On War Films and National Unification, or Why Ukraine Deserves a National Epic

Generation War is a three-part miniseries that unfolds over the course of five years, 1941 to 1945. It follows five German friends: a Jewish tailor, an aspiring actress, a nurse, and two Wehrmacht soldiers who are also brothers. It is a sentimental portrait of World War II, but also unsparing—everyone is punished for experiencing the war, and the more awful the choices the characters make, the more awful their fates.

The series came out in 2013, and many reviewers were careful to describe the ways in which Generation War was problematic. It generalizes and oversimplifies—in some ways, it does so in ways that border on trivialization. It makes extraordinary coincidences seem commonplace. People survive, albeit changed. The Poles are anti-Semites, and the Ukrainians are so brutal it makes the Nazis look merciful by comparison. Russians are enemies, rapists, and (ultimately) judge, jury, and executioners for the Germans who survive the war.

The series is, in short, a German story. The title, in German, loosely translated, reads “Our Fathers, Our Mothers.” While subtitled in different languages, the series is not targeting anyone else’s experience of World War II: it’s claiming to present a vision of the war as seen through the eyes of children and grandchildren. From this perspective, as a series, Generation War is successful—regardless of what occurred to people during World War II, this story is not for them—it’s not a story for Poles, or Ukrainians. In a certain sense, it’s not a story about The Holocaust, either, although that tragedy affected many German citizens.

German WWII pillbox in Kamyianets-Podilskyy; a town and region famous for another, much older castle. Ukraine’s history involves many different countries and cultures moving to and through its landscape, each leaving traces, but ultimately retreating.

Zinky Boys is a non-fiction collection of vignettes about the Soviet War in Afghanistan, by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich. Drawn from interviews and conversations with wounded veterans, widows, traumatized survivors and (most terribly) mothers of dead soldiers, Zinky Boys is the translation of a Russian term for the people brought back in sealed zinc coffins during the fighting: tsynkovay grobyi. It is reminiscent of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a similarly-conceived non-fiction project set in America’s intervention in Vietnam’s civil war. Zinky Boys offers damning testimony as to the criminally negligent conduct of the war, if not the foolishness of war itself—this testimony seems to have paralleled a push in the media to discredit the war. Many former citizens of the USSR still conflate media attacks on the military and the politicians responsible for the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan with the fall of the USSR. Zinky Boys has taken on a symbolic meaning that extends beyond the stories within. One could say that it’s a Soviet story about the collapse of the USSR, similar to how Generation War is a story told from the perspective of German children or grandchildren .

Different Perspectives on Similar Events

National storytelling is an important component of the modern nation-state. Growing up, I was taught to view these stories as essentially negative—manipulative, failed attempts to forge unity from a more sophisticated and complex world. These stories were supposed to be fundamentally untrue on a certain level. Deceptive, kitsch, bad art.

Watching Generation War in Ukraine, with a Ukrainian whose family had experienced World War II, I was aware of three perspectives—firstly, that of the series’ creators, who were making Generation War as a sentimental and national account of World War II from the German perspective. Secondly, that of the Ukrainian, who saw and noticed things of which I was unaware, and the series creators were also likely unaware. Thirdly, there was my own perspective, that of a German-American whose grandfathers both fought in the war (against Germany) for America. The overall effect of this was a paradoxical simultaneous appreciation for how the modern, ethnic nation-state has developed, as well as a clear understanding that these rigid definitions will always be vulnerable to change and evolution.

While WWII kitsch started almost as soon as the war ended, with movies like The Best Years of Our Lives offering redemptive and positive views for the future, in modern terms, the film and tv series that began the retrospective urge to understand were undoubtedly Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, both of which influenced Generation War. I think it’s fair to call Band of Brothers a type of series, now—a kind of story that a nation tells itself after the fighting is over to understand what happened. Band of Brothers was not the first miniseries of its kind, nor was it the last—it was non-fiction, and portrayed events (presumably as they happened) from history. Generation Kill, following a Marine unit during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is influenced by Band of Brothers (which was very kind to the Germans, and in fact allowed the Germans to determine its ethical heart, extraordinarily) as was another, less successful WWII series following the Marine Corps (Pacific).

Not every country focuses its attention on World War II as much as the USA—Russia, of course, focuses on one part of World War II, “The Great Patriotic War,” or everything that happened after Nazi Germany mounted an attack on them, and not including the two years they were allies of Nazi Germany. The USA and Russia are similar in the sense that World War II (or “The Great Patriotic War”) were experiences which no matter how traumatic during the fighting, became great stories of unification: the soil in which the seeds of national unity could be grown, profitably so. World War II was a sort of Bildungsroman for both the USA and the USSR as global powers.

Italy, Japan and Germany’s movies, series, and art about World War II are decidedly less positive and more circumspect. Not surprisingly, Jewish accounts of World War II focus far more on The Holocaust than any other aspect. And other countries pay far less attention to the event at all—for a variety of reasons, some of which are certainly economic, but also largely because WWII wasn’t formative for them in the same way it was for the USA (or the USSR). China springs immediately to mind as one such example.

