The battle for historical memory now playing out on TripAdvisor

A German couple recently went on holiday in the Austrian Alps, and found a four-star hotel in the village of Gerlos.  To their shock, in the lobby were two framed photographs of men in World War II German army uniforms.  They posted comments on TripAdvisor and about the photos of what they called the “Nazi grandpa”.  But the story did not end there.

The hotel owners were furious and demanded that the websites take down the reviews — which they eventually did.  They also sued the tourists for “defaming” the hotel.  And the court in Innsbruck ordered a preliminary injunction.

The explanation given by the hotel owners consisted of this: Only one photo depicted grandpa; the other was an uncle.  And the photos were the only ones the family had.  And neither of the men were Nazis.  Therefore, writing “Nazi grandpa” defamed the hotel.

As it turns out — thanks to the research of the German tourist — the grandpa and uncle were both actually members of the Nazi party.  The family claims not to know about this. In fact, this is quite common in Germany and Austria.  After the collapse of the Third Reich, very few admitted that they had been ardent Nazis.    In research I did on a German army officer who organised former Soviet prisoners of war to fight on the German side, I was challenged for calling the officer a Nazi.  As it turned out, he was not only a Nazi, having joined the party in 1933, but was also a participant in Hitler’s failed Munich beer hall putsch. Decades after the end of Nazi Germany, we are still needing to call things by their proper names, and people who joined the Nazi party, even if they later regretted it, can legitimately be called Nazis.

There has been a debate among historians in Germany and elsewhere about what has been called  “the myth of the unblemished Wehrmacht”.   This myth arose after Germany’s defeat to differentiate between ordinary German soldiers, who were just doing their duty, and the hardened war criminals of the SS.  But the distinction is a false one.  On a recent holiday in Crete I came upon a memorial to hundreds of Greek civilians who were massacred by the Wehrmacht — not the SS.  The soldiers in those framed photos in that hotel lobby had been forced to pledge their loyalty to Adolf Hitler, and in all too many cases the soldiers of the Wehrmacht were implicated in his crimes.

And finally, the story does highlight a particularly Austrian problem.  Not long after the end of the war, the Austrians declared that their country was the “first victim” of German aggression when it was peacefully annexed to the German Reich in 1938.  For that reason, there was no need for a thorough programme of denazification.  In Germany, the exposure of an individual’s past record could have meant the end of their career.  That is what  happened to that German army officer I mentioned earlier.  A minister in the West German government of Konrad Adenauer, his career ended when his wartime record was exposed.  In Austria, on the other hand, revelations about Kurt Waldheim’s army record didn’t prevent Austrians from electing him as the country’s president.

The case of the “Nazi grandpa” is a reminder that the fight for historical memory can and does take place in many places — in the media, in politics, in universities and even in the hotel reviews on TripAdvisor.  It is a battle that we cannot afford to lose..