Were there any good Germans during WWII? Over the past two decades, the odds have narrowed. “No serious scholar has attempted to argue that ordinary German men did not become mass killers,” Holocaust historian Christopher R. Browning wrote recently, “or that the Wehrmacht—the institution shaping the experience and behavior of by far the largest groups of Germans in World War II—was not heavily implicated in Nazi criminality.” At one time it was thought that most German civilians were ignorant of the deportations and mass murder, but that too has been shown to be false. And as scholar Wendy Lower has most recently chronicled, hundreds of thousands of German women were enthusiastic participants in the German colonization of Eastern Europe and its attendant horrors.
I had to keep reminding myself of these ugly facts as I watched Generation War, the blockbuster German TV miniseries that is now making the rounds of art-house cinemas in the United States as a two-part, nearly five-hour film. Called Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (“Our Mothers; Our Fathers”) when it aired on German public television in three parts last March, the series aims to depict what the war was like for average Germans by following the interconnected stories of five friends in their early twenties from June 1941 until the fall of Berlin in May 1945.
Both the writer, Stefan Kolditz, and the producer Nico Hoffman viewed the series as a last chance to have a conversation with the disappearing generation that fought in the war—a generation that includes both of their fathers. The two men said that they wanted to depict the war years as realistically as possible and to challenge younger Germans to ask themselves if they really would have done better. “Are we ourselves really so different, so incorruptible?” asked Kolditz.
The problem with this approach is that it assumes that “average” Germans were passive participants in the events of WW II who were forced against their better natures to go along with Hitler’s terrible crimes. At its most distasteful, Generation War portrays its protagonists as victims. In fact, most ordinary Germans circa 1941 were enthusiastic racists who endorsed Hitler’s program of conquest, subjugation, and colonization.
Which makes the following fact deeply uncomfortable: I enjoyed watching the series immensely. As entertainment, it is at turns enthralling, horrifying, and moving. The acting is first-rate, and the work has a very strong antiwar message. I even found myself tearing up at times. Shot on location in Germany, Lithuania, and Latvia, the series has very high production values—unusual for German television. It is easy to see why it was a huge hit, attracting record audiences and setting off a wave of public reflection on the war in TV programs and newspapers. But the qualities that make Generation War successful as entertainment also betray its stated goal of realistically portraying the average German’s role in the single worst crime in human history.
Each of the five major characters in Generation War is depicted making moral compromises that are supposed to reflect Germany’s culpability. At the same time, the way these compromises are framed soft-pedals far worse horrors that actually took place, thus allowing viewers to continue to identify with and root for the central characters. This contradiction is neatly encapsulated in the promotional description of the series from Music Box Films, its U.S. distributor: “At nearly every moment, they are faced with choices between complicity and rebellion, self-preservation and self-sacrifice, blood on their hands and love in their hearts.”
Love in their hearts? The trouble with Generation War crops up early. The five friends meet in a Berlin bar after closing time for one last celebration before they go their separate ways. There is Wilhelm, a Wehrmacht lieutenant, and his younger brother Friedhelm, a private soon to be in the same unit. Charlotte is a newly minted army nurse, while her friend Greta is an aspiring chanteuse. Greta’s boyfriend, Viktor, is the fifth member of the group, and a Jew. It is June 1941 and everyone seems to know that Germany is about to invade the Soviet Union. (Apparently Stalin’s intelligence failure was even worse than we had imagined.) The five friends drink, dance to jazz, and promise to meet again at Christmas, when the war will be over—presumably with a German victory.
The scene, among other things, is meant to establish the innocence of the film’s protagonists, who are about to face the horrors of war. But WWII didn’t begin in June 1941: It began in September 1939. We learn in passing that Wilhelm has already served in the German conquests of Poland and France, which were not as brutal as the war in the east but were still incredibly nasty. Nevertheless, Wilhelm remains a carefree ingénu along with the others and has no wisdom to impart about what is coming.
At one point, the party is interrupted by Gestapo agents, responding to a report that degenerate swing music has been heard on the premises. This presents a threat to Viktor, whose friends helpfully cover for him. In Generation War’s portrayal, eight years into the Third Reich, after the noose had already been tightened around the necks of Germany’s Jews, the only anti-Semites are officials of the Nazi regime. There is a nod to the anti-Semitic laws and harassment—Viktor’s family’s tailor shop was said to have been gutted during Kristallnacht—but in the bar among friends, everyone is equal.
