By Dr. Waitman Wade Beorn
In March of this year, more than seven million German television viewers tuned in to watch a mini-series about Germans during World War II. Beginning in 1941, this fictionalized account follows five young German friends (two women and three men, one of whom is Jewish) through the destruction and horrors of the end of the Third Reich. Not surprisingly, the program aroused strong reaction from both the political right and the left in Germany, not least through its significant focus on the behavior of the German Army or Wehrmacht, a topic that forms the basis of my scholarly research. It seems only fitting then that I offer my critique of the film in this context.
The airing of the American mini-series, Holocaust, in Germany in 1978 provoked a great deal of retrospection about the Nazi past and perhaps Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter will do something similar for this generation. First, the good: director Philipp Kadelbach has bravely presented the German Army and its relationship to the Nazi genocidal project with an unflinching clarity that is refreshing; previous films and depictions typically obliquely acknowledge war crimes but then relativize them with Soviet behavior or present the mass of soldiers as victims of a few fanatical leaders (See, for example, the 1993 film Stalingrad.) Kadelbach does his best to avoid this trap. Two of the main characters: Wilhelm (an officer) and his brother Friedhelm (a common soldier) are members of the Wehrmacht and the other soldiers in this film are depicted as by and large supportive of the generally antisemitic and racist elements of the Nazi worldview. Indeed, we see the execution of the Commissar Order by Wilhelm (with the explanation that he does it to spare his troops) and Friedhelm stumbles across a mass killing site in the forests of the Soviet Union. Charli, one of the female friends, serves as a nurse on the Eastern Front and provides a dramatic view of the war from that perspective, including her role in exposing a Jewish doctor working in the hospital. Further, in what is perhaps one of the most brilliantly written moments of the miniseries, the viewer can see the point at which the younger, more idealistic Friedhelm turns, by suggesting that civilians be forced into a minefield. From this point on, he behaves as a brutal and somewhat nihilistic killer through whom we experience the criminality of the “anti-partisan war.”
All things considered, the mini-series takes on a great deal but cannot escape the siren’s call for a (somewhat) happy ending. Wilhelm deserts the Army after surviving the futile and costly attack at Kursk. He is caught and then spends the remainder of the mini-series as the unfortunate victim of the brutal (but comparatively rare) punishment units where men could redeem themselves in the eyes of the Führer through exhausting labor and often suicidal missions. Friedhelm, the brutal killer who eventually serves in the Waffen-SS intentionally sacrifices himself to dissuade younger Hitler-youth types from similarly suicidal behavior. In both instances, the characters succeed in becoming at once heroes of resistance and victims of the Third Reich and manage to redeem themselves at the end, a directorial decision which tends to alienate the more cynical viewer. Even in this challenging portrayal, the Wehrmacht seems to interact with the Holocaust only tangentially rather than intrinsically as much recent scholarship has endeavored to show. Interestingly, much of the criticism of this film has come from Poland where critics have lashed out against the portrayal of the Polish Home Army as antisemitic.
In the final analysis, this is a taboo-breaking drama and Kadelsbach deserves much credit for illuminating the myriad ways in which Germans participated as “fellow travelers” (or worse) in the Nazi genocidal project. This will be a film that I will certainly use in the classroom yet I think there is still more to be done and even a portrayal such as this leaves the viewer with a sense of overall victimhood which may not be warranted. After all, three out of the five friends survive the war, including the Jewish man. That seems awfully optimistic, but it is television, after all.
Dr. Waitman Wade Beorn is the Louis and Frances Blumkin Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He also serves as the Executive Director of the Sam and Frances Fried Holocaust and Genocide Education Fund. His book Marching into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus explores the participation of the German Army in the Holocaust in the occupied Soviet Union. He explains both how the Wehrmacht became so deeply complicit in the Nazi genocidal project as well as what that involvement actually looked like on the ground in the East.