Why you should care

Because this show has got modern Germans confronting the realities of their World War II memories.

From Nazi chants at soccer matches to stolen museum relics, World War II is a dark specter that still haunts modern Germany. In fact, the subject is so taboo that German films and TV shows about World War II have been few and far between — and uncompromisingly brutal.

The 1981 classic Das Boot is a testament to the utter futility and horror of warfare; 2004’s Der Untergang (Downfall) captured the hopelessness and violence of Hitler’s final days. It is impossible, these films suggest, to stare into the abyss of Nazi Germany and extract anything positive.

But a new German TV show has wandered into the moral minefield of Germany’s war experience — and caused an uproar.

One TV show has wandered into the moral minefield of Germany’s war experience.

Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Our Mothers, Our Fathers) is a four-and-a-half-hour World War II miniseries that took German television by storm this past year, when nearly 10 percent of the population tuned in to watch the show. Released in English-speaking countries as Generation War, it has been sold for rebroadcast in 80 countries.

With World War II fading from our collective memory, the show instantly sparked controversy in Germany, Poland, and former Allied nations by raising questions about who’s entitled to or responsible for getting that memory right for posterity.

Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter tells the story of five friends from Berlin: Viktor, a Jewish tailor; Greta, his singer girlfriend; Charly, a trainee nurse; and Wilhelm and Friedhelm, brothers who leave to fight on the Eastern front. We watch as each of these characters’ lives is systematically destroyed by different, disillusioning and unnervingly real war experiences.

The show refuses to shy away from morality’s gray zone — from Charly’s betrayal of a Jewish co-worker to Friedhelm shooting unarmed civilians. “I was right — the war would only bring out the worst in us,” Friedhelm acknowledges.

But while the series is unapologetically blunt and frequently graphic, the characters remain sympathetic throughout. It’s hard not to feel horror as Wilhelm watches his little brother become a killing machine, or sympathize with Viktor as he clings to the memory of his girlfriend to survive. Unlike Downfall, which chronicles Hitler’s last days in his bunker in disturbing detail, Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter gives viewers permission to like the characters who emerge as seemingly naive kids thrust into extraordinary, terrifying circumstances.

I was right — the war would only bring out the worst in us.

— Friedhelm, character in Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter

And that’s what’s so scandalous. Despite its ultimately anti-war message, many have criticized Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter for its sympathetic portrayal of Nazi-era Germans. A.O. Scott of The New York Times called the series “an exercise in selective memory” for bringing a nostalgic, sad sheen to the German war experience. Others praised its bravery for confronting hard truths.

When the series aired in Germany last year, war veterans responded by submitting comments to newspapers about their experiences (notably, not war crimes). And younger Germans, fed a fervently anti-Nazi diet, were suddenly being invited to explore another side of World War II.

But how accurate is this slice of history? It’s tempting, especially for young Germans, to find ambiguity in their legacy of war. There can be no refuting or excusing Nazi crimes, but what of the lessons offered by everyday people — friends, family members — whose fate was to live, work and survive under Hitler’s regime?

A worthwhile exercise, to be sure, even if the series tries to look through its characters’ eyes as only contemporary Germans can. Characters start off horrified by war crimes, for example, and no one seems to buy Nazi racial theories. When Friedhelm initially opposes the war, his objections are notably modern, moral and intellectual.

Nevertheless, Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter poses bold questions that wouldn’t have flown in Germany just 10 or 20 years ago. Does the show let wartime Germany off the hook? Absolutely not, but it has clearly hooked Germans into viewing their dark history in a new light.

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