More than seven million Germans and 53,000 Austrians tuned in last Sunday evening when the public-service German television broadcaster ZDF aired the first part of the World War II miniseries Unsere Muetter, Unsere Vaeter (Our Mothers, Our Fathers). It is Germany’s decade late response to HBO’s war time series, Band of Brothers. In many ways this is a watershed event in German television history. For the first time, a television series deals with the experiences of average German youth during the war close up, à la reality TV, apolitical and focused on individuals rather than the bigger political and military picture of Germany in the 1940s.
Above all else, the series is an appeal to German and Austrian society as a whole to reach out to the silent and slowly withering generation of men and women who lived through the biggest carnage in Central Europe’s recent history. By the end of this decade, there will few living witnesses who experienced the zeitgeist and horror of Nazi Germany.
The story of the miniseries is about five friends: two brothers Friedhelm and Wilhelm, both soldiers serving on the Eastern Front; Charlotte, a volunteer nurse behind the frontlines; Greta, a promising singer and starlet in Berlin aspiring to become the next Marlene Dietrich; Viktor, her Jewish boyfriend and a skilled tailor. Before the brothers depart for the frontlines, the friends meet for one last time in a café in Berlin to celebrate their youth and friendship. The rest of the series is a familiar drama, a story of lost youth, disillusionment, death and rebirth.
The greatest quality of the series is that the larger political picture of totalitarian dictatorship and total war — though a looming and malignant miasma — is largely left in the background. Rather, the complete self-absorption of the individual characters (after all we are talking about boys and girls in their early twenties) with their personal relationships, career aspirations, hopes for the future, and, above all, their youthful missteps, takes center stage. There are no grandiose political deliberations about the nature of the Nazi regime and Germany’s war in the East.
In the last few years, I conducted dozens of interviews in various parts of Austria with veterans of the German Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS and civilians who lived through the war when they were in their early teens up to their early twenties for an oral history project. These were not the big decision makers in the ministries of the Reich or staff officers in the rear of the frontline but small cogs in the gigantic murderous machinery of what was then the Third Reich. The topics ranged from every day life in Nazi Germany, to knowledge of concentration camps, attitudes towards Hitler, and the war itself. In many ways, the message of “Our Mothers Our Fathers” corresponds to my own findings: people in their early twenties often had a parochial view on the political realities they lived in, often didn’t care very much about them, seldom thought critically about any important matter, and admitted that there was something alluring about the idea of a thousand years empire — at least career-wise (as the German resistance movement such as the White Roseshows, there were certainly exceptions).
For example when I interviewed Hans Stoisser, a veteran of the Luftwaffe, who was captured by the Soviets outside Berlin in April 1945 and spent years in a Siberian labor camp, he confessed that the most devastating blow for him after his capture was that he could not fulfill his aspirations of becoming a pilot, and that bothered him more than anything else in the years after the war. The political consequences of his own actions only dawned on him a decade later.
Hans Url, an ME-109 pilot, who in his later life became a successful criminal judge, was a volunteer for the German Kamikaze suicide squadron in the last days of the war and was still lamenting about his missed chance of becoming an officer (he only officially was an ensign at the end of the war). “I had already received the confirmation of my promotion via telegraph but my commission letter must have gotten destroyed when the Air Ministry in Berlin was bombed out in April 1945,” he told me.
A Waffen-SS volunteer, whom I interviewed on the condition of anonymity and who took part in the last major German offensive, “Operation Spring Awakening,” as part of the 6th SS Panzer Army, solely based his decision to join the Waffen-SS on the chic uniforms and high reputation of that unit. “I just simply wanted to have the most well-trained man next to me in combat. The Waffen-SS had this reputation.” Later on he told me: “I was just lucky to have never ever been picked for an execution squad. I probably would have participated.”
In a chilling way, similar to what the miniseries Our Mothers, Our Fathers illustrates, these simple statements demonstrate the sheer banality of Nazidom, or rather the banality of self-absorbed youth corrupted by a particularly infamous ruling class. “If any question why we died. Tell them, because our father’s lied, ” as Kipling mused. While this does not wash away the guilt of individuals, nor excuse their actions, the youth of these men is often overlooked by historians.
If there is one common sentiment that American veterans of all wars usually express it is: “I did my job!,” often followed by, “I didn’t like it, but it had to be done!” I heard the same statement from almost every German and Austrian veteran I have ever interviewed. In comparison to the Americans, however, the young German men and women’s job was to defend an evil, murderous system ending — with few exceptions — in a collective moral suicide of those who rallied around the swastika flag. The real genius of Our Mothers, Our Fathers is the subtle portrayal of this collective moral suicide. In his poem, “The Shoelace,” Charles Bukowski attests, “it’s the continuing series of small tragedies that send a man to the madhouse,” rather than “the large things.” The new German miniseries artfully lays out the mundane details of a generation whose humdrum lives fatally intertwined with a monumental madness.