Written by Fumo Verde
Back in 1997 an exhibit was put up in Munich, Germany. It was an exhibit about war and the atrocities committed by those who fought it. When we think about war atrocities and Germany, we think of the Nazis and the dreaded SS, but this exhibit looked deeper into who also committed those horrible crimes.
It was known as the Wehrmacht Exhibition or Army Exhibition, and the pictures and letters that were in the exhibit showed that the German Army itself also acted like the SS death squads by murdering innocent men, women, and children. Protests from hard-line German nationalists and other older Germans who believe the exhibit is out to slander the German Army and take away what pride those fighting men had left have their say in this film. Director Michael Verhoeven captures the feelings of all those involved, from the people who brought us the exhibit to those who still live in the lie that the deaths of six million Jews never occurred. This is a disturbing documentary about a proud people and the horrific part of their past that some are trying to forget while others are trying to re-kindle.
This exhibit takes a big step by saying that the German Army was not so glorious and honorable as people would like to believe, yet it doesn’t condemn the whole Army either, nor does the film. Verhoeven opens up this can of worms very carefully by giving us views from the exhibit of those who were involved with it and those who came to see it along with those who were opposed to it. Even a boyhood friend of Verhoeven, who was there to protest because he believes that his father was just a regular soldier and would have never committed such despicable things, gets a chance to speak his peace.
From authors to historians, Verhoeven tries to figure out what made such a simple people, like his friend’s father, who was a teacher, become numb to the murdering of innocent life. As he asked people who were visiting the exhibit most seem to grasp try to tackle the idea that “orders are orders” and that hopefully their grandpa wasn’t one of the brutes committing these acts. Others say that the pictures were staged and that the Army had no idea what the death squads were doing. True, some of the pictures were faked and because of this the exhibit was taken down for a period of time, but then was later reopened to the public. This just gave fuel to the fire for the young nationalists who still believe that the Holocaust never happened. Even when one soldier, who was there and had served on the Eastern Front committing these acts himself, reads his statement about what he did and about what others had done, there are still those who believe that even this man is part of the “bigger picture,” which lowers all Germans to the level of common criminals.
The exhibit itself is dramatic with its pictures and letters, and the tour guides explain both sides of the story, not only telling of the horrors that were committed but also of the brave Germans who refused to follow such orders. The tour guides say that nothing happened to these officers and enlisted men who refused to kill Jews or Gypsies which brings the audience and Verhoeven back to the question, “Why did the Army act in a way that was against every principle of which it stood for?” These questions may never be answered but The Unknown Soldier brings that discussion back into the limelight. It may open some old wounds but if these wounds aren’t healed properly, it may infect the world and we may find ourselves once again wondering how it happened, but then it maybe too late.
As someone who has studied the subject of war and of armies, it is easy to see both sides of the argument. True some soldiers committed atrocities and others didn’t, but we need to study the past as so as not to have it happen again.