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There are four pictures still hanging on the wall next to the bulletin board. Here, in the semi-public section of the German military’s Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, only students, their guests, military supervisors, and cleaning personnel are allowed in - normal citizens are not. One picture is missing.

The visible photos are of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Bundeswehr Chief of Staff Volker Wieker and a student ombudsman. Up until last Thursday, there was a fifth picture of Helmut Schmidt, posing in a uniform of the Wehrmacht, the German Nazi army. Mr. Schmidt, who would go on to become defense minister and German chancellor, started out as a first lieutenant in Hitler’s army. Nobody at the university knows any longer who hung this picture or when. Some say it had been pinned to the wall for twelve or thirteen years before Mr. Schmidt’s name was added to Bundeswehr University in December 2003. 

What is clear is that in the wake of the scandal surrounding right-wing extremists in the Bundeswehr, Ursula von der Leyen had issued an order to remove anything to do with the Wehrmacht from the military property. That meant goodbye to Helmut Schmidt.

Hysterical purge or an action that should have been taken a long time ago? The debate runs the gamut between these two extremes, even at the university. For a brief time, another image had taken the place of Mr. Schimdt – one of YouTube’s frustrated emoji, which pops up when a video is unplayable. It is accompanied by a text: "This picture is unfortunately no longer available because it shows a picture of Helmut Schmidt as an officer in uniform. It seems depicting common ground between the namesake of this university and aspiring officers is unwanted. We’re sorry about that." This picture had to go, too.

Students were so angry about it that the president of the university, Wilfried Seidel, drafted a circular letter and then took the time to respond to questions from students. Mr. Seidel’s main argument against the photo of Schmidt was that it inappropriately reduced him to his time as a Wehrmacht officer. He also added that "the Bundeswehr uniform and that of a dictatorship have no commonality."

That said, there are also photographs of Helmut Schmidt in a Bundeswehr uniform. In 1958, he took part in a military reserve exercise. As one university lecturer said, anyone wanting to see Schmidt in uniform can take a gander of him as a Bundeswehr reservist. He added that he had never personally noticed the Wehrmacht Schmidt. "The picture had been hanging there for such a long time – nobody took a closer look at it anymore." A university spokesperson stressed the removal of the photo is in no way directed against the person seen in it. "We bear the name Helmut Schmidt with pride," he says. "But we are the Helmut Schmidt University –not Lieutenant Helmut Schmidt University."

One thing that has become clear, regardless of whether one views the photo’s removal critically or favorably, is that in its 62 years of its existence, the Bundeswehr has never completely shaken off the Wehrmacht. Defense Minister von der Leyen has insisted that the Wehrmacht can "in no way be seen a source of tradition," with the exclusion of resistance fighters such as Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. It seems some soldiers see things differently.