I have long been fascinated with the Second World War. My father was (just) old enough to fly in the war with the RAF. Because he was a good pilot, he was transferred from four-engine (bombers) to being an instructor in Canada. At the end of the war he tried to trace all those he had considered friends, through training them or training with them; he found every single one had been killed in the night-time raids over Germany. He only ever spoke to me about this once.
Possibly as a result, I used to subscribe to a magazine about the war, which I read avidly, and I am still able to identity whether any period war film uses authentic equipment. So when, last May, I stumbled across the BBC2 miniseries from Germany Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Our Mothers, Our Fathers), retitled as Generation War, I was gripped by its realism. Every detail was historically accurate, from the vehicles through the weapons right down to details of uniform. But this impression was rapidly eclipsed by the emotional engagement—here were believable and engaging characters progressively dehumanised and crushed by the realities of war.
The plot revolves around five friends and their intertwining stories through the war from 1941 to the end of the conflict in 1945. Soldierly Wilhelm is charged with looking after his bookish younger brother Friedhelm. Their friend Charlotte is secretly in love with Wilhelm and volunteers as a nurse on the Eastern front—but Wilhelm keeps his distance to spare her from what he suspects will be heartbreak if he is killed. Their friend Greta is an ambitious singer, and her secret lover Viktor is a Jew whose family business was destroyed in Kristallnacht in 1938.
Greta, Viktor, brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm, and Charly are five twentysomethings, friends since kindergarten who – perhaps strangely, given what’s going on around them – feel optimistic about life, immortal, as if the future belongs to them. … The five have a farewell evening together, with booze and jazz, love and laughter. And a group photo. They’ll see each other again soon, Christmas in Berlin, pick up where they left off. Nothing will ever come between them … Except it does, of course. A barbaric regime and a terrible war tear them apart, strip them of their innocence and their optimism, harden and dehumanise them. (The Guardian)
The series received very mixed reactions in Germany and Austria on its broadcast in 2013. On the one hand, the last of the three episodes gained more than 7 million viewers, but it was also subjected to serious criticism, and provoked a furious row between the Polish government and the German producers because of its portrayal of the Polish resistance movement. The main criticisms from Germany were in response to the drama’s distinction between ‘Nazis’ and ordinary Germans; its sympathetic portrayal of the group, and the way they were drawn into the propaganda about the purpose of the war portrays them as victims of what happened at least as much as they were perpetrators. But from other countries the complaints were about the German nationalist perspective; all other nationalities are portrayed as brutal and inhuman, and little sympathy is reserved for Russians, Poles and even the Allies (when they make a brief appearance). Particularly controversial was the depiction of the AK (Polish resistance) as virulently anti-Semitic. When they ambush a German train, the group want to leave Jews on their way to a concentration camp locked in the trucks to die. ‘Jews are just as bad as Russians and Communists’ snarls one member of the group. There is little acknowledgement of other views amongst Polish groups.
But the main point of issue on the BBC2 discussion that followed the last broadcast was the lack of historical credibility—not in the equipment, but in the relationships and attitudes of the group. In general terms, Germans born in the early 1920s would have been educated in a system completely dominated by Nazi propaganda; the process of gradual realisation that comes especially upon Wilhelm and Friedhelm, depending as it does on their initial naive optimism, did not seem to ring true. And it would have been impossible for a Jew like Viktor to still be living openly in Berlin as late as 1941. At this point, Wilhelm is a seasoned combatant who has seen action in Poland and France, and there is plenty of evidence that the German army were committing atrocities, killing civilians including women and children, from the first day of the invasion of Poland in September 1939.
Yet this unhistorical element was actually crucial to its success and its effect on the new generation of German viewers, as a review in the German Der Spiegel highlights:
A series like “Our Mothers, Our Fathers” offers the antidote [to alternative accounts] — an experience of emotional awakening. It attempts to provide an answer to the incredulous question asked by young people today: Grandpa and grandma were there when that happened?
