I watched Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter ('Our Mothers, Our Fathers'), the three-part German miniseries that has recently been released to decidedly mixed reviews in the USA under the title 'Generation War'. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott calls it
an attempt to normalize German history. Its lesson is that ordinary Germans — “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” in the original title — were not so different from anyone else, and deserve the empathy and understanding of their grandchildren.'
...There is good and bad on all sides, a dash of mercy mixed into the endless violence. But the suggestion that the Nazis were not the only bad guys in Eastern Europe in the early 1940s is undermined by the film’s disinclination to show the very worst of what the Nazis did. We see massacres of Jews by local militias in Ukraine under the supervision of the SS, but “Generation War,” for all its geographical range and military detail, steers clear of the death camps.
This omission has the effect of at least partly restoring the innocence of the characters and of perpetuating the notion that ordinary Germans were duped by the Nazis and ignorant of the extent of their crimes — that they were as much Hitler’s victims as his accomplices and did not know what he was doing. They also suffered, after all, but there is something troubling about how the filmmakers apportion this suffering.
Virtually all the reviews name-check the various controversies the film provoked -- Poles were especially frustrated by the depiction of Polish anti-Semitism among partisans.
I rather liked the movie. One thing that American reviewers may not appreciate is its simple technical proficiency. Americans are spoiled -- standards of dialogue, narrative pacing and production design are now so uniformly high in American television series that Americans take it for granted that backgrounds and sets will appear extremely plausible and detailed down to the last cigarette butt or car model, and that dialogue will sound as if it were actually being produced by people in the periods and professions the actors portray. This doesn't mean that show is worth watching or the plot is plausible, but the technical stuff will seem right.
In German shows, alas, this basic level of proficiency can't be taken for granted. Generation War looks authentic, although I'm sure there are minor flaws here and there. The combat scenes are chaotic and gritty, basically copies of Steven Spielberg. Which is fine by me -- nobody does combat scenes in middlebrow war movies better than Spielberg, and there's not much room for individual experimentation, so why not copy the master? The director, Philipp Kadelbach, has worked hard at creating a bloody, gritty, nasty, violent combat background, and deserves kudos for pulling that off.
It's also refreshing to see a German movie that other nations are interested in seeing. German cinema is in at least the third decade of doldrums, producing far too many portentous didactic pieces about parochial social issues or navel-gazing rides on the hobbyhorses of the urban bourgeoisie. Germans are well aware of this problem, which is the subject anguished hand-wringing every year as the German Film Prize goes to yet another group of movies that few have seen and which sink rapidly into oblivion.
One of the culprits is the script review process, necessary to get the public funds with which these movies are made. Any juice these movies might have had is patiently extracted during this process, in which squeamish, picky film bureaucrats carefully remove most traces of originality, political incorrectness, or excessive action. I myself have seen a film script with the review marks of numerous of these prigs, whose favorite means of removing interesting scenes from movies is the phrase 'zu Hollywood' (too Hollywood). Generation War is hardly profound auteur cinema, but it's a gripping, well-made middlebrow drama with well-defined characters (the cast, as is usually the case in German movies, is outstanding) and which doesn't shy away from controversy.
The critics who carp that the movie doesn't do precely-calibrated justice to all who suffered under German rule (no death camps? Polish anti-Semites?) are missing the point. The typical German film would have tried to placate every constituency, and would for just that reason have been a pedagogic exercise. The movie focusses on the five main characters, showing 'their' wars. We see German soldiers committing plenty of atrocities, and witness ordinary Germans gleefully parroting militaristic and anti-Semitic propaganda, denouncing one another, and ruthlessly executing women and children. Not all of the five main characters survive, and the ones who do are all morally compromised. The fact that they also display some sympathetic qualities such as loyalty to friends hardly counts as whitewashing.
American critics seem blind to the fact that Generation War is an anti-war film. Americans and Britons approach a German movie about World War II with an iron framework of anticipations and preconceptions that focus narrowly on one question: Are the Germans somehow trying to whitewash their unspeakable past? Once you put aside this tired framing, you see that Generation War is about the human stupidity, groupthink, and cowardice that lead to war. The non-Jewish German characters start out swallowing Hitler's propaganda about a quick war and the international Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy (while excepting their Jewish friend Viktor Goldstein under the motto of Karl Lueger, former mayor of Vienna: 'Wer ein Jud' ist, bestimme ich' (g) -- 'I decide who's a Jew'). The rest of the movie grinds each of the four non-Jewish characters through a relentless nightmare of betrayal, hypocrisy, moral corruption, and violence that kills a few of them and leaves the rest permanently scarred and profoundly cynical. The viewer is meant to experience this as just retribution for their gullibility and gradually-expanding complicity in evil.
