Say it ain’t so

A very welcome holiday gift was Tony Judt’s Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945, where I read, appropos of Germany’s coming to terms with the Holocaust:

The real transformation came in the following decade. A series of events—the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War of 1967, Chancellor Brandt dropping to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial, the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and finally, the German telecast of the ‘Holocaust’ mini-series in January 1979—combined to place Jews and their sufferings at the head of the German public agenda. Of these the television series was by far the most important. The purest product of American commercial television—its story simple, its characters mostly two-dimensional, its narrative structured for maximum emotional impact—’Holocaust’…was execrated and abominated by European cineastes from Edgar Reitz to Claude Lanzmann, who accused it of turning German history into American soap opera and rendering accessible and comprehensible that which should always remain unspeakable and impenetrable.

But these very limitations account for the show’s impact. It ran for four consecutive nights on West German national television and was watched by an estimated twenty million viewers—well over half the adult population…The public impact was enormous…Henceforward Germans would be among the best-informed Europeans on the subject of the Shoah and at the forefront of all efforts to maintain public awareness of their country’s singular crime. Whereas in 1968 there had been just 471 school groups visiting Dachau, by the end of the Seventies the annual number was well in excess of five thousand

When I read this, I was disgusted, for reasons similar to Lanzmann’s: It seems grotesque, a kind of national pratfall. I guess I want even, perhaps especially a culture perversely obstinate and wrong to have more dignity in their error; but to be convinced en masse by this!

Looking back, though, I realize it was a big deal. It was much ballyhooed, and featured, as I remember, future stars like Meryl Streep, Michael Moriarity and James Woods. When it was shown here a year earlier, a lot of people crowded into my single room, at the University of Chicago’s old Shoreland, to watch on my 12″ black and white portable. After awhile, some people were outraged but most of us were laughing at it; we were not the target audience.

But maybe I should just suck it up, and realize that this is how big things are communicated. Coming Soon: ‘Abu Ghraib, The Miniseries!’

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8 Responses to “Say it ain’t so”

  1. eb Says:

    I suppose this could be a loaded question, but have you seen Roots, and how would it compare? I’ve seen neither, so I can’t say anything about either series.

  2. idontpay Says:

    Yes, I saw Roots, and while it suffered from the same faults, I retain an overall more positive impression of it. It was useful it seems to me to tell a multi-generational story episodically. I hadn’t thought of it until now. It wasn’t aimed at me either.

  3. charleycarp Says:

    It is simply impossible to overstate the impact of the miniseries Holocaust on German society. Really. You could say the same thing for the African-American community and Roots — in neither case does it have anything to do with the quality of the drama, or even the simplification. IMO it’s all about the timing. In both cases, it was time for the respective societies to have that important story told. It was, and nothing was the same again.

  4. idontpay Says:

    I know, and this post is my coming to terms with it, but what an alienating experience, in both cases. It would have seemed to me then that the facts were well established, and known to everybody. Obviously the first but not the second. I had learned about slavery and its aftermath, about WWII and the Holocaust, in school, in the sixties. I thought everybody had. Of course I went on to learn much more about both, but still. This should have been true for my generation, but looking back I realize how many older Americans would literally not heard much about either in school. There is still the realization of how little my style of development and way of knowing is relevant to how people think and feel in a democracy

    With the Germans and the Holocaust, there is the factor of a generation of silence. I’m sure that accounts for most of it. And your notion that timing is the key thing preserves a little of the mystery. The way to test that would be to see if there had been miniseries that tried to change mass minds, and did nothing of the kind. It seems though, that phenomena of this sort are created and ballyhooed as part of the zeitgeist. I wonder if the splintering of the television market makes this kind of mass phenomenon less likely in the future for strictly structural reasons?

