For Some Germans, Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter Opens a New Chapter of ReckoningA Silent Chatter
Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the German word for, roughly, “struggling to come to terms with the past.” It is not simply yet another compound word, generated by the German language, just because it has such powers. The word is used by Germans to describe the complicated process, which can include feelings of guilt, anger, frustration, and sorrow, accusations and blaming, as well as silence and repression. Silence has always been part of the picture, for it is easier to turn away than to confront. But its role has changed in the seven decades since WWII
Silence’s place and what exactly it means, is not so easy to tease out. German-American scholar of Holocaust Literature Ernestine Schlant begins to explain the complicated situation, writing in 1999, “In its approach to the Holocaust, the West German literature of four decades has been a literature of absence and silence contoured by language. Yet this silence is not a uniform, monolithic emptiness. A great variety of narrative strategies have delineated and broken these contours, in a contradictory endeavor to keep silent about the silence and simultaneously make it resonate.” In other words, the German response to the horrors it both inflicted and endured in WWII has largely been to speak and write often and prolifically, to let the history and the crimes lay bare, in part however, in service of shunning the deepest parts of potential reckoning. The abundant presence of words can also serve to prevent other words.
Schlant grants, “The enormity of [their] crimes and their legacy have become part of German self-understanding.” This was not always the case. In a study of German WWII-related literature, Jennifer Michaels sketches the general public and literary attitude. Right after the war, “the rapidly developing prosperity in the Federal Republic in the 1950s and 1960s encouraged little interest in confronting the past.” When writers did confront the issue, still, “instead of examining the political and social roots of Nazism, many writers in West Germany in the 1940s and early 1950s depicted it in metaphorical or mythic terms. Nazism was seen as a sickness or as a madness that had overwhelmed the German people, and notions of a Germany possessed by the devil were widely held. The Germans were treated as the victims of an inescapable fate instead of as morally responsible individuals, and this view tended to absolve them of guilt since it suggested that they were helpless to resist.”
The children of the war generation intended to break the silence of their parents, who had first hand war experience. The results were often tense, with the younger generation blaming their parents for falling sway to Nazism, claiming that they themselves would have never allowed Hitler to garner such power. Michaels continues, “In the 1970s in East and West Germany confrontation with the Nazi past was intense.” But much of these confrontations were based on little real knowledge, since there had been such silence before. When finally, in 1979 the TV series Holocaust was broadcast in Germany, Michaels says that “[people’s] overwhelming response revealed that the new generation knew little about this period and that people felt an urgent need to know more.” The public’s reaction to this American TV series, which depicted the families of both Jewish victims and SS officers, was a wake-up call for the German public, a catalyst that helped move the project of German reckoning on a new track. Germany became obsessed with knowing the factual realities of its past in scrupulous detail.
In recent decades, the more total silences of the immediate post-war years, and the often angry response of the war generation’s children to Nazism in the 1960s and 1970s, have been broken by vast public reckoning in school curriculums, on anniversaries of important events, and with monuments, memorials, and museums all around the country. Media, all sorts of institutions, and even government itself have all played an active role in nurturing a common vocabulary with which to speak about WWII. Indeed, Schlant observes, “[T]he private silences have become public debates.” Two other Holocaust scholars, Michael Geyer and Miriam Hansen, also note the pervasiveness in German society of recognizing the need to discuss WWII: “The murder of the Jews is being recognized as an integral yet non-integratable part of German history.”
But what do Geyer and Hansen mean by “non-integratable”? And if there is so public discourse about WWII in Germany, why is Schlant’s paradigm centered around silence?
Though there is extensive public recognition of the Nazi period in Germany, private reckoning within the family and particularly between generations has been slim. Writing in Der Spiegel just two years ago, Christian Buß says, “The question of collective guilt in the Third Reich is largely clarified, whereas the individual is largely unknown. Who has ever had the conversation with his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, in which they talked openly about the selective moral failure of the older generation? The history of the Third Reich: investigated as far as Hitler’s dog. The history of the own family: a deep black crater.” As W. G. Sebald describes, “There was a tacit agreement, equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described.” This double annihilation, of the society’s moral complex and physical complex, meant that the War “never became an experience capable of public decipherment.” Continuing to diagnose, Sebald says, “The sense of unparalleled national humiliation felt by millions in the last years of the war had never really found verbal expression [… and] those directly affected by the experience neither shared it with each other nor passed it on to the next generation.”
Sebald is interested in what may lie underneath the silence that Schlant speaks of. His book, On the Natural History of Destruction, opens by asking how it is possible that “destruction, on a scale without historical precedent”—600,000 German civilians died in Allied bombing raids alone, more than all American deaths in the entire War—“seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the collective consciousness,” seems to have “been largely obliterated from the retrospective understanding of those affected.” In a phrase similar to Schlant’s idea that Germans create a certain rich vocabulary in order to keep certain other words silenced, Sebald says, “In spite of strenuous efforts to come to terms with the past, … when we turn to take a retrospective view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, we are always looking and looking away at the same time.”