Generation War is a German movie that shows the horror and futility of any war anywhere. It's a straightforward, not-particularly-subtle morality tale about the dangers of nationalism and militarism. American critics might have given that aspect of the movie some thought, considering that just 11 years ago, Americans were -- with truly embarrassing ease -- suckered into supporting a pointless, brutal occupation that has now left over a million injured, 270,000 of whom have brain injuries (counting Afghanistan), not to mention the countless millions of Iraqis and Afghans killed and injured. Whether the echo was intentional or not, it's telling that one of the German characters, fighting partisans and the Red Army on the front lines in Russia, muses bitterly that just three years ago, the German army was 'greeted as liberators' from Bolshevism.
A couple of German libraries, assisted by the German Research Council, have scanned all 63,000 pages (g) of 'Johann Heinrich Zedler's Great Complete Universal Encyclopedia of All the Sciences and Arts', published in 1732. It's even searchable. And it's fantastic.
I searched for melancolia in various spellings and came across this recipe for 'Spiced Beer Against Melancholey'. The antiquated spelling and Fraktur script make it a bit hard to read, but the recipe seems to have at least 15 or so ingredients, including young beer, 'hermo-dates(?)', carrot seeds, radishes, white wine, coriander seeds, juniper berries, St. John's Wort tips, and much more:
There's got to be some philologist out there who can interpret the weights, measures, and cooking instructions. We can only hope all the spices are still available.
Let's all get together and whip up a giant cauldron of this stuff and get rid of our Melancholey once and for all! Who's with me?
Quartz explores Germany's low rate of home ownership, and finds it's due to a sensible mix of policy initiatives which result in decent rental housing, low rents (yes, low rents) and strong tenants'-rights protections:
By the time of Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945, 20% of Germany’s housing stock was rubble. Some 2.25 million homes were gone. Another 2 million were damaged. A 1946 census showed an additional 5.5 million housing units were needed in what would ultimately become West Germany.
Readers of this blog will know of my furtive affection for abandoned totalitarian ideologies. And truly, there's hardly a better place on earth than Germany for people like me. Today's fiery plunge down the memory hole takes us to the book A Pathfinder of Socialist Library Science: For Erich Schroeter's 70th Birthday, published in 1964 as a special issue of the Central Journal for Library Science of the former German Democratic Republic. Above, we see Herr Schroeter.
A few moments in a book-stall in Berlin or Leipzig confronts you with an eerie truth: socialism was no mere "political" theory -- yea, verily it seeped into the very capillaries of East German social life. My library boasts a history of blacks in America, a sex manual, and a biography of Beethoven -- all written proudly and unmistakably from the perspective of class struggle (Beethoven's chamber works are praised for their "dialectic" character). If I had had room in my luggage, I would also have brought home socialist exercise videos, economics textbooks, campfire-song collections, and design manuals.
Which brings us to libraries. Can they help build socialism? The answer, according to this handsome Festschrift, is a resounding "Jawohl, Genosse!" Contributors who stress the central ideological role of libraries include Margarete Silberberg ("On New Men and New Book Collections"), Bodo Reblin ("The Antifascist-Democratic Concept of a Library in the Periodical 'The People's Librarian'"); Christina Steinert ("Use of Space in the Central Library of the VEB Industrial Works in Karl Marx City") and Katharina Bamberger's ("The Library in the Lovely Socialist Village"). More mundane contributions include Lisgreth Schwarz's "On the Importance of the Central Publication of Annotated Preprinted Forms for General Public Libraries" or Johannes Lohmann's remorselessly informative "Ten Years of Library Statistics."
