East of War
Shooting Journal by Ruth Beckermann, 1995
October to November 1995
EAST OF WAR was filmed at the exhibition “VERNICHTUNGSKRIEG – Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944” (War of Annihilation. Crimes of the German Wehrmacht 1941 - 1944) from October 18, until November 22, 1995 in Vienna. 200 people were interviewed and 46 hours of video Hi8 material was taped within five weeks. A 117 minute film was assembled from this material. From start to finish, motion picture and sound stayed within the exhibition spaces like an intimate play. During assembly, I decided not to interfere with the film by adding any commentaries, music or graphics. Thus, one learns little about my thoughts and feelings during the shooting. The journal, which was written during work breaks, provides insight into the shooting situation.
Exhibition opening. After a first survey, a friend says: “We are living amongst murderers. We have always known but repressed it; everyone must wonder what his father, his grandfather, his uncles were involved in. And even if you think you know, you cannot determine whether they had done anything or not.”
“War is a state of society”, Jan Philipp Reemtsma (1) says in his opening speech. In a society, even during the state of war, it is relevant where the boundaries are drawn between permitted and illicit behaviour. The exhibition shows the state of German and Austrian society 50 years ago. The reactions to this exhibition reflected the emotional make-up of this society in our present time.
No Austrian politician officially opens the exhibition. The minister of defence upholds a nostalgic continuity on Ulrichsberg (2), but does not face up to a critical reappraisal.
Austrian TV (ORF) airs a few programmes, but passes up on Johannes Mario Simmel’s opening speech. Simmel speaks about the former soldiers, who always say they had only done their duty: “Only is never missing”, he says. “They had only done their duty. They should finally say what their duty was.”
We filmed interviews with Raul Hilberg (3) and Manfred Messerschmidt (4). Hilberg says, it made no difference to the victims whether they were killed by the Wehrmacht or the SS. And who wore what uniform. But THEY – the Austrians, the Germans, the others – could not understand this.
We have been shooting with the visitors for four days now. Two people came this morning and were outraged without even having seen the exhibition. They weren’t carrying any money… so they stayed at the entrance and carried on about slander.
A veteran was here, on the fourth day, already for the second time. Why?
How does public education work? People seem to leave the exhibition with the same attitude they had come with. The pictures of horror: Laughing soldiers have their pictures taken next to the hanged; Soldiers get a kick out of cutting off or pulling out the beards of old Jews – the pictures don’t change anything, they confirm the shock in some, the stubborn adherence to attitudes, such as “war is war” and that the Russians were at least as cruel as the others.
Most frightening, however, are the flip-floppers, who adjust to every moral current. Here they are shocked, at the regulars’ table they act up as big heroes.
Faces speak. Faces deceive.
We are often mistaken, when choosing our interviewees. That guy over there, was he a military officer? No. Anti-Fascist? In this case the man turns out to be a monarchist, who managed to hang about a military hospital during the entire war.
Finally a higher rank after all those “little privates” wallowing in self-pity: The military officer Harald Mildner. Dashing, as you would expect a German soldier to be. The sixth generation of military men in the family. Originally from Silesia, close to the Polish boarder, he already studied in Vienna as a youngster. Shortly after the war, he started to work in the industry. The photographs leave him cold. He solely speaks of “so-called atrocities”. Nothing had happened that was not consistent with his code of honour. Nothing.
“Civilians were shot in every war”, he says. “To make a point. When German soldiers were attacked, they knew no mercy. Then they shot people at a ratio of 1:10 or 1:20. Usually they borrowed people from the villages where the attackers came from… Plunder was strictly forbidden. The soldier was allowed to take clean clothes from the Russians – in case he could find any - but not their collection of Kopeks …”
After all, the hard work of war and annihilation should not be fun, as Hilbert said. I lead the officer to the photos that show soldiers throwing Jews, “just for a laugh”, into a giant barrel of water on a village square. He thinks you should be able to imagine what happened to them afterwards. “If one was just having a bit of fun with them… oh well.”
