History and Tv in Germany

2012 (tv) | 2014 (web)

by Irmbert Schenk


Television began in Germany under the Third Reich, in 1936 (with a peak during the Olympic Games), reception was collective except for a few rich individual users. In 1948, it was decided in Western Germany that the broadcasting services (Rundfunk) would be independent from the government and that representatives of socially relevant institutions and groups would take place in their supervisory committees. The first broadcasting corporations were the NWDR (for North Rhine Westphalia, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg as well as Western Berlin) in Hamburg (NDWR was then divided into five separate institutions), the Bayrische Rundfunk in Munich, the Hessische Rundfunk in Frankfurt/Main, the Süddeutsche Rundfunk in Stuttgart, Radio Bremen, the Südwestfunk in Baden-Baden. According to the federal regulations on culture and education the legal responsibility of the corporations was entrusted to the Länder.

At the end of 1952, a two hour evening programme was broadcast for the first time by the NWDR. Later it was transmitted by all the federal broadcasting institutions reunited in the ARD (Working Pool of the Broadcasting Corporations of the Federal Republic of Germany). The commissioning of the ARD responded to the federal structure of the Republic of Germany. An attempt was made by the CDU government to establish a nationwide central broadcast but the project was rejected by the Federal Constitutional Court in 1961. As a compromise, the ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, Second German Television), broadcast for the first time in 1963 and was established by a national contract signed by all federal states. The ZDF is centrally located in Mainz and regulated by public law. It only receives 30 percent of the television license fees (fees are divided 70 to 30 in favour of the ARD and has to cover 70 percent of its costs through adverts. There has been advertisement on ARD since 1956. On public channels (ARD and ZDF) the broadcasting time for commercials is limited to 20 minutes per day before eight pm on weekdays and forbidden on weekends. Since 1973 the programmes have been broadcast in colour. In the 1960s, ARD channels established a Dritte Programme (third channel), predominantly oriented towards regional and cultural needs – without advertising.

Since 1984 private broadcasting has become legalised according to the respective federal laws of broadcasting, which led to a so-called dual system comparable to the former regulations of BBC and ITV in Great Britain. Privatisation and the viewers’ preference for private channels (which, in 1995, cumulated 60 % of audience and 90 % of advertising revenue) forced the public channels to diversify their activities by broadcasting by cable and satellite, digitalising Spartenprogramme (special interest programmes) and promoting international co-operations thanks to 3 Sat (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) or Arte (Germany, France). Programmes on commercial television privilege entertainment and public channels, under the pressure of audience ratings, put more and more emphasis on entertainment.


Nowadays, history appears almost exclusively on public channels (ARD, ARD Third Programmes; ZDF as well as its national and international cooperation programmes). Commercial channels seldom broadcast historical films which are never part of a regular programme. Still, “culturally orientated” providers (e.g. magazines and newspapers such as Spiegel, Stern, Fokus, Süddeutsche, Neue Zürcher), being legally obliged to broadcast programmes of “collective interest”, put in the air documentaries, reports, interviews with contemporary witnesses.

In the early sixties, as a reaction against the conservative climate of the fifties, entertainment lost its importance, political magazines (e.g. Panorama, starting in 1960, Zeichen der Zeit [Signs of the time] or later Report) provided more critical and accurate information. This process that accelerated in 1963/64, then during the student revolt in 1968, had an influence on the treatment of history, there had been 42 dossiers dedicated to historical issues on the first (and only) channel in 1959, there were more than 100 in 1961.

When dealing with the topic of history on German television, we must mention a specific feature which does not apply to other countries: most history programmes can be clustered under the heading “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (coming to terms with the past) which means that, treating German fascism, the so-called Third Reich, the NS-period, they evoke aspects of the German guilt. This was largely due to the arrival of a new generation of historians as can be seen with the opening at Ludwigsburg, in 1958, of a central public prosecutors office investigating the crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime. There are also programmes on national and international history, from antiquity to the fifth French Republic, from Egypt to the colonisation of Patagonia – but also a styrong emphasis on the Nazi-period: there were 16 programmes about the Third Reich in 1955, 39 in 1960 and 87 in 1961.

