Generation War, a three-part German drama showing the lives of five young Germans from the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 to the end of the war in 1945, was recently shown on the BBC. The idealistic Charlotte happily goes to nurse the wounded on the Eastern front, while her friend Greta remains in Berlin and starts a love affair with a high ranking Gestapo officer in order to get papers for her Jewish boyfriend Viktor to leave the country. Instead, he is captured but, en route to a concentration camp, he escapes and joins the Polish resistance. Friedhelm and Wilhelm are brothers fighting on the Eastern front. Friedhelm, convinced that the war will “only bring out the worst in us”, partakes only begrudgingly but, soon numbed to the violence, he becomes a brutal soldier. Wilhelm, however, increasingly doubts the war’s purpose and deserts, escaping a death sentence by the skin of his teeth.
Controversy has been rife. Germans are falsely shown as innocent victims of the Nazi regime, some claim. Others criticise the representation of anti-Semitic Poles and barbaric Russians. This has led to protests outside the BBC, outrage in the USA and a court case in Poland.
No one challenges the quality of the drama – it’s thrilling, emotive, wonderfully acted and wholly engrossing. Yet the show’s producer Benjamin Benedict has had to work hard to defend it.
Discussing the show along with two eminent British historians and a Polish academic, he faced accusations that aspects of the series were “absurd”, “implausible to the point of being ahistorical” and “frankly preposterous”.
Firstly, Benedict rightly pointed out that there is no simple distinction between German victims and despicable foreigners in the series – there are some downright nasty Germans and some admirable Russians.
Secondly, this television drama was about individuals, not nations. War between countries drives the question of nationality to the fore. It determines the ideology you’re supposed to hold, the uniform you wear, the people you’re allowed to love and asked to kill, whether you’re tortured or rescued by strangers.
Yet Generation War was trying to show that war does not create nations of homogenous individuals. Greta and Viktor, Alina and Sonja are still the unique human beings they always were, not representatives of ‘Germans’, ‘Poles’ or ‘Russians’.
Benedict’s research for the series was based on the study of individual experience – testimony, diaries and letters by those who lived through the war. Yes, it’s implausible that every Berlin friendship group had a Jew in it. Yes, it’s unlikely that every German soldier was as sceptical as Friedhelm. But fictions are not intended to give us the big picture – that’s what historical accounts are for.
Most of the controversy arises from the assumption that viewers will generalise from these individuals – Friedhelm is shown as a victim, therefore all Germans were victims; a Russian soldier rapes Charlotte, therefore all Russians were sexual abusers.
My research is based on the same belief – that we generalise from the individuals in the fictions we watch and read to categorise whole cultures or nations. But we shouldn’t. Yes, historical dramas have a responsibility not to stray too far from the probable, which Generation War may have done on occasion. But their primary aim is entertainment not education. They tell stories of individuals not nations. If you want the latter, go and read a history book.
The drama’s original title was Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter – Our Mothers, Our Fathers. It was intended to provoke discussions between Germans who lived through the war and their descendants. The hope was that this intimate story of individuals would prompt the telling of more such stories. The English title however invites us to generalise by claiming that the drama represents an entire ‘generation’. In doing so, it totally missed the point.