Omer Bartov writes: “Other than offences against the iron discipline during combat, soldiers were seldom punished for unauthorised crimes against the enemy. For one reason, the superiors were generally sympathetic towards this kind of activities, for another, they presented a welcome release for the anger and frustration that had bottled up in the men due to the stern discipline, the increasing casualties, and the hopelessness of war.”
Always the same story: They saw nothing, they heard nothing. War is war, and war is terrible. What attracts the old people to this exhibit? How erotic is their relationship to these pictures? It is for sure an intimate relationship, which has the appeal of the forbidden, and therefore does not wear off. What kind of fathers were they? What did they pass on to their sons?
A woman says: “Slander… My husband was also in the war and he is not a criminal… It is well known that the SS dressed in Wehrmacht uniforms…”
One day they will want to make us believe that the soldiers were actually Jews in disguise wanting to exterminate the German people. Not even photos are immune to misinterpretation.
Absurdly enough, only the annihilation of the Jews is no longer defended (not yet, at least?). In this respect, a massive “information campaign” (mainly Hollywood) at least created a taboo, while nothing has changed in the attitude towards the annihilation of the “Bolshevik ruling class (of commissars)” , the “underground fighters” and partisans – they are called “bandits” to this day.
On the contrary, by describing the Holocaust as “awful”, hereby accepting the denunciation of the worst, they gain the freedom to excuse or even defend everything else.
A sticker of the “Bajuwarische Befreiungsarmee” (“Bavarian Liberation Army”) has been placed on the entrance door today. Quite a few men arrive before 2 p.m. Most of them alone or with a friend. Barely any couples. The show rooms are quiet. The silence is not only due to the fact that there is a lot to read. Who stands next to whom? Even today, the individual is a coward, as long as he is alone. He regains courage in consort with his comrades. The room that deals with “Covering the Tracks” is empty. Here there are no pictures, only words. People come to see pictures. What happens when they look at the pictures? Does he recognise anyone? Places? Memories? Lust, shame, suffering? A good time? Youth, “a bit of fun”? Even the decent ones are quiet, not wanting to provoke their neighbours. Silence.
At 3:30 p.m. the police arrive. Four policemen wait for the forensic unit to arrive. They remove the sticker from the glass door, blow-dry it, peel off the paper with rubber gloves, and seal it in plastic: “Bavarian Liberation Army. We are fighting back.” In the upper left corner a blue A.
The ratio of men and women is 100 to five or ten. Today, an older woman says: “This here is a men’s thing. They come here to quiet their minds. The women are still ignorant. They still have not understood that it concerns them too.”
The gestures of the old people. An old man touches the other one on his arm. Backslapping. “Oh, how great we were.” You almost feel sorry for them. Medically overprovided for, mentally abandoned and crippled. But what have these fathers passed on to their children? And what will come from these children, once their fathers are dead?
Today, my uncle Hermann Sommer died in Israel. He was a baker. A small, gentle man. He survived the camps in Transnistria and Mogilew. He baked bread from scratch with everything he could find. As much as he could, for as many hungry people as possible. In Israel survivors stopped by and thanked him time and time again. He was a “Mensch”. That is someone, who – no matter where he comes from, whether he is poor or rich, in whatever situation – fulfils what goes beyond the biological sense of belonging to the human species: to stay human. But like many Yiddish expressions, this one cannot be explained either.
Not a single politician has showed up yet. Election campaigns. The Austrian boulevard press remains silent. Somewhere along the way, it will give an account of “our privates’” dreadful experiences in Russian captivity.
Looked through the film material so far. Here they are again, the men that I filmed during the Waldheim campaign ten years ago. I can’t listen to them any longer. I don’t want to let them speak. After all, they are not my fathers. I get impatient, I interrupt them when they drone on about their imprisonment and misery. Some of them invite us to their apartments to look at war albums. No thank you; I want to film them here, among these photos on white tiled walls, in the glare of the neon light. It happened in public, they should talk about it in public.
Always these comparisons: with the cruelties of the Red Army, but also those of the British, French, Americans – and constantly Dresden. To this day their values have not shifted. They assuage themselves: because everyone took part, it’s not that upsetting. Derealizing war-times and the Nazis. They are not capable of coming up with an ethical appraisal (good, bad, compassionate) of this time.
