It seems that ZDF (the German television channel which broadcast ‘Our Mothers, Our Fathers’) has reacted to criticism from Poland (about the film’s representation of Polish anti-Semitism) by planning a documentary on Poland under German occupation. It is due to be shown in June.
The makers of “Our Mothers, Our Fathers” have defended themselves by pointing out that they have only depicted what was historically true: there was Polish anti-Semitism during (and after) the war, and there was even Polish anti-Semitism within the Polish resistance.
The trouble with “Our Mothers, Our Fathers” is that its commitment to historical truth is rather intermittent over the course of the series.
While the Poles object to the one-sided (or false) portrayal of Polish resistance, I think the problem lies elsewhere.
I am still working from memory here, but my impression from the series was this. It shows us, right at the beginning, a friendship between a Jew and a group of Germans, one of whom is his lover. The Germans go off to war, in their various ways, while the Jew’s lover tries to protect him from the Nazis. But he is deported. On the way to Auschwitz, he escapes along with a female Polish prisoner. Together, they fall into the hands of Polish anti-Nazi resistance fighters. Some of these appear to be anti-Semitic, and they have conversations with anti-Semitic Polish farmers. When they discover there is a Jew in their midst, they nearly kill him. At the end, the Jew is reunited with the surviving members of the German group with which he used to be friends. There are tensions between them, but cracking open a bottle of wine hints at reconciliation.
This tendentious narrative reroutes the Jew so that he ends up not in the hands of German anti-Semites at the murder factory of Auschwitz, but in the hands of dastardly anti-Semitic Poles hiding out in the countryside. That is the problem. He is taken from the midst of friendly Germans and plunged into the midst of Polish Jew-haters. Yes, the film shows us the Wehrmacht involved in hideous crimes, and it shows the killing of Jews by German SS. It shows us an anti-Semitic woman in Berlin. But the main group of Germans upon whom it focuses are friendly towards Jews (despite one moment of casual denunciation, admittedly), while the group of Poles upon whom it focuses are generally anti-Semitic. The anti-Nazism of the Poles is rather tarnished by their racism, while any suggestion that the group of Germans in question might be Nazis is rather undermined by their embrace of a Jew. Es gibt einem schon zu denken. For historical truth to be more consistently told – and the film’s makers evoke it in their defence, so we are entitled to judge them by its standards – we would need to see more of German anti-Semitism as a popular and endemic phenomenon than the film cares to show us.
I have no interest in defending Poland against the charge of anti-Semitism. We know about Jedwabne, and Kielce. Nor have I any interest in insisting that German historical film should always portray German anti-Semitism. But the application of double standards by ZDF in their mobilisation of the notion of “historical truth” deserves the criticism it gets.
Have I now written off a series I at first liked? Not quite. I still think the scenes set at the eastern front, showing the German Wehrmacht sliding towards crime, are frank and painful and honest. But other parts of the film worry me more.