Sebald continues to reference this active attempt to discover the deeds committed by Germans yet cover up the effect the war years and the utter destruction ultimately brought had on German people: “The new Federal German society relegated the experiences of its own prehistory to the back of its mind and developed an almost perfectly functioning mechanism of repression, one which allowed it to recognize the fact of its own rise from total degradation while disengaging entirely from its stock of emotions.” He, almost belligerently, calls the act an “extraordinary faculty for self-anesthesia shown by a community that seemed to have emerged from a war of annihilation without any signs of psychological impairment.”
The experience of the War and the suffering and trauma of the average German during those years remains a virtually untouched subject. Even Heinrich Böll’s Der Engel schwieg, which “gives some idea of the depths of horror then threatening to overwhelm any who really looked at the ruins around them … was not published until 1992, almost fifty years … [after being] written at the end of the 1940s.” This does, however slim and however overdue, represent a shift in German reckoning.
After giving the lectures from which these passages are taken in 1997, Sebald says he received many written requests to say more about the topic. Finally two whole generations out from WWII, most of the letters “were motivated by a need to see the Germans depicted, for once, as victims.” Finally, by the 1990s, none of the parents of children coming of age have WWII memories, only a detailed national history coupled with a very incomplete personal history. “That silence, that reserve,” writes Sebald, “that instinctive looking away are the reasons why we know so little of what the Germans thought and observed in the five years between 1942 and 1947.”
But how can a piece of German literature begin to give voice to that silence, to look where before there was an “instinctive looking away”? For Adorno, famously, it was simply not possible: “The so-called artistic rending of the naked physical pain of those who were beaten down with rifle butts contains, however distantly, the possibility that pleasure can be squeezed from it.” This basic revulsion to represent suffering at all in art after Auschwitz, to not even go near it except via the most obscure and cryptic aesthetic techniques (Samuel Beckett’s Endgamewas for Adorno a successful artwork about suffering), is paradoxically reversed and upheld by Sebald, for whom “it is with [a] documentary approach … that German postwar literature really comes into its own and begins the serious study of material incommensurable with traditional aesthetics.” Sebald agrees that the content of bottomless trauma and suffering is not appropriate for traditional aesthetics, however the solution is not to remove clear paths to making meaning as it was for Adorno, but to represent with as much detail and accuracy as possible, to give the closest thing as possible to the unmediated experience itself.
Another fifteen years after Sebald, does the German novelist or filmmaker have more freedom, or is Sebald’s documentary approach still the gold standard? If a documentary approach to representation gives rise to empathy and understanding, that so-far missing ingredient of vergangenheitsbewältigung, for whom is this empathetic representation of suffering possible? It seems wrong to empathize with the suffering of a horrible flatly immoral person. Surely many mistreated peoples deserve our empathy before we should extend it to the most obvious of worst actors. Simply put, no one is suggesting we empathize with the highest officials of the Nazi government convicted at Nuremberg. Their stories deserve to be silenced. But not nearly every individual can be held responsible for Germany’s collective crime. Is empathy then possible for them?
Another concern is how far can historical accuracy or plausibility be stretched in a representation for it to still be permissible? If the fictionally created individual has an acceptable or at least more complex moral dimension but represents nothing true about historical reality, it may seem wrong again to empathize, for it cheats the victims of truth. For some, if there is even any hint of historical falsehood, any representation that does not suggest exactly what history tells us is true, then our entire empathic project is null and void.
In a study of how reunification affected German literature, Stephen Brockmann says that Horst-Eberhard Richter, a soldier on the Russian front from 1942-43, public intellectual, peace activist, and psychoanalyst, “suggested in his memoirs that the Nazi past was so horrible that only the grand-children of the Nazis would truly be able to carry out the task of ‘coming to terms’ with it.” Brockmann continues, “The past was more present half a century after the end of the war because the distance of two generations from Nazi crimes made it possible for the first time to deal with that past honestly.” Furthermore, “In order to address its problematic national past, Germany had to have – a national present,” that is to say, a unified healthy country. Nearly seventy years after Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allied forces, Germany’s main television network, ZDF, aired a four and a half hour film over three nights called Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Our Mothers, Our Fathers), English title Generation War. Without a strong, healthy contemporary Germany, and without this many years distance, it would never have been possible.
The main characters, a group of five best friends from Berlin whose lives the war years will either shatter or fully terminate, are all born in 1921. That would have made them 91 or 92 years old when the film aired, parents of those at retirement age, grandparents of the middle-aged, and great-grandparents of those coming of age now. At a generation between this lineage, there are today at a greater number those in their early 80s who were children during the war but old enough to have distinct memories and know something about what their parents were up to during the war years.
Nico Hoffmann, producer of the trilogy, saw himself in direct opposition to the legacy of silence. “For me the film,” Hoffmann wrote, “is the completion of 30 years of family examination.” The show depicts the gory detail of war, the hardships and the moral dilemmas and hypocrisies of life both on and behind the front. Generation War is without question a departure from silence. Its main concern is not historical detail, but the emotional destitution experienced by a generation, a generation today just barely hanging on to life.
In these three clips we see the insanity of war that the soldier must face. Here, Wilhelm becomes delirious after an explosion. And Friedhelm, after thinking his brother has been killed, single-handedly captures the telegraph station they are fighting over. “For that?” he says, screams, and laughs, four times, enraged because his brother’s life is lost (he thinks) over a tiny communication center.
A little bit later, Friedhelm and another soldier who had charged the telegraph station with him sit in their compromised position behind enemy lines. Friedhelm explains to his less experienced comrade his method for survival: resisting the temptation to be human.
