Public Service Broadcasting: Live at Brixton

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Generation War: Our Mothers, Our Fathers

This post was inspired, mainly, by an interesting discussion on the BBC which followed the final episode of Generation War on BBC2 ( iplayer link http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b042m80x/generation-war-fact-and-fiction )

The panel discussion, featuring Sir Richard Evans, David Cesarani, Eva Hoffman and Benjamin Benedict aimed to mainly try and examine a number of the issues raised by the programme which presented a grim version of WW2 from a German perspective.

The most important of these was the impression that some people have taken from this that it presents the 5 main German characters as the victims (and perhaps by extension the German people) whilst laying blame for atrocities on the hands of Ukrainians and showing the anti-Semitism of the Armija Krajowa in Poland.

As a viewer who initially was attracted to the three part mini-series as it was presented as a German “Band of Brothers” it seems to me to be an extremely simplistic view of the film. Whilst there’s no doubt that the main protagonists – perhaps with the exception of Viktor – are often presented as only doing what they felt necessary to survive, there’s no doubt that the most evil characters in the film are German – Dorn, in particular, is a grey character who despite being fanatical enough to rise high in the SS is willing to do anything to look after his own skin. None of the characters, once again, Viktor aside, seem to be innocent – Charlotte informing on a Jewish colleague, Greta’s propagandising for the regime, the atrocities that both Friedhelm & Wilhelm participate in – which, for me is the main point of departure from “Band..” – the nuanced approach that Generation War takes with regards to the morality of war – encapsulated in Freidhelm’s reflection that it will “bring out the worst in all of us” isn’t present in the American/British co-production.

Whilst I understand the issues & offence that Generation War has caused in Poland in particular, what it attempted to show, for me, was that the Second World War was not as black and white as the most common narrative for the war presents; that some of the AK was not entirely free of attitudes shared with Nazis; that the US occupying authorities was more than willing to accommodate people with dubious pasts; that populations in some areas were not unhappy to see the arrival of German soliders. Would this have been as controversial coming from a US or British production? Possibly not.  Does this devalue the heroism of Poles who were resistance fighters against the Nazis and came to take their place in Yad Vashem? Of course not.

It doesn’t seem to me, at least, to be an attempt to exonerate the German youth of the despicable acts. Rather, it was a sometimes harrowing attempt to look at the motivations of people who are ultimately no different to you or I. It’s one of the things which often crosses my mind when reading about World War 2, the Spanish Civil War or indeed any of the great events of the past. Could (or would) you or I behave differently to the ordinary populations of countries where great upheavals happen? I’d like to think I would. That I would sign up for the International Brigades, to fight fascism. But looking back on events with hindsight makes it rather easier to make those judgement calls than for people at the time.