Paxman documentary attempts nationalist whitewash

Rah Rah Britain. God save the Empire. God save the King

Rah Rah Britain. God save the Empire. God save the King

It’s the 100 anniversary of WW1. A conflict that did more to shape the world we live in today than any other single conflict or event in the last century. Possibly even the last half a millennium. WW1 deserves to be remembered and discussed. Lessons should be learned from it.

Before going onto the discuss the documentary I should probably just express my own understanding of WW1. I enjoy reading about history. I have read enough about the subject to get a somewhat detailed but in no way expert idea of it. WW1 was on balanced caused by German’s who wanted to the war and they should bare a lot of responsibility for it. There were however, perfectly valid reasons for Germany’s actions in triggering the war. British politician’s going back to the 1890s deserve blame for the decisions they made that stoked the fires of the conflict.

So in general Germany did want the war to get ‘a place in the sun’ but there is enough blame and incompetence with the Russian, French and British leadership to show them as the upper class insular twits that they were. Now onto the documentary.

Jeremy Paxman’s documentary is a complete failure to analyse and understand WW1. It is an attempt at an historical whitewash. It is inaccurate and grating. Let’s begin with the presentation of the program starting with the music.

The music sweeps from being triumphalist when Britain is going well to being downbeat when it is feels a more sombre moment is called from. It is blatant emotional manipulation. It is stomach churning. It is like this supposedly serious documentary has been scored by John Williams.

Now lets turn to Paxman himself. He is an excellent quiz show presenter on University Challenge and interviewer for Newsnight. His strength is his sneering put downs and sarcastic quips. Shorn of this for his documentary narration skills his delivery is poor. Although I am sure he is sincere he seems unable to convey this to the camera. Added to this is the fact that he is not a professional historian or even lover of WW1 history and boy does this fact show.

Britain is painted as hapless victim. The show accepts that Britain had the “greatest empire the world has ever seen” but still paints us as the plucky underdogs who had never fought a war anywhere. There is some truth to this narrative in terms of the size of the BEF compared to Germany’s force at the outbreak of war, but this fact is grossly and distortingly overplayed.

hardcore historyIt is important to remember that the BEF were the only wholly professional force at the outbreak and that the defensive was king in this war. These factors allowed the BEF to punch above its numbers. If you want to find out more about this I would recommend Dan Carlin’s ongoing series on WW1 which makes this Paxman documentary look like it was made by a child.

The show focuses on the drive to recruit volunteers to the the army. It paints this in gloriously patriotic terms. The men who signed up were patriots. At no point however, does Paxman look at how this patriotism was being manipulated. Streets were cornered off for recruitment and bands played. The establishment was recruiting cannon fodder by putting on a show. Paxman fails to investigate how this was done and what were the motives of the authorities that did so. He doesn’t do this because it is ‘A’ to clever for this show and ‘B’ might present the British establishment in a less than glowing light.

The low point of the show is the description of Lord Kitchener as an “intensely moral man”. Kitchener spent his military career killing off ‘natives’ in colonial wars and believed in ‘the white mans burden’ and such racist nonsense. He cannot by any modern standard be described as “intensely moral”. He is also the idiot who came up with the idea of ‘pal’s battalion’ to increase recruitment, because why not kill off as many member of one community together all at once. The show of course fails to examine the concept of “Pal’s battalions” in any seriousness.

I will give some credit to the show though. The photography of WW1 it uses is top notch. It did give a sense of the times. It was clear that the full weight of the BBC was behind its production. It also showed me just how much like Lord Kitchener Stephen Fry’s Blackadder looked. Their mustaches really did match. So bravo Stephen Fry.

Also the coverage of the shelling of the coast of Britain by the German Navy was something I had never heard of. It’s just a shame that Paxman and the BBC didn’t put the materials to better use.

If you want an interesting and thoughtful pop culture examination of WW1 try both the podcasts ‘When Diplomacy Fails’ and Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History”. Both of these are more accurate, balanced and interesting than the jingoistic nonsense that the BBC has put out in this documentary.

Sadly, I fear this documentary has set the tone for the £50 million plus that has been green lit to remember WW1.

2 out of 5 stars (It only gets 2 stars for the excellent original pictures used)

The establishment strikes back on World War One

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Narratives are important in politics. I’d go so far to say they are key. In today’s modern society (although the same was almost certainly true for supposedly ‘less’ complex societies) there is no one

single cause for anything. It isn’t much of a rallying cry or newspaper article to say this though. Arguments therefore tend to focus on one clear simple story to explain things. Rather disturbingly this was the same line of propaganda use by Goebbels and Hitler.

Greedy bankers for example were an important cause of the Credit Crunch but they were not the only cause. Politicians and the media focus on bankers and bonuses however, because it gives them a clear repeatable narrative. Equally, the EU has had many good and some bad effects on the UK life and there are still greater areas where it has had little or no effect at all. Listen or read anything about the EU in the British press however, and you are likely to get a very unambiguous Brussels is bad/evil/a dirty kraut empire message.

A simple clear narrative is the stuff that day to day politicking is made of.

With this in mind the nascent discussion over WW1 and its centenary this year is particularly interesting. The standard conception of WW1 has been shaped by anti-war poetry such as Wilfred’s Owen ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and more entertainingly ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’.

These narratives of WW1 both focus on the futility of the war and the idiocy of the upper class ‘donkeys’ that led an entire generation ‘lions’ to their deaths. WW1 broke forever notions that people should be kept in their place and that ruling elites were to be trusted for they know best.

Dan Carlin had a nice line about this in his most recent Hardcore History podcast saying that

Here’s the thing this war (WW1) is going to teach. If you watch the charge of the light brigade and you think it is a magnificent brave a doomed attack on the part of incredibly courageous men what happens if after the charge fails they send another one and the same results occur and then they send another one and the same results occur they do it again and again at what point does this wonderful doomed romantic celebration of the military heart become something obscene”.

WW1 hammered home lessons of regarding war and authority that still resonate today. A number of right wing politicians such as Michael Grove, Nigel Farage and conservative newspapers such as The Express and The Telegraph don’t like this very much though. They are attacking this prevailing idea of WW1 as being lefty fantasy. They want to build a narrative that stresses how Germany caused the war (on balance I agree with them) and how patriotic the British soldiers were.

These revisionist ‘historians’ are for example pointing out that General Haig was quite liked by the men he commanded even though his tactics killed a lot of them. They present this fact as if is was some sort of zinger that decides the argument. There is no reason why it should. A personal endorsement from the soldiers to their commander doesn’t really hold any wider significance about WW1 then the popularity of George W Bush in the USA to this day should tell us about what a cold analytical verdict from history will say about his presidency.

So whilst these right wing revisionists focus on building a narrative of WW1 being about heroic self-sacrifice. A war akin to WW2. They want to ignore the lessons the war taught about the blinkered nature of elites and class.

They want to change the narrative of WW1 so they can begin to take Britain back to a time where the people in charge (people like them) were respected and seen to be competent. The public should not fall for their game.