Holocaust: How a US TV series changed Germany

  • Published
Still from Holocaust TV seriesImage source, Alamy
Image caption,
The mini-series dramatised the Nazi genocide through the fictional story of the Weiss family

It was big-budget, American TV starring Meryl Streep. And in 1979 the mini-series Holocaust transformed how Germans saw their own history.

It brought the horrors of Nazi crimes into people's living rooms and turned the word "Holocaust" into a commonly-used term in the German language.

This month the drama has been shown again on German TV - and it is as relevant as ever.

A third of West Germany's population, some 20 million people, watched at least some of the four-part series in 1979.

Holocaust tells the story of a fictional Jewish family - Josef Weiss, a successful Berlin doctor, and his wife and children - charting their tragic journey from bourgeois affluence to the gas chambers.

A parallel story focuses on Erik Dorf, an unemployed lawyer, who is initially apolitical, but gets a job with Hitler's SS and becomes part of the Nazi killing machine.

Social impact of seeing victims of Nazis

The series sparked a national debate. Surveys show that 86% of viewers discussed the Holocaust with friends or family after watching the programme.

Ten thousand Germans called the broadcaster WDR afterwards, many in tears, to express their shock and shame. In some cases former soldiers got in touch to confirm the details of Nazi crimes.

Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
Meryl Streep played a Christian woman, Inga, married to one of the Weiss sons

This was the first time that a major mainstream drama had portrayed the lives of Hitler's victims.

Until then, serious documentaries had dealt with facts and figures, and during the 1960s the debate focused primarily on perpetrators - sparked in part by the Auschwitz trials, held in Frankfurt between 1963 and 1965.

"Survivors came to the Auschwitz trials and journalists didn't even interview them. No-one cared about the victims. That changed with (the TV series) Holocaust," says historian Prof Frank Bösch.

He has written a book (Zeitenwende 1979) about key events of 1979 that transformed the world. He believes this TV drama is one of them, alongside the Iranian Revolution and the election of Margaret Thatcher.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Soviet troops liberated starving survivors at Auschwitz in January 1945

The Holocaust mini-series tells emotional personal stories of everyday people - easy for viewers to identify with and accessible to mainstream society.

Unusually, perpetrators are not demonised as freakishly diabolical sadists, but appear as ordinary Germans, cogs in the Nazi machine, who contributed to the Holocaust through small everyday acts of cruelty or cowardice.

Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
Actor James Woods (C) played Jewish artist Karl Weiss, married to Inga

The series was controversial and almost never came to Germany. It was made by the American TV station NBC and in 1978 watched by 120 million Americans.

But German commentators slammed the series, calling it a kitsch melodramatic soap opera that trivialised the Shoah (Holocaust).

Left-wingers accused US broadcasters of cynically exploiting Nazi crimes for the sake of TV ratings. Right-wing nationalists complained that German war victims were being forgotten.

Neo-Nazis even bombed two television transmitters in an attempt to stop the broadcasts in Germany.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Karl Weiss suffers Nazi brutality in Buchenwald concentration camp

The series still has its critics today: some Holocaust survivors have said the drama is sanitised and simplistic. But it has transformed how Germany deals with its Nazi past.

Initially some German officials feared the series would spark anti-German sentiment abroad, says Prof Bösch. But the national soul-searching provoked by the drama has led to respect for how Germany faces up to its past crimes.

A few months after the series was broadcast, Germany scrapped the statute of limitations for murder, to enable Nazis to be tried for their participation in the Holocaust.

And the nationwide debate led to a thirst for more knowledge. During the 1980s schools demanded more teaching material, German historians started focusing more on the Holocaust, and concentration camps opened the first major exhibitions and memorials.

A timely reminder for Germans

Now, as the mini-series comes to an end on TV, Germany has been reassessing how the drama changed the country 40 years ago.

Remembrance of the Holocaust and the words "never again" have become key principles of modern Germany's political identity.

But the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) says Germans should now move on and draw a line under that culture of commemoration.

Last year AfD leader Alexander Gauland described Nazi rule as "mere bird droppings in over 1,000 years of successful German history".

And less than half of German 14-16 year olds know what Auschwitz was, according to a survey by the Körber Foundation.

Forty years after Holocaust was first broadcast in Germany, accessible dramas that highlight Nazi crimes are still needed.