Review

German TV Is Sanitizing History

A new wave of historical dramas is telling the wrong stories about the country’s past.

A scene from "Babylon Berlin," now streaming on Netflix. (Beta Film)
A scene from "Babylon Berlin," now streaming on Netflix. (Beta Film)

Over the last decade, German filmmakers have begun churning out lavishly produced movies and television series dealing with the dark side of Germany’s recent history. The latest, most expensive, and internationally most successful example is Babylon Berlin, a crime series set in the dying days of the Weimar Republic, now streaming on Netflix in Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Germany is not the only country looking backward, of course. Many recent British and American movies have also focused on the run-up to World War II and the war itself, including The King’s Speech and Darkest Hour. But these films are stories of redemption, culminating in the heroism of the war against Adolf Hitler. Germany, by contrast, has to deal with a history of guilt and shame.

Most Germans today are proud of the way their country handles this legacy, but many of these recent productions fall short of what one might have expected from a generation of filmmakers and TV producers untainted by Nazism. While the shows dealing with communist East Germany are realistic, the Third Reich gets off too lightly. None of the new productions directly addresses the Holocaust or other Nazi crimes. The dramas don’t even focus on the resistance to Hitler. Instead, most Germans appear as victims.

This trend began back in 2006 with Dresden, a two-part TV drama set against the destruction of the German city by British and American bombers in February 1945. Some 12 million Germans watched the show. A year later, more than 11 million tuned in for Die Flucht (released as March of Millions in English), which focused on Germans fleeing the Red Army.

The 2013 miniseries Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (released as Generation War in English) continued the trend, tracing the fates of five young people from 1941 through to the end of the Third Reich. None of them are Nazis or have Nazi sympathies. As the series opens, the friends gather at a farewell party: Brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm are off to the Eastern Front. Charlotte, a nurse, follows them. Greta, who stays home, seeks fame as a singer. Her lover, Viktor, is Jewish, despite the fact that Rassenschande — intimate relations between Aryans and non-Aryans — was already forbidden in 1935, punishable by prison and even death. Even more implausible is the fact that Viktor is one of the three friends who survive the war.

Advancing through the Soviet Union, Wilhelm and Friedhelm do come face to face with the Holocaust — but not in the form of German Einsatzgruppen and police battalions mowing down Jews. Instead, it is Ukrainian peasants who club Jewish men, women, and children to death. The German friends watch in horror, and their fellow soldiers actually intervene to save one of the children, though she is then shot by an SS officer.

What we don’t see is Germans screaming their allegiance to Hitler. Charlotte does expose the Jewish identity of a Russian nurse who has been conscripted to help in her field hospital, but she then agonizes over her betrayal, and the Jewish nurse returns, miraculously unharmed, at the end of the series. She is now a Red Army commissar and sends another Russian nurse to her death for supposedly collaborating with the Germans. This twist reinforces anti-Jewish stereotypes put out by the Nazis, who equated Jews with coldblooded Bolsheviks.

All these productions show Nazis as caricatures of evil, distinct from ordinary Germans. Individual communists, on the other hand, receive more realistic portrayals, sometimes even sympathetic ones. The brilliant series Weissensee, which ran from 2010 to 2015, is a Sopranos-style family melodrama centered on a Stasi officer in the 10 years leading up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Tannbach, which ran from 2015 to this year, is based loosely on the real-life village of Mödlareuth, which was divided between East and West Germany. And Deutschland 83 — written by Anna Winger, a British-American — follows a loyal young East German army officer blackmailed by the Stasi into becoming a spy in the West German army.

Each of these programs is crafted with a realism missing from the programs depicting World War II. The scenes in Tannbach that show the dispossession of the farmers in the Eastern part of the village are harrowing. Deutschland 83 shows how the Stasi infiltrated the West German peace movement.

Why do German films and TV series portray communism realistically but shy away from depicting the full extent of Nazi evil? Possibly because it was the Germans themselves who ultimately threw off the East German regime. The Russians imposed communism from without, and East Germans celebrated when the wall finally fell. National Socialism, on the other hand, was a popular movement; Germans continued to fight fanatically for the Führer for years after it was obvious that they’d lose the war. Yet the country has still not come to terms with this central fact, and these recent shows perpetuate the self-serving myth that the worst crime their forebears were guilty of was naiveté.

