Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Germans grab 'last chance' to quiz war veterans

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German television viewers are used to frequent programs exploring the Nazi era and the Second World War. Rarely, however, has such a program triggered as much debate and interest as the screening in mid-March of a three-part drama, Unsere Mutter, Unsere Vater (Our Mothers, Our Fathers), which tracks the lives of five young German friends from 1941 to 1945.

The fictional drama, based on scrupulous research, had an average of 7.6 million viewers per night. Suddenly the few survivors of Germany's wartime generation are being sought out as never before by talk shows and newspapers. Grandfathers and grandmothers, who for years kept silent or were never asked, are facing questions about how it could happen, what it was like and whether they saw atrocities.

Some more painful questions about who committed what atrocity are resurfacing too.

Nearly 70 years after the end of the Third Reich, Germans feel compelled to keep their country's Nazi history alive.

"It's not about guilt any more," says Arnd Bauerkamper, a professor of history and cultural studies at the Free University in Berlin, "but it is about collective responsibility."

Der Spiegel, an influential weekly, reports the suspicion, however irrational, that the German people are a special case, a historical outlier who are unsure of themselves and must time and again seek reassurance.

It's never over, read a headline for an interview with Nico Hofmann, producer of the series, and a bunch of young Germans in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Films such as Schindler's List (1993), the American television series Holocaust (1978) and the German-made Downfall (2004), which tracks Hitler's final days, all caused passing sensations in Germany, but did not prompt the same intergenerational questioning. Unsere Mutter, Unsere Vater has reminded the public that this is their last chance to talk to survivors.

It seems that the actual atrocities were committed by others, not those who are prepared to speak today. Now, 90-year-olds talk of "seeing villages burned" or of how they escaped firing-squad duty. What comes across strongly from these accounts is that, after 1943, most intelligent Germans accepted that the war was lost. If they fought on, it was out of desperation or camaraderie. Writer Dieter Wellershoff, interviewed on a popular talk show, said that at 18 he volunteered for the Hermann Goring tank regiment in 1943, after the German defeats in Stalingrad and north Africa, knowing that he was joining a losing war.

All five characters in Hofmann's film reach that conclusion early on. They are swept along like corks in an ocean. The atrocities two of them commit as soldiers -- one executes a Soviet commissar, the other a Jewish girl -- seem to come from their circumstances: Obey or die.

The real war criminals are the others who exult in killing or intellectualize it. That has prompted some critics to suggest that putting five sympathetic young protagonists into a harrowing story merely offers the war generation a fresh bunch of excuses.

Indeed, it's never over.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2013 A7

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