By Max Musson:
There has been a mixed reaction to the recent broadcast on German TV of a three-part series entitled ‘Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter’ (‘Our Mothers, our Fathers’), depicting the effect that the Second World War conflict had on the lives of ordinary German citizens, and on the lives of five young Germans in particular.
The five young friends are; brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm; a young nurse Charly; aspiring singer Greta; and her Jewish lover Viktor.
Their story begins on the eve of the German attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. The five friends meet in Berlin for a farewell party, and plan a Christmas reunion, unaware that their lives will soon change dramatically as the war unfolds bringing about the end of the world as they knew it.
While Wilhelm, a young Wehrmacht officer and his younger brother Friedhelm go on to serve in the same platoon on the Eastern Front; Charlotte volunteers to serve in a military hospital close to the front; Greta tries to enlist the help of a Gestapo officer in establishing her career as a singer and her Jewish lover, Viktor, is eventually deported to a concentration camp but escapes and joins the Polish Partisans.
The three 90 minute parts of the series are entitled, ‘Eine andere Zeit’ (A Different Time), ‘Ein anderer Krieg’ (A Different War), and ‘Ein anderes Land’ (A Different Country).
Wilhelm (played by Volker Bruch) is the narrator of the story. He provides the opening monologue for the episodes and when the plot jumps in time, he summarizes the developments that have occured in the meantime.
Wilhelm believes that he is bound by honour to fight gallantly for the Fatherland and is determined to do his duty. As the war progresses however, all hope for a quick victory evaporates and the tide of war changes, and Wilhelm’s idealism evaporates also. Faced with the annihilation of his whole company, he breaks down and deserts the Wehrmacht, but is later captured as a deserter and deployed in a Strafbattalion (Penal Battalion). This fate destroys the last remnants of his idealism and when he finally returns to Berlin it is as an utterly broken man.
Friedhelm (played by Tom Schilling) is a sensitive young man – a dreamer – more interested in literature than warfare and with no ambitions to be a soldier. Initially, his comrades deride him as a coward and beat him up, but the hardships and atrocities of the war eventually transform his character into that of a daring and ruthless killer. By the end of the war he leads a group of very young and very old Volkssturm soldiers in a brave but futile attempt to halt the enemy advance.
At first, Charly (Charlotte, played by Miriam Stein) is distraught by the suffering she encounters and it takes her time to come to terms with the demands placed upon her. The medical staff are overworked and in short supply, and Charly is asked to enlist help from local Ukrainians with medical experience. As a result she finds herself faced with some difficult decisions that cause her to wrestle with her conscience. As the war comes to an end she narrowly escapes rape at the hands of brutal Russian soldiers and is enlisted as a nurse in a Soviet field hospital.
Greta (played by Katharina Schüttler) wants to succeed as a singer by whatever means. She starts a love affair with a high ranking SS officer, named Dorn (played by Mark Washke), who promotes her career, but when she becomes a threat for his own marriage, he organizes a road show for her close to the front line. By chance she manages to return to Berlin, where she openly expresses her doubts in the Endsieg and angers Dorn by revealing their affair to his wife, acts which lead to her arrest and imprisonment for Wehrkraftzersetzung (subversion of the war effort), and she is executed. See the video and read the article of Greta singing, ‘Mein kleines Herz’
Viktor (played by Ludwid Trepte) is Greta’s secret lover and because of his Jewish background both of them live in constant fear of being accused of Rassenschande (“racial shame”, “racial defilement”, or “racial pollution”). Attempting to help him escape deportation, Greta manipulates the Gestapo officer, Dorn, into giving him a passport to the USA, but Dorn double-crosses him and on the day for his departure he is arrested by Gestapo and send to a concentration camp. On the way there he escapes from the train, along with a Polish woman named Alina, and joins a group of Polish Armia Krajowa partisans. During his time with the partisans he is forced to keep his Jewish background secret due to the widespread anti-Semitism within the group. Viktor survives the war and upon his return to Berlin, finds that both his parents and Greta are dead.
