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‘Generation War’ offers a new look at WWII-era Germans

September 3, 2014
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                                  Generation War poster

In March of 2013, German broadcaster ZDF aired a three part miniseries called Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (literally “Our Mothers, Our Fathers”). It follows the stories of five fictional friends from the invasion of Russia in 1941 to the end of the Second World War. Since its release it has been both praised as a masterpiece of German drama, and criticized as an inaccurate and “whitewashed” portrayal of one of the most disturbing chapters in world history. Opponents in Europe and the United States (where it was released this year under the title “Generation War”) claim the series portrays Nazis as wholly separate from everyday Germans and in doing so avoids placing blame for the atrocities of the war on the soldiers, civil servants, doctors, and others who (at the very least) allowed them to happen. The series avoids exposing the racist and anti-Semitic views that many Germans harbored at the time. Indeed, the most violent anti-Semites in the film are a group of Polish resistance fighters. Many critics view the series as an attempt to grant forgiveness to a dying generation – but at the cost of avoiding a discussion of the guilt and role of the German populace in the war and Holocaust.

A common theme in many of the criticisms was the assertion that Generation War represents a new and dangerous direction in WWII filmmaking and historiography – a direction which might avoid placing blame on the true culprits of the Nazi’s crimes. However, few critics seemed to accept that this portrayal, in fact, is not a totally new phenomenon, but a reversal of previous depictions of WWII-era Germans. For decades, films about this period depicted Germans as evil, bloodthirsty racists bent on global domination. Few filmmakers were willing to show a more nuanced view of German soldiers and citizens. True, a simplified and un-nuanced view of the past can be found in almost any historical film; it is difficult to achieve nuance when entertainment is the goal. However, in presenting a different view of the German population during the war – not necessarily as the “good guys,” but at least as human beings – Generation War is a success. It also, importantly, allows for further discussion of agency, guilt, and cultural memory in a nation where free discussion of ideas had been banned for a half-century. Finally, its release and the subsequent debate surrounding it, reminds us that we should always be mindful of who is portraying the past, and for what purpose.

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