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German War Guilt: The Miniseries

The country's breakout television series confronts WWII atrocities head on


One hour into "Our Mothers, Our Fathers" ("Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter"), the hit new German miniseries about World War II, a group of German soldiers is trapped in front of a Russian minefield. Among them are two of the series' protagonists, Friedhelm and Wilhelm, brothers from Berlin with strong jaws and very precise haircuts. Friedhelm is a bookish, sympathetic Berliner who has thus far been reluctant to kill anyone while his heroic older brother, Wilhelm, is the group's admired leader. But now they face a problem: How to get themselves to the Russian line?

Unexpectedly, Friedhelm has a suggestion: force some Russian farmers, whom they've recently detained, to walk in front of them. A few minutes later, the first Russian hits a mine, setting off an explosion of mud and blood. Friedhelm stares on, unmoved.

The scene stands out for a couple reasons—not just for its high production values (a rarity in Germany, whose TV offerings tend to be low-budget) but for its frank depiction of wartime atrocity. The minefield scene is, in fact, just one of many horrific acts the two brothers perpetrate over the course of the miniseries, a sweeping television event that has galvanized a new discussion about Germany's war guilt. One of the most ambitious projects in German television history, "Our Mothers, Our Fathers" was ten years in the making and cost an extraordinary (by German standards) 14 million Euros to produce.

It may still find an even bigger audience in the United States, where cross-cultural curiosity about television hasn’t typically extended beyond Scandinavia and the UK. A few weeks ago, however, the reputable American art house distributor Music Box Films (which has distributed, among many other films, the Swedish "Girl with a Dragon Tattoo" trilogy, in the United States) announced that it had acquired the American distribution rights for the 4.5-hour series, which will be shown in American movie theaters under the name "Generation War." It’s the first show in German history to be given this kind of theatrical distribution in the United States.

With a sprawling narrative structure similar to American series like "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific," the miniseries follows a group of five Berliners over the final four years of the war on the Eastern front. It begins in 1941, in a Berlin corner bar, at a celebration of Friedhelm and Wilhelm's deployment. There, the two 'helms meet up with their three close childhood friends: Greta (an aspiring singer) Greta's boyfriend Jakob (the Jewish son of a tailor), and Charlotte (a newly trained nurse). The five friends, all charming and good-looking, celebrate much like any early-twenties group of friends would—by drinking beer, singing, and trying on each others' hats.

By the end of the miniseries, only Jakob emerges morally unscathed. While he joins a group of Polish resistance fighters, Greta begins an affair with a powerful SS lieutenant, at first to save Jakob, but then to advance her singing career. Meanwhile, Charlotte rats out a Jewish nurse working in her hospital, who is then taken away and, presumably, killed. And Friedhelm and Wilhelm both undergo radical transformations over the course of their deployment: After executing a communist leader, Wilhelm grapples with the morality of his orders, while Friedhelm (played by current German cinema It-boy Tom Schilling) goes from pacifist to cold-blooded murderer. At the end of the war, Friedhelm is executing Polish children and hanging Polish villagers in town squares.

Nico Hoffmann, the producer behind the series, has said that he was inspired to create the series by his interactions with his own father, who had long been reluctant to discuss the things he had seen and done during the war. "This is our very last chance to speak openly about this," he told the German magazine Focus, referring to the dwindling numbers of surviving WWII veterans.

For most of the postwar era, the popular narrative about the war in Germany claimed that the SS had perpetrated the most egregious crimes of the Nazi regime and the Wehrmacht only participated in "exceptional" cases. But in the last two decades, historians have argued for a far greater Wehrmacht involvement in the killing of Jews, Polish partisans, prisoners of war and many others, especially in the former Soviet Union. The miniseries is the country’s most high-profile examination of this broader concept of culpability. Accordingly, each of the miniseries' episodes was followed by a documentary program in which real German veterans discussed their experiences during the war, and viewers were referred to a web page where they could share their own memories or answer questions like "What would you have done?"

It's a formula with some precedents: Over the last several decades, the TV miniseries has become a curiously powerful medium for spurring cultural discussions about history and guilt. In 1977, ABC's "Roots," a nine-part miniseries that followed a black family from the Gambia to American plantations and into the 20th century, launched a new discussion about slavery and African-American history in the U.S. Two years later, NBC's "Holocaust" starring Meryl Streep and James Woods helped to create widespread public interest in the crimes of the Nazi era. In the decades since, American TV has produced sprawling historical miniseries about Christopher Columbus ("Christopher Columbus"), The Civil War, ("North and South"), World War II ("Band of Brothers," "The Pacific," "WWII"), the Kennedys ("Kennedy," "The Kennedys"), the Founders ("John Adams"), the Iraq War ("Generation Kill") and the Nuremberg Trials ("Nuremberg").

