Our Mothers, Our Fathers as an Anti-War Film

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.


German Word of the Week: Lebenswallen

Reading Hans Joachim Moser's 1958 book Musikgeschichte in 100 Lebensbildern (Music history in 100 Biographical Sketches). Moser (g) was a famous German musicologist and prolific author of books about Western music for a high-middlebrow audience. Moser's biographical sketches are lively, readable, but also sophisticated -- he gently dismantles myths such as Palestrina 'saving' Catholic religious music, and isn't afraid to point out works and composers he thinks are under- or over-rated. Moser was also a Nazi, joining the party in 1936 and becoming a senior musical functionary. Among other dubious deeds, he oversaw the 'Aryanization' of Händel's oratorios in the early 1940s.

The book isn't ideologically inflected, though. Granted, lesser-known German composers (Schein, Schütz, Scheidt, Biber even Oswald von Wolkenstein) get more attention than they might in a book by a Frenchman, but this is to be expected. Moser is by no means parochial, and if you ask me, many of these German masters are a bit underappreciated outside of Germany.

At once point, Moser refers to the Lebenswallen of the well-traveled Orlandus de Lassus, which caused me to sit up and say: 'What the fuck ist ein Lebenswallen'? Leben is life, and forms the root of many German compounds: Lebenslust, Lebensauffassung (idea of what life is for), lebenslang (lifelong), even the useful Lebensmüde (tired of life, used of someone who's either suicidal or about to do something extremely stupid and dangerous, as in 'You're really going to drink that piss-colored Sochi tapwater? What are you, Lebensmüde?).

Wallen is a verb meaning, variously, to seethe, bubble or flow. So apparently a Lebenswallen is a seething, bubbling, foaming flow of life. I could find only very few uses of the word in German. One of these is typical, from an 1821 book entitled 'Investigation of Life-Magnetism (Lebensmagnetismus) and Clairvoyancy' by one Johann Karl Passavant:

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The middle paragraph reads: 'From the unsearchable depths of Being, universal Father of things, emerges the God-revealing life-source of all existence, the eternal word of creation (the Logos), and the worlds are created and disappear through the flow of life (Lebenswallen), the breath (spirit) of God, who, all-inspiring, fills the universe.'

Lebenswallen, like Afterkind seems to have fallen into disuse. Together, we can and will usher this fine word back into everyday use.


Co-Opting Nietzsche for National Socialism

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.”


Gerhart Hauptmann Haus, the Other Ostalgie, and the Origins of Becherovka

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:

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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:

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I had no idea that Becherovka was originally created by Germans. 

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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.

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Syncopation: Alien to the German Spirit

One thing foreigners notice about ordinary German pop music is its march-like (oom-pa) character and lack of syncopation. Invariably, the thought springs to the foreigner's mind that the music practically invites you to goose-step.

But that's not the response among Germans, at least not the ones you're likely to be hanging out with. Their pop sings are designed to allow simple, salt-of-the-earth people to sing along, lock arms, and rhythmically sway to the music -- a process called schunkeln. Schunkeln is fun after 7 or so beers, but like most German amusements it can last a very long time and involves strict social control and coordination. If you added syncopation to the mix, nobody would know exactly when to sway, and before long there will be howls of 'Scheiße Negermusik!' and perhaps some good-natured bloodshed.

And it seems that Germans have always distrusted syncopated pop music (classical is another story, of course). From Open Culture, a list of rules imposed on a Czech saxophonist under Nazi occupation:

An aspiring tenor saxophone player living in Third Reich-occupied Czechoslovakia, Skvorecky had ample opportunity to experience the Nazis’ “control-freak hatred of jazz.” In the intro to his short novel The Bass Saxophone, he recounts from memory a set of ten bizarre regulations issued by a Gauleiter, a regional Nazi official, that bound local dance orchestras during the Czech occupation.

  1. Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
  2. In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
  3. As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
  4. So-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
  5. Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
  6. Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);
  7. The double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
  8. Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;
  9. Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
  10. All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.

Moderation of Comments and the Röhm Purge: How's that for a Non-Sequitur?

Hi there!

First of all, kudos to Theresa for correctly guessing the origin of the picture I posted yesterday. It was the cover illustration for Max Gallo's book The Night of Long Knives, an account of the Röhm purge:

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The illustration comes from one of my favorite blogs, Pop Sensations, in which an English professor presents the juiciest items from his collection of 1950s-1960s pulp fiction paperbacks. Drink-sodden gun molls, lesbian seductresses, hard-boiled private dicks, 'shockingly frank' depictions of suburban orgies -- you name it, it's there. If you've never visited before, say goodbye to your afternoon. The 'gay' section is particularly revealing -- although somehow Pop Sensations didn't tag the Röhm book as gay. A rare Bildungslücke.

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And now to housekeeping. I'm switching to moderated comments from now on. There was too much spam, and the counter-measures kept snagging genuine comments (you know, serious discussions about penis enlargement or carpet cleaning in Flagstaff, Arizona). I'm sorry for the inconvenience, and hope everyone will still keep up the great stuff in comments, which for a long while has outshined the idle noodlings I post.


Cultural Trivia Quiz: Where Did this Hideous Image Come From?

Browsing the Interwebs, I found this image -- this unhallowed, accursèd, brain-scorching, crotch-freezing Unding of an image -- embedded in its original context, which I cropped it out of. And before you guess it came from the late, lamented Gay Nazi Sex Ads website, it did not. Kudos to anyone who can identify its original context.

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