At Peace With the Past

DRESDEN, Germany — Seventy years ago this winter, Soviet forces surrounded and crushed Hitler’s Sixth Army at Stalingrad. The Germans’ defeat shattered the myth of an unstoppable Nazi war machine and marked a reversal of fortunes in World War II.

Now a special exhibition in Dresden returns to that wintry hell on the Volga. It’s being shown in the Military History Museum, once a museum for the Nazi and East German armies. Now run by the German armed forces, the site reopened in October 2011 after a redesign by the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind.

Prepared in cooperation with the Stalingrad Battle Museum in present-day Volgograd, the exhibit reveals Germany’s new self-confidence and acceptance of its historical responsibility. The show displays neither the ritual self-flagellation of the German left nor the twisted relativizations of the right.

Heated debates over the role of the Wehrmacht, Hitler’s regular army, in genocidal projects seem to be a thing of the past. Instead, largely through letters and personal belongings, the exhibition soberly shows how the Germans’ quick stab at Stalingrad turned into a five-month quagmire.

Beside the requisite greatcoats and rifles on display, there’s one of the artificial tinseled Christmas trees that the Luftwaffe airdropped over the freezing, starving German soldiers. There’s also a flamethrower with a long hose that resembles a modern vacuum cleaner. A preserved human foot amputated because of frostbite. An office hole-puncher.

Because of the importance vested in the battle’s outcome by German, Soviet and British media, it became a psychological turning point in the war. The strategic turning point, the makers of the exhibit argue, was the Nazis’ ill-fated decision to invade the Soviet Union in the first place.

Of the more than 200,000 Wehrmacht soldiers who were pinned down at Stalingrad, no more than 6,000 returned home, many of them 10 years after the war’s end. The official number of Soviet soldiers killed or captured approaches half a million.

As for Soviet civilians caught in the crossfire or behind front lines, the exhibit doesn’t try to downplay that the Wehrmacht leadership was ready to accept the deaths of millions. A year before Stalingrad, the Sixth Army had provided “logistical support” during the Babi Yar massacre of 33,000 Jews, a display label explains.

You see snapshots taken by German soldiers showing civilians who were hanged from a tree, a bridge and a balcony. A hand-painted plywood sign reads: “No entry for Russians. Violators will be shot.”

Yet there’s nothing apologetic about the exhibit. Here, self-awareness means neither forgetting the past nor getting stuck in it.

More than two generations of Germans have been raised to keep a critical distance from their country’s recent history, opening the possibility for an armed forces museum that doesn’t trumpet past victories but more abstractly explores war as a phenomenon of human existence.

Germans no longer have a problem with their troops serving alongside NATO allies abroad. At the same time, Germany’s new self-confidence has allowed for a more nuanced relationship with Russia.

In past decades, relations were shaped by both lucrative business deals and a need to do penance for the horrors inflicted in World War II. During her last visit to Moscow in November, Chancellor Angela Merkel sparred with President Vladimir Putin over the state of democracy in Russia. There was no question she had the authority to do so.

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