As befits a Festschrift, the opening chapters detail Erich Schroeter's early life. Born in Breslau in 1894, his father soon moved the family to Berlin. They were working-class: his father threw packages in a freight company, and his mother took in sewing to make ends meet. While he went to school, Schroeter worked as a typist for a notary, and as an errand-boy in a typewriter factory. He completed an apprenticeship as an engineer. When he was twenty, his career was interrupted by the "first imperialist world war," during which he was severely injured. When he returned to his job, he began to interest himself more and more for labor issues, and to fill the gaps in his education by visiting the library in Neukoelln -- then, as now, a social burning point. The library director, Dr. Helene Nathan, took an interest in him. Nathan eventually arranged a position for Leipzig as a formal apprentice in library science.
Schroeter returned to Berlin in 1929, after passing the "Examination for Employment in Popular Libraries," and took up an official position at the Neukoelln library, just as the Great Depression reached Germany. "Thousands of unemployed people thronged the streets," he recalls, and many of them resorted to the library to kill all those useless hours. Schroeter describes his efforts to reach out politically to the unemployed:
In the Neukoelln city library, the checkout counter...was split into two areas: one for the proletariat, and one for the bourgeoisie. I myself was always at the checkout counter to advise the the proletarian group. As soon as I detected in young people or adults an special interest in political literature or other special subjects, I spoke to them, and let them know of the information evenings I was holding in the nearby branch library.... This direct work with individual readers provided me with enormous satisfaction, and -- since we quite consciously emphasized very progressive literature, and also political literature -- this also provided valuable experience in political work with the masses. (p. 13)
To be continued...
David B. Dennis has a long, fine essay on how National Socialist propagandists spun Nietzsche in the Völkischer Beobachter:
In addressing the “Germanness” of Nietzsche, however, the cultural politicians of the party faced some difficulties. The newspaper did not try to verify Nietzsche’s racial origins—as it did for many other Western creators, including and especially Wagner and Beethoven—despite the fact that he occasionally claimed to be of Polish heritage. But it did have to confront indications that the philosopher rejected nineteenth-century trends of nationalistic identification.
As one contributor to the Völkischer Beobachter wrote, there is “one important point in Nietzsche’s mental attitude on which even his friends have remained silent, from which they tried to distance themselves as much as possible: this is the matter of Nietzsche’s attitude toward Germanness and the state.” The philosopher, according to the paper, had seen with “sharp eyes” that while the Second Reich had been formed, it still “remained a shell without content” under Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik. To him, nationalism was the “illness of the century” because it “attempted to hide its emptiness.” In his words, “Nationalism as it is understood today is a dogma that requires limitation.”
But the point to keep in mind, according to the Völkischer Beobachter, was the qualifying phrase: “as it is understood today.” Nietzsche’s opinions about the German state could be understood only with reference to this phrase—that is, as critiques of his own specific time, not as categorical rejections of German nationalism.
This opened the way for the newspaper to present Nietzsche as a fervent patriot and strong representative of “Germanness.” In fact, the paper reminded, Nietzsche actually said of himself that “I am perhaps more German than the Germans of today.” And he valued the “earnest, manly, stern, and daring German spirit.” He knew that “there was still bravery, particularly German bravery,” that is, “inwardly something different than the élan of our deplorable neighbors.” Compared with the French essence, in particular, he was “consistently, strongly, and happily conscious of the virtues” of the German character. Above all, Nietzsche held that “it is German unity in the highest sense which we are striving for more passionately than for political reunification—the unity of the German spirit and life.”
Very few others “saw things so clearly” in those days, said the Völkischer Beobachter. As if on a mission to confirm the philosopher’s Germanness, another contributor traveled to Sils-Maria, wandered the region, and ruminated on passages Nietzsche had written there. The landscape, Ernst Nickell reflected, is “consecrated by German fate and German tragedy.” Nietzsche “needed this landscape; he had to stand near the highest things and the firmament”—because he was “German despite everything.”
I recently gave a seminar in the Gerhart Hauptmann House in Düsseldorf (on a subject totally unrelated to him). The whole place seemed to be a kind of shrine to the former German populations in Eastern Europe, who were unceremoniously yet understandably kicked out of Poland, the Czech Republic, and other nations in the wake of World War II. This was the fate the befell Hauptmann (g), a German writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1912, himself. In fact the Hauptmann Haus in Düsseldorf is also the headquarters of the Bund der Vertriebenen for Northern Rhine - Westphalia (g). For those of you who don't know, this 'League of the Expelled' represents the interests of those millions of ethnic Germans who were expelled from historical areas of German settlement (as well as areas conquered and brutally occupied by the Nazis) east of the Oder/Neisse river, which was roughly the Eastern border of East Germany.