It is perhaps no coincidence then that Stefan Kolditz wrote both Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter and Dresden. Born in East Germany in 1956, Kolditz was a scriptwriter for communist state TV until the government collapsed. Like many East Germans who were quick to adapt to new realities, Kolditz advances the narrative that most people had nothing to do with the dictatorial regime. Both Nazism and communism appear as alien forces.

It is also no coincidence that when Americans appear in these shows, they are depicted as villains. In Tannbach, a U.S. colonel ends up working with ex-Nazis against the communists and covering up the death of a child. In Deutschland 83, German officers in the East and West are each scared that their country will become a nuclear battlefield between the cynical Russian and American cold warriors. In Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, one of the last scenes shows a murderous former SS officer working for U.S. occupation forces, which are well aware of his record.

How representative are the sensibilities portrayed in these shows? Although they all got high ratings, that was at least in part because most of them were shown by the big public broadcasters. Millions of people watched each one — but most viewers were older than 50.

Young Germans, like young Americans, are rapidly abandoning public TV for streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. Some 7.6 million people watched Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, which amounted to nearly a quarter of all German TV viewers. But again, most of them were older than 50. Conversely, Babylon Berlin only reached 1.2 million viewers in its first week, but because for now it is being streamed rather than broadcast via free TV, it is likely to garner a younger audience.

Babylon Berlin’s viewers will hardly get a more realistic or critical analysis of the factors that led to the downfall of Germany’s first democracy. The show derives much of its fascination from aesthetics: the juxtaposition of sex, drugs, and swing on the one hand with red flags and Brownshirts on the other. When this aestheticizing of the past is combined with the tendency to treat Germans as a people more sinned against than sinning, as the majority of these shows do, things become more problematic still.

Tom Tykwer, the director of Babylon Berlin, often references German expressionist films of the 1920s — such as Metropolis, Nosferatu, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — in the new series. These movies portray the Weimar Republic as decadent and beyond redemption, much as Tykwer does.

The international public relations campaign for Babylon Berlin trades on that decadence for understandable reasons. Berlin today attracts snake people from around the world who are drawn to its easygoing, multicultural atmosphere — as well as the slightly perverse frisson of being in what was the capital of the notorious Roaring ’20s, Nazism, and the communist regime. Babylon Berlin, like the Volker Kutscher novels the program is based on, panders to the thrill of knowing more than the protagonists, a brooding sense of coming catastrophe.

This failure of German films and TV series to deal responsibly with the country’s past and to appeal to younger audiences feeds a growing historical amnesia among young Germans. Some students complain about learning too much about the Holocaust at school, but they may actually know very little. A September 2017 study conducted by the Körber Foundation found that 40 percent of 14-year-olds surveyed in Germany did not know what Auschwitz was. Xenophobia is an ongoing issue in eastern Germany. In some cases, students are still being taught by teachers who were chosen for their loyalty to the communist regime and indoctrinated to believe that Nazism was a problem of West Germany, not the East. At the same time, Germany is fast becoming a nation of immigrants who may import anti-Semitic attitudes from their countries of origin and seldom understand that in becoming part of German society, they enter into a collective responsibility for Holocaust remembrance, European integration, and support for Jewish life in Germany.

The director of the Jewish High School in Berlin, Aaron Eckstaedt, told the prominent Jewish weekly Jüdische Allgemeine recently that every year six to eight Jewish students apply for admission after having been harassed by Arab or Turkish students at public schools, which seem powerless to protect them. In late 2017, the 14-year-old son of Wenzel Michalski, the head of Human Rights Watch in Germany, left his school after being abused, beaten, and finally subjected to a mock execution by fellow students for being Jewish.

With populism and anti-Semitism on the rise all over Europe, Germany is telling itself the wrong stories about its past.

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Alan Posener is a correspondent and commentator for "Die Welt" and "Welt am Sonntag" in Berlin.

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