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Photo Gallery: Germany's Hit New WWII Miniseries

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'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.
Von Romain Leick

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.

Wounds that Refuse to Heal

The fears of the Germans, derived from the experiences of history, continue to have an effect seven decades later. To this day, they create a sense of abnormality in Germany's political life, which may seem strange abroad, but has provided reliable protection against radicalization within Germany.

Without the trauma of the past, it would be difficult to understand the fervor with which the democratic political class discusses a ban  of the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). Militant democracy is defended at the polls, though enlightened consciousness and a reliable constitutional state would be sufficient. No one in France would dream of banning the far-right National Front party of politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine. The party captures 18 percent of the vote in presidential elections. Belgians, Scandinavians, Italians and the Dutch must also combat extremism and right-wing populism, but not with party bans.

Without the wounds that both refuse to and cannot be allowed to heal, it would be impossible to understand the intensity with which Germans grapple with every foreign deployment of their armed forces, and even the semantic use of the word "war." French President François Hollande, single-handedly and literally overnight, recently sent combat units to Mali by air and land. Germany, on the other hand, agonizes over a decision  involving a few cargo or tanker planes. Hesitation is appropriate, but creating taboos is not, because the horrors of history  also lead to the international responsibility to protect from a war of aggression.

Without the guilt complex from the Nazi era, it would also be difficult to explain why the chancellor and the people she represents don't allow themselves to be provoked when they are disparaged abroad with Hitler moustaches and swastikas. They persevere with a mixture of serenity and shamefacedness that would be inconceivable in Washington, Paris or Moscow. But let's admit that it does make us cringe. And yet the demand by a small minority to pull the plug out of the euro system receives almost no attention. In this calm, we still feel the effect of the experience that the defeated, destroyed and morally devastated country had after 1945. Martin Schulz, the German president of the European Parliament, reduced this experience to a concise statement that highlights the entire difference of history: a Schuman plan instead of a Treaty of Versailles.

The rehabilitation after defeat in 1945, which occurred through European unification and the NATO military alliance, succeeded even more quickly abroad than at home. The re-establishment of German self-confidence was always a step behind external appearances.

Pointing to the Perpetrators' Inconsistencies

"The entire founding of the Federal Republic," says film producer Hofmann, "occurred in the face of an incomprehensible and complete suppression." The rapidly developing Cold War helped in that it established an alternative for gradual exculpation. "Anti-fascism" faded into a propaganda cliché of the other, totalitarian ideology. Historian Götz Aly called this political and psychological self-therapy "glaciation." The reports on the big Nazi trials of the early 1960s read like news from a world of murder and manslaughter in which no one had taken part. Our relatives? But we weren't involved with those kind of people! "It isn't easy to talk about it," said the wise old admonisher Hans-Jochen Vogel, born in 1926, a staff sergeant in the Hitler Youth and a corporal in the Wehrmacht, after he saw the ZDF series.

Books, plays, films and TV movies, exhibitions and photos have formed the stages and sometimes the painful breaks of a marathon of enlightenment. Political scientist Eugen Kogon, a prisoner at the Buchenwald concentration camp from September 1939 to April 1945, published his standard work, "SS State: The System of German Concentration Camps" in 1946. More than 500,000 copies of the book were sold in Germany.

The 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, from which philosopher Hannah Arendt  reported, de-demonized the type of behind-the-scenes mastermind and architect of the deportations of Jews, exposing his "sheer thoughtlessness" in spectacular fashion. The horrible "banality of evil" was evident, Arendt wrote, in the fact that Eichmann, aside from an unusual eagerness to further his career, had no motives at all. He was a despicable figure with no demonic fascination at all -- but he was also far from ordinary.

In the fall of 1965, author Peter Weiss' play "The Investigation" was performed on 15 stages in West Germany and East Germany in one day. The play was a dramatization of the Auschwitz trials that had begun in Frankfurt two years earlier. Such a simultaneous premier in both parts of divided Germany was unprecedented.

Shortly before the eruption of the 1968 student revolts, psychoanalysts Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich wrote their study on "The Inability to Mourn," a title that became a catchphrase. The couple described the Germans after 1945 as a society that was only able to endure the devaluation of its self-image by blocking its embarrassing memories, and had thus deteriorated into a conspicuous emotional rigidity.

In a radical, inquisitorial manner, the student movement of 1968 demanded accountability from its parents. At the same time, it unwittingly resembled the older generation in its willingness to unquestioningly devote itself to a greater cause and its ideals. "A young person," the Mitscherlichs concluded, "who hasn't learned to judge his parents in a way that is somewhat in keeping with reality will also be blind to other parts of the outside world, or will at least see them in a distorted way." In that vein, the series "Our Mothers, Our Fathers" attempts nothing less than directing our undisguised attention to the inconsistency of our parents.

