Minna Henriksson and Nora Sternfeld1
On August 17, 2017, the exhibition Deutsches Lager and Other Post Doc Stuff opened in the Exhibition Laboratory in Helsinki. In the central work of the exhibition, ‘Poetic Archaeology/Inside and Beside the Camp’, Jan Kaila and Japo Knuutila assembled various artifacts, documents and videos from an archaeological excavation of the military base Hanko Tulliniemi, operated by the German Wehrmacht from 1942 to 1944.
The opening, at the start of the autumn exhibition season, was crowded. We had many encounters with other visitors who expressed empathy with the Wehrmacht soldiers. The sentiments of “poor young men in a dirty war” and “all wars are terrible” were omnipresent. This article tries to understand how the exhibition created such an overwhelming atmosphere of empathy, and how this relates to the subject of the exhibition, which involved the death of millions of innocent people due to Nazi policies.
Let’s start with a number of facts the exhibition failed to address: history departments have known since the 1940s, and the general public since at least the1990s, that the Wehrmacht was not innocent. To the contrary, it “participated in the implementation of Hitler’s genocidal policies directed at Roma people and Jews, and carried out mass killings of the Slavic populations in Poland, Serbia, and the Soviet Union.”2 This means that the Nazi-led war of aggression along the “eastern front” was not an ordinary war but a “war of annihilation.”3 In the mid ‘90s, the German exhibition, Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944, made clear that:
The German Wehrmacht’s war against the Soviet Union differed from all other European wars of the modern era, including the campaigns waged by the Wehrmacht against other countries during World War II. This was a war directed not only against another army, but against parts of the civilian population as well. The Jewish population was to be murdered, the non-Jewish civilian population decimated by starvation and acts of terror, and recruited for or coerced into slave labor. These criminal acts did not result from escalating violence in the course of the war but were an integral element of German war plans from the outset.4
What ‘Poetic Archaeology/Inside and Beside the Camp’ failed to communicate was that the soldiers in the displayed photographs were—as soldiers in the war at the eastern front—in one way or another connected with an organised effort to murder and terrorise.
Since the early 2000s, several historians have questioned the myth that the war Finland was involved in from 1941 to 1944 was not part of World War II, but a separate war.5 Indeed, it by now is well-established that Finland did not merely align itself with Nazi Germany for military reasons, but that it collaborated with Hitler on the basis of common ideological goals.6 The Einsatzkommando Finnland, like other Einsatzkommandos elsewhere along the eastern front, had the task of “sieving” through prisoners of war in order to eliminate what the Germans considered to be “unwanted material,” namely Jews, Roma, and those deemed politically unreliable. Valpo, the Finnish secret police, worked closely with the German Gestapo in this mission.7 For example, the Finnish authorities handed some 2900 prisoners of war to the Gestapo, many of whom were immediately executed, while others were transported to concentration camps.8 Meanwhile, German Wehrmacht soldiers retreated from the war along the Finnish coast to places such as Hanko Tulliniemi. By simply referring to the camp in Hanko as “Deutsches Lager,” the exhibition avoided problematising Finland’s role in the mass murder machinery of Nazi Germany, covered up the crimes of the Wehrmacht, and downplayed the critical difference between a camp site for German soldiers and the Nazi-operated extermination camps.
Against this backdrop, we wish to investigate how the empathetic atmosphere towards the soldiers that we encountered at the exhibition opening was possible. We want to know: what kind of collective memory is at stake here, and how is it reproduced through the means of an exhibition?
In her contribution to the Stuart Hall-edited book Representation, Henrietta Lidchi analysed exhibitions as systems of representation that produce meaning through the display of objects.9 Lidchi focused on exhibitionary poetics (asking how objects, contexts, texts and visual representations construct meaning), and on politics (asking how exhibitions are powerful acts within broader discourses). We hope to follow her strategy by taking a closer look at the practices of the exhibition, including how it was staged, what objects were displayed, and its accompanying catalogue.
To do so, let’s take a closer and more detailed look at the exhibition through a description of what has been shown: a number of display cases in the center of the exhibition contained objects found at the Hanko archaeological site, including glass fragments, rusty tins, broken combs, and plates. One display case, located next to plastic bags of soil, contained several editions of the Lappland Kurier, a newspaper published for the German soldiers.10 All the material is presented in a conceptual and modernistic way, carefully placed in the display cases without any contextualising information. On the main wall of the exhibition space, the organisers displayed enlarged photographs of Wehrmacht and SS soldiers. The only text accompanying these photographs said “Pictures of Dead Soldiers”. Right beside this wall was an installation of obituaries on a small plinth covered with a sheet of protective glass. There were more than 50 of them, assembled tightly and overlapping, depicting more photos of soldiers, and framed with a black line that announced their death. The obituaries were written in German and invited loved ones to grieve and pray. The installation also included several plasma screens with videos depicting the archaeological site, as well as additional photographs showing the German barracks as they exist today. A separate video recorded the actress Jonna Nyman reading love letters, so called feldpostbriefe, from a German soldier called Cyrill to his girlfriend Hanni in Germany.
