THE BLOG
03/05/2014 10:26 am ET | Updated May 05, 2014

The Long Shadows of War

This month the Nazis are back in the news and in the movies. Have they ever been really gone? A 110-year-old Holocaust survivor dies, an old Nazi war criminal gets caught, and letters of one of the most vicious top Nazi criminals are found. Last fall the discovery of hundreds of famous masterpieces that were amassed during WWII and stashed away in the basement of the son of a former art dealer from Munich stunned the art world. That couldn't be topped even by George Clooney's new film, Monuments Men (about the true story of a group of assigned Americans looking for looted art in wartime Germany).

And now, a two-part German historical drama, Generation War -- hailed in Germany as an "event" and the most important film about WWII ever (and a huge success on German TV, sold to 60 countries), and praised as a kind of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers rolled in one -- is on limited screens in America (Los Angeles, Washington, Boston) within the next few weeks.

All of it being a reminder of the surprisingly long shadows this unforgettable war has cast.

I am a postwar German who grew up in a still-guilt-ridden, devastated and bombed-out Germany. It isn't really surprising to me that the fascination with National Socialism and WWII never really lets up. Like me, a rather huge part of the world grew up with mesmerizing graphic depictions of WWII, with marching Nazis, swastikas, Hitler and the Holocaust. All have long become indelible images, engraved in our collective memory as the unsurpassed epitome of evil -- to which all other evils pale when compared. Another reason for its longevity is the still puzzling conundrum that lies at the heart of the Third Reich and the road to destruction, accompanied by delirious "Heil"-screamers and marching jackboots. All of which is rather amazing, considering that the war has been over for almost 70 years and has been discussed, dissected, analyzed and categorized for equally long.

The much truer original title of the German film is Our Mothers, Our Fathers, and takes mostly place during the war in Nazi Germany and the battle in Stalingrad. And it is the young women and men -- my parents' generation -- that turned by and large into the notoriously silent generation that avoided to talk about that shameful past with their children. As a result, most of my own generation, even though being the "innocent" offspring, weren't willing -- or prepared -- to confront this repressed but still present trauma, thus never asking the classic question of "What did you do in the War, Daddy?"

I was lucky that my parents' personal history was unusual in that my mom was a Lithuanian refugee, my dad an actor who refused to be a soldier and wear a uniform -- and both hated the Nazis. Maybe that's why I wasn't afraid to finally asked my parents about life in war-times.

The movie Generation War, for all its flaws and deserved criticism, does accomplish one simple, important mission: to show the devastating cruelty of war(s). When I interviewed my parents 28 years ago (my most treasured memento now that they are dead) and wrote a book about it, I found their final assessment of the horror a bit one-dimensional: "That we survived at all!" Certainly an understandable notion when surrounded by bombs, death and despair.

I think now that I might not have fully grasped the fear, the horror and hopelessness of the war years and have therefore come to feel much more compassion, even admiration, and sadness, for the doomed former "Reichsbürger," especially those who didn't support the Nazis and yet were forced by birth and fate to have lived under their cruel totalitarian regime.

The sad thing is that wars and genocides are far from being over and have long ceased to be exclusively German. A look at the daily news confirms the sad and tragic fact. There are -- and tragically will be -- still so many wars, still so many children and generations to come, wondering what their fathers (or mothers) did or didn't do in whatever big or small war was -- and is -- raging. And there are still too many parents not forthcoming enough with true stories, heart-wrenching as they might be.

Because the unfortunate truth is: When wars are over, the memories and pain go underground. Yet, legacies, especially the repressed ones, are passed on anyway and will hurt and haunt even the most innocent offspring.

It was a surprise to discover eventually that nothing has shaped me more than the war I didn't have to live through. I still feel the impact and the traces my parents' generation left in us, the often rebellious offspring of the late '60s.

Alice Herz-Sommer, that 110-year-old classical musician and Holocaust survivor, is also the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life. She lived through Theresienstadt, the "nice, cultivated" camp the Nazis liked to show off to the world as proof of how well Jews were treated -- and lived to tell the truth. What a beautiful triumph. She explained that hatred doesn't keep you alive but a love for life. But forgetting? Never. As long as I live there will always be Nazis, their crimes and those shocking images around to remind me of a distant past that doesn't go away easily. And maybe it shouldn't.

Sabine Reichel is the author of the postwar memoir, What Did You Do in The War, Daddy? Growing Up German.

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