And soon after that, the newer recruit explains the persecution his 68-year old mother has faced back home and that he is an only child. Moments later he stands up and a Russian sniper shoots him.
For these sorts of explorations into themes of hardship and victimhood brought upon Germans, Generation Warreceived widespread praise in the German press. The New Republic said of the show, “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.”
Many German reviewers, columnists, and academics cited the show specifically as a turning point for Germany, such as Der Spiegel senior culture critic Romain Leick, who called it a “new, multigenerational milestone in the country’s culture of remembrance.” Most positive reviews, of which there were many, focused on an intergenerational dialogue that was made possible. Spiegel film critic Christian Buß said that “Generation War finally breaks the silence between the generations.” And Frank Schirrmacher, senior literature and arts editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine, instructs his readers: “Get six pairs of eyes to watch this film. Six pairs of eyes, which are nothing else than the eyes of three generations: grandparents, parents, children. You need to see together what happens on the screen. Then you might make of the experience what it was, as if the dead come back to life.”
Most commentators reminded of the silence that the film broke, and some referred to the urgent need to break the silence now, before it is too late. Schirrmacher writes, “We are, in terms of the collective memory, one minute before midnight. Soon, everything will just be photography, film or book.” Hartmut Radebold, a war survivor and psychoanalyst who studies guilt and trauma, says in a Spiegel interview, “[The war] wasn’t talked about much within families themselves, which is regrettable, as is the fact that this film wasn’t made earlier. … Very few members of that generation are still alive — and many of those who have survived suffer from dementia. The film actually deals with individuals who are no longer with us.”
Regardless of whether the film comes just after it is too late or just before it is too late, the unearthing of the never-before-asked questions for whomever is left is widely praised. For Schirrmacher, the exact silenced question is, “What was it that you could not tell?” More concretely, clarifies Christian Buß, “How did mom and dad, grandma and grandpa become part of a criminal system?” And did they become criminals because of delusion, seduction, out of sheer desperation? Such questions were never asked, and if they were, you did not get an answer: Have you shot a man? Did you betray a friend? Have you had sex with a Nazi bigwig? And did you enjoy this sex?” Or as Hajo Schumacher describes in the Berliner Morgenpost, “How many children while cleaning their parents’ memorabilia find something with a swastika, embarrassing enough already, deposited in a far corner, but having failed to remember to throw it away? What was really going on at that time? … How hard was it to ask? Have your ancestors deserted, betrayed, killed?”
Schirrmacher explains, “The answer to that was not only morally precarious, but also grammatically. Sentences need a subject, stories need role models. But what if there is nothing to identify with?” Germans, in Generation War, finally have a subject to the predicate of their unasked and unanswered questions. They finally have something that they can identify with and something they can grasp.
It goes further than determining where exactly the little-known actions of a contemporary citizen’s elders fit in with the well-traversed collective actions of the Third Reich. Many German commentators not only praised the excavation of individual war stories that the show helped let emerge, but also, finally, the emotional reckoning that took place. Schumacher celebrates the surfacing of what he identifies as the film’s central underlying concern: “Generation War finally asks the cruelly simple question: What did National Socialism do with our ancestors? And thus with us? What of war and a cult of destruction remains with us?”
For Leick, the country’s usual course has become tiresome and ineffective, and substantive emotional reckoning is welcome: “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 … . By contrast, a series like Generation War 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!”
Just as Schumacher begs the question, “What of war and a cult of destruction remains with us?”, so Leick warns of the need to answer it: “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.”
Radebold, from a psychoanalytical perspective, expresses a similar sentiment: “Why should future generations come to terms with the war experiences of their forefathers? — Many children have unconsciously adopted the symptoms of their parents. One patient dreams of the tank attacks that his father experienced. The adults have conveyed much more through gestures and insinuations than they realize. This has been absorbed by the children and incorporated into their identities.” “Coming to terms with one’s own history doesn’t mean that one is automatically exonerated,” he says, implying that words can end the vicious cycle and heal without denying history or expunging guilt.
The burgeoning new dialogue that the producer Hoffmann intended and predicted, and that many critics hailed, seems to have really come true. Just a week after the show aired, Tomasz Szarota of The Centre for Historical Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin said, “This is the wave in Germany now of being able to talk about German suffering. The Germans were the last victim of the war that they themselves started.” Jens Wehner, historian at the German Military Museum in Dresden, agreed, saying, “I can imagine that in many families where there are survivors there will be conversations” also only a week after it aired. And Florentine Anders in the Berliner Morgenpost said, “For many, the television event was an opportunity to get into conversation with their parents or grandparents – about how they experienced this dark chapter of German history as children or adolescents.” Statistical evidence also supports a sudden blossoming of Germans’ interest in their elders’ past. In a text box on the side of a Stern magazine article with the heading “Where was grandpa during the war?” a peak in archival inquiries was noted the week after Generation War aired: “At Deutsche service (WASt) 1407 written search requests were received this week, twice as many as usual. 412 Germans called to ask for information on the military service of their fathers or grandfathers, three times as many as in the previous week.”
