Greta (Katharina Schuettler) walks through a prison in a scene from "Our Mothers, Our Fathers." Millions have tuned in to watch the series, which follows five young Germans through one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.


BERLIN - With the wartime generation rapidly disappearing, a television drama about five young Germans in World War II has revived debate in Germany about the role ordinary men and women played in the Nazis' murderous campaign to conquer Europe.

Millions tuned in last week to watch the three-part series "Our Mothers, Our Fathers," which follows five young Germans - two brothers, a nurse, an aspiring female singer and a Jewish tailor - as they struggle through one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.

Three of the characters, including the Jew, survive - disillusioned and physically broken - to confront each other and their own demons in the final episode in the ruins of Berlin.

The series begins in 1941, as the Nazis launch their doomed assault on the Soviet Union, with each character slowly realizing that the world they believed in is falling apart. The brothers learn that the German army isn't as noble as they thought; the nurse regrets betraying a Jewish colleague; the singer's liaison with an SS member turns sour; and the Jew has to fight his fellow Germans to survive.

The mixed reactions to the series underscore how, nearly 70 years after World War II, the conflict remains a source of bitterness in Europe, even for people born after the fighting ended.

Many critics have praised the series as a milestone in Germany's troubled reckoning with its past and an overdue examination of individual guilt in the war. But the drama's depiction of Polish resistance fighters as anti-Semites and Russian soldiers raping the German nurse have drawn particularly angry reactions in Eastern Europe, which suffered the most from the slaughter.

In Germany, meanwhile, some accuse the film of sidelining the Holocaust and depicting Germans as victims rather than a nation responsible for starting a war and committing genocide.

"A film about World War II that omits the bothersome question of six million dead Jews," remarked columnist Jennifer Nathalie Pyka in Juedische Allgemeine, Germany's leading Jewish weekly.

Jan Sueselbeck, a researcher at the University of Marburg, said the series reflects wishful thinking rather than historical facts. The drama glosses over Adolf Hitler's rise to power and the outbreak of war by beginning the story in 1941, two years into the European conflict.

"This film depicts Germans once more the way they would like to have been, but in fact the broad masses were never like that," Sueselbeck said.

On Wednesday, Poland's ambassador to Berlin, Jerzy Marganski, slammed the series in a letter sent to German public television station ZDF, which broadcast the 14 million-euro production.

"The image of Poland and the Polish resistance against the German occupiers as conveyed by this series is perceived by most Poles as extremely unjust and offensive," Marganski wrote. "I, too, am shocked."

Among other criticisms, Marganski said viewers learn nothing of the Warsaw uprising, in which up to 200,000 Polish civilians died, nor of the many Poles who helped Jews. Producer Nico Hofmann said the depictions of "the Polish situation … are based on historically vetted material" and there was no intention to defame the Poles.

The series also includes an improbable ending in which the Jewish character, Viktor, survives the war but his German lover Greta is executed after trying to save him.

The only American shown is a cigar-chomping officer who ignores Viktor's anguished protest against forgiving a former SS member in the post-war West German administration.

Many Germans born after the war remain largely ignorant of what their parents did because, like many combat veterans or survivors, the elders don't want to talk about it.

Hofmann said one of his goals was to encourage a national debate among the generations "to speak for the first time about the experience" of the war. He said the third and final episode drew a 20.5 percent market share among viewers aged 14-59 years, which he described as "extremely high" for ZDF.