“Father? What did you do during the war?” This is the question that WWII German fathers did not desire to answer. If they fought with a clean conscience in the Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine, or Luftwaffe, then those German enlisted grunts were fighting for the Fatherland and certainly the national pride stirred up by Hitler’s wild monologues and national propaganda. As the war progressed, it became more and more evident that the German cause was the Nazi cause, and that cause wasn’t very worthy. The more one knew, the less worthy it became. After the war, when even the most adamant of German denial was shattered, and the most ardent of true believers shamed, the most zealous apologists silenced, it would be very difficult for a survivor to look the next generation in the face and say with Teutonic pride, “Yeah, I did that.”
This is the great effort of Generation War (as it is named in the US). This was a German TV series that aired in Germany and Austria in March 2013. It seeks to make the war less about Nazis and more about average Germans. As one reviewer stated, this film “represents an attempt to normalize German history.” It says, “these were our mothers and fathers, normal, regular people worthy of empathy.” Indeed, the direct translation of the German name for the film, Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, is Our Mothers, Our Fathers. The effort of this film was to get the Germans talking about the war, a topic that they did not speak much about in the immediate post war era, and generally spoke of with great hostility more recently. The film succeeded in opening the conversation. It also made a lot of non-Germans mad. Any effort to ‘normalize’ Germany’s war effort, to humanize the stereotypical image of the “bloodthirsty Jew-hating Kraut,” or to put a face on the people who fought for Hitler’s personal grudges, is seen by many non-Germans as tip-toeing around the great many warty elephants in the room who are wearing Nazi arm bands and SS Death heads. The film seems to be asking the world for forgiveness by showing the human side of Germany.
Did the film succeed? I suppose it depends upon who you ask, where they were during the war, if their parents were gassed like sub-human vermin, or what flavor of history books they have read. Personally, I’ve always found it a bit difficult to find a hero on the German side of things, no matter how ignorant they were of the evils to which they gave their implicit approval. I generally can’t buy in. Ignorance is not a defense in a court room, as the Nazis discovered when pleading “I didn’t know” at Nuremberg. Having read far and wide about the temperature of German society during the war, I question just how widespread true ignorance of Nazi atrocities really was. The more widely you read in personal memoirs, the more you realize that everyone knew what was going on with the Jews. Everyone knew Hitler’s radical racial purity ideology. Its not like the ideas weren’t out there… in a book… published more than a decade before the war… on sale… by Hitler… outlining his plans. Mein Kampf was a broadly read, of course they all knew
I believe one can recognize the humanity of regular German soldiers, nurses, police men, public officials and the lot. But recognizing their humanity is by no means an acquittal of guilt. There can be no loss of memory about the German war effort and its accompanying evils. Sure, there are the apologists and the Nazi sympathizers who always make sure to show how evil the Russians were or the Yugoslavs or this group or that group. And in the film, the producers make sure we see stereotypical raping bands of Russians from the ideologically-debased East. Those stereotypes were earned, for sure, but the producers had to show them. They had to say “yeah we’re bad, but look at those evil Russians!” And there are always those who are quick to say “that was just the SS, and even not all the SS was evil,” or “that was just a small segment, most Germans were fighting for the Fatherland as all good soldiers do.”
Yeah, I don’t buy it. Maybe in the early years this was the case, but by the mid-point of the war, even the most silly school-girl understood that the best way she could serve the victorious state was to enlist as a breeder in the Aryan master race’s subjugation of the sub-humans. The Germans, a desperate people at the time, were very duped into believing Hitler’s brainwashing, that’s true. But a few years worth of witnessing its rotten fruit? Better to die resisting such an evil tyranny like Sophie Scholl did than to be complicit in a crime the world will not forgive. Yes, I was not there. Yes, I don’t know how I would act under such circumstances. But I hope I’d do what is right, come what may. The “you were not there” argument falls flat. All ideological positions can be attacked with that fallacy, and a fallacy it is. I don’t have to be there to know more Germans should have stood upon principle than propaganda.
No wonder its so hard for the German generation that allowed this cancer to grow on their watch, and largely with their blessing, to talk about it. Shame is appropriate for a generation.
And even so, all of us are prone to do the opposite of what is right. Especially under the gun. The human story is powerful and moving in this film. I enjoyed it. People are people, and all nations are one bad decade away from a dip into debauched tyrannies and bizzarro national evil. History testifies – its pretty easy for ‘good people’ to be duped down a road of collective evil. The human heart is naturally inclined to evil, and we can all relate to that the reality because – even if you aren’t a TULIP-preaching Calvinist like me – we all know deep down that we aren’t perfect. In fact, we inclined to full-on depravity. So we can relate as these human lives are tainted, assaulted and destroyed, because they are real people, just like us.
