'Our Mothers, Our Fathers': Next-Generation WWII Atonement
A miniseries that aired in Germany this month has enthralled viewers with its emotional portrayal of the role that average people played in WWII. Stripped of moral pretension, it also establishes a new, multigenerational milestone in the country's culture of remembrance.
At the end, the famous zero hour, when the survivors meet again in the now-abandoned Berlin pub they used to frequent, tight-lipped, with empty faces and a dull look in their eyes, everything comes down to a single sentence. None of them can say it out loud. It would sound far too weighty in light of the historic nothingness they face in their reunion.
Instead, a voice-over delivers what is, in a sense, the moral of the story following the demise of Nazi Germany in May 1945, establishing both an end and a beginning: "Soon there will only be Germans, and not a single Nazi."
At this point, the SS major has burned his brown uniform and already sits in a neatly pressed suit at a desk for the occupying power, announcing matter-of-factly that his experience is needed. The others, the war-wounded, look as lost as strangers as they stand in the wreckage, without the slightest idea of what comes next.
But the viewers, with their knowledge of the historical facts, do know what comes next. They already knew what would happen when the five friends said their farewells in the summer of 1941 with the promise: "We'll see each other at Christmas." They are familiar with the deceptive nature of the euphoria that followed the first battles of encirclement and drove the German army, now sure of victory, into the broad expanses of Russian territory. They have learned that the SS paramilitary death squads known as Einsatzgruppen were raging behind the front, murdering large numbers of people, women and children included. They also know that the regular German army, the Wehrmacht, was also culpable, if only because it made these crimes against humanity possible in the first place.
Most of all, they know how quickly things went uphill for West Germany after Nazi capitulation. They are familiar with the German economic miracle as a form of compensation, with democracy and Western European unification under the protective cloak of the Allies. And then German partition, the Cold War and the war generation's long silence and efforts to repress the past, a generation that girded itself with the West German success story. And they know about the recurring shock waves of enlightenment, remembrance, shame, mourning and coming to terms with the past that have rolled across German society at regular intervals since the 1960s.
Appealing to Emotions
So why was it necessary to film this ZDF epic, which spends four-and-a-half hours negotiating terrain already surveyed many times before? What accounts for the emotional force of a TV film that attracted 7.63 million viewers for its final episode, a rating of more than 24 percent? If the three-part series hadn't been such a hit, it would have signaled "that there is no longer a willingness to grapple with this material from the past," says Nico Hofmann, the producer of "Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" or "Our Mothers, Our Fathers."
The contemporary witnesses, the war generation of perpetrators and victims, the collaborators, followers and members of the resistance, are dying. As they pass away, they take their actual experiences from Germany and Europe with them. But the past refuses to disappear. Like the undead, demons from the darkness of abstract history are constantly coming to life again. And even if they no longer torment grandparents and parents, because soon there will no longer be any contemporary witnesses left to tell their stories, they will continue to haunt the imaginations of their children and grandchildren.
World War II ended 68 years ago. It has certainly taken time to grapple with the history of that period, but by now virtually everything has been studied, examined and said. For future generations, enlightenment no longer occurs through knowledge and confrontation with the hard facts of real barbarism, but through emotions. It's as if the Germans, even the very young, to whom tales of the Nazis must feel as if extraterrestrials were at work, still shudder when they think about what their grandmothers and grandfathers were capable of. As if they were afraid that certain patterns of character and behavior could be passed on to future generations.
The concept of the soul of the people or national character is extremely unscientific. But then why do Germans constantly invoke the vow that it should "never happen again?" Why are Germans constantly reinforcing the need to promote democracy, freedom and human rights, as if this were a lesson of history specially created for them?
There is an inescapable suspicion, as irrational as it may seem, and one that it also voiced abroad at every possible opportunity: The German people are a special case, a people who, considering the singularity of their crimes in the 20th century, were historically misdirected. They are an insecure people in constant need of reassurance. Germany apparently remains eternally wounded, dependent upon the healing power of remembrance. Germans must live with their trauma and occasionally reopen the wound to prevent it from festering.
'A Transfer Between Generations'
The reactions of 15-year-old schoolchildren who have seen the ZDF series show how important it is to bring the whole of history into the individual's world of perceptible experience. The culture of remembrance, in its ritualized repetition, creates distance and with it sometimes tedium, just like the repetitious knowledge derived from schoolbooks. The SS thugs and the clamor of Hitler and Goebbels are taken out of time and space, and sterile instruction points to a different world, one that has become unreal. Nazism then turns into a grotesque theater, an impression that filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino can successfully exploit.
By contrast, a series like "Our Mothers, Our Fathers" offers the antidote -- an experience of emotional awakening. It attempts to provide an answer to the incredulous question asked by young people today: Grandpa and grandma were there when that happened? Unimaginable! What might appear to non-Germans as just another war drama with moving stories like those portrayed in "Saving Private Ryan," gains a veracity that is more than just documentary. Producer Hofmann, who has already produced many historical films ("Dresden," "March of Millions"), believes that he achieves "a transfer between generations" by touching personal feelings, reconstructing family connections and allowing his protagonists to act in the gray zone of the anti-heroic.
Perhaps the most forceful lesson that the five friends -- Greta, Charlotte, Wilhelm, Friedhelm and Viktor -- convey is the critical question asked by future generations: "What would I have done?" And it is stripped of any moral pretension, even exposed as ultimately banal or at least marginal. No one, even the most sophisticated, decent, well-meaning or well-educated, would have remained untouched. As in Jean-Paul Sartre's play "Dirty Hands," there is no hero who can remain clean under such circumstances. Everyone becomes guilty to varying degrees. The dictatorship, which deprives the individual of the freedom to make his or her own decisions, corrupts everyone. But individual responsibility does not dissolve into diffuse collective culpability, either. Distancing oneself from the perpetrators and defining oneself as different is the opposite of catharsis -- it is simply the arrogance of those who live without affliction in miraculously peaceful times.
The five friends in the series -- prototypical but not theoretical, and all rather individual figures -- lose their innocence without being malicious. As the scriptwriter Stefan Kolditz has described his project, "you don't get very far with this generation by merely applying the categories of good and evil." Our humanity lies precisely in the fundamental inconsistency of individuals. The recognition and admission of our own inadequacy, a deeply Christian trait, protects against repression of our own dark sides and against the exploitation of others' weaknesses. The show's plot becomes accessible to audience members by keeping them unsettled, preventing them from fully identifying with some noble hero.
- Part 1: Next-Generation WWII Atonement
- Part 2: Wounds that Refuse to Heal
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