The series ends with first Viktor, then Wilhelm and finally Charly arriving by chance at the bar behind which Greta once lived and the scene of their initial farewell party. At first they just stare at each other, not knowing what to say, but Wilhelm begins saying “Auf Friehelm brauchen wir nicht zu warten” (We do not need to wait for Friedhelm), indicating to the others that he is dead. Viktor adds, “Gefallen, für Führer, Volk und Vaterland”.
Charly asks after Greta and Viktor looks down indicating the worst. Then Wilhelm finds a surviving bottle of wine behind the bar and pours them each a drink. “Gut, das du lebst” (It is good that you live), he says, and they stand and drink a toast to their absent friends.
The series has received widespread acclaim in Germany, winning all three of the Deutscher Fernsehpreis, the Bayerischer Fernsehpreis and the Prix Europa for 2013, and critics have praised it as a milestone in Germany’s reckoning with its troubled past. There has been criticism from Russian and Polish sources, unhappy with the portrayal of Russian soldiers shooting the injured as they over-ran the German field hospital and raping the German nurses, and with the portrayal of the Polish partisans as anti-Jewish, but these portrayals are now widely accepted as historically accurate.
Jewish groups have predictably accused the series of ‘sidelining the Holocaust’, because the there are no depictions of the concentration camps. Jennifer Nathalie Pyka, a columnist for the ‘Jüdische Allgemeine’, Germany’s leading Jewish weekly, accuses producer Nico Hofmann of being “lax” in “fading out, the bothersome fate of six million Jews”, by concentrating on the action at the front, and dismisses the character Viktor as a ‘token’ Jew whose exploits were overshadowed by those of the two soldier brothers.
However most Germans of the war generation were not aware of the extent of the camps, nor what is alleged to have taken place within them, and so the series does in this respect reflect accurately the wartime experiences of most Germans. Also, particulary in the second and third parts of the series, the Jewish character Viktor is frequently depicted; escaping with a Polish girl from the train taking them to Auschwitz; journeying through woodland with the girl; helping to stitch her wounds; stealing clothes; joining the partisans; conducting various actions with the partisans; freeing Jewish prisoners from another train; engaged in a tense stand-off with the partisan leader; leaving the partisans; fighting with German soldiers and coming face to face with Friedhelm; returning to his parents apartment after the war; visiting a missing persons bureau; and finally returning to Greta’s apartment. It is therefore not true to say that the character, Viktor, has only been included as a ‘token’ Jew.
Furthermore, while the series does not depict the concentration camps directly and avoids addressing the fate of most Jews, it does portray Viktor and his family positively, recounting that Viktor’s father had fought for Germany during World War One, and depicting Viktor as a courageous and good-hearted individual. There are no dislikable Jewish characters portrayed in the series, the other prominent Jewish character, Lilija is also depicted as a strong, well educated and forgiving individual and the series avoids the equally thorny issue of attempting to explain why the Nazis felt such great antipathy towards Jews.
Lastly, the series ends without portraying the initially genocidal regime imposed upon the conquered German people by the victorious Allies. Independently sourced population statistics indicate that German wartime losses and losses during the immediate post-war period were massive as a result, dwarfing those of most comparably sized nations.
After the German surrender, the Allies imposed a regime under Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive 1067 (Directive JCS 1067) which was in effect the military enactment of the ‘Morgenthau Plan’ and which deliberately imposed conditions upon the conquered German people designed to reduce their population numbers significantly through hardship and starvation and designed to strip Germany of most of her manufacturing capability so that the German nation would be irrevocably weakened and never be a military threat to other nations again.
Official figures estimate German military deaths at approximately 5.5 million and German civilian deaths at just 3.5 million (9 million in total), however the pre-war (1939) population of German provinces, including Germany proper, the Sudetenlands, Prussia, Posen, Pomerania, Silesia, and Alsace Lorraine, totalled just over 80 million people, compared to a post–war (1946) population for both East and West Germany of just 65 million. The ethnic German populations of the Sudetenlands, Prussia, Posen, Pomerania, Silesia, and Alsace Lorraine were forcibly expelled their homelands and were forced marched in some cases hundreds of miles to within the borders of modern Germany. Furthermore, much of the population of what was East Germany fled into what became West Germany, in order to avoid being captured by the Russians. This reduction of the Germany nation from 80 million to just 65 million indicates that in addition to the 9 million official deaths, there were a further six million Germans who died as a result of these expulsion and the hardship and starvation suffered under JCS 1067.
