At the end of its orignal airing in 2013 Guardian writer Viv Groskop wrote of the TV minis-series “Generation War” that “no television programme has ever caused as much debate in German society.”
“Generation War” was viewed by over 7 million Germans at the time of its release. It generated a wide-ranging and spirited debate about German culpability and associated guilt for the horrors of the Second World War.
According to Groskop
Several leading historians criticised the drama for showing “all Germans as victims” and for failing to depict the powerful ideology of the period.
On a purely artistic level, the acting is excellent and the settings give the TV series an epic feel that makes it hard to believe these three films began life on the small screen. There are a few moments that stretch viewer credulity; but much of the script is believable and the characters portrayed feel like real people with genuine struggles with which it is easy for the audience to sympathize.
The criticisms of the series stem mostly from the perception that the films form an apologetic for German atrocities and an unjust indictment of Polish antisemitism.
Groskop reports that when in November 2013 plans were announced to air the series in Britain,
Polish protesters gathered outside the BBC under the slogan: “Stop Nazi Propaganda.” They were incensed by the depiction of Polish partisans as antisemitic. The Spectator dismissed it as “cheesy hackwork”. Martha Kearney, presenting Saturday’s night’s postmortem panel show, used the words “five hours of self-pity”.
These critiques are probably attributable to the profound nuance with which screenwriter Stefan Kolditz has imbued his script.
In the liner notes to the DVD film set, Kolditz explains that, what he hoped to portray in his script is the story of five people
in which the tranquilizing separation into perpetrators and victims, guilt and innocent, does not function. Five uncompromising paths. No heroic resistance fighters, no fanatic Nazis. The turning away from the ideological focus. The hands-on aspect of the factual. The salt of the earth. The backbone of every society which, without them, cannot do what it always does. And what they did, either out of conviction or against their will, as fanatics or cowards, in one of the most brutal wars ever fought by humankind.
The film tells a story that is filled with violence, injustice and pain. Faced with this war of atrocity, there are no good answers, no easy solutions. The fact that the viewer is made to feel some sympathy for characters who are participating in perpetrating terrible crimes is not a measure of the films ideological commitments, but its determination to present people as they truly are in all of the complexity and confusion that real circumstances so often produce.
No one gets off lightly in this film. There are no innocent victims, no perfect heroes. Everyone is trapped in the impossible realities of choosing between various horrifying options, without any opportunity to plan or reflect on which might be the best choice. Decisions are made in the heat of the moment, often with instant regret and horrendous unintended consequences. This is the stuff of life. It is where we all live to a greater or lesser degree.
The wildly divergent responses to this film can be seen when my impression of its fearless honesty is compared to James Delingpole at “The Spectator” who announced that the film
ducked frank and fearless authenticity in favour of face-saving, intellectually dishonest, politically correct melodrama that leaves its audience feeling frustrated, cheated and rudderless.
I saw no “face-saving” in “Generation War.” I saw plenty of shame for everyone.
Curiously, I would say that the message Delingpole says was missing from “Generation War” is precisely the moral I perceived in the films.
The brave and true thing for Generation War to have said is that within every one of us — given the right circumstances — lies the capacity to behave as the Germans did in the second world war.
The fact that my generation has not for the most part been a “Generation War” does not in any way mean we are innocent in the face of the ills of the world, or guiltless in the face of the vicious tragedies that continue to afflict the world. It means only that we are for the most part spared facing directly the horrors of our own culpability in the world’s tragedies and the suffering that accompanies many of our choices.
I ended the series wondering whether it is only the vanquished who are capable of making such an honest film. Are we the victors equally willing to look honestly at the horrors that inevitably accompanied our hard-won triumph?