Individual Experiences, and the Supposed Death of the Modern Nation

As a series that attempts to describe a type of experience representative of the status quo in Germany, Generation War works. As a series that describes every individual German’s experience of the war, or every Pole’s, or Ukrainian’s, or Russian’s, of course, it fails. One recent movie that sets out to describe how a solitary human moved through World War II and does so successfully—on a universal level—is the Hungarian film “Son of Saul.” Capably unpacked here, the movie uses The Holocaust historically and allegorically, to demonstrate how humans make difficult choices under impossible circumstances, and what value those choices have, on an individual level. This is not “Hungary’s” story, nor is it “the story of Jewish Holocaust survivors everywhere,” it is a story about a man who has lost his sense of purpose, and discovers that sense again, redeeming himself in the process.

Movies that speak to individuals regardless of their gender, class, ethnicity or religion are special, and help frame important questions that people have about the world around them. They can be set in a concentration camp or on another planet, in a squalid hovel or in a lavish mansion and they are equally useful. They point to the human experience.

Industrial-scale wars of the 19th and 20th century as well as genocides that occurred therein helped drive the first globally-significant secular transnational organizations. The failed “League of Nations,” the United Nations, the USSR, NATO and the European Union all responded to some war or another. Although they reflected competing ideological and political interests, the tendency throughout the 19th and 20th centuries seemed, until recently, to be away from national boundaries and national self-definition. Increasingly, the thinking was that nations didn’t necessarily have any particular right to exist—not really. Sovereignty depends on context, and relationships. And individual rights, especially in the light of The Holocaust, were more significant than the rights of the nations in which those individuals existed.

Return of the Nation-State Model

As it turns out, that thinking depended on faulty assumptions. Nations deserve to exist, and require their own art, their own movies and television series. I would not have thought or written this in 2013. Then, I would have claimed the contrary. It seemed, then, that defensive alliances like NATO were obsolete, and that as the prospect of wars of territorial ambition were soundly behind us, things like armies and nations should not exist. It seemed to me that the destruction of modern nation-states would lead inexorably to greater harmony for people, and for peoples. In other words, I was naïve. Others were, too.

America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Europe’s support of the Libyan insurrection of 2011 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 changed everything. Each of these events eroded the importance of sovereignty, and allowed individual nations to determine the fates of weaker nations, often over the vociferous and reasonable objections of other countries. But while Iraq and Libya came first, no single action did more to end the dream of a transnational or globalist  world than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Ukraine was a modern, European country that had relinquished a substantial nuclear arsenal and more or less willfully dismantled its military. Boats and planes were cannibalized to keep smaller fleets afloat and in the air, while, tanks and armored personnel carriers rusted from disuse. A massive Army shrank to 40,000 on paper, though perhaps only 20% of that in reality. Ukraine tripled down on the post-Cold War theory that nations would not attack one another for territory, and especially not great nations like Russia.

Not to put all the blame on Russia—the USA and Europe assured Ukraine that it would be protected. Ukraine, too, gambled that the world would be a fundamentally more stable and less violent place. Conversation in Europe and the U.S. turned to the violence of words and economic structures—microaggressions and neo-colonialism—and away from the idea of actual violence, done to us by others (this possibility, that others could do us violence, is why each “we,” each nation, has a police force and a military). President Obama’s weak and indecisive response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine convinced Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, that Russia could take without serious consequences beyond Western sanctions.

Between Russia’s attacks, and Europe and America’s inability to mount credible defenses of Ukraine, the hope for a peaceful post-national future was destroyed—at least, in my lifetime.

Ukraine Should Tell Its National Story

So if individuals can profit from good cinematic storytelling, but also countries, and countries are necessary, those nation-building (or critical) stories like Band of Brothers and Zinky Boys and Generation War are not just permissible, not just necessary, but actually good.

Living in Ukraine and hearing the stories of its many varied inhabitants, I’ve seen how groups of people without any ostensible similarities (people of Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, Greek, Czech, Khazak, and Turkish descent) can find common cause and community in resisting an external threat: in this case, Putin’s fascistic Russia. Ukraine is a country, now, in a way that it was not in 2010, and not in 1990. To say that Ukraine is not a country today is to be incorrect, factually, but also it is an act of violence against the Ukrainians who have made the place their home, together, regardless of the problems that come with the land and its government.

Ukraine could use a “nationalist” series about its own history, that stretches back to Scythian times, and moves forward through Kyiv Rus, through the Mongol occupation, through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the partition among Austria-Hungary and Russia, through World War I and World War II and the USSR, to the present moment. It is neither possible to write or produce such a work without diminishing individual narratives, nor can those individuals fail to take on a political or national significance that ends up functioning as propaganda. Nevertheless, for Ukraine to be its own country, it requires a national story, and that story should depend on the people who live there today.

This would require facing the Polish-Ukrainian wars of 1918-19 and 1944-46, one of which ended in defeat for Ukraine, and the other in defeat for Poland. It would require facing Ukrainians like Stepan Bandera, who sold out to the Nazis, and Bogdan Khmelnytsky, who sold out to Russia. It would require facing its anti-semitic history. It would require a great deal of fortitude and discipline, and (most difficult of all) it would require a serious, multi-year commitment from wealthy and obsessive backers, to do the story justice.

The alternative — that Ukraine continue to exist at the mercy of the nations and storytellers around it — should no longer be acceptable to Ukrainians. They have a nation that they’ve defended, that’s worth defending. They deserve the very best story to help people understand why.

Published by fancypencilhand


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