These latter issues were not dealt with by the series, and will be left for future generations to acknowledge when a broader still reconciliation can be achieved by the nations who fought each other.
Since the series was broadcast, newspapers and online forums have been full of comments by descendants of the German wartime generation, with many saying that their parents rarely, if ever, spoke of their experiences.
Producer Nico Hofmann has said that one of his goals was to encourage a national debate among the generations “to speak for the first time about the experience” of the war and he said that when screened, the third and final episodes attracted a 20.5 percent share of viewers aged 14-59 years old.
The series had on average 7.6m viewers per night and suddenly the few remaining survivors of Germany’s wartime generation, grandfathers and grandmothers, who for years kept silent, or were never asked, have found themselves being asked questions about what happened, what it was like and whether or not they saw any atrocities.
Films such as ‘Schindler’s List’, the Amercan series,’Holocaust’, and the German-made ‘Downfall’, which depicts Hitler’s final days, have all provoked passing sensations in Germany, yet none before has prompted the same intergenerational debate. ‘Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter’ has reminded younger Germans that this is the last chance they will have to talk to those who actually lived through the war.
“Soon nobody will be left who experienced the war”, commented Frank Schirrmacher, publisher of the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “Before long, everything will be only a photograph, film or book”. He praised the series “for the earnestness, the love of detail and the unwillingness to compromise,” which allowed it to have “what it takes to touch the soul of the country.”
Critics of ‘Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter’ have generally tended to fall into one of two camps: spokespeople for the Eastern European nations involved in the conflict with Germany during WW2, who are sensitive to any suggestions that the behaviour and conduct of their nationals and their armed forces during that period was anything other than impeccable; and commentators either employed by Jewish owned and/or controlled mass media companies, or speaking on behalf of Jewish groups who believe that Nazi ill-treatment of the Jews and the alleged Nazi attempted extermination of European Jewry should always be centre stage in any portrayal of WW2.
While post war media accounts of WW2 have tended to heap blame for the war on the German people and the Nazis, as if an entire nation was suddenly gripped by a mass psychosis, which drove them alone to commit diabolically atrocious acts of genocidal aggression, the historical evidence when objectively assessed, indicates that the German people and the Nazis were not solely responsible for the outbreak of war and were not the only ones to commit atrocities against civilians and captured enemy combatants.
Where ‘Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter’ breaks new ground, is that it is a major German TV series, broadcast internationally to widespread acclaim, which depicts the plight of the German people sympathetically, not attempting to ‘whitewash’ the German war record, but merely presenting a balanced and objective view in which the German people are not unfairly demonised. The fact is that the conduct of modern warfare, in which entire nations are mobilised in support of the war effort, almost always entails the commission of atrocities by both sides, both against enemy combatants and enemy civilians. War is after all a ghastly process in which two protagonist groups commit atrocious acts of violence against each other with the intention of terrorising their opponents into submission. How could anyone expect this to be waged in an entirely civilised manner and in accordance with peacetime standards of conduct?
It is now time for the reputation gained by the German people during WW2 to be rehabilitated and ‘Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter’ represents a welcome step along that road.
By Max Musson © 2013 – Updated 2014
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Other articles that may be of interest:
Jewish Sensibilities & the Commemoration of Heroes - How ‘Der Landser’ and the Berlin Holocaust memorial factor in the German psyche.
Treblika – The Forensic Examination Fails – A review of the forensic examination of the Treblinka concentration camp site by Caroline Sturdy Colls.
My Little Heart (Mein kleines Herz) – A review of the song sung by Greta from ‘Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter’
Das Buch – Discussing the recent surge in sales of ‘Mein Kampf’
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