02. Sep 2013
Dr Daniel Logemann is Managing Director of the European Kolleg "The Past in the Present" in Jena, which deals with representations of the 20th century in Europe. From 2010 to 2015 he was a member of the research staff and curator at the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk. He has published on issues related to the Museum's forthcoming permanent exhibition as well as on relations between citizens of the GDR and People's Poland. (His 2012 monograph *Das polnische Fenster: Deutsch-polnische Kontakte im staatssozialistischen Alltag Leipzigs 19721989* was the first book in the Imre Kertész Kolleg's series published by Oldenbourg Verlag.)
The three-part miniseries Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (Generation War) gave rise to heated German-Polish debate that focused on the depiction of members of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) as anti-Semitic. Such a stereotypical, distorted presentation of a collective Polish postwar mythos roused Polish commentators to sometimes harsh, but justified criticism. Ultimately, the debate showed that Germans' historical knowledge about their Polish neighbors is often based on ignorance and a lack of knowledge. The way Germans and Poles moderated the debate, by and large jointly and showing understanding, could mark the beginning of a more respectful and knowledgeable way of dealing with shared history.
Simultaneously in late June 2013, two major conservative newspapers, the German Die Welt and Polish Rzeczpospolita, published attempts to summarize the most recent German-Polish neighborly dispute over the three-part feature miniseries Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (Generation War) shown on ZDF German television (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) last spring. The Polish journalist Magda Gawin viewed the ZDF production as the expression of a "new German identity". She said the film was part of a broad-based policy regarding German history, which aims to exonerate the German nation from its historical responsibility for the Second World War. The Germans even tend to portray themselves in the role of victims, she said, and to put the blame on other peoples. Gawin did not mince her words: "Today's Germany is in fact pluralistic, peaceful, and is working through its own past with respect to anti-Semitism, militarism, nationalism, and other sins of the past-but preferably those of others. The Germans want so much to achieve a different, higher status-that of a people not accused of starting two World Wars and a bloodbath in which it drowned Europe." With this interpretation Gawin does not represent the majority of Poles, but rather the conservative and patriotic circles that traditionally view Germany with mistrust. For this reason as well, the Poland correspondent for Die Welt, Gerhard Gnauck, responded with a similarly vehement charge: "Where the façade [of the Polish arguments] frayed off into the absurd, arguments such as this were uttered: The neighbors in the West are making an effort to shift the blame from "the Germans" to "the Nazis", that is, from a collective that continues to exist to a clique that can no longer be held responsible. Or: The Germans sought ... to present themselves as victims of history." At the same time, however, he summarized the reactions to the film in a far more levelheaded manner and views the debate and the recurrent "misunderstandings" about German-Polish history in the twentieth century as a challenge facing both German and Polish societies to try to develop a common picture of a shared history.
The two authors appraise the chances for German-Polish communication processes in very different ways. Whereas Gnauck evidently thinks the time has come for closer cooperation, Gawin criticizes Germany's lone efforts regarding the politics of history and the distortion of historical facts. Poland's conservatives are on a collision course and it is being taken as just that by Germany's conservatives. Nevertheless, the German commentator is not taking the argument seriously, instead viewing civil society efforts as being right on course. Can the standpoints of the two authors be generalized? Against this background, how can we summarize the trends of the debate? What were the points of contention in the controversy over the three-part miniseries shown on German television? Does this debate give any indication of the points of contention in the interpretations of Germans and Poles as regards their (common) history?