Somewhere between 12 and 16 million Germans were expelled from the East immediately after the war:
The expulsion was often brutal, accompanied by abuse and massacres, and most of the expellees were forced to leave their land and possessions behind. The human suffering was enormous, but, to put it bluntly, nobody cared much about German suffering in the immediate aftermath of World War II. After the collapse of Communism, the idea of compensation for the expropriated property was bruited in some German circles, but was met with incredulousness verging on hostility by Eastern European governments.
The survivors of the expellees are still well-organized today, and are a moderately powerful lobby in Germany. They're considered pretty right-wing, and their actions are often a thorn in the side of the German government. To say the issue of compensation for expelled ethnic Germans is a sensitive issue in Eastern capitals is quite the understatement.
Here are a few photographs from the dusty displays in the Haus, featuring typical toys, pastries, and even bitters from the German Sudetenland:
I had no idea that Becherovka was originally created by Germans.
Finally, a charming nativity scene. Well, except for the giant, flaccid penises pointing directly at the Christ Child. Oh wait, those are candles. Yet another embarrassing situation that could have been prevented by air-conditioning.
The invaluable LiarTownUSA has discovered some extremely rare German needlecraft erotica from the mid 1970s. I have it on good authority that these things fetch thousands of Euros among certain underground collectors:
Above is a mildly amusing video seeking to 'raise consciousness' about people who have naturally bitchy expressions. This is a universal problem. For one thing, the British newspaper the Daily Mail quickly embraced the phenomenon, and who can argue with the World's Tabloid?
For more proof, look at this photograph, taken at a German automatic restaurant in 1965, taken from a historical article in Der Spiegel about automat restaurants:
The woman on the right has the archetypal German facial expression, which I call the 'suspicious grimace', or SG (misstrauische Grimasse in German). It's a look that says 'What the hell is he doing here? Why is he looking at me? Is he going to come up to me and fondle me or hit me or ask me for money? I wish he'd go away.' This is the default facial expression of all Germans over 30, especially middle-aged and older females. I see it at least 15-20 times on my 10-minute bike ride to work.
I could go out right now with a hidden camera to any German city and, within an hour, bring you at least 50 photographs of random strangers -- mostly older women -- with exactly this expression. In fact, I've often thought of doing just that, but you can get in trouble in Germany for using someone's image without their permission, so I haven't actually done this. Note that as with BRF, the SG is not necessarily a sign of bad temper. If you strike up a conversation with one of these people and defuse the initial assumption that all strangers are potential perverts or criminals, even the grumpiest-looking frump often proves to be quite pleasant.
What explains this national trait? Is it genetic? Is it because most Germans are more fearful and insecure (pdf) than many other nationalities? Is it a lingering national memory of totalitarian government? Is is a curdled form of the remote, serious facial expression considered to convey personal dignity and reserve? Your guess may well be as good as mine -- we'll see in comments.
If you want to see what Swedes do when they notice strangers paying attention to them, follow the jump.
Scott Horton agrees that the NSA-Stasi comparison is inapt, but notes that it can have a cautionary relevance:
East Germany was indeed a surveillance state, but it was one in which the power and authority of the intelligence services to spy on their own citizens rested on an elaborate network of laws that empowered surveillance and eroded the rights of citizens specified in the country’s constitution. The detention of citizens was subject to strict legal regulation, and long-term imprisonment rested on decisions taken by courts. As is the case in many nations, matters that involved sensitive national-security issues could be tried in secret by special courts (the 1a panels of the Bezirksgerichte), but long-term detention required a criminal conviction. The conduct of Stasi officers was also subject to careful regulation and discipline — there are, for instance, no documented cases in which Stasi officers physically tortured detainees using such “enhanced interrogation techniques” as waterboarding and forced standing, which were approved and employed in recent years by the American intelligence community.
This isn’t to say that the Stasi was any less loathsome, only that it operated under the strictures of a highly formalized legal system. This system ultimately bent to allow increased Stasi surveillance, and the rights of East German citizens became ever more ephemeral. This is not the reality of America today. However, the Stasi’s evolution does reflect the corrosive effect a powerful surveillance apparatus can have on legal institutions — in other words, it reflects what America (and Germany) must guard against.