Broken Heros

More than a decade later, in 1979, the American TV miniseries "Holocaust" opened the eyes of German viewers to the horror of the extermination of the Jews, based on the fate of the Weiss family. The much-maligned emotional drama from the United States traced the path of suffering taken by millions of Jews into the gas chambers more drastically than any documentary had done before.

Then, with his monumental nine-hour documentary "Shoah" in 1985, French director Claude Lanzmann reconstructed the Holocaust  entirely without piles of bodies and shocking images. It was a new form of remembrance that relied on the depiction of landscapes and faces, with voice-overs recounting the events -- a liberating film, like a quiet, persistent objection.

In his 1993 film "Schindler's List," director Steven Spielberg portrayed the good German Oskar Schindler, who hired Jewish prisoners to work in his factory, saving hundreds of lives in the process. The example set by a man who did the right thing only underscored the true scope of evil. But in the end, good and evil remain inexplicable. Why did Schindler do what he did? And if he could do it, why didn't more Germans take similar action?

Ironically, it was the two US films, "Holocaust" and "Schindler's List," that most closely resembled the memories the Mitscherlichs had presented in their study. The feats of memory were flanked by historic controversies and debates charged with political ideology, which regularly shook up a placid and affluent society.

In 1986, Berlin historian Ernst Nolte, originally a philosopher and an unhappy student of Martin Heidegger, went further than any other academic with his revisionist provocation. With his theory that the Soviet "Gulag Archipelago" was more primal than the Nazis' system of concentration camps, while the class murders of the Bolsheviks were the model for the Nazis' racial murder of the Jews, Nolte qualified the German crimes almost to the point of moral indifference.

A decade later, the sheer force of the images at the Hamburg Institute of Social Research's Wehrmacht exhibition -- which showed laughing and smirking soldiers in front of the executed -- made it the most controversial show of the 1990s. Despite a number of technical errors, false attributions and subtitles, it destroyed the myth of the clean Wehrmacht once and for all. "The war is no machinery," institute head Jan Philipp Reemtsma declared, "but a space in which individuals make decisions." True to this maxim, "Our Mothers, Our Fathers" does not release its broken heroes from the responsibility for their own actions.

The supposed assault on the "honor" of the German soldier set off a controversy that ultimately led to the early closing of the exhibition. Starting in 1941, more than 150 divisions containing a total of 8 million soldiers fought on the Eastern Front. How many of them committed crimes is far from clear. The often arbitrary estimates range from under 5 to more than 80 percent.

An End to Guilt, Not Remembrance

Why did men who seemed to be average citizens and ordinary Germans commit murder? In 1996, American author Daniel Goldhagen dealt another serious blow to the general willingness to repent. In his study "Hitler's Willing Executioners," he revived the theory of German collective culpability, depicting a nation of perpetrators, caught in inescapable guilt. Goldhagen claimed that the extermination of the Jews was one of the Germans' national political objectives -- a sort of social norm.

His diagnosis of what was essentially a fundamental pathological condition of the Germans, rooted in history and genetics, sparked an outcry. Nothing is more mortifying than the refusal to forgive within the guilt complex. "History or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising," Günter Grass concluded in his 2002 novel "Crabwalk."

The need to atone for our sins, the repeated application of the scalpel to ourselves, has become a trait of the modern European condition. Germany has no lack of "demonstrators of contrition" (in the provocative words of French philosopher Pascal Bruckner). It is dotted with monuments and memorials, and its history is lined with the major and minor anniversaries of horror.

Other countries regard this "never-ending atonement" with a mixture of suspicion and respect, a secular political flagellantism that is increasingly being recommended to the rest of Europe as something worth emulating. Hardly any European nation is free of the poison of damnation, and the administrators of disgrace all have plenty to do. But doesn't the irrefutability of remembrance also contradict "the imperative of forgetting," as Munich ancient historian Christian Meier has suggested? In earlier times, it was not remembrance and keeping wounds open, but rather forgetting, that was the amnesty and remedy for coping with a horrible past.

It appears that this is not possible for Germans. We must put an end to guilt, not remembrance. This is why the ongoing public apologies are so important. They turn words into actions and create harmony and community. But the permanent attitude of atonement cannot lead to political and moral self-paralysis, or become an alibi behind which the responsibility to take action hides.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan