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The Emotional Impact of the Broadcast of "Holocaust," an American TV Miniseries, in the Federal Republic (1979)

The Jewish historian Julius H. Schoeps describes the emotional outpouring prompted by the broadcast of the American miniseries “Holocaust,” which forced German audiences to confront the human dimension of the Nazis’ mass murder. The film dramatized the fate of doctor Josef Weiss and in doing so heightened the sympathy for Hitler’s victims.

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Fear of the Past?
Notes on the Reaction to “Holocaust”

No one had expected this kind of reaction to “Holocaust.” That a commercial television-movie made for American audiences managed to stir the feelings of the population of the Federal Republic is a sensation of the first order. Before it was broadcast, officials at WDR [West German Broadcasting] assumed that a few telephone calls would come in, but felt that the number of calls would not exceed the usual level (it was followed by a call-in forum). Members of the editorial panel, whose job it was to evaluate incoming calls for the follow-up discussion, also believed, even shortly before the broadcast, that things would go no worse than usual and that they had some relatively calm evenings in front of them. [ . . . ]

Several hours before the broadcast began, the first callers started checking in, complaining that the film was being shown in Germany at all. The slant was clearly negative. The weeks of cheap propaganda against the film, the charge of trivialization, and the allegations of a lack of authenticity and credibility were reflected in the opinions of the callers, who criticized the film without having seen it. After about the first half hour of the movie, the trend changed. The film was having an effect. The calls, which were registered on large index cards by telephone operators, showed that viewers were increasingly taking an interest in the fate of the family of the Jewish doctor Josef Weiss.

Anyone who took note of the initial telephone response to the film was left with the surprising impression that there had been no sustained discussion in the Federal Republic of the Nazi past up to that time. To denote the trend of the calls, I wrote on a small piece of paper: “Strong emotionality – with increasing tendency.” Most calls revolved around the concepts of “forgetting,” “guilt,” and “How could it have come to that?” I could not help feeling that many callers felt the need to talk with someone to let out their feelings of sadness, consternation, and shame. When I asked some of the young people who were busy answering the constant stream of calls for their first impressions, they said they had never experienced anything like it, they almost had the feeling they were offering “spiritual counseling.” [ . . . ]

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