It's easy to see what draws networks to this kind of programming: They offer easy name recognition for viewers and are pretty much guaranteed to get media coverage. They also allow audiences to attach themselves to the most momentous aspects of their own history: France, for example, filmed its own "Napoleon" miniseries, the UK "Elizabeth I," Australia "Anzacs," Canada "The Arrow," among many others.  

And Germany, with its incredibly fraught relationship with its own past, has in recent years proven to be a remarkably fertile ground for the historical miniseries—although they have tended to be darker than, say, "The Kennedys." In 1984, "Heimat," a 32-episode series recounting German history from 1919 to 2000, was a widespread critical success. In 2006, the same company behind "Our Mothers, Our Fathers" produced "Dresden," a romance between a British pilot and a German nurse set against the backdrop of the Dresden bombings; 2007's "March of Millions" revolved around the evacuation of East Prussia after WWII; in 2011, "Go West" told the story of three friends trying to escape East Germany. There have also been TV films about Rommel and Stauffenberg, and each of those, to varying degrees, launched media debates about history, atrocity and guilt.  

To be truly successful, historical miniseries require a delicate balancing act between historical accuracy, simplicity, and melodrama. (Elie Wiesel notoriously accused "Holocaust" of being "inaccurate and offensive.") Given Germany's horrific history, that can make for an especially fine line to toe. After "Our Mothers, Our Fathers" aired on German TV, Polish TV executives issued an angry complaint to the ZDF, the German public network on which the miniseries aired, about its portrayal of Polish partisan fighters as anti-Semites, and some historians accused it of downplaying the pervasive Nazi ideology of young people at the time. And truth be told, the miniseries' penchant for melodrama can be queasy-making at times. One of its primary subplots involves an unspoken love between Charlotte and Wilfried, but given Wilfried's occasional tendency to shoot innocent Russians, it seems petty to worry about the future of his love life.

Even so, it has been, by most standards, a remarkable success. Some 7.6 million viewers watched its final episode, which amounts to nearly one tenth of the German population, and most major German newspapers published one (or many) columns about the real-life history it portrays. German historian Norbert Frei argued that the miniseries "laid bare … involvement of the Wehrmacht in the murder of the Jews, the killing of hostages in the Partisan War, the execution of commanders in the Russian army" and called it "important and new." In the Berliner Morgenpost, Martin Luecke, a historian at the Freie Universitaet, wrote that the miniseries shows "that the crimes of the Wehrmacht are no longer a taboo—that they are a well-integrated theme in German history.” Bild, the highest-circulation newspaper in Europe, ran a feature entitled "Were German soldiers really that cruel?" with the sub-headline: "For each German soldier, ten civilians were killed."

When the miniseries arrives in American theaters, it's likely to get a much more subdued reaction, but the fact that Americans will be seeing it at all is a reason for the German television industry to rejoice. The quality of German TV is a popular subject of derision among Germans—the country's most popular programs include "Wetten Dass," a 3-to-4-hour long variety show featuring a strange assortment of uncomfortable-looking American stars, like Justin Timberlake, watching novelty competitions in which, for example, people try to guess how much water is left in a bottle by listening to plunking sounds. (After one lengthy recent appearance on the program, an unhappy Tom Hanks told a German radio program that "In the United States, if you are on a TV show that goes on for four hours, everybody responsible for that show is fired the next day.") The international sale of "Our Mothers, Our Fathers," producers likely hope, offers an incentive for more ambitious programming.

But American audiences will probably be more interested in the glimpse it offers into Germany's evolving attitudes towards its own history. As the number of German veterans continues to dwindle, feelings about the crimes of the Nazi era among younger generations are likely to grow less visceral, but perhaps, hopefully, more objective. As Deutsche Welle, the German broadcaster, put it, the miniseries may be a sign that young Germans "are more willing to learn and ask questions in an open-minded way." If "Our Mothers, Our Fathers" is successful in the U.S., young Americans may soon have a new perspective on German history too.   

Thomas Rogers is a writer living in Berlin.