These accounts and statistics are confirmed by the sudden appearance of the public sharing of War stories in the German press the week after the show aired. Regina Köhler, for example, an editor at the Berliner Morgenpostwhose work focuses on education, wrote a story that ran the day after the first episode aired with the title, “Generation War – parents tell about war,” and the subheading: “The ZDF three-part mini-series Generation Warcauses discussions. Regina Köhler talked with her parents about their war experiences.” Köhler informs: “Thus far, although there was a story or two, a real conversation did not take place. There has always been my feeling of not being allowed to touch it. Details were taboo.” What follows is an article of a very strange form, particularly for a daily newspaper. Köhler reports on the conversation she has had with her parents about the war, supplies details in bland and non-literary ways, quotes her parents, and just like that the piece is over.
Another piece in the Berliner Morgenpost that ran four days after the final episode aired published Morgenpostreaders’ testimonies of their childhood war years or of what they knew about their parents’ experiences. Many respondents described the Allied bombing of Berlin in great detail, the cruelty of the invading Soviet soldiers, or the absurd proclamations and often equally cruel actions of retreating German soldiers. One resident said about a grandfather who was on the Eastern front: “In the end he did not tell us about it, he remained silent about it until his death. I can only remember that he started to cry when he thought of Russia. In an unusual monotonous sound of his voice, he repeatedly showed the distance of 10 cm between his thumb and index finger: ‘I had that much ice on my gun. That much ice. We could not shoot anymore, so much ice, we were freezing … And so many of us froze to death, froze miserably.’ That was it. Then he caught his breath, he went silent, and we changed the subject. Honestly, I do not know if we really wanted to know more from him. … My grandpa died in 1997 at the age of 84 years. Today I would like to ask him again, ‘Grandpa, what was is like back then, tell me again, from the beginning, I want to know everything.’ At that time, I used to listen with half an ear – I’m so sorry.”
Another told of her nightly walk to the bomb bunkers with her parents, where she would see “dead children, the elderly, soldiers.” At the most harrowing moments, the rich empirical details that Sebald so eagerly called for begin to appear. Another resident speaks of the hardships of the “so-called home front.” His parents’ house was destroyed overnight during an air raid in 1943, and they “lost all their possessions over night – everything burned, all of my toys, too.” In a sentence fragment, as if the tactile memory alone returns and is given what meager words it can be, he continues, “Especially my beloved puppet theater.”
The “Ordinary Nazi”
Who wasn’t a Nazi in 1943 Nazi Germany? Surely not every citizen of the Third Reich that didn’t actively resist, which was effectively impossible anyway, is morally guilty. Accommodating for the sake of survival, as opposed to agreeing with the ideology, cannot be considered actively supporting. But just what was the reality? Historian Christopher Browning has spent much of his career trying to figure out what Germans in the Nazi period actually thought and believed, and how much agency the actually had. His book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland and Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust both examine a strange case in the Nazi archives. Both look at Police Battalion 101, which like other groups under SS command, participated heavily in the mass execution of Polish Jews. But, Battalion 101 had the unusual situation of its commander giving his men—as Browning says, “randomly conscripted, middle-aged reservists with a low rate of party membership and little police training and ideological indoctrination,”—the option to go home and basically work a desk job for the SS. “Nonetheless,” Browning found, “the great majority did not avail themselves of this option.”
The two books appealed to different explanations for this. Browning “emphasized universal attributes of human nature and social-psychological factors shaping group dynamics, such as conformity, deference to authority, and adaptation to roles within an occupation unit stationed in enemy territory during wartime.” Whereas “Goldhagen emphasized German cultural particularity in the form of what he described as a deeply ingrained “eliminationist” anti-Semitism, which caused virtually all Germans to desire the death of the Jews and then to kill them with enthusiastic cruelty when given the personal opportunity.” Regardless of whether “virtually all Germans” were truly anti-Semitic or whether a kind mod rule was more at play, “both books demonstrated that ‘ordinary’ German men—and not just SS fanatics and ideologues, carefully selected and indoctrinated—had become mass murderers.” As much as we may want to believe that if given the option not to follow orders, most Germans would not have, “non-coerced participation” was actually much more common.
Indeed, “no serious scholar has attempted to argue that ordinary German men did not become mass killers or that the Wehrmacht [German army]—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.” Browning speaks of an “ordinary Nazi,” a term he borrows from historian Mary Fullbrook, who is identified by “casual racism and imperial entitlement.” This “ordinary Nazi” is not a fanatic, nor an early contributor to or creator or disseminator of the ideology, but he does very much believe in it: “In German eyes, enemy armies and populations stubbornly defending their homeland against the consequences of a horrific foreign conquest were viewed as intolerable. … German soldiers felt that their enemies fully deserved the terrible misfortunes they had brought upon themselves by daring to resist. … The razing of entire villages and mass murder of civilian populations both became ‘routine’ and were felt by the soldiers to be fully justified.” In fact, as we know from the conversations of POWs, even those in North Africa, “many soldiers were astonishingly well aware of the specific details of the extermination of European Jews.”
These truths are much more widely accepted today in Germany than they once were: “Despite two decades of scholarship to the contrary, the comforting postwar myth of the ‘clean Wehrmacht’ had survived relatively intact in German popular consciousness into the mid-1990s.” Implicit in that myth is the idea that Nazis were an “other,” a sort of outside oppressor group that took control of the country without its consent. Here, Generation War runs into troubles, for some. Wilhelm and Friedhelm do commit atrocious War Crimes in the show, but they are often presented as if they would have preferred not to, but had no choice under orders.