Almost all the veterans agree on two issues:
- the attack on Russia was correct
- executions of civilians were normal
Five guys and two girls, aged 18, from a posh district, Hietzing or Grinzing. Well read; They have sound knowledge about the history, from General Mannheim on down. Why are they so interested in military history, uniforms? I’m thinking of Sartre’s “The Childhood of a Leader”. Junior learns to bring forward arguments, learns to defend his rank. Relevant literature at home, discussions, no cover-up there. The old guard speaks, ‘good’ families. They say, many photos show the SS or SD, not the Wehrmacht. Besides, one cannot speak about a war of annihilation. It was about conquest rather than genocide. In contrast to Stalin, who wanted to eradicate the middle class. The Jewish genocide has to be pointed out to the young gentleman.
A man from Carinthia reports: A gendarme, who had worked for the Gestapo during the NS-regime, and who had personally kicked away the footstool under the gallows to hang a Pole shortly before the war ended, disappeared for two years after ’45, then he returned to become head of the local police.
He also tells about relatives, who had two handicapped children that were “lethally injected”. I asked if the parents became anti-Fascists thereafter. “Well, no” answered the man.
Some of the old men pass the entrance three times, look around to make sure nobody sees them, and then hurry inside. Cameraman Peter Roehsler’s theory: “Those, who did not shoot, go directly inside. Those, who did, have to go window shopping or get a drink at the tavern to fortify themselves.”
Porn hunter Martin Humer appears, barely looks around and begins to fret about the “slandering”: “Go to the abortionists on the Fleischmarkt (5) and have a look at how unborn life is dealt with… The Russians would be on the Atlantic coast today hadn’t we held them back then…”
An approximately 45 year-old woman with tears in her eyes: “What they show here can’t be true… they can’t all be guilty… my uncles were no murderers…”
We watch a man with a traditional top-hat and raincoat (he never takes them off), who reads and looks at everything for a long time. Over two hours pass. Then he sits down in front of the video for another hour. He nearly eludes us. He is the first one who shows any compassion for the victims. He talks about Mauthausen and Dresden, however puts them in chronological order: First, the Germans bombarded, then came Dresden. He was at the Reich Labour Service (RAD) in Poland for three months, and saw how the Poles were hit on their heads because they hadn’t saluted the German soldiers.
Debate between two old men:
One, amputated leg, reports that he worked close to the concentration camp (KZ) Groß-Rosen during his RAD mission: “We worked on one side of the fence, the KZ-inmates were on the other side.”
The other one declares he didn’t see anything, since he was at the front all the time.
Then the first one: “I saw it with my own eyes, and it was normal to see something. Abnormal was that my former comrades and my classmates, who saw what I saw, already denied having seen or known anything in 1946.” Whereupon the first one begins to affront him: “You have an amputated leg and talk such nonsense…”
He, who does not stick to the codes, is a traitor. The codes, how to speak or remain silent about this time, were probably formed in the midst of defeat and collapse, confirmed in the prison camps, and proved to be useful back home, enriched by legends of the poor, ambushed Austrian people.
Fog. Allsaintly grey.
Cold outside, inside the exhibition the cold facial expressions of observers: The observers in the photos, the observers taking the pictures, the observers examining the photos.
Today we have a “Mr. Karl in Yugoslavia” (6). Hadn’t seen anything, knew nothing, but complains about the bandits, who shot out of the windows. Whereupon, the tanks would move in and blow up the villages. A gentleman (from Serbia?) comes up and asks calmly: “Who invited you?” Mr. Karl does not understand. “Who invited you to come to Yugoslavia?” Mr. Karl ironically replies: “Very funny.”
Ingeborg Bachmann writes about the “courteous and civilised” murderers. She witnessed and experienced the transformation of murderers and lunatics into doctors, gendarmes, fathers until the day she died. The Austrian Franz Riedl referred to the 90 children he had shot dead as “brood.”
My friend N. thinks it is at least a bit fair that the woman, who mourns over her uncles, doesn’t know whether they had been criminals or not. One often doesn’t know how the victims had died either.
