Following the protests of the Polish Community and the efforts of the Polish Embassy in London, a debate was aired on BBC Two after the broadcast of the third episode of the German series Generation War. Are we satisfied with the outcome?
Controversies around the series
Generation War is a drama following the steps of five young Germans facing the tragic reality of World War II. The story covered in the mini-series starts in 1941 with the German aggression on the Soviet Union and ends in 1945 after the Allied victory. Described by its authors as an attempt to provoke a domestic debate about the past before the older generation fades away, the series naturally sets off from a very German perspective. This otherwise successful and truly captivating piece of cinematography with first class acting has nevertheless caused a lot of controversy in other countries. It received mixed reviews especially in the United States as well as from a number of British influential dailies because of an unorthodox way of approaching the question of blame in World War II and presenting foreigners (Poles, Americans or Russians).
When the series was first aired in Poland in June last year, it caused a serious outcry among veterans and the wider public due to its depiction of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK) and Poles in general. The soldiers of the largest resistance formation in all occupied Europe, the 400,000-strong military arm of the unique in its kind Polish Underground State, who are considered virtuous patriots in Poland, are depicted in this series as nothing more than staunch anti-Semites and uncivilised bandits from the forest. The offence is made greater by an array of scenes reasserting an overall strongly negative impression of Poles, whilst at the same time fostering a feeling of sympathy and affinity with the five young, attractive Germans, the heroes of the drama.
By effectively reconceptualising German suffering during the war at the expense of that of other nations, the series seems to be creating a somehow distorted reality of World War II, which many people regard as offensive to the memory of the millions of victims of the Nazi German regime in an occupied Poland and elsewhere.
Raising and solving the issue
Due to the above-outlined controversies, since September last year, the Polish Embassy in London has reacted with criticism to the plans to broadcast the series in the UK. Our actions were reinforcing the Polish community's concerns voiced in a few protests outside the BBC Broadcasting House in London. Bearing in mind that the complete withdrawal from screening the series was very difficult, we suggested arranging an experts' debate or screening a documentary on World War II, which would serve as a fitting commentary for the controversial series.
As a result of our proposal, the BBC agreed to broadcast a 40-minute pre-recorded debate after the end of the third episode of Generation War to address the drama's historical inaccuracies. The level of discussion was admittedly high and, to my delight, some of the participants of the debate presented similar or near identical opinions to my own. Still, from our conversations with the BBC, we were led to believe that the 'Polish question' would be the main subject of interest for the speakers - in the end, Poland and the Home Army were discussed, but not as the focal point of the debate. In addition, a pre-recorded interview, most of which was not shown, is not the same as participation in a debate aired live. Of course it is better to have a shorter, pre-recorded debate (even at 11 o'clock in the evening) than none at all, but there remains a certain feeling of insufficiency. Let me address a number of issues in order to fully explain and justify the critical stance taken by Poles to Generation War.
Poles, whenever they appear in Generation War, are portrayed as angry, rude, and filthy. In several scenes they sport anti-Semitism through either their actions or comments. This is not to say that there was no anti-Semitism among Poles in a pre-war or occupied Poland, but Generation War shows anti-Semitic Poles as contrasted with young German friends enjoying their lives in Berlin during the war with their Jewish friends. When the series begins in 1941 the five friends seem to be living in an idyllic, pristine environment, untouched by Nazi ideology or the horrors of war. One of them, a German Jew, is greeted by the rest of the group with a cheery Shalom on one of Berlin's streets. Hitler had already been in power for 8 years by that time, having transformed the German society into a totalitarian machine - the young protagonists would have been brought up with Nazi propaganda surrounding them and penetrating their mentality. It seems highly improbable that they would openly socialize with a Jew, and not only for 'racial purity' reasons but also for the fact that many Jewish men were already imprisoned in Nazi German labour camps. The most radically absurd scene occurs in episode three, after the partisans ambush a train, when a Home Army officer opens the carriage doors, and after finding out that the train contains Jewish prisoners, slams the doors again, not letting them free and not examining the contents of the carriage. He and his soldiers are shown as not just indifferent to the fate of the Jews being sent to death camps, but as openly hostile.
In reality, however, Home Army units often shielded Jews, often even counted Jews in their number. The Polish Underground State was the first to communicate information to the Western Allies about the camps, and through the Polish government-in-Exile in London appealed for help and intervention to stop the atrocities against the Jews. In the omitted part of my interview, I mentioned the mission of Jan Karski - the Polish Underground State courier and eye-witness of the Holocaust smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and a transit ramp of the Bełżec death camp - who risked his life to deliver his message to London. He met with, among others, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to plea for help on behalf of the Polish Jews. I also mentioned 'Żegota' Council to Aid Jews - set up in occupied Poland to help the persecuted Jewish population - the only such underground institution in Europe. I mentioned Irena Sendler who saved the lives of 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. I finally spoke about Poles constituting the largest national group of Righteous Among the Nations honoured by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem for saving Jewish lives from the Holocaust, despite the fact that Poland was the only territory in all German-occupied Europe where hiding a Jew was punishable by death, and not only of the person convicted but also of their entire family. Hundreds of such executions were carried out.
Just as it is unfavourable towards Poles, the series also effectively undermines the German blame by appealing to the viewers with touching stories of ordinary Germans tangled in the ghastly realities imposed on them by war. In general, viewers feel instinctively inclined towards protagonists, and so also protagonists of Generation War gain sympathy of their audience, even when they commit horrible things, as they may be seen as decent people living in a cruel world, having to obey orders against their true good nature. Such a false moral equivalence, for those who do not know history well, runs the risk of confusing the perpetrators with their victims. And the question of responsiblity for the outbreak of World War II is not subject to debate. It is also curious that the narrator of the story - Wilhelm - only discovers brutality of war on the Soviet front, when he served in the Wehrmacht during Polish and French campaigns. The Blitzkrieg against Poland was no picnic. The Wehrmacht committed atrocities against civilians from day one of invasion, and the death toll amounted to 150,000-200,000 people. By 1941 Germany had occupied not only Poland and France but also the Benelux, Denmark, Norway, and the Balkans.
This could have been a great film, if only someone had been a bit more sensitive to the historical truth. This could have been a fantastic ficticious soap opera, if only someone had paid more respect to the victims of Nazi Germany rather than presented the five German protagonists in a relatively more favourable light.