1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

German war drama stirs up controversy

Anne-Sophie BrändlinFebruary 6, 2014

The German World War II miniseries "Generation War" extends the debate about German guilt beyond German borders. Now, with a US release imminent, the media there have poured scorn on the production's intentions.

Fernsehfilm Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Germans tend to know there is no denying the past. Early on they are confronted with the dark doings, horrors and atrocities of the Nazi regime. German schools rigorously educate about the Nazi past and it's safe to argue that Germans, no matter how old, are very much aware of their Nazi past, even nearly 70 years after the end of World War II.

However, the way Germans cope with this past has radically changed throughout the last decades and is continuously debated and scrutinized. For a while, Germany was thought of as the world champion in remembrance and praised for working so hard to cope with its fascist past.

But a recent German film production has re-ignited the international debate over German "Vergangenheitsbewältigung," a word that was created to express how a nation comes to terms with its past.

"Generation War," or "Our Mothers, Our Fathers," as the original German title translates to, is Germany's most recent look back at its Nazi history. Now the three-part series, commissioned by German public broadcaster ZDF, has been picked up for release in the United States as a two-part movie, with a TV broadcast also in the works. It was also recently broadcast on Australian national public television and BBC2 will air it later this year. Ultimately the movie is supposed to be released in more than 80 countries.

Success story in Germany

The war drama was a huge hit in Germany, chronicling the lives and war experiences of five fictional German friends - one of them a Jew - in their early twenties from 1941 to 1945. It attracted 7.63 million viewers in Germany for its final episode, or nearly a quarter of all German TV watchers, and was especially praised for its nuanced depiction of the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Germany during World War II, for not simply juxtaposing good and evil but rather creating multi-faceted characters who are neither victims nor perpetrators.

Unsere Muetter unsere Väter Hauptdarsteller
The actors (left to right): Ludwig Trepte as Viktor, Katharina Schüttler as Greta, Tom Schilling as Friedhelm, Volker Bruch as Wilhelm, and Miriam Stein as CharlotteImage: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress

International backlash

However, the movie's reception was much different abroad. In Poland many were outraged by the series' portrayal of Polish anti-Semitism. Polish media even talked about a "falsification of history" and accused Germans of becoming ignorant in their culture of remembrance.

It was claimed that "Generation War" unfairly portrayed the resistance soldiers of the Polish Home Army (AK) as one-dimensional Nazis, while the five German protagonists were developed into highly complex characters. The World Association of Soldiers of the AK with its 12,000 members is now even suing ZDF for defamation.

Protest in Warschau gegen die ZDF Fernsehsendung Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter
Many went to the streets in Poland to protest against the series' portrayal of Polish anti-SemitismImage: DW/M. Jaranowski

The American media isn't happy with "Generation War" either, which is being billed as a German "Band of Brothers". "The New Yorker" called it "an appeal for forgiveness," arguing "the movie sells dubious innocence in the hope of eliciting reconciliation." "The New York Times" had a similar take on it, writing: "Generation War, emotionally charged but not exactly anguished, represents an attempt to normalize German history."

Legitimate movie

But Robert Moeller, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, questions this criticism. He says it's legitimate for Germany to create more empathetic war movies because Germany already settled an important internal debate: that the Holocaust is central to Germany's national self-identity.

"It's only possible to talk about more nuanced ways of the complexity of human decision making in the 1930s and 40s because of this very vibrant culture of memory that exists in so many different places in Germany today," Moeller told DW.

According to Moeller you need to only look around Berlin to immediately recognize that Germany's capital and the former seat of Nazi Germany is packed with reminders of the past: from the Jewish Museum, to the Topography of Terror and the Holocaust memorial.

Bildergalerie Bilderrätsel Berlin Holocaust Mahnmal
Moeller: "By establishing the Holocaust Memorial Germany made a conscious decision to incorporate the dark past into the present"Image: Fotolia/stedah

And compared to the US, Germany has come a long way coping with its past, according to Moeller. In fact, he said the US can learn from Germany.

"If you go to the National Mall in the US you can see monuments recording dead Americans, nowhere in the Mall is there a monument for dead Cambodians or dead Vietnamese who've been killed by Americans."

US preconceptions

Moeller thinks one reason why "Generation War" has faced such criticism in the US is that most Americans don't know the extent to which Germany has incorporated its guilt and its past into everyday life.

"I think many Americans carry around preconceptions in their heads, such as thinking Germans are all horrible anti-Semites and they always were, that all they were out to do is kill all the Jews," he said. "And so I can imagine that one possible response to the film will be to say: here we go again."

That's why Moeller actually welcomes movies airing in the United States that don't depict Germans in WW II as stereotypical evil demons. "I can't think of a movie in the United States where there is an empathetic understanding of the German who goes to war," he said.

Complex culture of remembrance

German historian Ulrike Jureit doesn't like this common one-sided depiction of "evil" Germans either. But Jureit, who specializes in the culture of memory and remembrance of World War II, agrees with one of the main complaints. She believes the series is not a realistic depiction of German society in 1941, given that none of the five protagonists are portrayed as absolute Nazis.

Fernsehfilm Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter
Resistance soldiers of the Polish Home Army are portrayed as ani-SemeticImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"You only have minor characters in the movie that ideologically justify the system to the core and those characters are tagged negatively. And that's where the movie loses sight of something that was simply reality in Germany at that time, also for young people in their early 20s," she told DW.

What Jureit does find remarkable is that "Generation War" manages to portray the main characters as ambivalent. "They are neither depicted as positive heroes nor as demonic monsters. They have active elements that make them perpetrators but they also get into situations in which they are the passive victims. You wouldn't have seen such a depiction of the past 20 years ago," she said.

Looking forward...

Christian Schneider, a German sociologist and psychoanalyst who has published several books on the complex culture of remembrance in Germany, agrees. "We are now approaching a new phase of dealing with the war in Germany and 'Generation War' is a great example for that," he told DW.

The first two decades after World War II were characterized by a deafening silence and a collective amnesia regarding the Holocaust, Schneider explained. A new rebellious generation in the late 1960s then started questioning their parents' role in the war, resulting in a protest movement demanding a critical re-examination of the past. "Only recently have we started to look at the past a bit more differentiated and have recognized that not all perpetrators were demons," said Schneider.

...without forgetting the past

For Jureit it all comes down to a generational debate, as the title already reflects. But rather than seeing the generational distance as a deficit, as it is often portrayed in Germany, Jureit thinks it instead brings a new perspective and opens up the chance to cope with history in a different manner.

Unsere Muetter unsere Väter Hauptdarsteller
Jureit: “There's a difference if I ask questions of moral wrongdoing that concern my parents or people who are emotionally much farther away from me”Image: Hamburger Instituts für Sozialforschung

Both Jureit and Schneider believe "Generation War" could be a positive start for a modern way of dealing with the past in Germany. "The challenge for our society now is to let a new generation, which has radically changed due to immigration, ask their own questions when it comes to the past," Jureit said.

"And it doesn't mean that this new perspective will be less empathetic towards the people that suffered during the Holocaust. But it might make it possible to draw political consequences from our history that are relevant for our reality nowadays," she added.