WW2 Relevance

|   26 August 2010

Reacting to History

As I suspected it would, the reaction of the popular press this summer to the anniversary of the Battle of Britain has been jingo-istic to the point, occasionally, of parody. This, as I wrote earlier on this blog (and also in the September edition of BBC History magazine), has not necessarily been helpful to an understanding of the real significance of the Battle of Britain in the history of WW2.

But it is a natural reaction. Everyone is proud of the ‘good’ bits of their own history – even sometimes to the point of omitting anything inconvenient that doesn’t fit the myth.

This is part of a broader problem that we often ignore. Indeed, I have had a great deal of personal experience over the last twenty years of how people can operate different standards of judgment depending on what they were predisposed to think about a particular historical subject. Let me give you an example. In 1991 I wrote and produced a film which looked at what I believe was a ‘British’ war crime committed in Austria during WW2. It was called ‘a British Betrayal’, and examined the handover by the British army of Cossack and Yugoslav prisoners to Stalin and Tito in 1945. Many of these prisoners then suffered appallingly – a number were tortured and killed. And the British Army give up these prisoners illegally – acting against Allied policy. I still think this was scandalous.

The film got me into a lot of trouble. There was a campaign mounted to get me sacked from the BBC and various complaint actions were launched against the film. Despite the fact that no factual error was ever uncovered in the work, I was still hugely attacked for making it. Yet some of the same people who loathed me for making ‘A British Betrayal’ were subsequently quick to praise me in 1997 for making ‘Nazis: A Warning from History’.

Why? Was the Nazi series ‘better’ than the film criticizing some soldiers in the British Army? Well, it was only ‘better’ in the sense that it conformed to many people’s predisposed view about the Nazis – that they were, of course, responsible for some of the worst crimes in history. And, crucially, the British had helped defeat them. We were thus the ‘good guys’ and I should be praised for conveying this convenient message.

Ironically, the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels could have predicted this response. He once said – in effect – that no creative work exists on its own. It only exists in the space between the work itself and the prejudices and preconceptions the audience bring to the work. (And by the way – of course – just because I think Goebbels was capable of insightful media criticism does not mean I do not also think that he was a loathsome individual. He was both brilliant at his job and also capable of profoundly evil actions. A position I hold which my co-producer once tried to sum up by saying to me: ‘You mean, you think Goebbels was good at being bad?’)

It may be difficult not to bring preconcieved ideas to the table when we examine history. It may be difficult, but we should still try not to do it.

One Response to “Reacting to History”

  1. Julian says:

    A great deal of what you have written benefits greatly from the luxury of hindsight. Did the soldiers *really* know exactly what awaited the Cossacks and Yugoslav prisoners. Wasn’t the Red Army our ally after all?

    Again, with respect to the Battle of Britain, today we understand that German troops stood little chance of making any sort of landing on the coast in 1940. The BoB was the first aerial battle ever, the British were fighting for our survival and without the relief of John Mills raising a glass at the end in as you call it a jingoistic manner. Do you think you may be a little blinded by knowledge and research on this one?

    Wars are not won by scholars, nor by heroes, they are fought by everyday people who deserve a bit of jingoism and more than a few pats on backs. To turn on the ‘few’ as you have done above by suggesting the British were committing war crimes elsewhere does a great disservice to the boys who went up hour after hour no doubt petrified.

    I am not suggesting we should scrub history clean, far from it. I have been troubled by this blog entry all afternoon, my problem is that you seem angry that many or most of the country don’t realise all the facts; And in order to ensure they are shocked from their dream you decide to slap them with a British war crime… That just comes across as a bitter act to be truly honest.

    Laurence, if you read this I would like to learn more about the cossacks, maybe a future blog?