Family-history TV digs up bitter German past
30 July 2007, Berlin (dpa) - The success of a British television programme in which celebrities investigate their ancestry has prompted a German broadcaster to copy the concept, but what do the celebs say if their ancestors turn out to have been Nazis? The BBC programme, Who Do You Think You Are?, premiered in 2004 and gained such big audiences that a fourth series is set to air this September. In each programme, a famous actor or TV personality discovers what their ancestors did in two World Wars, then ex
30 July 2007
Berlin (dpa) - The success of a British television programme in which celebrities investigate their ancestry has prompted a German broadcaster to copy the concept, but what do the celebs say if their ancestors turn out to have been Nazis?
The BBC programme, Who Do You Think You Are?, premiered in 2004 and gained such big audiences that a fourth series is set to air this September.
In each programme, a famous actor or TV personality discovers what their ancestors did in two World Wars, then explores places where forebears lived in the 19th century and meets up with previously unknown cousins.
Often the trail leads abroad and provides some of the most gripping footage in the shows: English actress Julia Sawalha, for example, went to Jordan to meet Bedouin relatives in their tents.
Transposing the programme to Germany creates a problem, as Germans are ashamed of their Nazi parents and grandparents.
Discovering a rabid Nazi in the family tree is often enough to put people off any further inquiries. Still, there were no inhibitions on the two shows which were aired this month by public channel ZDF.
Walter Sittler, 54, a German actor, already knew that his father, Edward Sittler, had been a US academic who moved to Nazi Germany before World War II, adopted German citizenship and wrote propaganda for dictator Adolf Hitler's Information Office.
After exploring his father's misdeeds, the actor investigated how the Sittler family had emigrated from the Alsace region to the United States.
He followed up his grandmother lines of ancestry leading to England and cousins who had lived in Burma, now known as Myanmar.
ZDF said 1.26 million people or 8 per cent of the viewers watched his warts-and-all journey into the past on Wednesday.
The other featured German celebrity, actress Mariele Millowitsch, 51, comes from a theatrical family in Cologne. She dug up movie footage of her father doing comedy shows for jack-booted Nazi German officers during World War II.
Millowitsch looked vexed as she watched, but said she could not believe her father Willy had been a committed Nazi.
She supposed he had just been earning his living out of Hitler's Kraft durch Freude (strength through joy) entertainment subsidies.
Along the way, she did discover one relation who had stood up to Hitler: her late Austrian great-uncle Stefan, who lost his executive job and was thrown in jail because he refused to employ Nazis.
The rest of the programme, aired July 18, delved into the obscure but fascinating pre-1933 history of the Millowitsch family, who progressed through the 19th century from doing puppet shows to building their own live theatre.
A spokesman said ZDF had made no decision about whether to do more programmes.
The BBC series prompted huge numbers of Britons to head for the archives, dig up their ancestors' vital data and then flesh out the stories of their lives and times.
Companies such as Ancestry Inc. have digitized vast stores of 19th century records and put them online to be searched for a fee.
The expansion of historical research is part of a wider cultural trend to search-based pastimes, according to Matt Locke, head of innovation at BBC New Media, at a 2006 conference.
"Search is now a mode of behaviour for many and a part of our culture, where once it was the preserve of information professionals," he was quoted saying.
So far, family history has yet to catch on as a mass pastime in Germany. Its upswing under the Nazis, when people had to prove non- Jewish pedigrees, has given genealogy a bad name in Germany, many practitioners admit.
In addition, much 20th-century data in Germany is locked away under difficult-to-negotiate data restrictions.
There is a dearth of national 19th-century data, and Germans who have moved away from their ancestral towns must often travel long distances even to see ordinary birth, marriage and deaths registers. Almost none of the data has been digitized.
Subject: German news