In this film, we see five youthful companions, typically German, lively and like any other young men and women. They are like us. Like our parents. Like our kids. They are Wilhelm and Friedhelm, two brothers heading out for the east soon. There is Charly, who loves Wilhelm but can’t say it out loud, and who will be joining the nurses corps soon and shipping out to her own war. There’s Viktor, a Jewish young man, son of a tailor and WWI veteran. And Greta, a lively swing dancing singer who’s love for banned music gets her into a Gestapo plot more costly than she’d ever imagine.
We see the five life-long friends take their last photo together before heading out to the future, all of them promising to meet back up when its all over. Each character could be no more different than the other. They all had deep flaws along with laudable character traits – just like everyone else; just like us. They find themselves in the ugliness of war, in the web of human evil toward his fellow men, facing one ethical dilemma after another, and usually out of the blue. Each individual faced crushing blows of the reality of the evil state of man’s heart, resulting in mind-numbing moral shock. Zealous and youthful naïveté was crushed by brutality. You saw faces change as they realize they aren’t necessarily the good guys. Cruel betrayal and selfish exploitation by superiors scars fragile lives, leaving deep furrows in the brow for the rest of their lives. It is, in a sense, not so much a coming of age film, but a crushing of idyllic youth story. And it hurts.
We cannot help but sympathize with the characters and find that empathy the director so desires that we find. We cannot help feel remorse and sorrow. We cannot help forget we hate Nazis, and catch ourselves rooting for a fellow young man or young woman. We become attached to the five and yearn for them to overcome the brute forces tearing at them, even as we witness their participation in the very machine that is killing them.
For example, the two brothers end up in combat, witnessing and being propelled to participate in some typically gruesome crimes, executions, betrayals. The girls find themselves serving the Reich, one as a very patriotic nurse, the other as a singer for the SS and side-interest to a Gestapo creep. Viktor the Jewish friend finds himself wearing a Nazi uniform and denying his Jewishness, leading him to great moral conflict. Its a roller coaster for sure.
In the end, the story engages, tugs at hearts, pulls out some tears, and gives a very powerful and well-produced view of the war from the German side. It is a success in drawing out empathy for people like us.
But does it earn forgiveness, or ‘normalize’ the German side of history? I don’t think so. It is understood by any relatively well-balanced thinker that the Germans were people and they had their human tale to tell just like everyone else in the war. But merely having human stories and heart-tugging personal dramas that draw empathy do not negate the true history of the Reich. And the Reich was people. From the top down to the coal schleppers on the munitions train, or to the bandage washer in the field station, they are still people like us.
Perhaps contrition gains them personal redemption in some way. But collectively, the guilty juggernaut of Nazism and those who served it cannot be normalized or passed off lightly as a thing of the past. This is not to say that Germany today, and its citizens, are guilty of what their fathers did before them. The guilt is only on the perpetrators. But they would be doing a great disservice to dismiss the past under the guise of normalcy or forgiveness.
Ultimately, Generation War did not address the greatest horrors of the German juggernaut – and how could it? The film even seemed to try to gloss over what it did address concerning the liquidation of a whole race, almost making excuses for it. Still, its a very worthy story and stands as a wonderful film for poking at the many topics yet unspeakable by ‘our mothers, our fathers’ who did them.
Every reviewer is going to say something different about this film. Some will say its a great coming of age movie, some will say it redeems Germany in the eyes of the world. Others will say its a paltry attempt to downplay the real evils of Nazi Germany under sentimental stories of human interest. Still more might say it addresses evil, but compartmentalizes the wicked Nazi brutes into just those few extremists, leaving room for good patriots to serve their nation with honor like anyone else. My take is consistent with what I believe about the Germans, which makes many angry. Laudable Germans in WWII? Sure, there were some. Most of them died at the hands of Nazis. I’m sure there were more, but its hard to grapple with the fact that a desperate people in the 20s and 30s, suffering unjustly under Versailles’ heavy weight, would allow the guy who wrote Mein Kampf to lead them. Leaders, no matter the system of rule, only lead by consent of the people. The people consented, and did so knowing his plans up front (remember that!), because they were published and popular. Its hard to talk about Germany in WWII without that shadow. I don’t believe Germany can normalize what happened in WWII. I do believe they can own it, turn away from it, repent collectively, and move on by remembering it accurately. Stories that presume to normalize what never should not be normal miss the grand goal.
This is a worthy film, certainly gets the conversation heated up.