Mass killings, mass culpability?

The Unknown Soldier

on September 07, 2007 by John P. McCarthy
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Subtitled “What Did You Do in the War, Dad?,” this documentary tackles thorny issues raised by a controversial exhibition that toured Germany between 1999 and 2004. The overarching question: How culpable was the German Army for the Holocaust and related WWII atrocities? The case against members of the SS and Gestapo, Nazi politicians and high-profile Wehrmacht commanders is well known, but what about the role of the average, rank-and-file infantryman? Was he just following orders? The exhibition and the movie argue that that's a myth—individual soldiers were often motivated by ideological fanaticism; furthermore, insubordination and refusing to do certain things was not necessarily met with court-martial.

In addition to recounting some of the evidence put forth in the exhibition, filmmaker Michael Verhoeven considers the opinions of exhibition organizers and neo-Nazis who demonstrated against it, as well as multiple historians and commentators. One soldier expresses his shame without admitting to any particular crimes, while the reactions of many descendants of those who served are mixed. Rare archival footage showing the actions and non-action of soldiers during pogroms in Ukraine and Belarus underscore the fact that 40 percent of Holocaust victims were killed by individuals using archaic methods rather than in the concentration camps on which most Holocaust movies focus. The wrenching and incendiary nature of the subject matter warrants such dry presentation.

American viewers might feel they're not up to speed—much is assumed that a German of any age would be aware of and have an opinion about. Verhoeven is concerned with pondering and illuminating the historical record rather than doing original research, yet there's always room for additional moral analysis. The topic, as important for 20th-century European history as one can imagine, is complicated by many factors while in other ways it's very simple: Choices were made that had little to do with war and everything to do with prejudice. Mass shootings of unarmed civilians qualify as war crimes in any era and in any context.

Naturally, the implications of probing this wound for the German people are tremendous. If the entire army is guilty, isn't a whole generation and a whole nation? The profundity of the question and the movie can't be glossed over. Distributor: First Run
Director/Producer: Michael Verhoeven
Genre: Documentary; German-language, subtitled
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 97 min.
Release date: September 7, 2007 NY
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