EHRI-fellowship on European Waffen-SS veterans
An interview with Steffen Werther (Institute of Contemporary History - Södertörn University / Sweden), EHRI-fellow in CegeSoma from 4 – 15 February 2019.
CegeSoma: Can you describe your current research ? Why was it important for you to conduct research in Belgium ?
S. Werther: My project deals with the memory work of European Waffen-SS veterans, as well as the legacy of the Waffen-SS within different groups of next-generation sympathizers and admirers. I focus on the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union and concentrated so far on groups from Germany, Norway and Denmark, to which I want to add the Flemish case. In addition, I draw on source material from several other countries and collaborate closely with researchers investigating similar cases in Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Finland and Romania.
In the analyzed publications of veteran organizations and sympathizing groups, contacts with Flemish brothers in arms are frequently mentioned, but so far I did not have had the opportunity to compare my findings with Flemish sources, which was the reason for my EHRI-fellowship.
CegeSoma: How did you start here in Brussels, what were the first steps you took during your research-stay ?
S. Werther: Luckily, I could kickstart my visit with a meeting with prof. Bruno De Wever (University of Ghent), one of the main experts for this topic. Prof. De Wever was so kind to discuss my working hypothesis and gave me indications where to start my research and what sources to look for. In face of the overwhelming amount of available material, this was very helpful. Dirk Luyten (Cegesoma) was during the following days equally supportive, answered endless questions during, and introduced me to the peculiarities of Belgian social and political organization. Furthermore, I had a productive talk about the possibilities for future cooperation with Cegesoma's director Nico Wouters.
During the term of the fellowship I collected and partly analyzed the main publications of Flemish SS veterans Berkenkruis and Periodiek Contact. I had also the chance to view several other relevant sources, some of which regarding Walloon SS veterans. To guarantee comparability, I concentrated my search on the period after 1990 and four main tropes, that I had identified regarding Scandinavian and German veterans: a) the Waffen-SS veterans' European Narrative; b) the establishment, legitimisation and public celebration of Waffen-SS grave-sites and memorials, especially in Eastern Europe; c) the discourse about war-crimes and Holocaust, and d) the 'handing over' of the Waffen-SS torch to a younger generation.
CegeSoma: It is obviously premature to talk about final conclusions, but could you nevertheless shed some light on your preliminary findings ?
S. Werther : The fate of the Flemish veterans differs from their Norwegian and Danish brothers in arms in several regards. For instance, they claimed a double victimization as both traitors and separatists at the hands of the 'Belgian oppressors'. Also, the proportion of Flemish Waffen-SS veterans who formed lasting associations is much larger, and they maintained a disproportionate public presence. There are, however, many similarities between the different groups, one being the regular reference to Europe in the discourse, which is prevalent also in Flemish veteran media, despite a rather nationalistic profile. The emphasis of collective victimhood and the desire to (re)write history is an additional common characteristic.
Another important aspect concerns the memory work of SS-veterans in the post-Soviet space. West-European veterans and their supporters were quick to exploit new opportunities which occurred in wake of the events around 1990-1991: they organized pilgrimages to East European battle-grounds and graveyards, joined Estonian, Latvian and Hungarian commemorations of 'freedom fighters', and establishing memorials specifically dedicated to themselves. For instance, Norwegian and Flemish veterans both erected memorials in Krasnoje Selo, close to Sankt Petersburg, apparently using the same Russian contacts and channels to advance this project. Similarly, in Estonian Vaivara we find today memory stones dedicated to Danish, Norwegian and Flemish Waffen-SS units side by side.
CegeSoma: You are an EHRI-fellow, so we assume that the Jewish persecution and the Holocaust are important aspects of your research. Can you elaborate on that ?
S. Werther : The exclusion – not necessarily denial – of war crimes and the Holocaust is an important element, if not the foundation, of the veteran's memory work: racist elements in the SS ideology and the murderous anti-Semitism were ignored or erased. Instead, spokesmen emphasized the Waffen-SS's European idealism and military heroism, highlighted atrocities committed by the Allies and claimed victimhood for themselves.
The exclusion of the Holocaust from the veteran's narrative was both in Belgium and Scandinavia facilitated by the fact that former Waffen-SS men were persecuted for 'enlistment with the enemy', rather than for involvement in war crimes, which were only an issue in the trials, if committed in the respective country itself. Accordingly, public denouncement and social exclusion was up to the 1980s justified mainly with the accusation of treason, while the contribution of non-German Waffen-SS men to the Holocaust became first during the last decades a topic. After 1990 veterans could then benefit from the fact that in parts of the post-Soviet space, as Stefan Troebst puts it, 'Gulag trumps Holocaust', which led to a climate were the 'moral lesson of the Holocaust' – by then widely accepted in the West - was marginalized again.
'Bormshuis Broederband' : Broederband (which has merged with the journal of the 'Bormshuis') is one of the journals from our collection that Steffen Werther consulted for his research.
S. Werther : In the Flemish case an interesting division of the veteran movement regarding this topic is visible: while Berkenkruis, the organ of the Sint Maartenfonds, shows great similarities with veteran media from other parts of Europe and highlights atrocities committed by the enemy rather than to tackle Holocaust accusations directly, Periodiek Contact, the publication of Hertog Jan van Brabant choose another path. Here, active Holocaust denial can be found in nearly every issue.
CegeSoma : We wish you all the best in your further research and we look forward to the published results.