Generation War, the German WWII TV drama series, has now finished on the BBC. Its German title is Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, which translates as Our Fathers, our Mothers. As described in this blog post, it tells the story of five German friends from 1941-45: two brothers, Wilhelm and Friedhelm, who are soldiers, Charlotte, a nurse, Greta, a singer and Viktor, a Jew.
The BBC showed a discussion programme titled Generation War: Fact and Fiction immediately after the final episode. For viewers in the UK it is available on the I-Player until 17 May, and is described by the BBC’s website as below:
Following the final episode of the award-winning German drama Generation War, Martha Kearney is joined by a panel including the programme makers, leading historians and cultural commentators, to examine the historical facts behind the series, the controversy it has caused and why now Germany is confronting the difficult issues of its past.
The members of the discussion panel were: Benjamin Benedict, producer of the series; Prof. David Cesarani, Professor of History at Royal Holloway, London and author of several works on the Holocaust; Prof. Sir Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University and author of a three-volume history of the Third Reich; and Dr Eva Hoffman of Kingston University, London, whose Jewish parents survived the Holocaust in hiding in the part of Ukraine that was then Polish.
Other contributions to the programme came from Witold Sobków, the Polish Ambassador to the UK, the scriptwriters of two recent British war dramas, Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War) and Sarah Phelps (The Crimson Field) and Anne McElroy, a writer and broadcaster who has written extensively on German history.
Horowitz said that he had ‘no responsibility necessarily to inform, to educate people…but to entertain.’ However, if he were ‘to twist history, to tell lies’ he would be ‘letting down the viewer.’ Phelps asked ‘whose historical accuracy are we recording?’ Different accounts ‘put a different spin on it.’ She thought that a drama could not give the complete picture of what happened to everybody. A dramatist should tell ‘the complete picture of something that’s deeply personal…[Her] obligation… is to send [her] characters there and then ask what it does to them.’
McElroy argued that the unprecedented scale of the Holocaust means that other crimes of Nazi Germany have been overlooked until recently. She argued that this drama was a way of asking ‘where would you have stood, who do you identify with and what would you have done.’ She added that there will not be living German witnesses who can talk about it for much longer.
Note that the rest of this post includes spoilers.
Much of the criticism of the programme has come from Poland, hence the appearance of the Polish ambassador in this programme. Viktor escapes from the train taking him to Auschwitz, along with Alina, a young Polish woman, and joins a group of partisans from the Polish Home Army. He conceals his religion, as they are clearly anti-semitic. They attack a train in order to steal weapons from it, only to find that it is also transporting Jews. The Home Army leave them locked in the train, but Viktor releases them. This results in him being expelled from the group, with nobody speaking up for him, not even Alina.
Benjamin Benedict defended this on the grounds that it was not a general point about the resistance and that Viktor survived because the Poles helped him. The counter view put forward by the other panellists this views of the Poles was unfair: some were anti-Semitic, but others hid Jews, including Eva Hoffman’s parents, at the risk of their own lives.
Cesarani said that Jews at the time believed that all Poles were likely to betray them. However, whilst the Home Army did contain anti-Semites, it also took action against Poles who blackmailed Jews. An organisation called Zegota was set up to help Jews. These were omitted from the series in favour what he called ‘the most extraordinary partial and quite vicious portrayal of Poles.’
The drama certainly shows anti-Semitism from Germans. A Jewish child is murdered half an hour into the first episode by Hiemer, a brutal SS officer who later reappears. Charlotte betrays Lilja, a local working at her hospital who she realises is a Jewish doctor, and a patient in her hospital admits to having murdered Jews. Viktor returns home after the war to find his family’s flat occupied by Germans who were clearly glad to be rid of Berlin’s Jews.
However, none of the main German characters express anti-Semitic views. Charlotte regrets her betrayal of Lilja and all four are close friends with Viktor even in 1941. Benedict insisted that the film-makers had evidence from diaries and letters that some Germans still had Jewish friends then, but the historians thought that this would have been very rare. Cesarani said that by June 1941 Jews were forced to live in ‘Jew Houses’, with 16-65 year old men undertaking forced labour. They would not have had the freedom of movement that Viktor enjoys.
The plot revolves almost entirely around the Eastern Front, where Germany suffered the vast majority of its casualties and committed most of its war crimes. Berlin is shown in ruins at the end, but there is no mention of Western Allied bombing. This is a strange omission in a drama about the German experience of WWII.
The only mention of the Western Front is a single line about D-Day, which annoyed me as it said that 150,000 Americans had landed in Normandy. The Americans soon became the majority of Allied troops in France, but 73,000 Americans and 83,000 British and Canadians landed on 6 June 1944, according to The Penguin Atlas of D-Day and the Normand Campaign by John Man.
Evans pointed out that we would not have bothered with this discussion if the series had not been ‘great television.’ However, the problem with historical drama is portraying people from even the recent past accurately.
In my previous post on the series I assumed from the ages of the actors that the characters were in their mid to late 20s. In fact their ages were given at the end of the final episode; Wilhelm was born in 1920. Friedhelm in 1923 and the others in 1921. This would mean that they had a higher proportion of their education under the Nazi regime than I had initially realised, so would be likely to have been brainwashed.
I would stick with my initial view that the characters were more like 21st century Germans than ones from WWII, but that it is more shocking to the modern viewer when people like us rather than ideological Nazis murder prisoners, betray Jews and force local civilians ahead of them when crossing a minefield. The alternative view is that it makes them seem more like perpetrators than victims. However, nobody makes Charlotte betray Lilja or Friedhelm suggest using the locals as human shields.
Evan noted that a drama in which ordinary German soldiers rather than the SS commit war crimes could not have been made 20 years ago. An exhibition about this in the 1990s caused riots in the streets of Munich.
It is certainly a well made and acted programme. The number of times that the central characters encounter each other during the war is improbable, but a necessary device in fictional dramas. Lilja’s survival and reappearance as a Red Army doctor who saves Charlotte from being raped is particularly unlikely. However, the main fault in an otherwise excellent drama is the unfair treatment of the Poles.