Forty years ago this week, on January 22, 1979, West German regional TV stations began to broadcast a four-part American miniseries which forever changed the way Germans confronted the Holocaust.
No one could have predicted the impact of the drama "Holocaust," originally broadcast by NBC in the U.S. a year earlier. The miniseries had been created above all for an American audience, and NBC had been looking for the right kind of "story" to replicate the success of ABC’s blockbuster drama "Roots." It was certainly no coincidence that Marvin J. Chomsky, the co-director of "Roots," also directed "Holocaust," which starred Meryl Streep, James Woods, Michael Moriarty, among others.
Critics were hardly enthusiastic about the drama, which portrayed the suffering of the fictional German-Jewish Weiss family, and the transformation of an unemployed lawyer, Erik Dorf, into one of the architects of the Holocaust. After its original broadcast in April 1978, Holocaust survivors like Elie Wiesel called it "untrue, offensive, cheap" and a "soap-opera." To others, it was "Hollywood kitsch."
Critics chastised Meryl Streep’s overacting and attacked the series for its obviously fabricated plot: its focus on a single family, which experienced all the horrors of the Holocaust, from the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, forced sterilization, "euthanasia" killings, the Babi Yar Massacre, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, to the labor and death camps. Some also argued that the wealthy and assimilated family of German-Jewish doctors was hardly representative of the millions of East European Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
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Yet "Holocaust" struck a chord, first in the United States, then in Germany. It was precisely the choice of protagonists that allowed many viewers to relate to and identify with the Weiss family, in which many viewers could recognize aspects of themselves or their neighbors. In the United States, more than 100 million viewers watched the miniseries.
It coincided with - and catalyzed - a much larger wave of Holocaust commemoration, which saw the introduction of Holocaust education in schools and colleges or the founding of the institution that would become the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
The first Germans to learn about the plans for the miniseries were diplomats stationed in the U.S. They were immediately alarmed, and feared that a television show about the Holocaust could severely damage Germany’s reputation abroad. Even though they decided not to publicly speak out against it, they distributed widely public relations materials about the efforts of postwar Germany to make good on the Nazi past.
In West Germany proper, leading politicians and journalists opposed what they considered a commercialized and Americanized miniseries about "gas chambers a la Hollywood."
Unsurprisingly, the acquisition of the miniseries for German television was highly controversial. As a result, it was not broadcast on the nationwide "first" channel, but through the network of regional "third" channels from January 22, 1979 onwards.
Nevertheless, its impact in Germany was tremendous. About 20 million Germans watched at least parts of the program, equal to almost half the population of 14 and older. A shock wave went through German society. Holocaust created debates, controversies, and conversations between generations. Thousands of viewers called or wrote to the television channels, expressing shame and regret, but also denial and rejection.
In fact, Germans had up to this point been obsessed with Hitler and other Nazi leaders, but had hardly shown any interest in the victims. That changed after the broadcast. The miniseries also established the term "Holocaust" to describe the mass murder of Jews, directed the attention of historians to everyday life under the Nazi regime, and shaped a major legislative debate that resulted in a decision, which allows German courts to prosecute Nazi perpetrators to this day.
From today’s perspective, "Holocaust" marked a milestone in the evolvement of a well-established and professionalized infrastructure of Holocaust commemoration, research, and education in Germany.
Yet there are clear indicators that the established consensus on the centrality of the Holocaust for German national identity is eroding. Like other countries, Germany faces the growing temporal distance and the passing of the last generation of survivors and witnesses.
According to a 2017 poll, for instance, roughly 40 percent of German high school students cannot explain what happened in Auschwitz. And a CNN poll from late 2018 revealed that only about 43 percent of all Germans think that "commemorating the Holocaust helps to combat anti-Semitism today."
Moreover, leading representatives of Germany’s growing right-wing political party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), consider Holocaust memory an expression of national shame, call the Third Reich a "speck of birdshit" on a thousand years of glorious German history, and call for more recognition of the achievements of the Wehrmacht. These are not the voices of a fringe group. The AfD, which secured 94 seats in the Bundestag in the 2017 national elections, has a good chance to win several state elections in 2019.
Maybe German society needs another cathartic confrontation with its history and itself. When regional channels broadcast "Holocaust" again, on the occasion of its 40th anniversary in early January this year, it was an exercise in nostalgia rather than an effort to launch a new debate on the meaning of the Holocaust in the present. Today, the dated miniseries seems like a relic from another era - no match for the expectations of viewers accustomed to hyper-realistic period dramas à la Netflix or HBO.
In contrast to the late 1970s, Germany’s media or the relevant politicians do not lack the will or the courage to address the subject. But apparently they lack ideas: how to translate the history of the Holocaust into a narrative that creates new interest and intense debates, speaks to an increasingly diverse population, and deals with pressing current issues such as xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism.
Jacob Eder is a historian and Humboldt Foundation fellow at New York University. He is the author of "Holocaust Angst: The Federal Republic of Germany and American Holocaust Memory Since the 1970s." Twitter: @ederjac
This op-ed was first published on January 24, 2019