The materials on display invited visitors to relate to the Nazi soldiers as human beings who live and die, but failed to include any information about the specific histories of the displayed materials and the people presented in and through them. In this way, the exhibition created a nebulous aura around the displayed material, and its implicit understanding of poetics and archaeology precluded the possibility of a critical historical analysis. Instead, archaeology appears to have functioned as a discipline that merely collects random, old-looking artifacts, and not as a method to encounter and relate layers of history to one another, permitting the critical reading of historical change. Indeed, the exhibition catalogue speaks of “the magic of fragments,”11 illustrating that the exhibited material was auratised, not contextualised. The exhibition did not identify the archaeological objects and did not provide a context for them, so visitors were left to speculate how the objects were used. Decontextualising history in this way is especially troublesome considering that Hanko Tulliniemi consisted of three separate prisoners of war camps, that in 1943 detained at least 605 prisoners.12 Nor did the exhibition acknowledge that the fate of the prisoners remains unknown. It failed to ask whether they were murdered by the Nazis or whether they were transported to concentration camps, and instead made us believe that only German Wehrmacht soldiers, and no prisoners of war, lived in Hanko Tulliniemi.
What explains the exhibition’s failure to mention the crimes committed by the Wehrmacht and its involvement in crimes committed by others? What explains the artists’ decision to not distinguish between Wehrmacht and SS soldiers, displaying them on the gallery wall as an undifferentiated group? The exhibition was organised to ignore that the Wehrmacht participated in the death of civilian populations along the eastern front, and that the SS—as the elite corp and self-described “political soldiers” of the Nazis—was directly responsible for their crimes. By displaying images of Wehrmacht and SS soldiers in one group on the same wall, the exhibition presented them as similarly innocent, and as commonplace casualties of any war. The exhibition, moreover, mentioned that Russians executed a “huge number of Germans,” which if not an outright attempt to justify Nazi-crimes, was a cynical claim that both sides committed atrocities.13 And, the exhibition catalogue compared the barracks in Hanko with those in Auschwitz14 and compared Nazi atrocities with the creation of the State of Israel.15 This type of aesthetic and rhetorical parallelisation renders murderers and victims indistinguishable, equating murderers with victims.
While archaeology was mainly decontextualised, the exhibition’s use of poetry was similarly nebulous. Poetry was not used to insist on and persist in questioning the world by engaging in differentiated knowing, but was instead a means of being content with knowing very little. Poetry was used to create a hazy atmosphere that helped avoid an investigation about the history of Hanko Tulliniemi, the people who lived there, and the crimes of the Wehrmacht. To serve this purpose, poetry has a pacifying function, which makes room for accepting the unacceptable, not contemplating that which is unbearable. As Theodor W. Adorno explained:
To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.16
What the project called practice-based research appears to have been no more than a game at the interface of art and archaeology, which depletes both of their strength. Rather than analysing histories of violence, art and archaeology were infantilised and rendered inconsequential. Instead of engaging in memory work and confronting Finland’s history, the exhibition invited visitors to collectively forget. The catalogue’s introduction expressly states that the organisers were interested in creating “artistic compositions […] founded on the aesthetic dimensions of the material on show.”17 And, while the introduction goes on to say that the curators took a “political stance”18 to address the collaboration between Finland and Germany, what the “political” in the exhibition really accomplished was to obfuscate Finland’s participation in war crimes. Rather than taking the opportunity to generate new forms of knowledge about this widely ignored part of Finland’s history, Kalia and Knuutila displayed panoramic photography in a futile attempt to suggest that a “building that cannot be seen entirely at once can, however, be captured in an image. Thus the image offers a different view of the building and thereby of a past that escapes archaeological methods.”19 If this is all that the poetic artistic research of Kaila and Knuutila contributes to archaeology, it is a lot of fuss about nothing.