A Closer Look
There are a number of common reasons that German reviewers and columnists reacted negatively to Generation War, after the initial explosion of enthusiasm in the press. The most obvious is that it leaves out the genocide of Jews. Jennifer Nathalie Pyka of the Jüdische Allgemeine sarcastically wrote of the producer Hoffmann: “His merit is to have produced a film about World War Two that easily cuts out the annoying question of six million dead Jews. … [Viktor] cannot keep up with the suffering of the two soldiers, who constantly and impressively escape death. Yes, they had great struggles, the Germans. ‘Were the German soldiers really that cruel?’ asked the Bildimmediately [in a headline after it aired]. And so the trilogy is a revelation for those who have always known that not only the Jews, but also and especially the Germans fell victim to Hitler.”
But most seemed not to be at odds with the omission, appreciating that this was at last a depiction of German suffering. Still, qualms remained. Some reviewers pointed out that the War was not just the Eastern front. Harald Jähner, in the Frankfurter Rundschau, responding to Hoffmann’s comment that the film represents “the completion of 30 years of family examination” says that he, too, “asked [his] mother for her experiences and actions as a German teacher in the occupied Poland for years.”
Speaking for everyone now, he says, “Many will know these talks with their fathers and mothers: gaps remain, contradictions, euphemisms, persistent delusions. It just does not match up as a whole. The biggest mystery still is: the everyday life in the Nazi state, the coziness that was nested with barbarism. In the film everything becomes a whole. His aesthetic underlies a fantasy of omnipotence, a presumption that is already summarized in the title. This should speak for everyone and nothing will be left out. The film claims representation. Five friends stand for everyone.” But representation just does not work, here: “I feel it cheated me out of reality, as well as my mother’s and my father’s, who are incorporated in the title of the trilogy.” These five faces, in fact no five faces can stand in for the Nazi era.
At their core, however, these particular criticisms are personal: the writer would have rather seen a film made about something else or depicting other stories. They are not exactly critiquing the film that was in fact made. Other complaints did appear, however, that raised substantive historical issues. Here, Hoffmann and the other filmmakers may run into more serious trouble. Unsurprisingly, these essays often came from the pens of historians.
Ulrich Herbert, Nazi era historian at the University of Freiburg, praises the film for its storytelling, film making techniques, and production value in Die Tageszeitung of Berlin. He also makes sure to acknowledge that the film does not “gloss over Nazi crimes,” and even looks at them in detail. But, “the elation about the annexation of Austria, about the great victories, the pride of the New Germany: we do not find any of this here.” While German’s actions are greatly exposed, and pathways were opened into the emotional trauma that these years caused, the ideology of the period, its defining characteristic, is basically left out. This is more striking an omission than any omission of any deed, action, time, or place.
Herbert insists that Germany not forget that its people really did believe in their actions, that they were not just orders: “Our fathers and our mothers were not simply young people who just wanted to live, but could not because of the war, as the film suggests. It was a highly ideological, politicized generation that wanted the German victory, the victory of Nazi Germany, because they thought it was right. But that cannot or cannot yet be shown. We would have to stop the pedagogical perspective, the way it has been propagated in many newspapers these days: ‘Discuss this in the families! This is the new consensus on National Socialism’ was not only written in the [right-leaning] Frankfurter Allgemeine. You would have to show the fervor with which so many Germans believed in the ultimate victory [Endsieg] until just before the end. That there were not only naive fools who trusted Hitler. And that they did not only endure what was happening, but wanted it.” As difficult a project as this is, what alternative is there if historical accuracy is of any concern at all?
Herbert’s identification of this problem runs deep: “The Nazis are the usual character masks,” villainous grotesque men with the vilest verbal and body language. In truth though, “the SD officers usually were educated and cultured people who were convinced that it was right to fight this war and to persecute and kill the Jews.” In a profoundly problematic rewriting of history, “The Nazis in this film are not our mothers and fathers, but the others.”
Jan Süselbeck of University of Marburg agrees with Herbert in the journal Lituratur Kritik when he says, “Once again the tragic German victim is staged in front of our eyes, so that the audience can experience its ‘cleansing’ and relieving catharsis.” The film does not paint a true picture of what the time was like, but instead “presents the Germans in a way they would liked to have been, but in fact the broad mass never was.”Unfortunately and problematically, “In Generation War the Nazis are once again the ‘others,’ while the group of five popular figures act in a way today’s Germans can only imagine and want it of their ‘parents.’ ” As much as we may want it to have been otherwise, historical reality indicates that the ordinary German was usually in fact that very “ordinary Nazi” that anybody would hope their ancestors had never been.
This clip brings Herbert and Süselback’s problems right to the surface. In Ukraine, Wilhelm, Freidhelm, and a third soldier in their troop seem completely clueless that the SS is rounding up Jews. They even go as far as to stop a Ukrainian “auxiliary police” member, that is to say, civilian mob member, from carting off a Jewish child. Wilhelm, as commander, confronts the SS guard in protection of the child, before the monstrous SS guard shoots her in the head. The soldiers are stunned. As implausible is it is that three German soldiers who have made it to Ukraine would not know about the rounding up of Jews and go as far as to intend to stop it, it makes little sense even within the story that the film is creating itself. Wilhelm has served in France and Poland in 1940 already, where he would have seen similar practices already. He is made out to be not only innocent and ignorant, but even quasi-resistant here, at least to the best of his abilities given the circumstances.