Generation War clearly needed to have a Jew among its five principals in order to have any contemporary legitimacy. But Viktor’s ready acceptance by such a wide variety of his non-Jewish peers in 1941 Germany is wildly out of sync with what scholars have learned from letters, diaries, and other primary sources. Most ordinary Germans at the time held attitudes of casual racism at the very least and a strong sense of imperial entitlement over Jews, Slavs, and others deemed racially and culturally inferior. The series tries to draw a distinction between Nazis and everyday Germans that simply did not exist in any broad way. The tagline on the movie’s poster—“What happens when the country you love betrays everything you believe?”—is demonstrably false: Most Germans believed in the Nazi agenda.
Soon Wilhelm, Friedhelm, and Charlotte are off to the eastern front, and these scenes are some of the most compelling parts of Generation War. WWII was won (and lost) in the east where huge armies squared off against each other in epic battles that dwarfed the Allied campaigns in the west. Yet the eastern front is very rarely depicted in Western films. The battle scenes are shot with vivid realism that stacks up against any contemporary war film. We see the rapid advance of the German military machine deep into Soviet territory to the gates of Moscow and Leningrad followed by the Germans’ slow, grinding retreat, harassed behind their lines by partisans and arctic winters and then crushed by the resurgent Soviet military with its thousands of tanks. The scenes of Charlotte and her colleagues tending the wounded are gruesomely affecting.
Wilhelm is a rising officer respected by his men, while the younger Friedhelm is a mama’s boy and intellectual who is reluctant to fire his gun. The other members of their platoon are much like soldiers in any other war film: emblematic of their time and doomed. There is the blond, racist bully and the one who plans to take up Hitler’s offer and settle in the conquered lands of the east (after all the inferior residents have been liquidated). A third is indifferent about the Nazi party but recalls that his father was out of work for years before Hitler came to power.
A turning point comes when the squad captures three Soviet prisoners following a vicious firefight. One is a commissar, and Wilhelm hesitates when he is ordered to execute him. The Soviets didn’t sign the Geneva Convention, his sympathetic superior tells him, adding that Germany is fighting a new type of war. “We have to say farewell to the world as we know it.”
Wilhelm complies, but he begins to question. As the futility of their existence becomes obvious, the two brothers move in opposite directions. Wilhelm withdraws, showing his penitence for his war crime, while Friedhelm becomes a cold killer without a conscience. Yet as portrayed brilliantly by actor Tom Schilling, Friedhelm continues to hold our allegiance and in the end does the right thing.
And so it goes. Charlotte befriends a local female volunteer at the hospital and then turns her over to the authorities when she finds out that she is Jewish. But it all works out in the end. Greta has an affair with a Gestapo officer to advance her singing career, but she does it to try to help Viktor escape Germany. Viktor is on his way to Auschwitz but manages to escape and join the partisans.
The horrors of the Holocaust remain in the background: They are perpetrated by others, not by the good Germans who are the film’s focus. In one of the few scenes that addresses the Nazi mass murder of 6 million Jews, Wilhelm and Friedhelm try to prevent a Jewish girl from being taken to the killing fields by local irregulars only to be countermanded by a German intelligence officer. But at least they tried.
Later, in a scene that brought official protests from Poland, Viktor refuses to obey the order of a loutish Polish partisan leader and liberates Jewish prisoners from several freight cars. This outs Viktor as a Jew, and he is forced to leave the unit in which he has fought bravely.
Generation War also depicts the horrors of the war unrelated to the Holocaust: the brutal treatment of civilians of all nationalities and the betrayal of front-line troops by their superiors. At its best, it shows the senselessness of war and how it turns young soldiers into killers and victims—a message that no doubt appeals to vast numbers of contemporary Germans who are tired of feeling guilty about a war that their fathers and grandfathers started and lost. But I would argue that Nazi Germany’s mad plan to subjugate other countries and murder millions of civilians that they deemed to be racially inferior is not the best background against which to hang a universal humanistic antiwar message.
Still, Generation War offers some compelling storytelling. Most historical movies shade the truth in ways large and small. So, by all means go see Generation War, but don’t buy into the idea that its heroes are representative of Germany’s WWII twentysomethings. They are not.
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