The three-part miniseries Generation War was broadcast on ZDF German television over Easter 2013. Each part had roughly seven million viewers. The film is about five young Berliners getting involved in the war in 1941: two brothers invade the Soviet Union as soldiers in the Wehrmacht, of two girlfriends one goes to the front as a nurse and the other dreams of a career as a chansonnier, and a Jewish friend wants to survive the war in Berlin. Told from the perspective of these five main protagonists, the war years from 1941 to 1945 are presented to viewers in short episodes. One of the brothers, Wilhelm, deserts after the Wehrmacht's increasing defeats, and he is arrested and put into a penal battalion. His brother Friedhelm enters the battle opposing the war, but in the course of the war of extermination he develops more and more into a cynic who just follows orders. He ultimately becomes a war criminal by executing Polish civilians, but at the war's close he sacrifices his life in order to save a unit of child soldiers from becoming cannon fodder. Nurse Greta quickly gets to know the bloody routine of a field hospital just behind the front. She denounces a Jewish auxiliary nurse and suffers pangs of conscience from then on. The pangs get worse rather than better when that nurse, who apparently miraculously survived, saves her from Russian rapist soldiers. Singer Charlotte uses her erotic contact to the Gestapo man SS-Sturmbannführer Dorn in order to save her Jewish boyfriend Viktor from Nazi persecution, but to no avail. Viktor is deported to a concentration camp, but escapes a transport to an extermination camp in occupied Poland. He joins a partisan unit of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa [AK]), and survives the war with a lot of luck. Charlotte falls out of grace with her lover and is executed in the final days of the war by her former patrons.
This film, with its deliberately fragmentary narrative rhythm oriented along the perspectives of the protagonists, was the first time that the crimes of the German Wehrmacht entered German living rooms in a feature-length format. This was one reason why the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Frank Schirrmacher, saw the fact that viewers came from several different generations as the last chance for German families to have conversations about this chapter of German history. One thing mentioned in German film reviews was that the film denoted "progress", since it gave an unvarnished picture of the experience of the war of extermination. Other statements indicated that the film neglected a number of topics. It was criticized in particular that all five protagonists, in 1941, were strangely indifferent toward the regime and in the course of the war became victims of it. Critics said they were shown not as dedicated Nazis, but as having been led astray. And the impression remained that the protagonists were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In Poland, the film was a cause for outrage for very different reasons. Aside from the main threads of the story, there was also a Polish episode experienced by Viktor, the Jew. After he barely manages to escape a transport to an extermination camp, he and the Polish woman he escaped with run into a combat unit of the Armia Krajowa. The AK was the military wing of the Polish government-in-exile in London. It was made up of about 390 000 soldiers, who waged a sometimes poorly equipped partisan battle against the Germans. The German television film gives the impression that this legitimate army was nothing but a largely unstructured partisan unit. At the time of the events in the film in 1944, the AK was already preparing Operation Burza (Tempest), which ultimately led to the Warsaw Uprising. This uprising - to today one of the fateful moments in the Polish history of the Second World War - is not even mentioned in the film. In general, the picture given of the Polish Home Army was not sufficiently researched. The scenes shown do not even begin to correspond to historical facts, and on top of that, the actors speak scandalously poor Polish with a clearly discernible German accent. What was viewed in Poland as even more objectionable, however, was the fact that all the fighters in the unit were presented as die-hard anti-Semites. When they discover that Viktor is Jewish they want to murder him, but their leader ultimately lets him go.
Whereas the Bild tabloid unashamedly continued to spread this clichéd image of the Polish Home Army in Germany ("These men and women organized like partisans are nationalistic, anti-Semitic, and anti-Soviet"), the German journalist for the Polish Roman Catholic weekly magazine Tygodnik Powszechny, Joachim Trenkner, spoke up, and picked the presentation in the film to pieces. He said that the war was depicted as an anonymous element in the fate that unexpectedly comes over the protagonists, who are actually morally good. The film blurred the distinction between perpetrators and victims, according to Trenkner, by showing unwilling perpetrators who all end up being victims of the war. His criticism was particularly strong regarding the notion of sweeping anti-Semitism within the Home Army. With reference to the Bild article, he distanced himself from the impression given by the film that Polish anti-Semitism is what made the Holocaust possible in the first place.
Characteristic of the debate was the fact that it was not set within either Polish or German society; instead, from the outset joint discussion took place within a German-Polish framework. Polish journalist and Germany expert Adam Krzemiński wrote an op-ed article for the Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. He said that it was not the Polish anti-Semitism shown in the film that he objected to most. Emphasizing that such stereotypes existed latently in postwar Germany in any case, he cited historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, who had said it even showed courage to depict this Polish anti-Semitism in the film. But Krzemiński homed in on what he considered a much more crucial question. He found the story surrounding the Jewish protagonist Viktor to be the real problem, as it was added as a "placeholder" for a plot that had to be cut for budget reasons. "All the more the question arises, why do German filmmakers have such a hard time seriously integrating their neighbors [i.e., Poles] into their worldview if they are not addressing an expressly bilateral theme?" The Polish embassy was even cautious when protesting in the letters-to-the-editor column of Bild that the portrayal of the Home Army was "oversimplified."
