This week, millions of Germans watched a new made for television series called “Our Mothers, Our Fathers” (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter). The series presents the events of the Second World War through the lives of a few friends who experience the wartime years in different settings either on the Russian front or in Berlin. The script is full of the pain and horror of the war, including the murderous trail of Nazi terror. It uses the technique of individual biographies to present how the events of this period were experienced by the young Germans portrayed by the show’s lead roles.
Presenting such a dramatization of World War II is not new in Germany. And the generation of Germans acting in this series is in fact portraying the experiences of their grandparents—not their parents’ generation. Yet, almost seven decades after the war and an unending examination of the causes and impact of this period of German history, two questions continue to linger: How could and did this all happen? And how can German history be brought to a young generation on a very personal level?
Grasping the full dimensions of war is difficult for those who did not experience it. The generation who lived through such atrocities is often reluctant to talk about them. The decision Steven Spielberg made to use the opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan to recapture the full horror of the D-Day landing in France enabled many veterans to simply say “it was all that and even worse.” Spielberg attempted the same approach with Schindler’s List to portray the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet such efforts could only offer a reminder to all who watch to continue to think about the sacrifices made, as well as the evil that caused them and the challenge to remember and renew efforts to prevent another such experience from ever happening. Such is the power of the Holocaust Museum in Washington or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. While some war memorials praise the sacrifice and bravery of the fallen, others, like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, ask more of its visitors when thinking about the many names etched on the wall.
Thus, this new television series in Germany does not filter the Nazi atrocities nor the reality of war. Instead, it tries to portray how the millions of people who followed Hitler into the catastrophe he created were attracted to the vision he offered, only to then be confronted with trying to survive it.
Following the war, those who had survived were challenged to rebuild Germany—soon in a divided country with differing explanations about the responsibilities for the war. West Germany assumed the burden of pursuing reconciliation efforts, whereas East Germans were told that they bore only the responsibility to build a new socialist republic. But on both sides of the east-west divide, the struggle to bear witness to the legacy of World War II was to also be an individual one. It was not only those who had been judged at Nuremberg after the war as criminals that had to face the past. There would be a longer struggle for the entire nation to grasp the horrors which had occurred in the name of Germany. Indeed it was another American television series in 1978 entitled Holocaust that was to unleash a wave of soul searching in the Federal Republic of Germany about the legacy of the Shoah. It also forced difficult discussions among several generations, despite formal educational efforts which had been in place for three decades. The conversations had still not been exhausted and the question of how could it happen remained unanswered. In the GDR, the belief that it was not the problem of the new socialist state tried to divert the attention to such questions. They had dealt with the past and were building the future, so it was argued.
Nevertheless, the struggle with these core questions went on. The legacy of the Second World War became embroiled in the debates Germans had about how to respond to the wars in the Gulf, then in the Balkans and various wars elsewhere. What could—and what should—the parameters of Germany’s responsibilities be in dealing with the horrors of war? Did the slogan “no more war” relate to another “no more Auschwitz”? Was the German Bundeswehr allowed to engage where the Wehrmacht had gone decades before? And what about the German past as a reminder to always seek an alternative to the use of force? Following the attacks in the U.S. in 2001, the German response with unlimited support for the U.S. became tempered by the rejection of the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq. More recently, Berlin’s decision not to engage in the effort to stop Gadafi’s forces in Libya was explained by Germany being unconvinced that force was the right response, despite Germany’s own NATO allies engaging in the conflict.
The fact that Germany has been engaged militarily in Afghanistan—and not only there—is a testament to a change in the parameters of German thinking about the legacy of its past and the responsibilities which go with it. Today, this thinking involves what to do about Syria. Tomorrow it will be another question about another crisis.
Germans are confronted with the unique weight of the Holocaust. The question—how could it happen—will linger on for a long time. It is captured in the moment of looking up from Weimar toward the hill where Buchenwald sits. How those two places relate in the path of German history remains a challenging question for Germans and non-Germans alike.
And yet the fascination with this current television program is also evidence that Germans struggle with finding their own balance in weighing its current responsibilities as a major European power against what history has written about it as a power in the past, unfiltered and unvarnished. There is every reason to understand that struggle as a similar one faced by many nations around the world—one which tempts that state to embellish its past to serve its present. Such an approach can then put the future at risk. The experience of the United States is no exception to that rule.
Germany has had to face up to these lingering questions where other countries have either failed or resisted. It continues to do so today. Whether examining the present—such as the murderous record of the right wing terrorism of the National Socialist Underground—or looking into the past through the lens of “Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter,” the need to keep asking “how was that possible” continues. This is even more important as the generation that experienced the reality of the war years and the Nazi regime first-hand is slowly disappearing. Relating the past to today’s generation and making it relate on a personal level is the key challenge Germany is facing today. Its experiences will be useful for countries around the world struggling with similar challenges. But it is not Germany’s alone.
Through the research and seminars of the Society, Culture and Politics Program, AICGS has focused on the role of reconciliation in both Germany’s foreign policy toward its European neighbors, as well as within the scope of European integration as a whole. As the debates continue over the history of actions between both aggressor and victim states in Europe, the ongoing dialogue surrounding this topic is vital for the younger generations of European citizens seeking to forge ever stronger ties throughout the continent. The most recent of such analysis from the AICGS network is Senior Fellow Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman’s recent 2012 book entitled “Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: From Enmity to Amity.” For more information about Dr. Garnder Feldman’s recent book, click here:
Additional recent analyses of European reconciliation and integration include:
A Trying Transformation, by Jack Janes