Charging one event against the other never ends, the chasm between us, the victims’ children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and them cannot be bridged.
According to psychoanalysts, it takes a hundred years until the descendents stop making emotional connections between their ancestors and their own parents.
Until then we do as Kafka did, who said he writes his stories in order to banish them from his mind.
We come to work everyday like petty officials. I like the so-called “Russian memorial” better and better every day. The troops that liberated Vienna couldn’t have known about the extent of the desolation and destruction in their country at the time. Otherwise they obviously would have treated the Germans and Austrians differently. Not the rapes are astonishing, but rather the absence of further retaliation and acts of revenge.
Yesterday someone said: “I wonder why the Russians didn’t beat us all to death for what we had done to them.”
A woman – educated as a kindergarten teacher during the NS-regime – reports that the parents of a boy who had been killed by a lethal injection, had kept silent. This is the third person with a similar story. What kind of people are these?
Thinking of our teachers in grammar school. They were also trained during the NS-regime; they may have had to pause for a few years, but then they became our teachers.
Between interrogation and pity. I must keep a distanced view. How do you film enemies? Enemies: Today they are old men, not dangerous at all.
However, whatever their conduct, they were all part of the offending society. Potentially all Jews were victims, since all – all – Jews within the Germans’ scope of power, and that meant the whole world in the end, were meant to be eradicated. Potentially they all were offenders or bystanders back then. Bystanders, not just spectators, bystanders, standing by and giving support …
My eyes watch the old men look at the pictures of their youth. Then they look upon a woman, who seems young to them. A woman, who has no idea about what really happened, but who is here, who wants to know, who is demanding, who shows no pity, who does not accept what was construed in the aftermath. Who wants to see how a person might have been back then. When they were young. A woman who sees the person as part of the Wehrmacht, part of the German Reich. Not as a prisoner of war or a loser or a post-war rebuilder. “Stay there, stay with the photos”, the woman demands. A woman who has no idea about military matters.
The modern documentary film was born in the seventies. Utopian, filled with hope, we always took sides for the underdogs, the victims in this world, and our films were largely made to promote good will. Since 1989 all films have to be remade, all topics taken up anew. A detached perspective, observation, and analysis are opportunities for today’s documentaries.
Nevertheless: How do you film enemies? I have to establish an intimate relationship with them, even if only for a short time, as long as the camera is running. In the past, I compared the interview situation with being in love, where I fully concentrate on my counterpart, while the world around us disappears. I don’t love these partners. It is a tightrope walk. I have to film them, without denunciating them and without assuming complicity.
At the beginning of the book “Camera Lucida”, Roland Barthes gives an account of his experience when he came across a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jérôme, from the year 1852. At that time he said to himself: “I see the eyes that had seen the emperor.” (7)
I had a similar experience when I saw the photos of the crimes of the Wehrmacht: I see the eyes of those who had seen the tortured, hanged, humiliated. I can see how they looked upon them. With real enjoyment, lust and youthful enthusiasm.
Of course we knew that the Wehrmacht was not innocent, but quite involved in executing the NS annihilation-policies. If it were only about that, the exhibition would not stir up such a discussion, nearly hysteria. You are shaken by the photographic medium. Photos are documents of what had happened. Documents of a kind that no drawing, no narrative and no film material can hold up to. The photos bring the former soldiers back into touch with reality. They restore the acuity to their own images that have become blurred, and rip through the veils that were formed in the past 50 years. No language can equal that. There is no room for denial. It is a heavy charge. That is why most of them go there: to see if they are on any of the photos. The fear of being revealed accompanies them.
I see the eyes of visitors grown old, the eyes of former soldiers that look at the photos. Look at them again. For they have seen many of those kind of photos during and after the war, looked at them with comrades, collected them in albums…
What upsets them so? It is not about knowing the facts. They knew about the facts then and have known ever since. It must be the confrontation with their former feelings; seeing through the eyes of the soldiers who took the pictures back then. For the photos don’t only document the crimes, but also the enthusiasm in the majority of soldiers: laughing soldiers in front of and behind the camera.
