The German mini-series "Generation War" made its American debut as a film in New York City last month to generally favourable but notably skittish reviews. One critic sensed an attempt to continue "the self-deceiving lie" that the average German was a victim of Nazi rule. Another saw in it a "work of apologia." A.O. Scott found himself in a "strange queasy zone between naturalism and nostalgia."
"Generation War" traces the fates of five friends in summer 1941 Berlin cheerily toasting their departure to the eastern front with the expectation of a reunion back home by Christmas. The film ends with three of the five returning four years later — more than four and a half hours in cinematic time — to the war-ravaged ruins of Berlin to begin rebuilding the Germany that Angela Merkel governs today.
The film, which originally aired last March as a three-part series on German and Austrian television under the title, "Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter," or "Our Mothers, Our Fathers," left some Germans feeling as uneasy as A.O. Scott. A reader of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit was particularly troubled by the portrayal of Polish anti-Semitism and Soviet Army excess. "The depiction of our eastern neighbours reminds me of Goebbels' propaganda," he wrote on a blog, invoking the Nazi-era spin-meister, Josef Goebbels.
But most of the 7.6 million Germans who watched the final episode, an impressive 24 per cent of all viewers that night, welcomed a film that portrayed their "mothers" and "fathers" neither as heroes nor "monsters" but rather as a generation in their 20s and younger subjected to systematic indoctrination and gradual "brutalisation" to which they succumbed in myriad and horrific ways.
Joseph Vilsmaier ventured into this same "strange queasy zone" two decades ago in another film, "Stalingrad," that also focused on the fate of the "average" German as victim of the regime and victimizer of the rest of Europe. Like "Generation War," "Stalingrad" opens with a handful of Germans enjoying their leisure — in this case a Wehrmacht rest centre on a beach in Italy — before being transported to the nightmare world of the eastern front. Like the protagonists in "Generation War," none is a Nazi. Unlike "Generation War," "Stalingrad" has no survivors. The film closes with two soldiers huddled in a snow and gun-blasted Siberian wasteland. Der Spiegel described "Stalingrad" as "dazzling war cinema with a bad conscience."
Vilsmaier's film appeared on the 50th anniversary of the German defeat at Stalingrad and amid a painful public debate over the disposition of the war dead. The sprawling battlefield had been a sealed military area since the war and opened only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The surrounding fields were still littered with abandoned military arsenal and dead Germans. Many lay where they had fallen a half century before.
One photograph showed a soldier whose uniform had decayed with his corpse; his buttons lay in an orderly row between his ribs. Some still had dog tags, which meant the remains could be identified. There had not been a single SS unit, which begged the question: Were these common German soldiers also victims of the Hitler regime and thus deserving of a proper military burial?
While researching an article on the Stalingrad bone fields that appeared in The New Yorker in February 1993, I posed this question to Rabbi Abraham Cooper at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles.
Rabbi Cooper reminded me that a German victory at Stalingrad would have only extended the continued extermination of the Jews. "When you talk about a dead soldier with a swastika on his uniform," he said, "the word victim comes very, very hard."
Twenty years later, "Generation War" is reviving the debate about German victimhood not only on native soil but also abroad. The film, which is being released in more than 80 countries, has caused particular consternation in Poland. Jerzy Marganski, the Polish ambassador in Berlin, wrote a letter to ZDF, the film's broadcaster, protesting the "almost grotesquely one-sided" depiction of Polish anti-Semitism, and expressing "dismay" at the implication that any nation other than Germany bore "guilt for the extermination of the Jews."
As a former Israeli ambassador to Warsaw, Szewach Weiss, once observed, it was the Germans, not the Poles, who erected the extermination camps. This month, a Polish court will hear a case by former Polish partisans charging ZDF with defamation.
"Generation War" is again raising many of the painful and complex questions that have confronted Germans repeatedly over the decades, whether it be balancing notions of collective responsibility with individual guilt, acknowledging their own suffering and sense of loss (Margarete Mitscherlich spoke famously of the German "inability to mourn"), calculating the nightmare ledger of Holocaust reparation, or grappling with the practical vexations of interring their own war dead.
When I visited the bone fields of Stalingrad 21 years ago, I was accompanied by a local resident involved in the burying of the war dead. He explained that as the battle progressed and the winter deepened, the corpses were placed in increasingly shallow graves. Some bodies lay just inches below the surface. "With each spring thaw, there will be more erosion and more skeletons coming out," he told me. "This job of reburying the dead will never be done. They are like ghosts from the past who will never go away."
Like the dead of Stalingrad, the spectres of the National Socialist era will continue to haunt Germans for possibly generations to come. If the response continues with the same vigilance and sense of responsibility, the Germans will almost certainly make good on their post-Nazi pledge, "nie wieder," or never again, and in so doing lay to rest some of these troubling ghosts, possibly setting an example for other countries visited by the unquiet ghosts of their own troubled past.
The New York Times News service