For four years now, an exhibition of the war crimes of the Wehrmacht has been touring Germany and Austria, attracting huge crowds and exciting debate about what the ordinary soldier in Hitler's army saw and did during the war. The exhibition, which relies on photographs taken mostly by the soldiers themselves, was due to have been shown in New York. But a new row has broken out since it emerged that a small number of the pictures were not, in fact, of Wehrmacht victims but of people shot by the Soviet NKVD, the secret police under Stalin. The exhibition organisers decided to check the provenance of all the photos before displaying it anywhere else. In New York, some historians have interpreted these events as indicating that the beast of German nationalism is still not slain, that many in Germany refuse to accept the unassailable historical evidence that the Wehrmacht massacred civilians. Others argue that no country has done more than Germany to face up to past crimes.
The entire debate shows how far we are - inside and outside Germany - from being able to treat the past in the way we treat that of most countries. Germany's responsibility for the war looms over everything else; this becomes the issue upon which everyone is expected to have a position, to which everything else must be related. The pressure of these expectations means, for example, an unwillingness to accept that Germans were victims on occasions as well as perpetrators, so that - to take only the most obvious case - the mass expulsion of more than 12 million Germans between 1945 and 1947, the largest single refugee movement in European history, remains unknown to the general public outside Germany. It means, too, that serious comparison between the Nazi and communist regimes remains a neglected area of scholarly research. In general, efforts to contextualise Nazism, and to situate it within broader currents of world history, are discouraged on the grounds that they tend to distract attention from its uniquely evil character. Moral and political concerns thus drive, and indeed hamper, intellectual inquiry.
Like the Wehrmacht war crimes exhibition, these two books use photographs to illuminate Germany's recent past, but their purpose is very different. Rather than reminding us of Germany's unparalleled crimes on the Eastern Front, the acts of the perpetrators, Marsden and McLaren show us Germany as victim of the Russians. Photographs of dilapidated stately homes from the former East Germany present an older, aristocratic heritage left behind by the ebb of communism. Michael Sturmer's The German Century tries to move beyond the perpetrator/victim stereotypes to do something more ambitious: to offer a photographic record of the past 100 years of German life, an enterprise that, by its nature, must situate Nazism in the longer run of the country's history.
Beyond the Wall is, then, the more specific and, perhaps for the British viewer, the more provocative of the two works. The photographs of ruined stately homes, abandoned chapels and family vaults are mostly accompanied by stories of their abandonment in the face of the Red Army's advance in 1945 and its subsequent horrors. This is, then, one way for British readers to encounter the mass rapes, the looting and plundering that marked the Russian advance across the Third Reich. It is an account of aristocratic suffering, with faithful retainers occasionally allowed a bit part. As history, the text does not bear too much scrutiny: there is no mention of what the Germans - including those many aristocrats serving in the Wehrmacht and the SS - had just spent the previous four years doing to the Soviet Union and its inhabitants, even though this might help explain the ferocity of the Russian advance. The occasional reference to "eastern workers" will remind only the most alert reader that, during the war, these estates had relied extensively on slave labour drawn from the occupied Soviet Union and Poland. And despite the anti-Russian tone of the book, some of the ruins depicted turn out to have been expropriated or taken over before 1945, and in some cases before 1933. Moreover, it was not only Russians who were responsible for the transformation of country seats into people's palaces - Germans, too, plundered the estates and later took them over. So this is the story, not only of foreign oppression, but also of an internal class struggle. None of this is brought out in the text, which is written as though politics is something carried on outside the gates, only entering the civilised lives of the upper classes as disruption and destruction.
As for the photographs, these are heavy on atmosphere and isolation. The use of high-contrast filters, grainy printing and wide-angle lenses makes for deliberate distortion. As an aesthetic, this book offers interpretation rather than a series of documents. My own taste runs more to the latter, and I wish sometimes the photos themselves were plainer. But lovers of the Gothic fantasy landscape, where grass is artificially whitened and shutterless baroque palaces loom against a darkening sky, will find much to charm them here.
The German Century has a much wider appeal. It contains a delectable array of mostly unknown photographs, accompanied by a thoughtful historical essay by Michael Sturmer. Unlike the text of Beyond the Wall, this offers a vigorously written interpretation that engages with much recent scholarship. On the whole it reads easily, though every so often one encounters phrases and similes that no doubt sound better in German than in English. The opening section on Germany after Bismarck is particularly well done, giving a panoramic sense of the diversity and changeability of German society between 1890 and the first world war. Here, especially in the photographs, is that multifarious land of contrasting classes, regions and habits which is so often smoothed away in our stereotypes about "the Germans" - the Bavarian royal family, the Wittelsbachs on holiday, looking rather like modest bankers, rather than royalty; Berliners picking lilies in the Spreewald; the monkish hippies, the modernist artists, the Thuringian peasants and the advanced technology (like a 1905 Wuppertal overhead monorail) which combined to make up the cultured country beloved, as this century began, by so many artistically inclined English writers and intellectuals. Above all, and this comes as something of a relief after the dead zones of Beyond the Wall, there are people, towns, workplaces and recreations as well as the more familiar realms of politics.
The picture selection loses some of its panache after 1918, as the political narrative enters more familiar territory. Weimar is all street battles and artistic licence. The Third Reich is dominated even more by politics, although there are motorways, art exhibitions and burning books as well. The most effective pictures show scenes of unposed Nazi informality - the Hamburg officials groaning under huge piles of books being prepared for burning; children practising the new salute. Two women having a mud bath at a beauty farm are among the few images of the 1930s with no obvious political content; more would have helped make the point that the Third Reich was part of the continuum of German history and not just a lamentable lapse.
The section on the second world war is perhaps least effective, probably because one is relatively familiar with the huge iconography generated by the conflict and because the competition from other photo-books about the war is intense. Lee Miller and Capa are included, but not Baltermants, Yevgeni Chaldei, Chim or Bischof. Perhaps this kind of book, sweeping and general, works best where the visual record is least known. As we enter the final straight, the pictures become more and more predictable - politicians, film stars, fashion models and footballers stare out as embodiments of the new Germany. In the televisual age, there is less and less room for surprise. After the immediacy and quirkiness of the pre-1914 years, contemporary Germany looks predictable and bland. Perhaps photographs are simply no longer the right medium to capture what is going on under the surface. Or perhaps the blandness is what this country desires to present as its self-image, exhausted by its history and the incessant demands of its past.
Mark Mazower's most recent book is "Dark Continent: Europe's twentieth century" (Penguin, £8.99)