Berlin exhibition reveals police role in Hitler’s crimes

BERLIN, April 1, 2011 (AFP) – A new exhibition opened in Berlin Friday, showing for the first time how enthusiastically the German police under the Nazis supported Hitler and became willing perpetrators of his crimes.

“Order and Annihilation” at the German Historical Museum also shows how for the most part, members of the police went unpunished after 1945, particularly in democratic West Germany.

It helps to shatter a popular myth that until relatively recently was widespread, including among the country’s modern force, that it was just the Gestapo secret police who had blood on their hands, organizers said.

“Many people, well into the 1990s, thought the police was the only institution that was ‘clean,’ spending their time directing traffic,” said Wolfgang Schulte from the German Police University, which contributed to the exhibition.

In fact, ordinary policemen – and a few policewomen – helped the Nazi dictator brutally crush his political opponents in his rise to total power.

They also played a decisive role in the persecution, rounding up and mass murder of Jews and and other “undesirables” both inside Germany and in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.

As harrowing photos and other exhibits show, police murder squads in the occupied territories would murder local civilians – men, women and children – including with special “gas trucks”.

“Dear Hanna,” one policeman wrote home from Ukraine. “We are in a little town. All the Jews are being killed. But don’t think too much about it. It has to be done.”

In the parts of the Soviet Union controlled by the Nazis alone some 35 police units murdered more than a million people in 1941-2.

“Once World War II began, the police was one the main perpetrators of mass murder. This exhibition tries to make this clear,” organizer Detlef von Schwerin said.

“I was amazed to discover all this, even though I have spent my entire adult life dealing with the Nazi era.”

The exhibition, which runs to July 31, “follows directly on” from a successful recent one about Hitler that explored the personality cult of the Nazi dictator for the first time, museum head Hans Ottomeyer said.

“This one also tackles how the forces of order, which had the monopoly on violence, were turned on their heads to become helpers in the crimes of National Socialism and finally perpetrators of genocide,” Ottomeyer said.

After the war, very few police were brought to justice, with most able to continue in the force as the occupying powers sought to build a functioning state, although in communist East Germany this was much less the case.

“Mistakes were made, for sure. The path that was taken was the path of least resistance,” said von Schwerin.

The research that went into the exhibition, which includes some 500 exhibits, will also be used in police training.

“It is important for us that police officers today are aware of all this,” said Klaus Niedhardt, German Police University president.  “Nothing expressed the character of a political system better than its police.”

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