Billed as a portrayal of “a forgotten chapter in history,” the exhibition “The Third World in the Second World War” is the culmination of several years of research across more than thirty countries, initially undertaken by a group of freelance journalists based in Cologne.
Karl Rössel from the group described their work as an attempt to dispel the “Eurocentric view” of World War II. He said they were inspired while working on another project decades ago about protests against the Vietnam War in the developing world.
“We realised then similar movements had been organised in these countries against fascism in the Second World War,” he told The Local.
“We wanted to look up the contribution of people in these countries to the fight against fascism in history books, but found there was nothing in the German history books. We thought this was scandalous, so decided to do something to change it.”
The journalists, supported by researchers at Recherche International, first published their work in the 2005 book “Our Victims Don't Count” (Unsere Opfer zählen nich), released to critical acclaim. The opening of the exhibition this week in Berlin was timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II in Europe on September 1, 1939.
The show looks at the contributions of soldiers and civilian groups in the fight against fascism on all continents outside of Europe. But it also covers examples from these areas of collaborators with fascism and persecutions of Jewish people outside of Germany.
“This is not just a minor part of World War Two, but rather the second half of this war, often forgotten,” Rössel said.
But just a few days before its opening, the exhibition had to be moved from the advertised location at the Werkstatt der Kulturen, after anti-racism activist groups including media watch organisation Der Braune Mob, contacted the workshop's director Philippa Ebéné about the inclusion of Nazi collaborators in the Middle East.
Der Braune Mob published a statement by Ebéné explaining her decision not to host the exhibition after asking its curators to remove the sections that referenced Nazi collaborators.
“The curators were informed that we were interested in a memorial exhibition, not a classic ‘good native, bad native' display, with its Eurocentric and paternalist connotations,” said Ebéné in the statement.
Rössel told The Local, however, that the full content of the exhibition, including that on collaborators, had been discussed in January, and presented to Ebéné in talks taking place in May this year.
On receiving her complaint just three days before the planned arrivals of the exhibition in Berlin, the curators refused to remove them, and issued a statement criticising her for trying to “censor” the exhibition. This led to the exhibition being relocated to the Uferhallen in Berlin's Wedding district.
But minority activist groups have come out in defence of Ebéné‘s decision.
“It's standard practice that people who fought the Nazi regime aren't mentioned in the same breath with collaborators,” the Initiative for Black People in Germany (ISD) said in a statement. “In this context it's outrageous and wrong to talk of censorship.”
Even exhibition initiator Rössel criticised some attempts to label Ebéné as anti-Semitic, though he described her last-minute decision as “scandalous.”
“We are completely against all these racist comments. It is extremely destructive and we don't agree with any of it,” he told The Local . “But she didn't want us to include collaborators, and we have to in something like this, to commemorate their victims. Otherwise we are presenting a very limited vision of history.”
Despite the controversy surrounding it, the exhibition is also promoting a series of accompanying events, including the German premiere of a dance show titled “The Forgotten Emancipators” put together by Mémoires Vives , a French hip-hop group.
After Berlin, the exhibition will go on tour around Germany, Austria and Switzerland until 2011. The curators also hope to translate it into French and English soon.