Generation Blank

Hello, Our Mothers. Hello, Our Fathers. Here we are in Concentration Camp Grenada.

You never know what sort of flotsam and jetsam will show up on Netflix Streaming, and I’m sure everyone who clicks through the site, whether on their PC or their HDTV set-top box, knows the feeling of stumbling over something late at night, clicking the play button, and slowly starting to wonder, “Why the hell am I watching this -- and why can’t I turn it off?”

Over the weekend I found myself binging late at night on the four and half-hour 2013 German mini-series Our Mothers, Our Fathers (in the original German, Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter) released in America as Generation War. And it was almost immediately apparent what was coming. In America and England, World War II history, whether in the form of books, TV, or movies, is crafted by the victors, and when it comes to movies and TV, World War II is, for better or worse, the only war that (a) the public can be reliably expected to tune in (World War I films are much more hit and miss at the box office) and (b) unlike the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, there’s a near-unanimous consensus that we should have fought WWII, we were the good guys, and it’s a damn good thing we won.

In Germany, of course, WWII history is crafted by the losers, and there’s simultaneously an enormous shame over their actions and an enormous cultural industry to explain them away. Not really to justify them, but to transform the nation that fielded the most powerful army in the world in 1939 into victims.

As Uri Klein writes at Haaretz, in many ways, Generation War updates the formula that Erich Maria Remarque popularized in All Quiet on the Western Front, his novel set in the Germany of the first World War. Klein's article is titled “Nostalgic German TV series takes history out of WW2.” Spot on; right from the start, Generation War plays fast and incredibly loose with history.

The miniseries begins by establishing its cast, four Germans in their late teens or early 20s, who in 1941 are about to set off on their wartime adventures on the Eastern Front. They meet after hours at a bar in Berlin where Greta, one of the friends – and it really quickly does start to feel like an episode of Friends set in Nazi Germany – works as a waitress and budding chanteuse. The four Aryan friends are joined by their fifth buddy, Viktor. Five minutes into Generation War, the miniseries begins with the biggest of the big lies, to coin a Teutonic phrase, as Adam Kirsch noted in his well-written review in February at the New Republic

The fifth member of the group is, for the film's purposes, the most important of all. He is Viktor Goldstein, and yes, he is a Jew—a Jew who is the bosom friend of four young Aryans in Nazi Berlin in 1941, and the lover of one of them, the heedless Greta. Now, these young Germans are supposed to be about twenty when the film begins, which means that they were twelve when Hitler took power. For eight years they would have been subjected to Nazi propaganda; they would have been members of the Hitler Youth. Would such people really accept a Jew like Viktor as a bosom friend? Would they even have a chance to meet him, since Jews had already been expelled from the schools, most jobs, and even public places like parks and zoos? Yet Generation War assures us that this friendship was normal: it was those other Germans who hated Jews, not "our mothers, our fathers."

Which is a reminder that even the mini-series’ title is an apologia for German audiences, convincing them “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” particularly as represented by the miniseries’ attractive, well-scrubbed cast, were victims (even as they were rampaging through most of Europe and Russia) – it was the mean and nasty generation before them that duped them all into becoming Nazis.