Robert Brent Toplin has published several books on history, politics and cinema. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and, since his retirement, has taught occasional courses at the University of Virginia. Its website is www.presentetpast.com
Meryl Streep in Holocaust, CNB, 1978
In a fascinating book, Learning from the Germans: Race and Evil Memory (2019), philosopher Susan Neiman congratulates the German people for accepting their country’s role in the Holocaust. The calculation took time, reports Neiman. For a few decades after World War II, there was not much discussion or public teaching on the subject in Germany. In the late 1970s, however, a significant change occurred. The Germans began to treat the toll of Nazi persecution more openly and frankly.
A visitor to present-day Germany can find many examples of this “memory”, notes Susan Neiman. There is a Holocaust memorial in central Berlin and there are “stumbling blocks”, small brass plaques around the city indicating where Jews and other victims of the Nazis lived before the deportation. Holocaust exhibits can be found all over the country, and educational programs in Buchenwald and other concentration camps describe horrific practices at these sites. On the anniversaries of tragic events, such as the Kristallnacht, Germany organizes “public rites of repentance”. Neiman says Americans can learn to deal with their nation’s troubling history of slavery and racial oppression by considering Germany’s progress in the face of unpleasant facts about the past.
Why did the curiosity and interest of the German people in the Holocaust increase in the late 1970s? Years ago, I discovered an important clue to this change in attitude while researching for my 2002 book, The Story of the Reel: In Defense of Hollywood. While working on a chapter titled “Impact,” I examined story-driven drama films that have significantly influenced public opinion and behavior. During this investigation, I came across details regarding Holocaut, an American-made miniseries released by NBC in the United States in 1978. Subsequent programming in Britain, France and Sweden attracted large audiences. The biggest buzz and public debate has taken place in Germany.
Holocaust is a four-part docudrama with mostly fictional characters. Among her stars is Meryl Streep, then a young actress at the start of an extraordinary career. At the center of the story is a kind and respected Jewish doctor, Josef Weiss, and his extended family. Weiss’ nemesis is Erik Dorf, an unemployed lawyer who joined the Nazis. Eventually, Dorf becomes the deputy of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main leaders of the “final solution”. At the end of the film, most of Josef Weiss’s family perish. The story exposes viewers to major historical developments from 1935 to 1945, including the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, the concentration camps, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
When Holocaust became available for West German television in 1979, some German television executives did not want to broadcast the film. One of them complained that he represented “cheap commercialism” in a soap opera format. One program director called the typical Hollywood entertainment production “not quite real, not quite true”. Despite resistance from the leaders, the program appeared on local television channels and became an instant hit. About half of the population of West Germany watched some or all of the series’ programs, and many people in East Germany managed to watch it thanks to the on-air reception. About 30,000 viewers called the TV stations to request information. They asked: How could this have happened? How many people knew?
The film had a significant impact on German society. A few months after its broadcast, West Germany abolished the Nazi war crimes statute of limitations. Media attention to the film sparked a “historians’ debate”, leading academics to clash over questions about the lessons learned from the history of German society under the Nazis. Educational leaders responded to the public interest by developing new courses for schools.
Books and documentary films on the Nazis and the Holocaust appeared in Germany before 1979, but they did not arouse the level of curiosity and interest that the miniseries aroused. Several media analysts in Germany pointed out the powerful effect of the dramatic film. Viewers became emotionally attached to the characters. They were shocked to see the indifference of the Germans to human suffering and to see Jewish figures harassed or shot down in brutal actions. Previous reports on this tragic story provided only names and numbers, analysts noted. This production showed the impact of historical events in graphic form. The victims appeared to be real people. The public worried about the fate of the Jewish figures.
Susan Neiman makes a good point in her book. Americans, who are now struggling to recognize their country’s history of racial oppression and want to do something about it, can learn from Germany’s progress towards “remembering.” Yet Americans’ recognition of the evils of history is not as limited as Neiman suggests. “Hollywood”, the generic name for America’s vast film and video industry, has made valuable contributions to humanitarian revivals. Holocaust helped Germans confront their troubled past, and in another notable example, Hollywood confronted Americans with demons from their history.
Marvin J. Chomsky, the director of Holocaust, touched the hearts of American viewers when an emotionally powerful drama aired on ABC Television in 1977, a year before the release of Holocaust. Roots, a mini-series on the experience of Africans and African Americans in slavery, attracted huge audiences. The fourth and final program of Roots became the most watched episode of an American television show in history until that time. Chomsky Roots did for the American people this Holocaust made for the Germans. The film prompted viewers to ask questions and seek out information about a story less familiar than it should have been.