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The Unknown Soldier (2006)

Der unbekannte Soldat (original title)
Not Rated | | Documentary, History | 7 September 2007 (USA)
The popular reaction to a German museum exhibit detailing the war crimes and atrocities committed by Nazi Germany's regular armed forces is explored.

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The popular reaction to a German museum exhibit detailing the war crimes and atrocities committed by Nazi Germany's regular armed forces is explored.

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Release Date:

7 September 2007 (USA)  »

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The Unknown Soldier  »

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Box Office

Opening Weekend USA:

$3,545, 9 September 2007, Limited Release

Gross USA:

$8,092, 16 September 2007
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1.85 : 1
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A history lesson on truth, denial and the brutal side of humanity
17 June 2010 | by See all my reviews

Germany's consciousness about its horrible past in the Nazi regime comes to the fore in this excellent documentary. "The Unknown Soldier" goes far beyond the usual factual accounts of the horrors of the holocaust. It probes much deeper into the "who" and "how" of the holocaust and of the other horrible widespread killing of innocent children, women and men, especially in the eastern front of World War II.

The subtitle to the film, "What Did You Do in the War, Dad?" sets the stage for the film. It is a product of a huge public exhibit put together by the Hamburg Institute of Social Research. The interest for this new and broader look at the Nazi pogroms was prompted by a large public exposure in Germany. Many of the younger generation in the late 20th century began to ask questions about photos in family albums. Personal photos by German soldiers taken during the war showed regular soldiers of the Wehrmacht executing civilians, abusing Jews and women, and taking pleasure in displays of brutal killings. Many were of these young Germans' grandfathers posing in scenes of brutality during the war.

But the film also shows a part of the exhibit that portrays some German officers and soldiers who did not follow orders from above to kill innocent people. The film and exhibit point out that there isn't a single incident in the German Army court martial records of any German officer or soldier being disciplined for failing to follow orders to kill civilians.

The film is a report on the exhibitions from a Hamburg Institute project in Germany, from 1997 through 2001. A unique aspect of the film is that it also covers the public reactions to the exhibit. Neo-Nazi groups demonstrated and picketed the exhibits. Some former German Army veterans and relatives of veterans were interviewed and either denied the events or spoke against the exhibits. But, many more people lined up by the thousands to view these exhibits in Munich, Berlin, Hamburg and elsewhere. And several historians, sociologists and authors were interviewed. The mayors of Munich and Berlin, a former Secretary of State of Germany, and a parliament member expressed their support for the exhibits and the need for Germany to come to terms with the truth of its past.

Not all soldiers were so cold blooded or complicit in the killing of innocent people. But the film supports the conclusion by a growing majority of historians that the widespread holocaust and killing of innocent millions would not have been possible by the Nazi leadership and SS alone. It could only be accomplished by a willing participation by the regular Army. It's interesting to see the disbelief in this possibility by some of those who were opposed to the exhibits. Yet the photographic evidence and records that have become available since the collapse of the Soviet Union are extensive and further support the vast collection of personal photos from family albums that the young Germans brought forward.

I served in the Army during the Cold War, and in 1962 visited Dachau Concentration Camp near Augsburg, Germany (then it was West Germany). How could a people tolerate such inhumanity, I wondered then. How could the German people living around that town turn a blind eye toward the cruelty and barbarism that was practiced right before them? How could they deny the reality of what was taking place?

Thirty-five years after my time in Germany, my 25-year-old daughter visited Dachau with a German girl she had met and befriended three years earlier. She said that the young German woman didn't even know that Dachau had been a Nazi Concentration Camp for political prisoners; nor did she seem to know anything about the Holocaust. My daughter said the girl too was horrified with what she saw. That was in 1997.

I few years ago, I went to eastern Europe and visited Auschwitz in southern Poland. The Nazis put all of their big Holocaust killing sites in other countries. Auschwitz was the largest of the killing camps for extermination of the Jews. It received Jews from across Europe, but also received Polish academics, clerics and other political prisoners. As I stood and looked at piles of thousands of shoes, eyeglasses, dolls and toys, and luggage pieces, I asked myself, "How could human beings do this to other human beings?"

One of the cells at Auschwitz was where 10 prisoners were starved to death as punishment for the attempted escape of two other prisoners. One of those 10 was a Catholic priest, Maximilian Kolbe, who offered himself in exchange for a Jewish man who had a family with two children. The Jewish man lived through the end of the war and attended the Catholic Church canonization of the priest as a saint in 1982.

Today, with the exhibits on the Nazi regime in Germany, and films like "The Unknown Soldier," the German people are coming to grips with the horrors of their past. It was a time when many of their ancestors were the ones committing such atrocities. Or when their ancestors turned a blind eye to what was going on around them. Or when their relatives denied it or acquiesced to the atrocities by their silence.

A film like this is extremely important, and should be a reminder to future generations of the denial that can cover up such horrible atrocities as the killing of innocent human beings. This is a denial that is still very much with us today, in the 21st century.


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