Perhaps the most forceful lesson that the five friends — Greta, Charlotte, Wilhelm, Friedhelm and Viktor — convey is the critical question asked by future generations: “What would I have done?” And it is stripped of any moral pretension, even exposed as ultimately banal or at least marginal. No one, even the most sophisticated, decent, well-meaning or well-educated, would have remained untouched.
If the characters had been portrayed as already Nazified and propagandised, then modern viewers would not have been able to identify with them, since there would already have been a moral and emotional distance from them. Instead, the series demonstrated what war does to people like us, rather than allowing us to imagine that we are different from them. This is, I think, the point behind the title: these people were our mothers, our fathers, our grandparents—they are our families, people that we know, understand and sympathise with.
The five friends in the series — prototypical but not theoretical, and all rather individual figures — lose their innocence without being malicious. As the scriptwriter Stefan Kolditz has described his project, “you don’t get very far with this generation by merely applying the categories of good and evil.” Our humanity lies precisely in the fundamental inconsistency of individuals. The recognition and admission of our own inadequacy, a deeply Christian trait, protects against repression of our own dark sides and against the exploitation of others’ weaknesses. The show’s plot becomes accessible to audience members by keeping them unsettled, preventing them from fully identifying with some noble hero.
In many ways this is a similar point to Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men; it is the very average, respectable—even moral—citizens who become brutalised by war and drawn in not only to witness but to commit atrocities.
War is good for absolutely nothing; it means “destruction of innocent lives” and “tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes” – so go the lyrics of the classic 1970 pop hit. Ian Morris does not agree. War is essential to history, he argues in his new book. Only through warfare has humanity been able to come together in larger societies and thus to enjoy security and riches. It is largely thanks to the wars of the past that our modern lives are 20 times safer than those of our stone age ancestors.
This proposition is not as startling or paradoxical as it might at first seem, especially as by “war” Morris means conquest or nation-building. Nor is it particularly original. Back in the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes set the ball rolling with his vision of life as nasty, brutish and short; much more recently, the Israeli historian Azar Gat has set out the evidence at length in his War in Human Civilization. Morris’s book is essentially a popularisation of Gat’s monumental, if forbidding work.
In essence, Generation War and War: what is it good for? offer two different ways of reading history: from the underside, exploring the reality of human experience; or from above, looking at the long-term effects on economics and technology. There is a sense in which we need both, but the second way of reading runs the risk of ignoring a key element of the first way—the reality of human nature and, for want of a better word, sin. Why is it that war can appear to be beneficial to humankind? Because the urgency of the moment, and the unity of vision generated by having a common enemy, both unite to provide a powerful motivation to focus on progress and invention. We are still benefitting from the technological advancements that came about from the Second World War. But if these developments bring such benefits, why is there not the motivation to produce them in times of peace? Human sin, pride and selfishness are frequently the answer.
In reading about the history of science, I have often been struck by the way in which human failings become the chief obstacles to development. What would life have been like if Charles Babbage had not allowed his own stubbornness and pride to frustrate sponsors of his difference engine so much that they abandoned the project? We could have, in effect, had a working computer 100 years earlier than we actually did. What if Isaac Newton had treated others in his field, such as Gottfried Liebniz, as partners rather than bitter rivals, and encouraged rather than discredited their work? Going even further back, what if the technology of the remarkable Antikythera mechanism, probably going back to Archimedes, had been developed rather than destroyed in war? It was another 1,500 years before such technology was rediscovered—only then allowing the building of accurate chronometers which could solve the problem of longitude, and allow proper exploration of the world.
In the end, it seems as though Bruce Springsteen gives a better account than Ian Morris:
War is something that I despise
For it means destruction of innocent lives
For it means tears in thousands of mothers’ eyes
When their sons go out to fight to give their lives
Friend only to the undertaker
Peace love and understanding
There must be some place for these things today
They say we must fight to keep our freedom
But Lord there’s gotta be a better way
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?