‘Generation War’ and German War Guilt

Written by Emma Ward. Edited by Eleanor Winn.

‘Generation War’ (or, as it is named in Germany, ‘Our mothers, our fathers’) is a German drama miniseries that was first broadcast in Germany in 2013, and has recently been adapted for and aired on the BBC. It depicts the lives of five friends, following them from 1941 until the end of the war in 1945. The characters’ storylines are diverse and take the audience through a range of wartime existences; soldiers and a nurse on the front line, a singer in Berlin, and a Jew trying to escape the Nazis. Although there has been debate about how accurate the presentation of wartime Germany is in this programme, the series has been highly acclaimed and it certainly is gripping to watch.

Israeli flag at Auschwitz

Israeli flag at Auschwitz

Initially, I was surprised to hear about such a programme being made, especially in Germany. Modern Germany has always been presented to me as a country unwilling to confront its ‘shameful’ past. I can remember, when I was younger, being confused when being told by my father (who frequently visits Germany on business trips) that it was illegal to do the Nazi salute in Germany, and when on holiday in the Netherlands being told not to tell the Dutch their language sounded German, as it would offend them. I could not understand why Germany was so unwilling to confront a past that had presumably been so vital in making their country what it is today, and why other countries were so keen not to be associated with them. As someone now very interested in twentieth century German history, I am able to understand further why Germans would feel ashamed of their past. When visiting Auschwitz in 2012, the sheer number of Israeli flags and displays of grief that I witnessed were enough to make me feel personally guilty, despite having no connection to the horrors myself.

After watching ‘Generation War’, I decided to research the prevalence of feelings of guilt in German society. I discovered German collective guilt was a widely debated topic; I was especially shocked to discover that British and American occupation forces promoted these feelings of guilt through a poster campaign after the end of the war. After watching ‘Generation War: Fact and Fiction’ – a debate on the BBC about the accuracy of the programme – it became clear that the Second World War clearly was still a taboo subject for many Germans. Benjamin Benedict, one of the producers, spoke about how he wanted the programme to create a dialogue between the generations, so that the war could be a subject talked about by people who lived through it, before it became too late to share these experiences.

In an article for the Independent, Professor Bernhard Schlink, who wrote bestselling novel ‘The Reader’, which dealt with the problems of a post-Nazi era, was quoted speaking about the ‘second guilt’ felt by the younger generations of Germans for the ‘sins of their fathers’. He spoke about how growing up in the 1950s and 60s ‘I found there was a sense of guilt even among those who had not committed any crime’ and how ‘in my generation, there is a strong sense of guilt too’. I was reminded of a programme that I had watched recently called ‘Hitler’s children’, an excruciatingly uncomfortable yet revealing documentary about the guilt felt by the younger generations of Hitler’s closest acquaintances, who were the most powerful Nazis. The most memorable example is that of Hermann Goering’s great-niece, who became sterilised so as not to ‘create another monster’.

It has been almost 70 years since the end of the Second World War and it surprises me that guilt can still be felt amongst the German populace. Until very recently, the German government was reluctant to lets its military forces operate outside German borders, even as part of UN peace-keeping operations. Anyone who has visited the battlefields of either world war will have seen the stark contrast between the way the cemeteries are marked and cared for; whereas allied cemeteries are well kept, light and airy, and highly publicised, German cemeteries tend to be dark and gothic, and not particularly inviting. This could be seen as the difference between victor and vanquished, however I believe it is a more marked reaction of trying to forget two wars that are generally understood to be the fault of Germany, and continues to shame them. Even recently, some sections of European society react to German political activities they don’t agree with by referring to Nazis – Greece is a recent case in point.
I must stress that my point is not that we must forget World War Two and the Holocaust; on the contrary, I believe it is incredibly important that such events are widely taught in schools to prevent such atrocities from reoccurring. However, as other such horrors that have taken place over the course of history have been consigned to past, I believe that this one must be also. What the Nazis were able to achieve was the result of an exceptional set of circumstances, and the scale of the results have not been seen in history before or since. It should not be put upon the current generation to shoulder the guilt. In what is a much more global and interconnected age, it is not the job of nations to take part in historical finger-pointing, but to recognise the interconnected factors that allowed such barbarity to take place, and prevent it from happening again in the future.