THE LIBERATOR tells the story of an American unit in Southern Europe during World War 2, using the videographic gimmick of being animated in a very life-like manner. Claiming to be a true story, each of the soldiers represented (even the law breakers, drunks and other misfits) demonstrate a courage to sign up and go to war beyond anything that I’ll ever be called upon to do in my life. THE LIBERATOR, however, shows many of the characters to be very ambiguous in their morality: the opening scenes feature soldiers locked in a prison for various crimes… but those crimes are not obviously crimes of evil. In many cases, the criminals are portrayed as victims of racism.
Is the series worth watching? I don’t regret the time that I spent watching it. But I think that the series fails on two great truths of the war:
a) that war itself is completely f–king awful, horrific, and terrible; and
b) that the evils of Nazism are on a whole different order of magnitude to other evils.
THE LIBERATOR is like a version of BAND OF BROTHERS made for 2020, with everything that entails: distributed on Netflix, inclusion of repeated conversations about the racism of America, and the addition of various scenes to paint the Americans as morally dubious. Multiple scenes show Americans committing war crimes during the liberation of a German death camp. There is something bizarre about an extended focus on the crimes of the American liberators of Dachau. It is true that somewhere between 15 and 50 Germans were murdered outside the reasonable realm of combat – but to focus on that in the shadow of Dachau? Really? Is that really an important lesson of the liberation of German concentration camps?
As a video series, THE LIBERATOR is interesting, but not compelling. The animated effect gets irritating after the first few minutes, and detracts slightly from the humanisation of the characters. Other war stories such as BAND OF BROTHERS, or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, or THE PACIFIC confront the horrors of World War 2 in incredibly graphic ways: that graphic nature highlights and shows how incredibly horrific the experience of war is, and how courageous many soldiers were to overome the fear that inspires. That graphic nature is slightly undercut by the cartoonish nature of some scenes in THE LIBERATOR.
In showing the horrors of war in just a cartoonish way, THE LIBERATOR shies away from the truth of the endeavour. It shies away from the confronting truth that some people in these wars were killed not just by direct gunshots or explosions, but also from their comrades being killed, and their comrades body parts then hitting and killing them. Some of this is captured in the series, but the combination of flying body parts and animation just makes it like a comedy children’s cartoon, rather than the feet of real humans.
The other part of THE LIBERATOR that I disliked was the juxtaposition of the German crimes at Dachau (~200,000 imprisoned, ~40,000 killed) and American crimes at Dachau (~50 killed). I’m not aware of anything factually wrong in the videos, but I feel that there is a moral wrongness in putting those two crimes next to each other without clearly demonstrating that these two crimes are of many, many, many, different orders of magnitude.
This is not an error confined to this TV series: I am often irritated when people compare modern events to Nazism. I think it is wrong on several levels: firstly, it trivialises the evil of the actual Nazis. The actual Nazis killed eleven of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters. The actual Nazis tried to exterminate the Josems, and many million of other Jews. The actual Nazis were active proponents of forced sterilisation on an industrial scale, and the actual Nazis had serious logistical challenges with killing so many civilians – hence, the rise of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other five Nazi death camps. Imagine a society having no moral problem with mass murder, but only a logistical problem!
That level of barbarity is many, many, many, orders of magnitude detached from any of today’s regimes of evil (even, yes, those regimes like the Chinese Communist Party committed to wiping out religious minorities such as the Uighurs). It is patently ridiculous and offensive to compare modern Western political actors to this level of evil – and in doing so, it reduces the industrialised murders of six million members of demographic minorities to little more than a modern political punchline.
Secondly, it is an absurd exaggeration of modern political events to compare them to Nazism. Obama’s extrajudicial killing of American civilians was morally wrong. Trump’s public discussion of delaying the American election was dumb. But neither are on the scale or evil of Nazism. Lumping all bad things as being the rise of Nazism just demonstrates that you’ve never read a book, and that you have never witnessed the testimony of holocaust survivors. Being able to distinguish between different levels of evil is important, because it allows humans to respond properly and decently.
Ultimately, there is nothing objectively “wrong” with THE LIBERATOR and they do not fall to directly equating the (relatively trivial) bad acts of the Americans with the Nazi regime. But throughout, the series shows odd editorial prioritisation: the humanising of SS Troops in the snow (who graciously allow some Americans to live, including our hero) and the demonising of American troops (by showing many of them as low-end racists, others as war criminals). It is odd and confronting, and adds to a disappointing levelling of the moral balance of World War 2. The genocidal racism of German National Socialism is on a whole different level to the racism of individual soldiers in integrated American Army units – one of these is not like the other.