Generation War: Our Fathers, Our Mothers
This powerful, three-part drama series produced by German television follows the lives of five young German friends from 1941 to 1945. Two brothers are soldiers, sent to the Eastern front. Two women become, respectively, a nurse near the front line and a singer in Berlin. The fifth is a Jewish man.
The power of this production lies in its showing how apparently innocent and idealistic people can become tainted and corrupted by the situation in which they are placed. The optimism and excitement of the soldiers in 1941 turns gradually to disillusion and despair. The Jewish man has to resort to desperate measures and violence to survive. The women are each compromised in different ways.
The drama succeeds in creating the atmosphere of the deep corruption of the Nazi state, the unrestricted power exercised by evil people, and the immense pressure on citizens to conform. Gradually the innocents become the perpetrators; individualism and autonomy are buried.
For former cult members, there are many resonances here: the initial optimism and hope of creating a better world, the power of the situation in which we find ourselves to change us, the loss of autonomy, the apparent impossibility of escape. We see and hear the relentless reinforcement of propaganda; the promise of “final victory,” even (or especially) when the reality is starkly the opposite; and the consequences of dissent.
The production has caused controversy in several quarters, a reaction that perhaps shows how much power this period still has in our minds today. Some have suggested that anti-Semitism within the main German characters is underplayed, although there also is much evident in minor characters. At the same time, the portrayal of the Polish resistance as also strongly anti-Semitic has caused outrage in Poland.
Others have suggested that the production seeks to excuse the actions of its main characters, portraying them as victims of Nazism. But I think it is a mistake to assume that this drama is intended to be representative of the lives of all Germans in the period: It can at best hint at the partial experience of some people.
In my view, this potential limitation takes nothing from the power of the drama and the questions that it raises. Where does accountability and responsibility lie? How possible is it to maintain one’s own conscience and judgment in a cultic environment? At what point does a victim become an oppressor? Much as we may condemn those who were simply “following orders,” how many would do otherwise in the face of overwhelming pressure and the apparent futility of opposition?
The drama is engrossing, but not an easy watch. Acts of violence are starkly and frequently portrayed. The futility and chaos of war, and the devaluation of human life, are shown unflinchingly. The first scene is virtually the only happy one in 5 hours of TV.
The similarities between Nazism and abusive cults have been discussed before, and it may be dangerous to force the parallels too far. However, the survivors of 1945 built much of the world we know today; and perhaps we have not considered adequately how they and their future actions were affected by the trauma of those years. All that has been learned in recent times about the effects of thought reform and cult membership may help here. This drama will provoke much thought about how the aftereffects of Nazism still live on, in individuals and in our collective consciousness, and still need to be understood.