‘Generation War’ Lets World War II Germans Off Too Easily

Millions of Germans eagerly watched a three-part TV epic about World War II, searching, it would seem, for a palatable version of their history.

01.26.14 11:45 AM ET

Generation War, a five-hour epic that seeks to encompass the experience of ordinary German soldiers on the Eastern Front during World War II, was seen by more than seven million viewers when it first aired in Germany last year as a three-part TV series. Originally titled Our Mothers, Our Fathers, it has come in for considerable censure from critics who charge, among other things, that it whitewashes the role of the Wehrmacht in carrying out Hitler’s genocidal agenda and, that by emphasizing the anti-Semitism endemic among many of the Slavs who both resisted and collaborated with the Nazis, it suggests an equivalence that diminishes the centrality of Germany in perpetrating the Holocaust.

Leaving aside the merits of the debate for a moment, we may well ask what it is that drew such a massive German audience to watch each of the three parts of this TV series? It would appear that with the conflict receding into history, the Germans seem to be seeking a usable past, something they can retrieve from the sinister chapter of the Thousand Year Reich and the national stain of genocide.

To be sure, the attempt to retrieve a glimmer of pale light from the infernal darkness of the Hitler years has a considerable history in German postwar filmmaking. The genre covers air, land and sea. It includes such films as The Devil’s General (1955), starring Curt Jurgens as Harras, a Luftwaffe general who defies his Nazi comrades and pays a noble price; The Bridge (1959), depicting a cadre of hapless German teenagers sent out on a senseless mission to defend a bridge from the advancing Allies in the last days of the war; and The Boat (1981), which presents a U-Boat crew as fatalistic mariners in the service of their country, far from the killing fields of Eastern Europe. Generation War, while far more ambitious, falls within this category.

It is the story of five young friends, three men, two women, whom we meet frolicking and dancing to illicit jazz tunes in Berlin on the eve of the invasion of Russia in 1941. Two of them, Wilhelm, an officer, and his brother, Friedhelm, are about to leave for the front. The women are Charlotte, who will become a front-line nurse, and Greta, who will pursue her ambitions as a singer. The fifth member of the group is Greta’s lover, Viktor, a Jew who will undergo his own odyssey. They vow to meet after the war--home by Christmas--for a reunion at their Berlin bar. The crucible of war will alter their illusions.

Among the many things in the film that tax one’s credulity from the outset is the camaraderie of a German officer on his way to the Eastern front and a Jewish tailor consorting with an Aryan woman. It requires a leap of imagination that not everyone familiar with Nazi Germany is prepared to make. To be sure, this is fiction, and we must give the screenwriters wide latitude. But with the use of actual World War II battle footage, and an end-credit that lists the fate of each of the protagonists, the film insists on an authenticity that requires us to judge it in terms of historical accuracy, and in this, it is too often wanting.

The central fallacy of Generation War is that the decent Winter brothers, Wilhelm and Friedhelm, are typical of the German front-line soldiers in the East. Would it were so. The older brother, Wilhelm, objects to the slaughter of Jews and prisoners but is overridden by Nazi zealots in command. The younger brother, Friedhelm, is revolted by the entire idea of conquest, although he will ultimately harden into a different creature. Unfortunately, by their very decency, the brothers are not ordinary men, or at least ordinary German soldiers in the East, but extraordinary men, atypical of Hitler’s legions on the Russian front. To be sure, there were doubtlessly officers and enlisted men who did their duty and managed to act decently in impossible circumstances. Such individuals saved the honor of the German Army in the East, and it is men like these who are depicted as the protagonists of Generation War.

Nevertheless, there is a considerable body of evidence indicating that too many in the Wehrmacht participated directly in the slaughter of a million Jews during the invasion of Russia. Its soldiers were instrumental in the roundups and the subsequent massacres. Sometimes they used local volunteers; often they did the work themselves. They sent home postcards and photographs depicting what they were doing, which have been well documented. The Russian Jews were not sent to camps. They were killed in place and, although the Einsatzgruppen were at the forefront of the slaughter, the Wehrmacht was critical in carrying it out.

Nowhere is this shown in the movie. Rather, the atrocities are always carried out by special squads of Nazi ideologues--often in league with Ukranian auxiliaries--whose depredations are isolated from the valor of the soldiers. To be sure, there were individuals who were repelled by this conduct, others who remained aloof, still others who turned a blind eye. But by and large, it would have been the rare German soldier on the Eastern Front who was unaware of, or did not take part at some level, in the war against the Jews, many of them enthusiastically.

To be sure, the movie is not a whitewash. It does not shy away from depicting the Nazi slaughter of Jews, partisans, civilians, and innocents in the Bloodlands of the East. As one of Wilhelm’s officers observes: “This is not a normal war.” And the film gets quite a few things right: the ubiquitous anti-Semitism of the Poles--which has irked Warsaw--is an uncomfortable truth. Yes, there were decent Poles who acted honorably to help the Jews. But too many, poisoned by Jew hatred, ravaged the surviving remnant. And while Polish anti-Semitism was often murderous, mindless and spontaneous, the Germans were systematic, comprehensive, and thorough. Moreover, neither the Polish government in exile nor the leaders of the Home Army condoned anti-Semitic measures.

Another uncomfortable truth the film addresses is that after the war, a Nazi zealot responsible for the misfortune of two of the protagonists, winds up working for the Allies and being protected by his American patrons. This alludes to the countless such Nazis who escaped prosecution as the Allies sought to appropriate their skills for the ensuing Cold War.

Before we are too harsh on the German audience, we should remember that other nations have sought to find a measure of solace in what may be an irredeemable past. Consequently, with the passage of time, an inevitable revisionist history has emerged among German writers, abounding in books that dwell on the Allied bombing campaign that was aimed as much at demoralizing civilians as destroying the Reich’s industrial capacity; another favored subject is the Russian invasion that was accompanied by mass rape and pillage condoned by the Red Army. But the efforts at equivalence fall short: Bombing a population to achieve its surrender is not annihilating it, and the Soviet reprisals, however, brutal, did not amount to the enslavement or worse that a victorious Reich would have imposed on the Russians. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that a new generation seeks to reclaim something salutary from a shameful era. There is a need in the popular imagination for wresting at least a measure of illusion from the grim reality of the past.

This is not to justify what is eluded and elided in Generation War--the dates and places cited create a phantom counter-film for those aware of their ominous meaning--but to explain why it touched such a nerve with a current German audience. What was important for them was not to create “Good Germans”--films such as The White Rose, about the martyred Scholl siblings, have already done this. Rather, it was to show that not all of their forbears were Bad Germans, that there was a gray area that allowed a certain moral wiggle room in their conduct. Yes, they have much to answer for in supporting a heinous regime, but they didn’t do the worst; that was left to the zealots. Sadly, history does not support them, and the availability of new research in recent years should have made this clear to the filmmakers.

Lieut. Wilhelm Winter says at the outset that he is fighting for the Fatherland, but by 1941 he is fighting for the Fuhrer. He and his comrades have taken an oath of loyalty to Hitler. To fall for the Fatherland may be noble. To fight for the Fuhrer is not. As the German Army collapses, Wilhelm laments the needless slaughter of millions brought on by the maniacal ambitions of the Third Reich. He concludes that “the war brought out the worst in us.” But Germany’s war generation that came of age between 1933 and 1943 was already indoctrinated in the ideology of Hitlerism. It was already primed to do the worst before ever marching to the East. And it did.