Other seemingly minor historical inaccuracies have enormous consequences. For example, when Wilhelm is ordered to execute a captured Soviet officer, he is shocked and disgusted, made to look visibly sick. But historically, as Süselbeck points out, this is already after Hitler’s public “Commissar Order,” thus, his revulsion to the order is historically impossible.
More moments, still, maintain the depiction of horrific events decoupled from their ideological causes. In the clip below, Friedhelm seems to be already coming to terms with the insanity of the war, as if hinting to contemporary viewers how they might process it. In a truly remarkable exchange, Wilhelm says that their fellow soldiers have died “for nothing” and Friedhelm screams back to his older brother that “there is no sense” to the War, and even goes as far as to say there is “no Fuhrer!” This exchange is exactly what we today may think of the War, but it is utterly not what an actual German soldier in their place would have thought. It is instead a projection of our present onto a past in the exact moment where truth is supposedly being uncovered and exposed where before there has only been silence.
What can we ultimately make of Generation War? The immediate and widespread enthusiastic response that the film received is meaningful in its own right. The nation was eager for it, and it felt that the film was “important and new,” in the words of historian Norbert Frei of Friedrich Schiller University. Indeed, the suffering of Germans in the war period has been an underdeveloped subject, and the country certainly could benefit from having the questions Generation War raised be asked more often and further. The new desire that clearly many people have for personal knowledge and emotional reckoning represents a significant shift in Germany’s relation to the Nazi era. Generation War is a telling part of that shift.
But it is unclear whether Generation War can and will last as a crucial object of reckoning. It made a big splash for the emotions it elicited, a considerable event just for this, but with a picture painted that represents our contemporary view of the War more than the views of the historically depicted people, it is questionable how much work the film will actually continue to do. Every moment of historical implausibility, every time we notice the filmmakers creating a more exciting plot at the expense of accurate representation, every time we “smell the lubricating oil of dramaturgy,” as Jähner says, the drama benefits, but the ultimate project of the film suffers.
Others see a middle ground where the importance of gaining untapped personal familial knowledge and encouraging fragile intergenerational conversation partially overrides the historical inaccuracies. Before making criticisms, Johannes Tuchel, political scientist and head of the German Resistance Memorial Center in Stauffenbergstrasse says, “Basically, I think it’s always good when it is shown that the Second World War was a criminal war of aggression on the part of the Germans. This clearly comes out in Generation War.” Martin Lücke, historian at Freie Uniersity Berlin, critical of the ways in which the film invites us to forgive Nazis, does grant that though “the film does not invite you to controversially debate the perpetrators, … it wants to make history experienceable together.” And Klaus Hesse, chief curator of the Topography of Terror Foundation similarly says, “You learn little about National Socialism through the film, but it helps draw attention to the story of one’s own family.” That is no small thing, for Germany today.
By its conclusion, the film ultimately allows us to feel that justice has been adequately served, appallingly enough. Neither soldier truly believes the Nazi ideology, and both go crazy, in different ways, which works to remove ethical responsibility in light of the adverse conditions. Wilhelm becomes disillusioned with war and deserts, taking up residence in an abandoned cottage by a pond in the countryside. Dissent is not possible here, but desertion, it seems, is the next best thing, the best way of expressing one’s disapproval of the war and keeping one’s own life. Shockingly for any historian, he is found by German authorities, pardoned, and allowed back into the ranks, albeit without his lieutenant status.
Friedhelm, on the other hand, becomes emotionally hardened and ruthless, following orders to commit War Crimes with no pause. However, as he says himself, it is for the sake of his own survival, not because he believes in what he is doing. And finally, this ruthless killer, who we are being told in part to forgive because of his circumstances and recognize what seems to be his deeper understanding of the pointlessness of the War, at the very end actually sacrifices himself for a group of indoctrinated 12-year old new recruits in 1945. It is perhaps the most emotionally sensitive moment of the entire four and a half hours, yet it ultimately suggests that Freidhelm was in fact always selflessly doing as much as he could to save lives within a senseless context, whereas in fact, his actions were selfishly for the sake of his own survival and his words nihilistic. The “good” soldier deserts, is pardoned, and survives. The “bad” soldier redeems himself right before the end and pays for his actions. Nothing isn’t the way it should be in a War in which everything was the way it shouldn’t have been.
This trend extends to the other three characters, as well. Charlotte falls victim, not quite to Nazi ideology but to the actions of the crowd, and identifies Lilija, a Jewish fellow nurse, after Lilija has opened up and told Charlotte of her background. Upon the Soviet army’s arrival, she is punished for her earlier moral failure as they begin to rape her. But shockingly, Lilija, who has somehow escaped and entered the ranks of the Soviet army as a commander, interrupts the rape, forgiving and sparing Charlotte. She was after all, naïve, and didn’t really know what she was doing.