This was closely linked to the Eichmann trial in Israel, between 1959 and 1961, spectators were continuously informed about the case which, in 1961, was summed up in a 31 episode series. The same happened with the Ausschwitz trial which began in Frankfurt in December 1963. A landmark was the 14-part documentary “Das Dritte Reich” (The Third Reich), broadcast between 1960 and 1961, in prime time on Friday evenings, repeated on Monday evenings at 10 p.m. It was watched, on an average, by 58 % of the spectators. In 1963 the whole series was again put in the air on Sunday afternoons, this time – as an answer to former criticism – with a fifteenth programme placed at the beginning to treat the period before 1933. In 1964 the whole series was published in book. Commemorations often provide a pretext for a return to the past, as is the case with the 20 July 1944 attempt to kill Hitler, the Reichskristallnacht of the 9 November 1938, or the end of the war on the 8 May 1945.

Beside documentaries, fictions or semi-fictions must be taken into account. Numerous in the fifties, they declined in the sixties to restart in the last decades of the century. The return to fiction is in part linked to the development of digitalisation, but most importantly to the competition with private TV channels, which broadcast mainly entertaining programmes and thus cream off viewing figures. Public service broadcasting cannot completely refuse to follow this trend. The early programmes were presented from an individual-moralising point of view, the angle of vision was strictly personal. Such programmes have long been criticised for their inadmissible simplification of the complexity of history.

The US-American TV-series Holocaust (USA 1978, NBC, director Marvin Chomsky), broadcast in 1979, attracted a huge audience and initiated a broad discussion. Originally, it was supposed to be screened on the first channel of ARD. Eventually it was shown on the Third Channel. Nonetheless its ratings waved for 31 to 41 per cent (during its repeat in 1982 it was still between 16 and 30 per cent). The public discussion (first in the USA, later in Germany) centered less on the correctness of historical representation than on the strong individual and emotional accent of a series that many considered a soap-opera. A much more complex theoretical television and history debate was initiated by the 11-part series Heimat directed by Edgar Reitz in 1984 which, in the framework of a village, presents the history of the German 20th century viewed “from the people”. Conversely the debate about the broadcasting of Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour Shoah, at the beginning of the 90s, was rather limited to experts.

A researcher 1 has calculated that, on the basis of 450 programmes, every fifth deals with the prosecution of Jews, every tenth with the German resistance and every twentieth deals with Hitler as an individual and that 213 million viewers watched these productions. The highest rating went to the 6-part ZDF series Hitler – eine Bilanz directed by Guido Knopp, author of a great number of books, now responsible of the historical programmes broadcast at peak times. The access to graphical material from Eastern Germany and Eastern Europe after 1990 (cf. the co-production with Russian television of Der verdammte Krieg in 1991), a sometimes pathetic approach to the topics, the inclusion of “scenic quotations” (re-shot when necessary) and Knopp’s sententious screen performance have created a style, bitterly criticized by historians but rather popular as shows the list of recent programmes: 1996 Hitlers Helfer, 1998 Hitlers Generäle; in 1999 a film about Hitler’s takeover, another in 2000 about the Holocaust; later Hitlers Frauen, Hitlers Vollstrecker. The ARD also competes by, for example, showing a programme about the German Armed Forces Soldaten für Hitler.

These programmes must be refferd to the public discussions about the historiography of the Third Reich, first the so-called Historikerstreik (historians’ quarrel) which began in 1986 when Ernst Nolte tried to lessen the importance of German fascism by associating it to other totalitarianisms, then the Wehrmacht exhibition 1995 in Hamburg (1995) which brought to light for the first time the crimes committed by the Wehrmacht, eventually the Goldhagen-debate (1996) provoked by a book which rejuvenated the old collective-guilt-thesis of an intrinsic German anti-Semitism..

Here are the most important ZDF history transmissions since 2000 (except the special program “ZDF History”):

2000: Hitlers Kinder, 5 parts, 3,5 million spectators = 11,1 % of total audience.

Holokaust, 6 parts; 2,64 million = 8,2 %.

2001: Hitlers Frauen, 6 parts, 4,15 million = 16,1 %).

Die große Flucht, 5 parts, 5,00 million = 16,1 %), (Germans fleeing from the East to the West in 1945)

2002: Der Jahrhundertkrieg, 9 parts, 4,08 million = 12,6 % (World War II)

Die SS – Eine Warnung der Geschichte, 6 parts, 4,66 million = 14,6 %.

2003: Stalingrad, 3 parts, 4,28 million = 12,9 %.