In sum, the exhibition created a sense of empathy with German soldiers, including members of the SS. Due to the lack of contextualisation, visitors were free to use “common sense” to empathise with young men who died fighting a war. The question arises about whether this type of mystification and auratisation of the displayed objects and photographs renders the exhibition a memorial for Nazi soldiers. Even more troubling is the possibility that the exhibition was in effect a contemporary monument honoring the Nazi regime. Notably, Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen described the project as “a powerful gesture of monumentalising,” thereby suggesting that although Kaila and Knuutila refer critically to traditional approaches of monumentalisation, their project is monumental, nevertheless.20 It is evident that the exhibition made an effort to dispose of recollection. A so-called poetic archaeology that is utterly silent about Nazi crimes and their victims only pretends to “excavate history.” What it really does is take time, space and resources from real engagement and confrontation with history. In this sense, it functions as a reminder to continue to forget.
1 Thanks to Dina Zloczower, without whom this text would not have been written.
2 Bottger, Joerg. Review of Heer, Hannes; Naumann, Klaus, eds., Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941-1944.
H-German, H-Net Reviews. January, 1999, http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=2647
3 See HIS—Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Crimes of the Wehrmacht, Dimensions of a War of Annihilation, Berlin 2001, http://www.verbrechen-der-wehrmacht.de
4 HIS—Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Crimes of the Wehrmacht, Dimensions of a War of Annihilation, Introduction, Berlin 2001, http://www.verbrechen-der-wehrmacht.de/docs/e_ausstellung/p_ausstellung.htm
5 Among others, Markku Jokisipilä, Aseveljiä vai liittolaisia? Suomi, Saksan liittosopimusvaatimukset ja Rytin-Ribbentropin-sopimus. Dissertation, University of Turku, 2004; Oula Silvennoinen, Salaiset aseveljet : Suomen ja Saksan turvallisuuspoliisiyhteistyö 1933-1944, University of Helsinki, Faculty of Arts, Department of History, 2008; Ida Suolahti, Yhteinen vihollinen, yhteinen etu: Sotavankien luovutukset ja vaihdot Suomen ja Saksan välillä jatkosodan aikana, University of Helsinki, 2016.
6 Suolahti, Ida. (2016), p. 336.
7 Suolahti, Ida. (2016) p. 216-224.
8 Elina Sana, Luovutetut : Suomen ihmisluovutukset Gestapolle, WSOY 2003 p. 314-324.
9 Lidchi, Henrietta. The Poetics and the Politics of Exhibiting Other Cultures, in: Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon (eds.),
Representation. Second Edition, London, Los Angeles, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC 2013 (SAGE Publications), p.120-190.
10 The newspaper was printed in Oulu, the editorial was in Rovaniemi. One of the articles visible in the exhibition vitrine calls for “European solidarity” with the Nazis in the war, and gives insights to the European dimension of the Nazi-project.
11 See Mats Burström, The Poetic Dimension of Fragments, in: Jan Kaila, Japo Knuutila (ed.) in: Inside and Beside the Camp, Helsinki 2017, p. 82-87.
12 In appendix 1 in Ida Suolahti (2016) it states that in 1943, Finnish military authorities handed over to German authorities on 5 January, 501 “Caucasians”, on 19 September 75 “unknown and Caucasians” and on 20 October, 29 “Polish and Ukrainian” prisoners. See also Elina Sana, Luovutetut : Suomen ihmisluovutukset Gestapolle, WSOY 2003 p. 329.
13 Jan Kaila in Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen, Jan Kaila, ‘A Discussion on the 30th of March 2017’, in: Inside and Beside the Camp, Helsinki 2017, p. 46.
14 In a footnote, Jan Kaila and Japo Knuutila write: “When we visited concentration camps in Germany and Poland in Summer 2015 we noted that the barracks in Hanko were built with similar proportions and dimensions as many of the prison barracks in the concentration camps.“ Kaila, Jan and Knuutila, Japo. ‘Beginnings’, in: Inside and Beside the Camp, Helsinki 2017, p. 6.
15 Jan Kaila in Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen, Jan Kaila, ‘A Discussion on the 30th of March 2017’, in: Inside and Beside the Camp, Helsinki 2017, p. 49-50.
16 Adorno, Theodor W. “Cultural Criticism and Society,” in: Prisms, 1949, p. 34
17 Kaila, Jan and Knuutila, Japo. ‘Beginnings’, in: Inside and Beside the Camp, Helsinki 2017, p. 7.
18 Jan Kaila, Japo Knuutila, ‘Beginnings’, in: Inside and Beside the Camp, Helsinki 2017, p. 8.
19 Inkeri Koskinen and Pirkko Pohjakallio, ‘Epistemic Benefits?’ in: Inside and Beside the Camp, Helsinki 2017, p. 80.
20 Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen in Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen, Jan Kaila, ‘A Discussion on the 30th of March 2017’, in: Inside and Beside the Camp, Helsinki 2017, p. 45.