Since the U.S.-made drama "Holocaust" was televised here earlier this year, West Germans have been dredging up their seamy Hitler-era past in truckloads.
Through all the self-reflection and self-flagellation, however, the reputation of the Germany Army under the Nazis remained untarnished. It kept its reputation as an honorable fighting force that never participated in extermination of "lesser races."
But that has changed. A new 445-page book packed with research and documentation says that the Army actually cooperated closely with Hitler's personal police corps, known as the SS, in the maltreatment and liquidation of Soviet prisoners of war.This resulted in the death of about 3.3 million of the total 5 million held in German POW camps between 1941 and 1945.
A television documentary based on Christian Streit's book, "Keine Kameraden" ("No Comrades") was broadcast last week.It had almost no chance of reaching a large audience since it was carried late at night on a regional channel.
The broadcast reached, at most, a 30th of the 15 million viewers who saw "Holocaust." Because it took the usual West German documentary form of old newsreels and dry interviews, it hardly approached the dramatic and emotional power of the American production about the extermination of 6 million Jews.
But reviewers heralded the documentary -- and the book on which it was based -- for trying to establish for the first time that the ties between the SS and the Army as being so close in the extermination of races singled out by the German High Command as undesirable.
"When you talk about the book with Wehrmacht (Army) people, they get pale," said reviewer Reinhold Lehmann. "They are shocked because they always believed there existed a sharp separation between the SS and the Wehrmacht."
This belief was based on interrogation of former officers immediately following the war, who insisted that orders to mistreat some and liquidate other Soviets POWs were not carried out.
"They clearly lied," said author Streit.
After seraching archives around the world, Streit found evidence that at least 580,000 Soviet prisoners of war were killed (most of them shot) and that another 2.7 million died because of insufficient nutrition, poor shelter, disease and pestilence.
"Everyone knew that Soviet POWs were treated poorly," said Streit, who spent four years researching the book. "But we all thought the Germans were treated even worse by the Soviets. That is just not the case."
As German troops advanced east in 1941, propaganda focused on Slavic "lesser races" in much the same way it had centered on the Jews. In Hitler's thinking, Judaism and Bolshevism were two evils to stamp out.
In June 1941, an order was issued commanding that any top Soviet officers, especially Communist ideologues, be shot on the spot. After the war, officers maintained that this mandate was often ignored. But in his book Streit asserted otherwise, documenting that the order was extended in practice to other "radical elements," such as intellectuals -- Jewish and otherwise.
Despite the book's lack of popular appeal -- partly because of its dry approach and partly because the television version was aired by only one regional channel -- it is in the larger picture another sign of the voracious West German appetite for information about the past war, a hunger directly linked to the showing of "Holocaust."
New documentaries, books and articles have inundated West Germany since then, some pegged to the debate preceeding West Germany's decision in March to abolish its statute of limitations on Nazi war murders, and most recently focusing on the invasion of Poland 40 years ago.
At Dachau, a grim memorial at the site of the first Nazi concentration camp, twice the number of West German school classes have visited this year than last year. Moreover, the majority of all visitors this year are West Germans, while they composed less than 40 percent of last year's visitors.
"Something has definitely been going on in this country since "Holocaust," said Barbara Distel, the memorial's director.
Streit, who is a secondary school teacher as well as an author, said, "My students stayed up until 1 a.m. watching 'Holocaust.' They were terribly moved, and now they are demanding to know more."