Some 11 million Germans tuned in to the first of a two-part series on public broadcaster ARD Sunday night to watch a TV drama showing Germans as victims of violence as they fled eastern Europe at the end of World War II.
The first part of "Die Flucht" ("March of Millions") garnered the best ratings of the year and ARD's best in 10 years on Sunday night, and while German officials praised the film as a key milestone in dealing with the country's past.
The drama begin in 1944 and centers on a fictional countess Lena of Mahlenberg who leaves Berlin for her home in East Prussia to care for her father and the family's manor as the Soviet army approaches.
Just before the front reaches her home, Lena, like thousands of other mainly women and children, flees for southern Germany, enduring a bitter winter and Soviet bombs.
Concerns over dramatizing history
Conservative Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, however, expressed concern about the dramatization of history.
"Any attempt to revise the history of World War Two needs to be watched carefully," he told reporters on Monday, saying such a revision posed a danger to Poland and Europe. "I hope the process in Germany will be stopped."
The film's producers and actors said they intended for the film, whose second installment will be broadcast Monday, to strike a chord with viewers.
"I hope our film contributes to young and old people talking to each other about the worst chapter of German history," said actress Maria Furtwängler, who plays the countess Lena.
Director Kai Wessel, however, said he did not think attention would focus so closely on where guilt lays or vengeance, adding that he had only wanted to create a personal film that stayed true to the victims' perspective.
German suffering long a taboo topic
Germans have long shied away from discussing their 14 million countrymen who fled the Soviet army or were expelled after the Allies allowed their eviction from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Historians estimate that some 2 million people died or were killed in the flight that began when the fall of the Nazi regime became clear in 1944.
Culture Minister Bernd Neumann was among the Germans lauding the film, which also shows Soviet troops shooting children and raping women, as a cinematic achievement that brought the plight of German expellees to light.
"No one wants to offset one side's suffering against the other," Margot Kässmann, a German Protestant church leader, told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper as a debate erupted over why Germans have long been silent.
"But reconciliation will only be possible when those guilty acknowledge their crimes and victims get a chance to tell their stories," added Kässmann, whose family was among the refugees.
Latest in chain of TV dramas
Afraid it could be misconstrued as lessening the atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II, other political leaders have avoided the issue of German suffering. A similar debate over whether Germans could be portrayed as victims ensued last year when "Dresden," a TV series on the firebombing of the eastern German city, earned high ratings.
"It was a national trauma and 60 years later, it was time to make a film seen from the victims' point of view," said Jan Mojto, a Slovak national and head of Munich-based EOS film, which co-produced the nine-million-euro ($11.7-million) project.
A Berlin museum about the expelled Germans that opened last year also sparked controversy. Polish leaders said it was an attempt by Germans to portray themselves as victims of a war they started.
"The problem in our view is not that the issue is being discussed, but how," Marek Cichocki, foreign policy adviser to Polish President Lech Kaczynski, told a German TV talk show on Sunday. "It focuses on individuals but blots out the bigger picture. It's disturbing that so much emphasis is on individual (suffering), not the broader history."
The Welt am Sonntag newspaper said the drama was careful not to take sides.
"Germans are treated as both criminals and victims," it wrote. "It doesn't pass judgment but rather depicts all the horrors. That's a prudent approach because there are no obvious answers."DW staff (sms)