US Television Series “Holocaust” Aired in West Germany



Media & Culture

With its export to West Germany in 1978, the US television miniseries Holocaust attracts wide publicity and prompts a rethinking of Germany’s Nazi history and questions of responsibility in relation to it.

In the late 1970s, the television miniseries was introduced in the US as an alternative to the long-established genre of “daily soaps”. This new format was able to take up and explore more difficult themes, often with historical backgrounds, in such a way that could generate a broad public discussion. Thus, the broadcaster NBC commissioned the screenwriter Gerald Green and the director Marvin Chomsky to create a miniseries dealing with the history of the Holocaust. According to NBC’s concept, dramatic series of events were to be given priority over historical accuracy. Scenes were shot on location in West Germany and Austria. Thus, for example, the Berliner district of Wedding stood in for the Warsaw Ghetto.

In four parts, the lives of two German families during the period of the Nazi regime are depicted. The narrative spans the years 1935 to 1945. In it the story of the Jewish family Weiss is meant to be representative of the Jews persecuted and murdered under the Nazi regime, while the story of the Catholic family Dorf is to reflect the role of the perpetrators.

In West Germany in the 1970s, there had not yet developed a broad willingness to deal with the Nazi past, or questions of involvement or complicity in it within one’s own family. Many bemoaned the loss of “traditional values” and were not prepared to answer for their former deeds or misdeeds. By moving the perspective away from that of anonymous mass-murder and focussing on the destinies of individual characters, Holocaust spurred the first major public reckoning with the Nazi past in both the US and West Germany, especially among those who had not experienced themselves or in their families the persecution and terror firsthand. Between 15 and 20 million people watched the series as it aired. The name of the series, “holocaust”, which means so much as “fully burnt” or “burnt offering”, quickly established itself in West Germany as the common designation for what had previously been referred to as “the genocide of the Jews”.

Nonetheless, the series was also criticized. The Jewish historian, author and Shoah survivor Elie Wiesel, for example, described the series as trivial for dealing, as he charged, with stereotypes on the side of the victims as well as that of the perpetrators. Furthermore, Wiesel argued that only the survivors of the Holocaust had the right to tell its story; the format of a fictional series containing historical inaccuracies in the name of a dramatic plot was in his eyes completely inappropriate. The fact that both families in the miniseries live through all manner of key moments in the history of the Nazi regime, which in reality would have been impossible, also drew criticism.