Greta, meanwhile, who lives a comfortable life in Berlin, abandons Viktor, sleeps with an SS member, and has a career as a singer, finds the worst fate of them all. She lives out the last years of the war in a prison and is finally executed for defeatist statements. The worst of them conveniently gets the biggest punishment. Viktor, lastly, is perhaps the strangest case. The writer Stefan Kolditz admited the improbability of his story. It would have made more sense just to send him to America. He could have returned with American forces, but it would have cost too much money to produce. Regardless, against all odds, Viktor has evaded persecution up until 1941 in Berlin, maintains a group of friends including two Nazi soldiers, and survives four years of fighting and wandering in Poland, before making it back to Berlin, alive.
And amid all of this, nowhere is there a representation of the “ordinary Nazi,” the average citizen, which was supposed to be the point of the film. We only see horrifying monstrous Nazis on the one hand, and our mothers and fathers on the other, the people who wanted to get out of an oppressive system but had no means and were “forced against their better natures to go along with Hitler’s terrible crimes,” in the words of Laurence Zuckerman in Tablet magazine. Our group of characters is a group that we can identify with and feel at least somewhat justified in forgiving. Those of the characters that could cope and remain naive or roughly good, the War fittingly spares, while the worst get what they deserve.
Zuckerman finds this fact of the film inexcusable: “At its most distasteful, Generation War portrays its protagonists as victims.” But this American writer sees positives as well: “At its best, it shows the senselessness of war and how it turns young soldiers into killers and victims.” He goes on to account for the overwhelmingly positive German reaction by saying that this is “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.” However “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.”
A.O. Scott in The New York Times expresses a similar concern: “Generation War … represents an attempt to normalize German history. Its lesson is that ordinary Germans … were not so different from anyone else, and deserve the empathy and understanding of their grandchildren. This may, in the abstract, seem fair enough, but the film slips into a strange, queasy zone between naturalism and nostalgia. In effect, it is a plea on behalf of Germans born in the early 1920s for inclusion in a global Greatest Generation, an exercise in selective memory based on the assumption that it’s time to let bygones be bygones.”
To what degree can reckoning honestly accommodate a problematic revision of history? It would seem that a positive emotional response to a period of atrocity is quite problematic if it were based on a selective account of history. What is strange, however, is that the myth of a mostly fundamentally morally sound German public, which the film promotes, does not actually hold much sway in Germany today. Perhaps suspending truth momentarily for the sake of constructing stronger intergenerational bonds and finally breaking silence is possible.
Leick, in Der Spiegel, stresses the importance of emotional reckoning, not only for the older generation, but for future generations: “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.’ … 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.” In Leick’s view, Germans have insufficiently argued and worked for the active prevention of war, paralyzed by the still largely unprocessed shock of WWII. A trauma-induced pacifism is not adequate. The emotions need to be processed so that reason can again govern thought.
French philosopher and public intellectual Pascal Bruckner has argued in his book The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism that Western societies need not to ignore their guilt-ridden pasts but begin to move beyond them, because otherwise action is impossible. Referring to Bruckner, Leick continues: “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 [in the present] hides.” For Leick, Generation War, its problems aside, is a fundamental and innovative part of this process.
 Schlant, Ernestine. The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print. pg 1
 Ibid. pg 2
 Michaels, Jennifer E. “Confronting the Nazi Past.” Beyond 1989: Re-reading German Literary History since 1945. Ed. Keith Bullivant. Providence: Berghahn, 1997. Print. pg 7
 Ibid. pg 3
 Ibid. pg 12
 Ibid. pg 14
 Schlant. pg 244
 Geyer, Michael, and Miriam Hansen. “German-Jewish Memory and National Consciousness.” Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory. Ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994. Print. pg 189
 Buß, Christian. “ZDF-Weltkriegsepos: Glaube, Liebe, Hitler.” Trans. Maike Ludley. Spiegel Online. Der Spiegel, 13 Mar. 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. <http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/tv/zdf-weltkriegs-epos-unsere-vaeter-unsere-muetter-a-886932.html>.
 Sebald, W. G. On the Natural History of Destruction. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Random House, 2003. Print. pg 10
 Ibid. pg 4
 Ibid. pg viii
 Ibid. pg 4
 Ibid. pg viii-ix
 Ibid. pg 12
 Ibid. pg 11
 Ibid. pg 10
 Ibid. pg 79
 Ibid. pg 31
 Adorno, Theodor W. “Commitment.” Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Notes to Literature. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. Print. pg 88
 Sebald. 58-9
 Brockmann, Stephen. Literature and German Reunification. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print. pg 162
 Ibid. pg 162
 Ibid. pg 162
 qtd in Jähner, Harald. “Fernsehen Bis Zum Hörsturz.” Trans. Maike Ludley. Frankfurter Rundschau 20 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.fr-online.de/medien/zdf-dreiteiler–unsere-muetter–unsere-vaeter–fernsehen-bis-zum-hoersturz,1473342,22156134.html>.
 Rogers, Thomas. “German War Guilt: The Miniseries.” The New Republic. 7 May 2013. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. <http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113138/our-mothers-our-fathers-germanys-wwii-miniseries-comes-us>.
 Leick, Romain. “‘Our Mothers, Our Fathers’: Next-Generation WWII Atonement.” Trans. Christopher Sultan. Spiegel Online International. 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/zdf-tv-miniseries-reopens-german-wounds-of-wwii-past-a-891332.html>.
