I don’t imagine 7.6 million viewers are watching this series as in Germany last year, but judging by the reviews and conflicting opinions expressed in online discussions, it is nonetheless making waves. Many people find it “brilliant”, with its focus on the personal within the wider historical context (as in Downfall and The Lives of Others). Some find it ‘unlikely’, that the 5 main characters’ paths would cross “as if all of Eastern Europe were no bigger than a park in Berlin” or that they would be so openly friendly with a Jew in 1941 Germany. And some criticize how the drama of the story lines are often cliché and distract from the bigger questions – all hazards of portraying historical characters through a contemporary medium.
The criticisms I find more poignant however, are those that question the very questions that are being asked? Or more importantly, being answered… or not. Obviously the series was primarily made for a German audience and Germans cannot look at Nazi Germany with the same objectivity and relieved detachment that we can. After all, as the (original) title suggests, these are their parents and grandparents that are being portrayed and scrutinised. Nonetheless, to me the series, for all its admirable and brave intentions, doesn’t go nearly far enough. It lacks the gritty, uncompromising realism that deeper research into one’s family involves. It felt to me, as someone who has dug around in the silences and gaps of my own German roots, too tentative, hesitant, careful and fearful.
Being half-German has naturally given me the luxury of being able to look more boldly and directly at the attitudes and actions of my German family in the knowledge that I can quickly retreat to being English if the going gets too rough. My German friends’ accounts of their families confirm what Harald Welzer’s research revealed in his widely read book “Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi” (Opa war kein Nazi, 2005) namely that 2/3 of Germans see their parents and grandparents as heroes, resistors or victims of National Socialism rather than perpetrators. Some may well have been but is it not strange that not one has admitted that they were part of the jubilant crowds lining the streets to wave at Hitler? (My mother remembers waving at Hitler as a young child but being far more concerned about her foot that was caught in an iron railing.) And is admitting that Hitler’s initial policies, which enabled them to put bread on the table for their children, have jobs, travel abroad again, tantamount to admitting to being a Nazi, something that Germans simply can’t risk? I just wonder who all those people were who consciously or inadvertently enabled Hitler’s vision to run its course? Where are they now? Ulrich Herbert, a German historian, also criticized the series for showing the Nazi’s as “others”, different from ordinary Germans, while a New York Times article accused it of “perpetuating the notion that ordinary Germans were duped by the Nazis and ignorant of the extent of their crimes”.
So to answer Sam Wollaston’s question in The Guardian as to “…how normal, clever, educated, likable people could somehow have become blinded by and swept up in such barbaric inhumanity?” I think we have to turn to ourselves. Personally I try to draw (impossible) comparisons to real or imagined moments in contemporary life where I may be faced with similar decisions to act or not act in the face of racism, abuse, violence, discrimination or political wrongdoing. To my bravery versus cowardice dilemma I add the fear of being denounced and taken away or shot. And then I try to ascertain what my immunity level would be to the propaganda that was pumped out at full throttle within a society devoid of today’s free press, BBC investigative journalism and internet forums… It’s a heady cocktail of unknowns and unimaginables but as my grandmother said in her memoirs – not everyone felt called to be a martyr. And with four children to feed you can begin to understand how “normal, clever, educated, likable people” could have walked past horrors in order to avoid putting their whole families in danger. The nuances within each person’s individual situation must have been infinite and yet… The character in the series that struck me as touching on the real core of the un-asked questions is the woman who is housed in the apartment of Victor’s parents after they have been taken away. In her 50-second appearance on screen, she complains how “they (the Jews) didn’t even clean the house, the dirty scum. Unbelievable!” She had clearly swallowed the Nazi ideology whole and believed it. Surely those are the people we need to fathom to fully answer our questions?
Christian Buss, a culture editor for the magazine Der Spiegel wrote in a review of the drama that while the question of Germans’ collective guilt had been resolved, the role of individuals remained unclear.”Who has had the conversation with their own parents and grandparents about the moral failings of their elders?” he wrote. “The history of the Third Reich has been examined down to the level of Hitler’s dog while our own family history is a deep dark crater.” I agree, and though one cannot resolve everything, I am glad that I have lowered myself into the crater and cast light on my family history so it is no longer a hole I fall into.
Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post