Our Mothers, Our Fathers – Part 1: Next-Generation WWII Atonement

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Romain Leick, March 28, 2013 (and 13 Photo in the Gallery).

A miniseries that aired in Germany this month has enthralled viewers with its emotional portrayal of the role that average people played in WWII. Stripped of moral pretension, it also establishes a new, multigenerational milestone in the country’s culture of remembrance.  

At the end, the famous zero hour, when the survivors meet again in the now-abandoned Berlin pub they used to frequent, tight-lipped, with empty faces and a dull look in their eyes, everything comes down to a single sentence. None of them can say it out loud. It would sound far too weighty in light of the historic nothingness they face in their reunion.

Instead, a voice-over delivers what is, in a sense, the moral of the story following the demise of Nazi Germany in May 1945, establishing both an end and a beginning: “Soon there will only be Germans, and not a single Nazi”  … //

… Appealing to Emotions:

So why was it necessary to film this ZDF epic, which spends four-and-a-half hours negotiating terrain already surveyed many times before? What accounts for the emotional force of a TV film that attracted 7.63 million viewers for its final episode, a rating of more than 24 percent? If the three-part series hadn’t been such a hit, it would have signaled “that there is no longer a willingness to grapple with this material from the past,” says Nico Hofmann, the producer of “Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter” or “Our Mothers, Our Fathers.”

The contemporary witnesses, the war generation of perpetrators and victims, the collaborators, followers and members of the resistance, are dying. As they pass away, they take their actual experiences from Germany and Europe with them. But the past refuses to disappear. Like the undead, demons from the darkness of abstract history are constantly coming to life again. And even if they no longer torment grandparents and parents, because soon there will no longer be any contemporary witnesses left to tell their stories, they will continue to haunt the imaginations of their children and grandchildren.

World War II ended 68 years ago. It has certainly taken time to grapple with the history of that period, but by now virtually everything has been studied, examined and said. For future generations, enlightenment no longer occurs through knowledge and confrontation with the hard facts of real barbarism, but through emotions. It’s as if the Germans, even the very young, to whom tales of the Nazis must feel as if extraterrestrials were at work, still shudder when they think about what their grandmothers and grandfathers were capable of. As if they were afraid that certain patterns of character and behavior could be passed on to future generations.

The concept of the soul of the people or national character is extremely unscientific. But then why do Germans constantly invoke the vow that it should “never happen again?” Why are Germans constantly reinforcing the need to promote democracy, freedom and human rights, as if this were a lesson of history specially created for them?

There is an inescapable suspicion, as irrational as it may seem, and one that it also voiced abroad at every possible opportunity: The German people are a special case, a people who, considering the singularity of their crimes in the 20th century, were historically misdirected. They are an insecure people in constant need of reassurance. Germany apparently remains eternally wounded, dependent upon the healing power of remembrance. Germans must live with their trauma and occasionally reopen the wound to prevent it from festering.

A Transfer Between Generations: … //
… (full text).

Part 2: Wounds that Refuse to Heal.

Die Wunde der Vergangenheit, in Der Spiegel 13/2013.


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