On Thursday, Sept. 11, in PAC 001, Associate Professor of History and winner of the 2013 Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching Erik Grimmer-Solem gave a lecture titled “Blind Spot on the Right: The Wehrmacht, the Holocaust, and the Politics of Commemoration in Contemporary Germany.” Over 30 students and faculty attended the presentation, which was part of a new lecture series, “History Matters,” organized by the History Department.
Grimmer-Solem presented an in-depth exploration of his new research on celebrated German General Hans Grab von Sponek. In the years following World War II, many hailed von Sponek as an “anti-Nazi” after he was imprisoned for refusing Hitler’s orders during a major Soviet counter-offensive on the Crimean Peninsula in 1941. Yet Grimmer-Solem uncovered new evidence that von Sponek had cooperated in committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, a discovery that made national news in Germany.
Grimmer-Solem’s interest in the niche subject matter stemmed from his personal history as a descendant of Norwegian spies during World War II. At the beginning of the lecture, Grimmer-Solem detailed how his grandfather, Dr. Odd Solem, was captured and sentenced to death by the Gestapo after transferring medical supplies between Britain and German-occupied Norway. Meanwhile, his grandmother, on the run at the time with Grimmer-Solem’s father, was able to contact their family friends at UCLA. These American academics used their contacts at America’s German Counterintelligence Agency to convince Hitler to reduce the sentence to a lifetime in prison, which was later reduced to five years. Solem survived the war and was liberated by French troops in 1945. Grimmer-Solem emphasized that his grandfather did not speak frequently of his experiences in war and prison.
“It’s physically and emotionally traumatic to relive those experiences,” Grimmer-Solem said. “There was no way that we could imagine the torture that he went through.”
While in prison, Solem met and befriended von Sponek, and over time he came to respect him. Due to his personal attachment with the case, Grimmer-Solem faced many challenges when trying to determine who von Sponek really was.
“Family lore was all that was left of von Sponek in my family,” Grimmer-Solem said. “The problem of historical narratives passed on by family lore is that flattering profiles figure prominently. The resistance that one encounters in questioning such narratives is often great and can come at significant personal cost.”
According to Grimmer-Solem, von Sponek commanded the 11th Army in Russia, which has been implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity. After several trips to the German Federal Military Archives in Freiburg and analyses of war diaries and other documentation of war crimes, Grimmer-Solem realized that von Sponek’s involvement in the military was far more violent and in-depth than he had previously thought. While German history lessons frequently cite von Sponek as a hero who refused to follow Hitler’s orders, Grimmer-Solem explained how the accounts of the 11th Army detailed multiple atrocities, including the killing of innocent men, women, and children.
“This information was in plain sight in public records, but no one had the curiosity to research it,” Grimmer-Solem said. “There are many problems of selective historical narratives that are part of official history. Enormous public investments are made in [a] particular story as monuments for political and social pedagogical purposes, and the hurdles faced in getting counter-narratives accepted are often daunting.”
Grimmer-Solem noted that multiple Nazis who were implicated in war crimes were never legally pursued or their trials never fully resolved.
“There are over 10,000 prosecutable dossiers of people implicated in war crimes as Nazis, though only 6,000 were pursued legally,” Grimmer-Solem said. “But this is only because most of those contained in the records were dead by the time the records were shown. And the post-war judiciary and police [were] both biased and rampant with institutionalized racism.”
Grimmer-Solem’s research and national media reports about his work have led Germany to order the re-naming of an army base near the city of Germersheim, where local citizens adamantly protest the name change.
Students in HIST 362: Issues in Contemporary Historiography were required to attend the lecture. Jonathan Crook ’16 commented on the lecture’s correlation with class discussions.
“I really enjoyed this lecture and found it really interesting,” Crook said. “It directly connects with what we’re learning in class, which basically focuses on the myths of history and how history can be reinterpreted by media and overtime.”