Horror on an unprecedented scale engulfed Europe in the 1940s, but it was only after the smoke had cleared that the true scope of the brutality came into focus. Millions across the continent were dead, tens of millions displaced, and whole nations found themselves on the brink of annihilation. In the decades since the end of the war, much attention has been justifiably been paid to the victims of the Nazi ambitions that ravaged Europe, but oftentimes the German civilian suffering has been ignored or forgotten.
A new documentary from Vox seeks to address this oversight on the eve of the 70 anniversary of V-E Day. 1945 – 12 Städte, 12 Schicksale features the experiences of 12 different cities in the immediate aftermath of the war through the lens of archival footage and interviews with survivors and historians. In order to learn more the experiences of the German civilians featured in the series, I sat down with Sabine Wilmes, an editor at Vox, who was in charge of the development of the documentary.
German Way: What was the genesis of this project?
Sabine Wilmes: First of all, it’s the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two. We wanted to contribute something to commemorate the date. Vox has produced several long documentary series lately, and our aim is to produce something really special for the German TV landscape, a landmark series. Our partner, Speigel TV, they came across a treasure of material in the National Archives in Washington. They discovered material that was filmed by the US Air Force from March – June 1945. They had sent out several film teams to film the destruction is several German cities. This was the basis for the idea to tell these stories.
GW: Can you say a little about the structure of the documentary?
SW: The series will be presented by Steffen Halaschka, with a new city being presented every hour, for 12 in total. We used the Air Force material to gain insight into the towns, then explored individual themes that relate to each city.
GW: What are some examples of these themes?
SW: For instance, Cologne was almost completely destroyed, because in the last three years of the war it was attacked constantly by British bombers. People lived in bunkers or shelters most of the time, and it was almost impossible to lead a regular life. We found several people who lived in the town at the time who told us what it was like. So the theme of that hour is the total destruction of a city. The hour on Pilsen is about the revenge on the Germans in the eastern regions of the country and the flight of people from the eastern part of the country from the Soviet Army. The film tells about the hardship and the hunger and all the difficulties and brutalities that they suffered during their flight.
Another highlight is about Amsterdam. This part is about a boy who suffered a similar fate to Anne Frank. He was a Jewish boy who had to hide himself, just like she had to. He was also discovered, but he wasn’t killed or transported to a concentration camp, because at that time (at the end of the war) no trains were running. So it was only by chance that he survived.
GW: Are there any other interesting individuals whose stories are profiled?
SW: One example is the story of the German actor Hardy Krüger. His story takes place in Plauen. He was one of the child soldiers, and he went to an elite academy called a NAPOLA designed to educate students in Nazi ideology. He talks about what life was like there and how hard it was; for instance, you had to apply for this school, and the test was very cruel, all about proving your bravery. They had to cross a lake underwater and the lake was frozen, so they had to swim under the ice and find their way out, otherwise, that was it. And he somehow managed, of course, to find his way out, and then he became one of them.
They were drilled and prepared for a career in the army, and in the end of the war, he was one of the 16 year olds who were sent into battle. And, of course, even though they had been prepared for war, they weren’t up to what happened in the last few months, and many of them died, and he lost many friends. It’s a very touching scene when he talks about the many times when he was ordered to kill someone but he couldn’t. Somehow, he wasn’t shot for this, even though he should have followed these orders. He also discusses the time when he killed an officer who had shot one of his friends, and how this terrible moment followed him for the rest of his life.
GW: This documentary focuses almost exclusively on the German perspective of the end of the war. Why did you decide to take this approach?
SW: Well, first, we’re using the American material as a basis, but we don’t have any American soldiers or historians, so it’s definitely the German perspective. But our aim was to show the everyday lives of the people who lived at this time, to show something really personal, and to show their different feelings and emotions and how differently people reacted to the end of the war. Some were shocked, some were relieved and happy. There’s one woman who even tried to kill herself after she heard that Hitler was dead. Life just didn’t make sense to her any more. This is something we just can’t understand from our point of view, but it’s interesting to hear these diverse perspectives.
1945 – 12 Städte, 12 Schicksale will air on Saturday, April 25 on Vox from 12:00 – 24:00. Episodes will also be available on demand for international viewers at Vox.de.