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Originally published Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 7:56 AM

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TV drama reopens debate over Germans' war guilt

With the wartime generation rapidly disappearing, a television drama about five young Germans in World War II has revived debate in Germany about the role ordinary men and women played in the Nazis' murderous campaign to conquer Europe.

Associated Press

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BERLIN —

With the wartime generation rapidly disappearing, a television drama about five young Germans in World War II has revived debate in Germany about the role ordinary men and women played in the Nazis' murderous campaign to conquer Europe.

Millions tuned in last week to watch the three-part series "Our Mothers, Our Fathers," which follows five young Germans - two brothers, a nurse, an aspiring female singer and a Jewish tailor - as they struggle through one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.

Three of the characters, including the Jew, survive - disillusioned and physically broken - to confront each other and their own demons in the final episode in the ruins of Berlin.

The series begins in 1941, as the Nazis launch their doomed assault on the Soviet Union, with each character slowly realizing that the world they believed in is falling apart. The brothers learn that the German army isn't as noble as they thought; the nurse regrets betraying a Jewish colleague; the singer's liaison with an SS member turns sour; and the Jew has to fight his fellow Germans to survive.

The mixed reactions to the series underscore how, nearly 70 years after World War II, the conflict remains a source of bitterness in Europe, even for people born after the fighting ended.

Many critics have praised the series as a milestone in Germany's troubled reckoning with its past and an overdue examination of individual guilt in the war. But the drama's depiction of Polish resistance fighters as anti-Semites and Russian soldiers raping the German nurse have drawn particularly angry reactions in Eastern Europe, which suffered the most from the slaughter.

In Germany, meanwhile, some accuse the film of sidelining the Holocaust and depicting Germans as victims rather than a nation responsible for starting a war and committing genocide.

"A film about World War II that omits the bothersome question of six million dead Jews," remarked columnist Jennifer Nathalie Pyka in Juedische Allgemeine, Germany's leading Jewish weekly.

Jan Sueselbeck, a researcher at the University of Marburg, said the series reflects wishful thinking rather than historical facts. The drama glosses over Adolf Hitler's rise to power and the outbreak of war by beginning the story in 1941, two years into the European conflict.

"This film depicts Germans once more the way they would like to have been, but in fact the broad masses were never like that," Sueselbeck said.

On Wednesday, Poland's ambassador to Berlin, Jerzy Marganski, slammed the series in a letter sent to German public television station ZDF, which broadcast the 14 million-euro production.

"The image of Poland and the Polish resistance against the German occupiers as conveyed by this series is perceived by most Poles as extremely unjust and offensive," Marganski wrote. "I, too, am shocked."

Among other criticisms, Marganski said viewers learn nothing of the Warsaw uprising, in which up to 200,000 Polish civilians died, nor of the many Poles who helped Jews. Producer Nico Hofmann said the depictions of "the Polish situation .... are based on historically vetted material" and there was no intention to defame the Poles.

The series also includes an improbable ending in which the Jewish character, Viktor, survives the war but his German lover Greta is executed after trying to save him.

The only American shown is a cigar-chomping officer who ignores Viktor's anguished protest against forgiving a former SS member in the post-war West German administration.

Many Germans born after the war remain largely ignorant of what their parents did because, like many combat veterans or survivors, the elders don't want to talk about it.

Hofmann said one of his goals was to encourage a national debate among the generations "to speak for the first time about the experience" of the war. He said the third and final episode drew a 20.5 percent market share among viewers aged 14-59 years, which he described as "extremely high" for ZDF.

A full, dispassionate accounting of German actions during the war never occurred because the Cold War division of Europe forced former enemies on both sides of the Iron Curtain to set aside their differences to confront a new set of rivals.

Until German reunification in October 1990, communist East Germany promoted the notion that Hitler and his fellow Nazis alone were responsible for the war and that Germans who were not Nazi party members were victims, too. Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, many Germans still believe that ordinary soldiers didn't participate in and were ignorant of the atrocities committed by Hitler's feared SS and SA units.

"Were German soldiers really so brutal?" the mass-circulation daily Bild newspaper asked after one episode showed German soldiers killing civilians in revenge for a partisan attack.

In fact, soldiers killed thousands of civilians throughout the war and assisted death squads in the large-scale extermination of Eastern Europe's Jews. Some 3 million Russian soldiers died in German captivity, while the final stages of the war saw fanatical Hitler loyalists hand out thousands of death sentences to deserting German soldiers and so-called defeatists.

Since the series aired, newspapers and online forums have been filled with comments by descendants of the war generation, with many saying their parents rarely, if ever, spoke of their experiences.

The debate comes at a sensitive time for Germany's army, which broke with the post-war taboo of sending soldiers abroad only around 20 years ago. Today, almost 5,000 German soldiers are serving alongside Americans and British troops in Afghanistan. Others are involved in international missions in Kosovo, Lebanon and Mali.

"I can imagine that in many families where there are survivors there will be conversations," said Jens Wehner, a historian at the German Military Museum in Dresden.

Many families will have already missed the opportunity to do so, because the number of Germans old enough to have participated in the war and still alive today is dwindling fast.

Census records obtained by The Associated Press put the figure at about 1.85 million, of which fewer than 600,000 are men.

About 5.3 million German soldiers were killed in the war. Another 2.5 million German civilians died in the conflict, excluding almost 150,000 German Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

"Soon nobody will be left who experienced (the war)," warned Frank Schirrmacher, publisher of the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He praised the series "for the earnestness, the love of detail and the unwillingness to compromise," which allowed it to have "what it takes to touch the soul of the country." 

Hofmann said he produced the series partly for his own father, who volunteered to join Hitler's army at 18, nearly died from wounds and to this day won't say if he took part in atrocities.

Tomasz Szarota, a historian and expert on Poland's wartime underground movement, said the film appeared to contain numerous factual inaccuracies. But a bigger problem was that the series reinforces a current German interpretation that compares Germany's suffering to that of its victims, he said.

"There is this wave in Germany now of being able to talk about German suffering," Szarota said. "The Germans were the last victim of the war that they themselves started."

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Frank Jordans can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/wirereporter

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Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.

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