Saturday, 9 October 2010


I have been re-reading Harold Marcuse's brilliant book Legacies of Dachau, which tells the story of the Dachau Site in the context of the wider German process of Verhangenheitsbewaeltigung. It is by no means complimentary, yet the KZ Gedenkstaette refers to it often in its 'Skript' of basic knowledge given to budding guides.

One of the most interesting chapters deals with the German response to the 1978 U.S. Miniseries Holocaust, which starred a host of popular American actors such as Meryl Streep and James Woods. The 40th anniversary of Kristallnacht in November 1978 saw more poeple than ever before take an interest in the Nazi era. In this context and after much deliberation by the TV networks, it was decided that Holocaust would be screened in Germany. The first showing, over four consecutive nights, garnered a massive response, and many see it as the catalyst for a new openness about what people knew of the persecution of those years.

One of the biggest historical debates, and one that continues to this day revolves around what people knew of Nazi persecutions. Most historians today would argue that the German people were, in the most part, fully aware, yet in the aftermath of the War the 'myth of ignorance' developed as a way of dealing with the guilt of the past. In one symbolic moment of change, the editors of Der Spiegel and Stern, two of Germany's biggest weekly news magazines, publicly confessed their knowledge of the Holocaust.

We must not forget that the very use of the word "Holocaust" actually originated with the miniseries, such was people's awareness of the Nazi murder of Jews shaped and influenced by the show.

Having watched it, I could understand the common criticism, led by Auschwitz survivor Eli Wiesel, that the programme trivialised the mistreatment and death of millions of people. The Weiss's, a wealthy Jewish family, seem almost identical to every miniseries family of the late 70s/early 80s in their make up. The portrayal of women in the show, either as manipulative Lady Macbeths to their SS Officer husbands or as petrified matriarchs who refuse to accept the persecution around them, is either a brave stroke of historical realism or a typical chauvinist fantasy. Ultimately, like all miniseries (and this is not a criticism of miniseries in general), it was melodrama.

That's not to say it was without merit. Some scenes were extremely powerful, in particular the moment the eldest son Karl is arrested by the Gestapo and all the neighbours peer through their doors before shutting out the events taking place. For a nation that had seemingly dedicated much of its energy to block out the past, "Holocaust", with over a generation's historical distance, forced many people to finally admit a very difficult truth about what they actually knew.

(Photo © Der Spiegel: Headline reads "The murder of the Jews moves the Germans")

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