Goodbye Erich, 1 part, 3,44 million = 14,1%) („Goodbye“ to Honecker).

2004: Sie wollten Hitler töten, 3,37 million = 10,4 %) (Attempt against Hitler).

Die Befreiung, 5 parts, 3,38 million = 12,3 %) (The liberation, 1945).

Hitlers Manager, 5 parts, 3,05 million = 12,6 %.

2005: Goodbye DDR, 4 parts, ca. 3,50 million = ca. 12 %.

Der Sturm, 4 parts, 3,42 million = 10,8 %, (Germans fleeing before the Russian Army, 1945).

2006: Der Feuersturm, 2 parts, 4,04 million = 11,6 %, (Bombing of Dresden 1945).

Göring – Eine Karriere, 3 parts, 4,21 million = 12,3 %.

Majestät!, 5 parts, 4,19 million = 13,8 %, (Today’s European Kings and Queens)

Die großen Diktatoren. 3 parts, 3,55 million = 12,2 %, (Hitler, Stalin, Mao).

ZDF-History (see below) 2006: 32 parts + 4 repetitions

2007: Hitlers nützliche Idole, 3 parts, 3,19 million = 9,6 %, (Rühmann, Schmeling,


Die Wehrmacht – Eine Bilanz, 5 parts, 3,19 million = 9,8 %.

Die Königskinder, 6 parts, 4,56 million = 16,4 %, (Children of today’s European kings and queens).

Dianas Hochzeit – Die wahre Geschichte, 1 part, 5,12 million = 17,3 %, (Diana’s Wedding – the true history).

ZDF History 2007: 40 parts + 5 repetitions + 1 special.


The German reunification of 1990 brought a “dual way of coming to terms with the past”, since the GDR-history undergoes also a critical re-evaluation – in fact limited to the actions undertaken by the Stasi (Ministry of State Security, Secret Service of the German Democratic Republic) in order not to offend the former Eastern Germans. Feature films contribute more than television to a revision of the DDR-past at times awkwardly, at other times dramatically.

The National Socialist period is till continuously present on television with a stronger insistence on fiction, visual effects and emotion in documentaries as well as in television plays (often shot in cooperation with feature films producers). What is noticeable is an expansion, content-wise as well as topic-wise, which can be of interest to further research: besides the Germans being the perpetrators, in other words being guilty, have surfaced the Germans as victims, as can be seen in:

– Die Flucht (ARD 2007), flight of German families before the Russian army, from East Prussia to the west, in 1945. It had on the Sunday and Monday an average of 10 ½ million spectators which mean more than 28 % of the total audience. It was repeated the following Friday on arte with 2,46 million spectators.

– In March 2008 two fictional programmes, in two parts, done by ZDF:

– Dresden reenacting the British bombardment of Dresden in January 1945. Sunday 12,68 million = 32,6 % of shares, Monday 11,25 million = 31,2 %.

– Die Gustloff showing a ship with 9000 refugees fleeing westward through the Baltic Sea in 1945 and being destroyed by a Russian submarine was seens by 7,87 spectators. The two documentaries treating the same topic have been seen by 5,31 million spectators.

In the 90s most contributions focused on Nazi Germany. Today the importance of that period has been reduced, there are more programmes dealing with the concrete experience of those born after the 1960s. A new program dealing with „living history“ has appeared lately, it combines in documentaries on the life in past periods, followed by reports about volunteers who, today, have accepted to live in the same conditions. One of the most successful emissions is the „ZDF History“, established in this format in 2000, and transmitted every Sunday during 40 minutes on late evening, which reached initially 11 % of the audience and has climbed up to 13,5 %. There is only one topic presented by the chief of ZDF-Zeitgeschichte, Guido Knopp. ARD (First and third program) has a similar format with “Geheimnis Geschichte”, transmitted since 2007, less often and with a minor audience than “ZDF History”.

