition.

The exhibition was part of a larger research project (Angesichts unseres Jahrhunderts. Gewalt und Destruktivität im Zivilisationsprozeß - In the Light of Our Century: Violence and Destructiveness in the Twentieth Century) developed and realized by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. The aim of the project was to utilize various media — two exhibitions, a number of lectures, public readings, conferences, panel discussions, and scholarly publications — to probe the history of the twentieth century as a period of hitherto unprecedented destructiveness.

From the outset, the exhibition Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944 triggered heated public discussion about the crimes of the German Wehrmacht during World War II, evoking both extremely positive and negative responses. The show was the topic of two debates in the German Federal Parliament, the Bundestag, and of debates in a number of German State Parliaments. In August 1999, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research transferred the responsibility for presenting the exhibition to the Verein zur Förderung der Ausstellung Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944, a non-profit organization established to promote the exhibition, while retaining the copyright to it.

In late 1999, three scholars published results of research, according to which photos and photo legends were used incorrectly in the exhibition. They maintained, among other things, that in contrast to the legends in the exhibitions, the images did not depict Jewish victims of a pogrom, but in fact showed persons murdered by the Soviet secret service NKVD. In October 1999, public reactions to this critique reached a level which threatened to result in a loss of credibility for both the Institute and the central thesis of the exhibition.

On November 4, 1999, Jan Philipp Reemtsma, head of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, announced a moratorium on further showings of the exhibition and established a committee of independent historians charged with reviewing the entire exhibition. The members of this committee were: Prof. Dr. Omer Bartov, Dr. Cornelia Brink, Prof. Dr. Gerhard Hirschfeld, Prof. Dr. Friedrich Kahlenberg, Prof. Dr. Manfred Messerschmidt, Prof. Dr. Reinhard Rürup, Dr. Christian Streit and Prof. Dr. Hans-Ulrich Thamer.

The committee presented the results of its work to the public on November 15, 2000. In their opinion, the exhibition reflected »1. errors in content, 2. the imprecise and careless use of source materials and 3. due in particular to the style of presentation, statements which were too sweeping and suggestive;« however, »no forgeries in the sense of the key research questions and theses« were determined. The committee recommended that the Institute »continue to present the exhibition in a thoroughly revised and perhaps newly designed form.«

On November 23, 2000 Jan Philipp Reemtsma presented the principles for the new concept of the second exhibition, Crimes of the German Wehrmacht: Dimensions of a War of Annihilation, 1941—1944 [Verbrechen der Wehrmacht. Dimensionen des Vernichtungskrieges 1941—1944], and explained that the first exhibition, Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944, would no longer be shown to the public. The cooperation between the Institute and the Verein zur Förderung der Ausstellung Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944 was ended in December 2000.

Press releases in German from the Hamburg Institute for Social Research about the exhibition Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944 (from the period October 1999 - December 2000) are available in an extra pdf file.

 

   

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