  5. Di Kotimy Says:

    Alas, I was far too young and ignorant in 1979 to have anything directly pertinent to say about the mini-series itself. But I do have strong feelings (if not well-formed opinions) about the comparisons between the German national psyche during the Holocaust and the American national psyche today. I’m among those who were not at all shocked when Senator Dick Durbin compared the situation in Guantanamo to Nazi Germany — if anything, a little disappointed that he backpedalled from the comparison under political pressure. Our reluctance as a country to think critically and non-defensively about the comparisons makes me think “Never Again” will never be more than wishful fantasy. While the impulse to demonize Nazi Germany is, of course, natural and in many ways appropriate, if we want to learn from history, we need to go a step or two further and look at the factors that could lead an entire population — not all of whom could possibly have been inherently evil — to turn a blind eye to the unthinkable acts committed by their government.

    I visited Dachau myself in the early ’90s. Obviously walking through the living quarters and then the gas chambers was moving — perhaps all the more so on a bitterly cold January day when, shivering through a down coat, one could just begin to imagine the experience of those who shivered through thin garments with inadequate sustenance. But what shook me was reading through the newspaper articles posted in the museum and realizing how innocuously the road to atrocity began. Economic difficulties, appeals to “Buy German,” the convenience of finding a scapegoat for the country’s suffering. I remember asking myself what I would have — or even could have — done if I were a German citizen in the ’30s and ’40s. That same question frequently nags me now as I consider some of the atrocities in places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

    I think the mini-series phenomenom is probably reflective of a mass-consciousness struggling to come to terms with such things, yet eager to do so in a way that relieves the masses of individual responsibility.

    Of course, drawing my conclusion only from what I could ascertain about the miniseries from the original post and comments, I may be totally off the mark…

  6. idontpay Says:

    I’ve come to the same conclusion about the timing, about the willingness in the general population. I find it all too easy to identify with Lanzmann, as my post below, “How dark a day?” probably makes clear. I’ve known about and been horrified by things I’ve shared with a relatively few like-minded people, and there is a kind of distinction, of snobbery in that. A temptation to it, anyway. You feel a bit jealous of your against-the-grain, clear-eyed, historically-informed point of view, and while you’d be happy if knowledge spread slowly and by the accumulation of insights, a mass conversion based on clumsy dreck seems sacreligious. I know this doesn’t show me in a very good light, and the post is an attempt at self-chastening. It’s not about me, get over it.

    As to the question how would we have acted, “Is it I, Lord?”, the subject has fascinated me for a long time. We have the example of how we are reacting to this moment, with its perverse temptations. About the WWII period, two treatments stand out for me personally. One is Dwight MacDonald’s pieces, originally published in his small magazine, Politics—the exact equivalent to a blog in the forties, except for accessibility—called “The Responsibility of Peoples” In the name essay, based it seems almost entirely on his reading of the articles about the liberation of concentration camps in the New York Times, he ponders the meaning of the Holocaust. His judgments, on such little, preliminary evidence, seem pitch-perfect to me. Looking it over now, two things jump out at me: one is his explicit comparison, implied in Charley’s comment above, between the instrumentalities of persecution and extermination in Germany and those against blacks in the United States, not extermination, finally but persecution and intimidation indeed. The shrewd comparison did not always favor us, as the distinction between a coerced, government-enforced terror largely as he pointed out, against the folkways of the Germans, notoriously less anti-Semitic than most of their neighbors, and what we had here make plain. The second thing, in a footnote—added in 1953!—he explicitly draws attention to the plight of the Palestinian refugees, in the context of the larger human meaning of these events. Very impressive. Read the whole thing, as an illustration of what an American observer is capable of perceiving with imagination and alertness.

    The second source I can’t recommend too highly is W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction. I read it in translation; it created a sensation in German Intellectual circles. About the failure of Germany’s intelligentsia even to bear witness to what happened to their country under the bombing campaign, and after. Scathing reviews of contemporary literary responses, coupled with unforgettable scenes of horror from the very few who wrote honestly. The wartime mentality of the kind of people we naturally compare ourselves with, and imagine ourselves resembling.

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