It is remarkable that it was precisely because of such objections that the Polish television station TVP1 (Telewizja Polska) decided to show the ZDF film in Poland. Polish viewers were to be allowed to decide for themselves. This suggestion was criticized by the right-wing nationalist Polish opposition party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) to the extent that it felt this would be providing a forum for Germany's distortion of history. The largely positive reactions to the decision to broadcast the film in Poland did not confirm this fear. After the third part of the film was aired, a TV discussion took place, including some German participants. Among those invited were Professor Thomas Weber, one of the consultants to the scriptwriters, and Gerhard Gnauck, Poland correspondent for Die Welt. Professor Julius Schoeps, another historical consultant to the production, joined the discussion via video from Berlin. On the Polish side were Andrzej Godlewski, deputy director of the TVP1 television station, Piotr Semka, a right-wing conservative journalist, the aforementioned Adam Krzemiński, historian Tomasz Szarota, Tadeusz Filipkowski, a spokesman for the World Association of Home Army Soldiers, and Szewach Weiss, former Israeli ambassador to Poland.
The discussion did not bring out many new insights. The known (narrative and historical) weaknesses of the film were reiterated. Opinions on the cinematic quality varied, but the Polish participants were agreed as regards its anti-Polish dimension. They said that the presentation of the Armia Krajowa as being anti-Semitic was untenable and with it the film blurred the question of guilt concerning the death of millions of Jews. It was said that since the film starts in 1941, it therefore neglects not only the first years of the war, including the invasion of Poland and the establishment of the German occupation regime there, but also the fate of the Polish people during the war in general. They said that in particular the chronology and weighting of the events of the Second World War were not accurate in the film. Poland and the AK were only roughly sketched, they said, thus giving a false impression of the neighboring country. Weber, the German historian, admitted very early on in the program that the ignorance and lack of knowledge of Germans contributed considerably to the problem of German-Polish misunderstandings. Schoeps, historian in Potsdam and director of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies, in turn, rejected the Polish reservations with rather unconvincing arguments, claiming that Polish reactions would certainly have been different if the film were from Holland or France. Segments of the debate shifted to whether the Germans had tried to repress and minimize their own guilt and at the same time seek a scapegoat in Poland (or Eastern Europe in general).
An editorial in the largest Polish daily newspaper, the left-wing liberal Gazeta Wyborcza came as a lingering echo of the television debate: "Such a scandal should not be repeated. The ZDF series is yet further evidence that the Germans are absolute ignoramuses as regards the fate of occupied Poland. The Holocaust dominates German memory of the crimes of the Third Reich. The crimes committed against Poles or people in the USSR are hardly known. Knowledge about the Home Army is negligible, even among renowned historians. Precisely this needs to change."
In Germany the Polish reactions were taken seriously, as demonstrated not only by the numerous newspaper articles on the subject. The film's producer, Nico Hofmann, admitted it was a mistake that he did not consult Polish historians when writing the script. He said he was very sorry to have hurt the Poles with the picture that ensued of widespread anti-Semitism within the Armia Krajowa. The ZDF German television station aired a documentary late in the evening on June 23, 2013, which aimed to correct the image propagated by the miniseries of the German occupation in Poland and of the Polish Home Army. The film was shot by a Polish documentary filmmaker and runs a little more than half an hour. It deals with the German occupation and the structure of the Polish resistance. Contemporary witnesses and historians get to speak. Important key terms are mentioned, such as the Warsaw Uprising, the boundless terror of the occupation, and the incredibly high number of war casualties in Poland. The Armia Krajowa is interpreted by Polish historian Andrzej Żbikowski as the most significant Polish mythos of the Second World War, which became a major integrative force in the years following 1989. It is not denied that anti-Semitic sentiments existed among its members, but they were set within the framework of the mentality that unfolded in the course of the war. According to Żbikowski, it was the orders given by the German occupiers and the behavior they modeled that made survival in the Second World War virtually impossible for Polish Jews. The film drew attention to the fact that an important division of the AK was the Council to Aid Jews, which acted under the codename Żegota. Żegota operated under the auspices of the Polish government-in-exile, and its sole responsibility was to save Jews. The Germans had declared that every Pole discovered helping a Jew should automatically be punished by death. Nevertheless, despite the indifference or even hostility of Poles toward Jews, the number of those who helped Jews was highest in Poland as compared with other European countries. Żegota succeeded in getting several thousand Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and it issued tens of thousands of false identity papers. Among its members were Irena Sendlerowa, who later received the greatest honors, and former Polish foreign minister Władysław Bartoszewski.
