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The Holocaust as Secular Religion. Apologia and Redemption on German Television Today

Mon, December 17, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Beacon Hill 1 Complex

Abstract

Representations of the Nazi past in Germany resemble a secular religion. Recent German public television miniseries such as “Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter” reveal shifts in how popular media depict war crimes and the Holocaust. This paper argues that apologia and redemption are the hallmark of these shifts and their religious connotations render acceptable a politicized version of the past.
While acknowledging the complicity of ordinary Germans in war crimes and genocide, the miniseries wrap the moral failure of their non-Jewish protagonists in familiar apologetic narratives. They reference the seductive power of the regime and the brutality of war to contextualize the protagonists’ actions. If apologetic themes dominate the portrayal of the main characters, stereotypical Nazi villains serve as negative foils to showcase the heroes' humanity even in the face of heinous crimes. Jewish characters, whose fate is intertwined with the story of the non-Jewish protagonists, also confirm their humanity. The miniseries thus categorically acquit their protagonists from anti-Semitism, sexual and autotelic violence, which would render them unacceptable to viewers today. Worse still, the miniseries externalize these kinds of violence by depicting Ukrainian auxiliaries in German service as well as Polish partisans as anti-Semitic while the roles of random killers and rapists are reserved for Soviet soldiers. Furthermore, the films include various twists to show that the main characters redeem themselves through their suffering, their belated self-liberation from the regime and their sincere repentance.
Embedding their stories in apologia and redemption as ideas with deeply religious connotations, the miniseries seek to fulfill, not go against, the expectations of contemporary viewers and instrumentalize the past as a secular religion.

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