History Will Be Kind To Me

The BBC’s treatment of history. 


Edward Sorel. First Encounters: Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill, 1991


I assumed a horizontal position on the sofa the other night with my cat and a bottle of red and hopped the channels before settling on a show called World War Two Behind Closed Doors, a historical documentary about the intricate political wranglings that took place at five minutes to the midnight of the Second World War. 

With its late Sunday evening slot on BBC 2, World War Two Behind Closed Doors is bread and butter for the BBC, the kind of program they’ve been trading off for years. 

The usual criteria are present. Expensive dramatisations of real-life events are intercut with eyewitness interviews and a sombre voiceover. Both accessible and cerebral, investigative and informative. Proper television when ITV are offering Craziest Police Car Chases Ever 6 and Channel 4 have got I’m an Albino Prostitute With a Lizard Fetish and I Feel Picked on at Work.

After a little digging, it appears Behind Closed Doors is a big deal for the BBC. The series marks the departure of Laurence Rees, the BBC’s Creative Head of History and go-to man for documentaries. Over the last 12 years, Rees has been responsible for War of the Century, The Nazis: A Warning From History and Auschwitz. According to this article by Jasper Rees (apparently not a relation):

“It’s not going too far to state that much of what most viewers know about the war, they know because Rees has told them.”

The BBC laud themselves as being the best broadcaster in the world, and they may very well be. But how much are they taking this title, and with it their audience, for granted?

Underneath this veneer of respectability and substance, World War Two Behind Closed Doors is little more than a base character assassination of Josef Stalin. The vast majority of the hour-long program was not about the Second World War, not even really about the thawing of relationships between America and Russia that led to the Cold War. It was about Stalin being a ruthless, bloodthirsty, paranoid bastard, and not an awful lot else. 

Don’t get me wrong. I acknowledge it’s difficult to be even-handed with a guy like Uncle Joe. He was probably all those things and more. But as the program progressed its depiction of Stalin became increasingly Disneyfied.

Stalin as a panto-villain may be a good idea for the next controversial West End show, maybe something Damon Albarn can get involved in, but surely a statutory commitment to objectivity is still the basic foundation from which to build any sort of documentary, be it contemporaneous or historical?

To dismiss Stalin as this mad, power-hungry and bloodthirsty brute shrouded in an Iron Curtain is easy, unchallenging and about as investigative as Spot the Dog. Surely we’re better than this.

I asked my Dad what he thought and he said: 

“This is about as close to historical fact as you are going to get.” 

This may be true, but they were specific facts carefully chosen from the myriad of facts available to someone who wants to make a program such as this. 

Maybe Britain feels it has a privileged position when it comes to interpreting history. We did, after all, win two world wars. As Churchill said: 

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

One wonders how history would have been documented if the other side had won or if the Cold War had ignited. Would we now be watching programs by the Soviet Broadcasting Company about how Churchill, a bulbous, bourgeois capitalist, was the first to order the bombing of civilian areas in the war? 

Churchill did, after all, give the order to raze Dresden, the jewel of Europe. He ordered the firebombing of Tokyo knowing that it was mostly made of wood and would go up like a box of matches. He refused to evacuate Coventry after the intelligence services at Bletchley Park had broken the German code. 

Truman was the man who reacted with elation on hearing that the Atom bomb had caused far much more devastation and loss of human life in Hiroshima than indicated by the tests. He was soon working out where the next target would be. 

Tell you what, I’ll write to Laurence Rees with a suggestion for his next series.

Watching the American elections earlier on this year bought it home time and time again; rash, loud, arrogant patriotism is not something that comes naturally to Britain.

This is not to say this country is not patriotic. We are arrogantly patriotic, but in a quiet, knowing, sweep it under the table way. 

Even if we wanted it to, this won’t change so long as we are fed on a diet of historical documentaries that merely reinforces a message; Britain possesses the moral high-ground and everybody else are sly, stooping, unreasonable and underhand. 

Maybe the BBC have a better grasp of history and understand their audience far more intricately than I do. Therefore, they fulfill a far more complex role within our national consciousness than merely the trade of information and entertainment.

And maybe the holy grail of objectivity is just that; a fairy tale, helping us to sleep easy at night.


6 thoughts on “History Will Be Kind To Me

  1. I really enjoyed reading this Tom. An interesting topic, especially since I love history and you are right, most of what is written about Stalin and World War Two is a victor’s analysis. One question though, do you ever write a blog post which doesn’t mention alcohol?

  2. Again enjoyed reading this, very well written. However dear brother, I’m afraid this was a six part series (of which I watched all six hours) and had you seen earlier episodes then Churchill did not come out rosy cheeked, holding a cigar in one hand and a V-sign in the other. The series started off by focusing on Stalin ordering the death of 20,000 Polish officers in Katyn and then built up the wider events of the war as a whole on top of this. The files used for the documentary were all suppressed by the Soviet Union and have only recently came to light, The Soviets along with the Nazis were fastidious in recording and documenting events. Like my father I believe that this is about as historically accurate as these things get, historical accuracy being a vague and somewhat ill-defined term. Although Churchill was outraged by the massacre at Katyn he suppressed it and continued to break promises and lie to the much maligned Poles throughout the war. Overall I felt the documentary was pretty fair including Stalin’s depiction as well… a monster (in total he massacred more than four times as many people as Hitler). The documentary may have benefited from showing Stalin as a man rather than such a monster. The film Downfall showed us that removing the horns and scaly skin from dictators just makes them all the more frightening. Although in saying this, the documentary was historical in nature and not dramatic. I felt it was giving an accurate portrayal of events rather than a character study of the “Big Three” and that is exactly what a historical documentary should be doing.

  3. Sorry brother, couldn’t resist a do your research mega-paragraph. Particularly when I really like that Rees bloke. Just read your BNP blog. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in ages you should try and get it properly published. I don’t know if you have yesterdays Guardian, But i9n the G2 in the Arts section on film there is a cracking article by Naomi Wolf, I think you might be interested.

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