The documentary also addressed the darker chapters of Polish-Jewish coexistence during the Second World War - the anti-Jewish pogroms by Polish civilians, such as in Jedwabne, a small city northeast of Warsaw. These incidents became widely known thanks to the book Neighbors by Jan Tomasz Gross, about the murder of the Jews of Jedwabne. This has largely become part of Polish collective memory and dealing with it has greatly contributed to the fact that historiography and public perceptions in Poland have changed their perspective on the Second World War. A member of the Polish Home Army who was an eyewitness to the murder of a Jew by members of his unit also gets to speak in the documentary film. Polish anti-Semitic attacks or even murders, how they came to be, and their extent were assessed differently in the documentary and in the fictional feature film in that an apparently more generalizable picture replaced the focus on exceptional cases.
In times of the Internet, ripples of the German-Polish debate over Generation War continue to move through the media. There are as many different opinions as there are commentators. But what conclusions can ultimately be drawn based on the debate about the film? Is it possible to generalize the arguments used? What do they say about German-Polish relations?
First of all, it is notable that the discussions did not take place solely within either the German or the Polish society; instead, each side made clear public references to the arguments of the other side. Also, it was a courageous decision on the part of Polish television to show the film in its entirety, despite all its weaknesses and the displeasure it had generated up to then in Poland. The German side reacted first with surprise, but then showed understanding. Those responsible at ZDF offered viewers some aspects of what the film had omitted or even falsified.
The German side conceded that many aspects of the Nazi occupation terror in Poland as presented in the public image of the Federal Republic of Germany and also in school curricula are deficient. As a result of the debate, more Germans ought to have at least basic associations regarding this chapter of the Second World War. To this end alone it is desirable for Polish history to be given greater weight within standard German history and in order to further reduce the disrespect shown the neighboring country in this regard. There is also hope that conclusions be drawn from the Polish reaction to pay greater attention to Polish sensibilities in the future. It is not only time to abandon stereotypes such as that of blanket anti-Semitism in Poland, but the German occupation must also be appraised more clearly than it has up to now as having been a colonial occupation terror toward the civilian Polish population. In doing this the focus should not be shifted away from the Holocaust, but rather expanded to include the dimension of Nazi racial policies also against Slavs. Continuation of the narrative of the uncivilized East should hopefully have become obsolete since the debate on Generation War.
The Polish side has observed with a certain discomfort how the German narrative of the Second World War increasingly includes moments that also take into account and appear to focus on German suffering and victims. In this regard, Generation War is certainly not the best-known example in film. Instead, German films such as Die Gustloff (Ship of No Return: The Last Voyage of the Gustloff, aka The Crimson Ocean), Der Untergang (Downfall), and Anonyma (Anonyma: A Woman in Berlin) have already been considered in this context in Poland. Important for this perspective is especially the debate surrounding the Center Against Expulsion run by Erika Steinbach and Germany's Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation foundation. From a Polish point of view, the initiators of this foundation, founded in 2008 in Berlin, also want to influence or change the interpretation of the Second World War to give greater emphasis to "German suffering". These Polish objections need to be heard in Germany and taken into consideration. Ignoring the Polish standpoint with respect to questions of German-Polish history will continue in the future to lead to disputes.