 Schirrmacher, Frank. “”Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter“ Im ZDF: Die Geschichte Deutscher Albträume.” Trans. Maike Ludley. Frankfurter Allgemeine 15 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/medien/unsere-muetter-unsere-vaeter/unsere-muetter-unsere-vaeter-im-zdf-die-geschichte-deutscher-albtraeume-12115192.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2>.
 Radebold, Hartmut. “Nazi Childhood Memories: ‘It’s All Still Very Present'” Interview by Susanne Beyer. Spiegel Online International 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/survivor-and-psychoanalyst-reflects-on-german-wwii-trauma-a-891349.html>.
 Schumacher, Hajo. “”Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter” Stellt Die Wichtigen Fragen.” Trans. Maike Ludley. Berliner Morgenpost 17 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.morgenpost.de/meinung/article114525121/Unsere-Muetter-unsere-Vaeter-stellt-die-wichtigen-Fragen.html>.
 The AP. “TV Drama Reopens Debate over Germans’ Holocaust Guilt.” Haaretz [Tel Aviv] 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-features/tv-drama-reopens-debate-over-germans-holocaust-guilt-1.512297#storify/01ae02e25a978d4ce0b4e1075a409988>.
 Robson, Steve. “Fury in Poland over German War Drama Which ‘tries to Spread Blame for Holocaust'” The Daily Mail 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2300724/Fury-Poland-German-war-drama-tries-spread-blame-Holocaust.html>.
 Anders, Florentine. “Warum Das Land über “Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter” Diskutiert.” Trans. Maike Ludley. Berliner Morgenpost 22 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.morgenpost.de/kultur/article114669876/Warum-das-Land-ueber-Unsere-Muetter-unsere-Vaeter-diskutiert.html>.
 Weber, Matthias. “Das Gespaltene Urteil Der Historiker.” Trans. Maike Ludley. Stern 23 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.stern.de/kultur/tv/weltkriegsfilm-unsere-muetter-unsere-vaeter-das-gespaltene-urteil-der-historiker-1988290.html>.
 https://twitter.com/ina_2012 her twitter handle says “Editor Berliner Morgenpost, focusing on education”
 Köhler, Regina. “”Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter” – Eltern Erzählen Vom Krieg.” Trans. Maike Ludley. Berliner Morgenpost 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.morgenpost.de/kultur/article114557240/Unsere-Muetter-unsere-Vaeter-Eltern-erzaehlen-vom-Krieg.html>.
 Residents of Berlin. “Berliner Erinnern Sich an Die Schrecken Des Krieges.” Trans. Maike Ludley. Berliner Morgenpost 24 Mar. 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. <http://www.morgenpost.de/berlin-aktuell/article114717289/Berliner-erinnern-sich-an-die-Schrecken-des-Krieges.html>.
 Browning, Christopher R. “How Ordinary Germans Did It.” New York Review of Books 20 June 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/jun/20/how-ordinary-germans-did-it/>.
 Neitzel, Sönke and Harald Welzer. Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying: The Secret World War II Transcripts of German POWs. Trans. Jefferson Chase. Knopf. qtd in Browning
 Pyka, Jennifer Nathalie. “Opferneid Als Dreiteiler.” Web log post. Jüdische Allgemeine. 21 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.juedische-allgemeine.de/article/view/id/15529>.
 Jähner, Harald. “Fernsehen Bis Zum Hörsturz.” Trans. Maike Ludley. Frankfurter Rundschau 20 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.fr-online.de/medien/zdf-dreiteiler–unsere-muetter–unsere-vaeter–fernsehen-bis-zum-hoersturz,1473342,22156134.html>.
 Herbert, Ulricht. “”Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter”: Nazis Sind Immer Die Anderen.” Trans. Maike Ludley. Die Tageszeitung [Berlin] 21 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.taz.de/Unsere-Vaeter-unsere-Muetter/!113239/>.
 Süselbeck, Jan. “Fünf Freunde.” Trans. Maike Ludley. Lituratur Kritik 4 (2013). Apr. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.literaturkritik.de/public/rezension.php?rez_id=17761>.
 Büchse, Nicolas, Stefan Schmitz, and Matthias Weber. “Das Gespaltene Urteil Der Historiker.” Stern. 23 Mar. 2013. Web. 22 Apr. 2015. <http://www.stern.de/kultur/tv/weltkriegsfilm-unsere-muetter-unsere-vaeter-das-gespaltene-urteil-der-historiker-1988290.html>.
 qtd in Brüning, Christina. “Das Sagen Experten über “Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter”” Trans. Maike Ludley. Berliner Morgenpost 20 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.morgenpost.de/kultur/article114596382/Das-sagen-Experten-ueber-Unsere-Muetter-unsere-Vaeter.html>.
 qtd in Ibid.
 qtd in Ibid.
 Zuckerman, Laurence. “‘Generation War’ Shows Nazi Mass Killers With Love in Their Hearts.” Tablet 4 Feb. 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/161446/generation-war>.
 Scott, A. O. “A History Lesson, Airbrushed: ‘Generation War’ Adds a Glow to a German Era.” The New York Times 15 Jan. 2014: C1. 14 Jan. 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/15/movies/generation-war-adds-a-glow-to-a-german-era.html?_r=0>.