In the heart of contemporary Berlin stands the Topography of Terror. It is a modern, light, plain museum of the Nazi era, built close to what was once the main driveway to Gestapo headquarters. The exhibition spares no detail; history’s darkest moments were often captured on camera. There are photos of trains taking Jews to death camps. There are the orders for the murder of patients: “Those who do not work shall not eat.”
Older German visitors to the museum tend to be more silent; the events are closer to memory or family history. Some of the younger Germans chatter and gossip as if this were just another school trip. Recently, I watched a young German couple kiss beside the picture of Hitler presenting Himmler with an inauguration certificate as Reich SS leader, before turning back to the exhibits. Other students casually take pictures of each other on their mobile phones.
The past recedes and different generations relate to it in different ways, and this is what lies at the heart of a controversial, high-quality, gripping mini-series called Generation War, which begins this week on BBC2. It was made in Germany by ZDF and grapples with one of the most disturbing questions: how could an educated and cultured society descend into such barbarism? The drama focuses on the lives of a group of ordinary young Germans who fought, nursed the wounded, lived and survived in Berlin. They are portrayed as decent at heart; as much victims of the Nazi regime as others it destroyed.
It’s a series that probably could not have been made 20 years ago. Now, German film-makers have boldly made a more sympathetic drama that explores the corruption of innocence. It was originally called Our Mothers, Our Fathers, and when it was shown in Germany last year it attracted 7.6 million viewers. One of the country’s historians, Ulrich Herbert, however, criticised the series for showing the Nazis as “others”, different from ordinary Germans. The drama provoked much public debate in Germany.
Generation War tells the story of five young Germans. They are likeable, attractive people; they laugh, they flirt and they dream: “We were five friends. We were young and knew the future would be ours.” As the drama opens it’s 1941 and the friends seem curiously untainted by the Nazi regime. They are soon to part – some of them to the Eastern front, one of them to a field hospital. There is a lightness about them; they appear almost as innocents caught up in something they only dimly understand.
Great effort is made to portray them as everyman and everywoman going off to war. Wilhelm Winter, who is an army lieutenant and has already served in France and Poland, and his brother, Friedhelm, say goodbye to earnest parents. They say to Wilhelm, “I expect you to do us proud. Stay close to your brother.” They are an ordinary, caring family, sharing the universal agony of call-up and the fear of separation.
Wilhelm’s girlfriend is Charlotte, or Charly, a trainee nurse. She, too, seems unaware of the horror of war. “In just a couple of days,” she says breezily, “I’ll be off to the front.” Her friend Greta is a would-be singer and, most remarkably, the girlfriend of the fifth member of the group, Viktor Goldstein, a Jew. Despite eight years of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda, including Kristallnacht in 1938, when 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed and more than 900 synagogues set on fire, the group seems untroubled by the risk of having Viktor as their friend. At one point, laughingly, they call out “shalom” when he turns up on a bike.
They dance, drink and take a group photo together before they split up. The drama charts their encounters and separations. Gradually, the brutality of war intrudes and changes them. They all are faced with agonising choices: whether to execute a captured Soviet Commissar; whether to betray a Jewish friend. They all compromise, snared by betrayals, but, crucially, they appear as passive victims, much like the Poles or the Jews. They are young people acted on – not the prime movers. And that is one of the questions hanging over this intriguing series: could a group of young people in 1941 have been so unaware of the reality of the regime that had been in power for eight years?
When the series was shown in the US, a New York Times article saw it as an attempt to “normalise German history” and accused it of “perpetuating the notion that ordinary Germans were duped by the Nazis and ignorant of the extent of their crimes”. One of the characters says that, “This war would only bring out the worst in us.” And it does. Everyone is corrupted.
Over time, the unthinkable becomes possible. The carefree band of brothers and sisters see their innocence strangled, but they are not presented as bad or evil people. The German monsters of most Second World War dramas do make an appearance, but we are urged to be more understanding of this circle of friends.
The series marks an important milestone for Germany. If you visit Berlin today, there is no forgetting the horrors of the past. Close to the Brandenburg Gate is the Holocaust Memorial, dedicated to the murdered Jews of Europe; a field of 2,000 concrete slabs that are eerily reminiscent of coffins. Each day, school parties stand in the drab car park under which was Hitler’s bunker. The Nazi era is fully discussed in schools.
Initially, after the war, a silence hung over the Nazi period. There was too much guilt; too many former Nazis were drafted back into civil society. No one wanted to discuss it. Gradually, however, a more radical generation in the late 1960s and 70s demanded the past be confronted, including “our mothers, our fathers”.
A democracy took root where power was deliberately diffuse, shared between the national government and the states. Germany placed its identity in being European. It became the continent’s economic powerhouse and a model democracy. After Germany was reunited the country grew in confidence, backed by a stellar economy. During the Eurozone crisis it became the paymaster of the continent. Even so, it has assumed leadership reluctantly. A former Foreign Minister recently warned against what he called “Teutonic snootiness”.
The country’s present Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was dubbed “Frau Europa” by Time magazine. She grew up in Communist East Germany. Over time, film-makers have dealt with the disturbing truth of how many ordinary East Germans were persuaded to spy on each other. In 2007, 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the film The Lives of Others charted how the Ministry for State Security, the Stasi, monitored people’s everyday lives using more than 400,000 informants.
As Germany has grown in confidence, so it has become more willing to embrace subtler, more controversial takes on the national past. Generation War marks a new departure in portraying the war in Germany.
Gavin Hewitt is BBC News Europe editor
Generation War is on tonight at 9:30pm on BBC2