Regarding the film form we note a blend of various voices: moderator, hidden all-knowing narrator, eyewitness, historians, original pictures with fresh takes of the place, black and white originals and coloured retakes. More importantly, there is a growing mixture between documentary and fictional forms which, according to many specialists, prevents spectators from taking a critical view of the past. Another contemporary trend is an attempt to involve spectators in an interactive participation. ZDF, at the end of October 2008, starts a ten part documentary series Die Deutschen, a history of Germany in ten periods from the 10th century to the foundation of the republic in 1918. Tests and interviews on the current knowledge of German history have been filmed and will be presented in “ZDF-History”. The series will be paralleled, on “ZDF-History”, by a five part documentary on German history from 1918 to 1989 and by a debate between historians. Teachers and students are also invited to send texts, pictures or videos and to find “places of memory” in their region. ZDF is opening this year a call for contributions for the 2009-celebration of the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989: People should communicate their life experiences of the end of German Democratic Republic, their testimonies will be used in the making of historical films.


In order to illustrate the situation at present let us take a sketchy look at history representations during two weeks on current German TV schedule from 26 January to 8 February 2008:

a) Feature Films (including TV-plays):

1 x Second World War and post-war period (escape from Russian imprisonment)

2 x War: German occupation (1 x Luxemburg, 1 x France)

1 x Satire on Hitler

1 x Gestapo

2 x Concentration camps / Holocaust

1 x Holocaust / Pogrom

1 x GDR before fall of Berlin Wall

1 x Western German terrorism during 70s (and GDR)

b) Documentaries:

  • The unknown soldier (about Wehrmacht exhibition and the crimes committed by the German Armed Forces)

  • The Wehrmacht (series in 5 parts)

  • Jewish resistance towards Hitler

  • Escape from the KZ (concentration camp) in Auschwitz

  • Humour in the Third Reich

  • Carnival in the Third Reich

  • Year chronicle of the Reich (from 1933 to 45)

  • KZ Dachau

  • Battle of the Atlantic (3 parts)

  • Friedrichstraße in Berlin

  • The Knights Templar in the Middle Ages

  • The Ancient Egyptians (series)

  • Pompous ships in the ancient world

ZDF History with its historical magazine on Sunday evening, which was established by the ZDF redaction for contemporary history, is a representative example of history on television in Germany. The main topics in the programmes of the season 2007-2008 were:

On the Third Reich:

Hitler’s useful idiots (careers under the Swastika; series)

The Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces)

Albert Speer, Architect of Death

Myth Miracle Weapons

Myth Kamikaze (Japan and Germany)

Myth Battle of the Atlantic

Paul von Hindenburg (The person who supported Hitler to power)

In the shadow of the war (victims, perpetrators, rescuers)


5 films with different subject matters about the Stasi

The Miracle of Berlin (about the fall of the Berlin Wall 1989)

RAF-Terrorism in the 70s:

3 contingents


The emperors’ long night (Caesar, Wilhelm, Cortés, Napoleon)

The dictators (Hitler, Stalin, Mao)

The Cold War

Stars that die at a young age (Mozart, Dean, Joplin, Presley u.a.)

The sinking of the … (Titanic, Lusitania, Andrea Doria, Estonia u.a.)

Napoleon’s Russian campaign (3 parts)

The bought revolution (Germany and Lenin 1917)

The Merovingian’s secret

Seven biggest lies in history; Bronze Age

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Barbarians against Rome (England’s conquest)

Homer and Troja.

In regard to European History: programmes made in Germany are not the only opening onto history, a rather large number of British and American documentaries are also put in the air. More important is the up to now rarely realized attempt to produce documentaries of European interest emphasising the different visions of several European societies.

In my opinion this could be the way for the future: make programmes on aspects of a national history, with an inclusion of other interpretations since, while knowing that interpretations are mere constructions, especially in times of migration and globalization, we are also aware of the fact that they are deeply rooted in the public discourses and ideology of any country. Topics must be chosen under this perspective, trans-national co-operations must be realized (and not only in order to sale the products abroad, which means an emphasis on the spectacular, without reference to the different national sights and interpretation).

In Germany this complex of national and international/European identity, which should be dealt with in history programmes all over Europe, has evolved strangely: until about 1990 Western Germany was the less national oriented country in Europe, but since the unification there is a strong endeavour to (re)constructing something like a national identity. A tendency that is always in conflict and interaction with the old one of non-national orientation.

Showing different attitudes with regards to the past (as well as to the present) seems to be a crucial point, and the first step towards a future (European) television history in both sectors: channels with a large public and special channels.


1 Jürgen Wilke (1999). “Massenmedien und Vergangenheitsbewältigung.” In: Jürgen Wilke (Hg.) (1999). Mediengeschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Bonn, p 662.

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