And the immediacy of a photograph. Like a slap in the face: the executions, the deportations had actually taken place. Period. Barthes speaks about the effect of a photo that shows a slave market (as opposed to an engraving or drawing). The photo proves that the slave market existed for sure. It is “(…) not a question of accuracy, but of reality: The historian no longer acted as an intermediary, slavery was directly given account of, the fact situated without methodology.”
Again, the former soldiers bear witness to what the photos unmistakably show: that the crimes of this war were real. And they make contact with the dead, which they had seen, contact to a world, to the world of Eastern Jewry, which they had seen while destroying it. The former soldiers’ statements testify to the crimes “not in the form of historical records”, but – as Barthes writes – “(…) through a new kind of evidence that – even though it concerns the past – in a certain sense is derived experimentally, no longer merely logically: Evidence in the sense of the Holy Thomas, who wanted to touch the resurrected Christ.” The most important aspect of these men is that they state in ever new ways: That’s right, these crimes were committed, they are reality.
It is discomforting that we need these witnesses although everything has been proven long ago. Yes, that they seem to be more “credible” than the victims.
What does that mean? Are we constantly fighting against revisionism?
Over and over again the question: Why does a person turn out to be this way or that? Why does he tell his story in this way or that? As our conversations clearly showed: there had been a choice. The point is not about the statement – “What else could we have done, we had to go to war?” - which has been repeated ad nauseam, but the many little decisions. Even as a soldier you were not only subject to murderous orders, but every private had a say in the degree of cruelty against civilians, and they did. Executions were conducted by volunteers. Nothing happened to those who didn’t sign up for them, no punishment, but no rewards either, such as home leave or an iron cross.
“On the Eastern front”, Omer Bartov writes, “the process of ideological penetration into the army attained peak levels: The troops were incited to fight with extraordinary commitment on the one hand, and to commit unprecedented crimes on the other.”
The idea that the war debt was repressed after having suffered defeat and emerges afresh through reappraisal, seems wrong to me. Repression does not begin after the fact. It is wrong to believe that a taboo had suddenly formed in 1945. It already happened while the events were still in progress: one could take a close look or look away, join in or refuse. To see and to know, the relation between seeing and knowing – Voir et Savoir - is the theme of the film. What did one see? Or what had one seen but nevertheless not known about?
Why did the small, sobbing Mr. Bowman see the wagons with Russian prisoners of war, in 40 degree heat, at the Minsk train station, where the dead were thrown out every other day? And his comrade didn’t see them. Didn’t take notice of them, maybe because he was preoccupied with getting something to eat, or because he did not take issue with the way these soldiers were treated … Prejudice, fear and brutality intermixed. Bowman says: “They saw it, but they saw it differently than I did, they didn’t see it.”
Thanks to small Mr. Bowman, I realize what most of them shockingly have in common: Their incapacity of putting themselves in the other’s position, to imagine, how the Polish and Russians had experienced them. Their absence of empathy.
THE COWARD AND FOLLOWER:
Before and afterwards Socialist or Catholic, the period in between derealized.
THE UNBROKEN / UNBOWED:
Nazi once and forever, or true anti-Fascist then and today.
A Viennese type in a positive sense.
Individualist; holds a certain immunity that originates partly in his upbringing, and partly in luck, character, genes, or whatever else there may be.
The first group is in the vast majority.
The only possible form for the film: Enter, exit; a series. A hearing.
Translated from German by Monika Nowotny
1) Jan Philipp Reemtsma is the founder of the „ Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung“. The exhibition on the crimes of the Wehrmacht was his initiative.
2) Once a year former soldiers of the Wehrmacht meet at Ulrichsberg in Carinthia for a commemoration where neonazi organizations participate.
3) Raul Hilberg was one of the most important historians researching the shoah.
4) Manfred Messerschmidt is a German military historian who mainly deals with the period of National Socialism.
5) Fleischmarkt: address of an abortion clinic in Vienna
6) „Herr Karl“ is a figure from Viennese cabaret who stands for „unlimited“ opportunism.
7) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, London 1981
EAST OF WAR
EAST OF WAR