Last night I watched the last part of the German WWII mini-series Generation War. For those of you that haven’t seen it, the series has provoked strong reactions in Germany and also abroad. Some German historians have hailed it as an honest and unvarnished account of the war on the Eastern Front, in which Germans appear both as perpetrators of crimes and also as victims of Nazism. Others have accused it of historical inaccuracy or even historical distortion, in its account of five young German friends whose lives are traumatized and destroyed by the war.
These accusations of historical distortion have been particularly strong in Poland, where critics have condemned its portrayal of anti-Semitism in the Polish Home Army. The Polish Ambassador to Austria and the Polish Embassy in Germany have even sent complaints to the German broadcaster ZDF, and the Polish Ambassador to the United States has complained to the US distributor of the series.
These criticisms were raised last night in an excellent discussion that included the producer of the series, the historians David Cesarani and Richard Evans, and Eva Hoffman, the author of Shtetl. Having watched the series I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand it was a powerful and compelling war drama, despite an over-reliance on rather improbable and unbelievable narrative coincidences and plot devices.
It was well-written and seamlessly directed, alternating effortlessly between constantly exciting and dramatic interlocking storylines, with strong peformances from some of the cream of young German actors. Its battlescenes were particularly convincing and realistic, particularly the brutal scenes of urban streetfighting.
But the trouble is Generation War isnt’t just a war drama. It is a fictional account of one of the most brutal military campaigns in history – the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union – which presented itself as an attempt to promote a new, and possibly cathartic national dialogue about the war. It’s also a drama made by Germans, and such an endeavour inevitably demands very different judgements than those that might be made if it had not been, in terms of its treatment of history, the representation of its characters’ motives, and its ‘moral position’ – as F.R. Leavis used to say, regarding the events it describes.
In some respects Generation War is a valiant and ground-breaking attempt to present 21st century Germans with the darkest period in their country’s history. It shows German soldiers committing war crimes, such as shooting partisans and even a Jewish child. It refers – somewhat obliquely – to the ongoing genocide that was taking place in tandem with the Nazi advance into the East.
At the same time the series somehow manages to share responsibility for these events with other nationalities, in a way that this viewer did not feel was entirely honest. The Poles definitely have some grounds for complaint regarding the way Polish partisans and Polish civilians were portrayed. That there was anti-Semitism in Poland and that some Poles were not bothered by the ongoing extermination of the Jews is indisputable, but Generation War‘s writers have made far too much of this.
For much of the series, the escaped German Jew Victor’s life is under threat not from Germans, but from Polish partisans, who have about as much nuance of character as Mexican bandits in a spaghetti Western. Nuance and complexity are largely restricted to its German characters. We see the war through their eyes, and we are invited to see them as victims and emphasise with their victimhood.
This leads too easily to representations of the war as a common tragedy that occlude the crucial distinction between those Germans who began it and propagated it – millions of whom ultimately ended up becoming its victims when the war turned against them – and those who became its victims from the very beginning. Even the few references to Jews being killed do not even begin to encapsulate the scale of the killing that took place, or the extent to which so many Germans – both SS and Wehrmacht – knew about it or took part in it.
The essential theme of the series is the innocence of its ‘five friends’ corrupted by Nazism and brutalised by war. But this framework is not likely to enlighten many contemporary viewers who are unfamiliar with the war about the radical racialised Nazi project to ‘cleanse’ the East of Jews and enslave or exterminate its Slavic population to pave the way for German settlement.
This maniacal scheme envisaged the complete elimination of the Jewish population in th Eastern territories and the death or expulsion of some 30 million Slavs, and only the German defeat prevented it from being realised. Generation War steps far too lightly over these terrifying events, and prefers to offer its viewers a more palatable ‘war is hell’ message characteristic of many American films about the Vietnam War or the more recent series about the Iraq war Generation Kill.
Thus the audience is invited to see the transformation of the bookish soldier Friedhelm into a soulless killing machine as a consequence of ‘war’, rather than Nazi ideology which depicted Slavs and Jews as subhumans even before the war began. If Germans are brutal in the series, they are no more so than the Ukrainian collaborators, Polish farmers and partisans, or Red Army troops. Their brutality is not explained, whereas Friedhelm is a good and honourable man corrupted by a dishonourable war.
This isn’t good enough. It’s not that such men didn’t exist. But there were too many soldiers, both in the Wehrmacht and the SS, who unproblemmatically regarded Jews, communists and Slavs as untermenschen to be exterminated or ruled over, and enjoyed the war in the East, participating wholeheartedly in all the hideous slaughter that it entailed, until the war turned against them.
The extent of that participation needs to be recognized fully in any historical revisiting of the war, and Generation War’s message of shared victimhood doesn’t do this. There is no doubt that if the Nazi war in the East was ever shown in its full horror, not many people would want to watch it. Cinematically, the best effort is Elem Klimov’s unforgiving account of the Nazi anti-partisan operations in Byelorussia Come and See (1985).
Unlike Generation War, Klimov’s nightmarish epic pulls absolutely no punches in its portrayal of the genocidal Nazi campaigns in Russia. Come and See also depicts the dehumanisation and trauma of war, but it offers its audience no consolation whatsoever, and it makes it absolutely clear who was responsible for setting in motion the apocalyptic events it describes.
There are no exciting plot devices, no love stories or engaging, good-looking characters to identify with and root for. It is ugly, raw, grotesque, disorientating, hallucinatory and intense, and it ends with one of the most unbearable and terrible sequences ever filmed – a sequence that was not and never will be palatable for Saturday night entertainment, but which nevertheless presents a perspective on Nazi brutality that is largely absent from Generation War.
I don’t mean to suggest by such comparisons that Generation War is without merit, or that Klimov’s film must be considered the last fictional statement on the war in the East. Nor is it may intention to suggest that German writers cannot or should not address the German dimensions of the war, or the very real phenomenon of the ‘honourable soldier.’
But for all its strengths as entertainment, Generation War ultimately falls far too short of the history it describes, and runs the risk of offering its viewers a view of the war that is far more comforting and morally-reassuring than it ought to be.