It should be emphasized how Polish historical awareness and collective memory have changed in recent years. Widespread anti-Semitism within prewar Polish society and its impact on the situation of the Jews are today considered a given and are a topic of public discussion. Only its blanket expansion to the Armia Krajowa has been criticized vehemently. Nevertheless, about ten years ago it would have been inconceivable to question the national mythos of the Armia Krajowa. Today, and after the discussions especially surrounding Jedwabne, Tadeusz Filipkowski of the World Association of the Armia Krajowa admitted in the Polish television debate that anti-Semitism did exist in the AK. The Polish embassy also did not deny this negative aspect of the Home Army in its letter to the Bild newspaper. Darker chapters of Polish history in the Second World War are often the subject of newspaper articles, books, or feature films. Recently the films Pokłosie (Aftermath) and Obława (Manhunt), which were praised by critics, ran in theaters. They dealt with anti-Semitism and collaboration, respectively, in the Second World War. This constant confrontation with national narratives and myths is very prevalent in Poland, something that is not always sufficiently acknowledged in Germany. That is, when the German weekly news magazine Spiegel writes (and this sentenced was cited with outrage in the Polish debate): "Even seventy years after the ghetto uprising, the country [Poland] is still wrestling with its own way of dealing with history; the painful process is still ongoing", this reference to the ghetto uprising against the background of inner-Polish history debates is without a doubt extremely dubious. During the discussion of Generation War such German references to alleged Polish failures were in the end not taken up consistently.
As elucidated in particular in the aforementioned article by Magda Gawin, a current still exists in Poland that wishes to see history and its presentation measured strictly by "the historical truths". Even if Germany represents the screen on which this dispute is projected, it is far more damaging for the domestic affairs climate in Poland than for German-Polish relations. The controversy also reveals fears that historical ignorance could not only blur the origins of violence in the Second World War, but could also repress Poland's victim status. For national-conservative voices the film Generation War is proof of what they believe has long been suggested: With the debate on expulsions, in which Germans became victims and Poles became perpetrators, and with Barack Obama's slip of the tongue, in which he erroneously spoke of Polish (instead of German) death camps, and now with the German TV miniseries, they say that revisions of history have crept in. However, other Polish commentators have expressly distanced themselves from this conspiracy scenario.
Instead of implying that there were ill intentions behind the film, it would be more constructive to view the discussion following it as an opportunity. An unsystematic but rather extensive scouring of the Internet commentaries-both after the Polish television debate and on the Internet pages of the newspaper articles discussed here-gives reason to draw positive conclusions. Clearly negative opinions regarding the other nation's narratives or even collective were expressed only in exceptional cases. Polish television viewers regarded the film as a legitimate German perspective, albeit with considerable fact-checking deficiencies. The journalist of the Gazeta Wyborcza, Paweł Wroński, had, like many of his compatriots, watched what he referred to as a "well-made, moving series." Many Poles viewed the film as a good point of departure for cross-border discussion. This was also the standpoint of many Germans participating in Internet forums, a respectable number of whom expressed understanding for the Polish point of view. Have Germans and Poles perhaps indeed come a step closer to mutual social understanding?
Translates by Allison Brown
Daniel Logemann: After the Conflict is before the Conflict? On the Debate over the Three-Part Miniseries Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter Shown on ZDF German Television. In: Cultures of History Forum (02.09.2013), DOI: 10.25626/0006.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Imre Kertész Kolleg, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the copyright holders. For permission please contact the editors.
Offical homepage of "Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" ZDF (in German)
ZDF Documentary "Eine andere Zeit" Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter - Die Dokumentation (in German)
Debate WASZE MATKI! WASI OJCOWIE! Pamięć Polaków i Niemców o II wojnie światowej i jej następstwach, organized by Dom Spotkan z Historią in Warsaw, 25.6.2013, video on You Tube (in Polish)
Public debate on Polish Channel TVP after broadcasting of "Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" with Tomasz Szarota, Szewach Weiss, Tadeusz Filipkowski, Piotr Semka Andzrej Godlewski, Gerhard Gnauck and Thomas Weber "Na pierwszym planie - Wojna o historię" video on You Tube (in Polish)
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