Stalin and Hitler were both evil? Go figure!
The BBC’s latest high-profile documentary on the Second World War finds a new way to tell us the blindingly obvious.
‘Could I take this opportunity to remind the UKTV History channel that a lot of history happened before 1939, and a substantial amount of it has also happened since 1945. Not only that, some of it didn’t happen in Germany.’
A Thackray, Letter to Viz comic, September 2008
It has been oft-observed that to judge by historical television documentaries, we Brits have a slightly unhealthy fascination with the Second World War in general, and with the Nazis in particular. Sandwiched between programmes about the development of the helicopter, the sinking of the Titanic, the inventions of the Aztec empire and postwar UFO sightings, the likes of UKTV History and the History channels continue to broadcast an unending and alarming preponderance of documentaries that concern Hitler, and the defining conflict of the twentieth century which he unleashed on the world.
The British obsession with the Second World War remains because it transgresses age and political persuasion. Satellite channel documentaries are largely watched by people who spend much of their time at home, such as the retired, students, and freelance journalists. The first category enjoy tales of WW2 because most people are nostalgic and right-wing by the time they get old, and like to reminisce over a time when Britain was a world player and used to defeat dirty foreigners on the battlefield.
The second category, who are young and thus invariably left-wing, take pride in the Second World War because it represents to them how international co-operation can effect the defeat of racist, nasty people.
And then there are the third lot: thirty-something hacks who have retained a perverse, adolescent fascination with the Third Reich, and no matter how repulsive they regard the ideology of it, find Nazism’s iconography and choreography bewilderingly hypnotic – and who really should be getting back to work instead.
This explains why documentary makers know that war is always a safe bet, and the Second World War and Hitler especially so. The conflict is a morality tale in an era when wars today are occluded by uncomfortable ambivalence, fought seemingly between bullying imperialist nations governed by incompetent knaves, and kleptocratic, genocidal lunatics enthralled to the notion of either wiping Israel/Bosnia/Eritrea off the map, intent on murdering rival ethnic groups with whom they have had ‘historic’ grievances.
Except, of course, the Second World War was not a simple conflict of good versus evil, as it is commonly, and willingly, understood by many. Popular documentaries do sometimes give lip-service to Stalin’s murderous regime and to the RAF’s bombing of Dresden, but I have yet to see one that reminds us that Poland took advantage of the Munich Agreement by seizing the Czechoslovak region of Zaolzie in 1938; that Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was in 1941 located in a colonially-occupied non-US state; or that no matter how many times we salute the fortitude of the British soldiers who suffered under the Japanese ‘imperialists’ in Burma, no one ever seems to ask the obvious question: what were British colonialists doing in south Asia in the first place? No, for the most part, it’s Hitler, Hitler and more Hitler.
This is why the current BBC2 docudrama series, World War Two: Behind Closed Doors looked promising. Its remit is to show that Stalin’s Soviet Union could be just as duplicitous as Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and how the two totalitarian regimes were initially allies in the Second World War before they became enemies. And if I didn’t know anything about the the Second World War, or hadn’t been given a rudimentary account of the conflict in my GCSE history lessons, I would have said it has so far been excellent. BBC historical documentaries are visually unrivalled these days, as World War Two: Behind Closed Doors proved. And you can always count on my cousin, Samuel West, for his gripping and emotive narration. Indeed, if I had never lived on planet Earth, or had been raised by wolves in a forest, I would adjudge the series so far to be excellent.
‘Before he was allied with Churchill and Roosevelt, Stalin offered help to the Nazis’, we were informed in the opening episode last week (1). ‘Officially, the Nazis hated the Soviet Communists’ and both sides were ‘happy to put ideological differences aside’ as the USSR and Germany signed their Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939. The idea that it was baffling that Communist Russia and Nazi Germany could come together to collaborate remains only a source of confusion to the most moronic of doctrinaire Marxists, and to literal-minded, autistic 10-year-olds. This really was insulting the intelligence of the viewers, most of whom will have known that Stalinism and Nazism had much more in common than both liked to believe: they were both anti-capitalist, anti-individual, statist, anti-Semitic, resentful, fantasist ideologies, both of which lusted after power and territory, and were perfidiously prepared to sign any pact they had no intention of abiding to.
The fact that the series has so far insisted on referring to ‘the Soviets’ and ‘the Nazis’ gives an indication to the source of the BBC’s bewilderment. For the latter part of the Second World War was nothing of the sort: it was really a fight between the Russians and the Germans. It was not between two ideologies, but between nationalisms, between two countries that have been invading Poland for centuries – to such a degree that in 1795, with the help of Austria-Hungary, both countries carved up Poland entirely, wiping it off the face of the map in the process.
In the second instalment this week, we were subsequently informed how surprising it was that Stalin, now at war with Germany, was by 1942 an ally with Britain under Churchill (who loathed communism only slightly more than he did fascism), and with the Americans (2). This reminds me of another fictitious article from the Onion’s bogus compendium, Our Dumb Century, published in 1999: ‘Japan Forms Alliance with White Supremacists in Well-Thought-Out Scheme’, reads the ‘1939’ headline. ‘Japanese general and military leader Hideki Tojo told reporters: “We are pleased to enter into an alliance with the paranoid, xenophobic government of Nazi Germany. We anticipate a deeply enriching exchange of our military aid with their deep-seated hatred of our non-white heritage.”’
Ideologically, it was absurd that Japan and Germany should have been wartime allies, and indeed, in his diaries, Joseph Goebbels lamented Japanese defeats of ‘Aryan’ Australian and British forces in Singapore. But when it comes to war, pragmatism becomes paramount. It was in Germany’s interest to have the British imperial and Commonwealth possessions in Asia and Australasia challenged by the Japs, just as it was in Britain’s interest to have Germany’s capacity and intention to invade England compromised by the might, and by the threat, of the Red Army.
How the BBC have come only now to tell us that Stalin was actually a rather bad man may confirm the suspicions of many who have protested that the Corporation has historically been a bit soft on left-wing totalitarianism (after all, communism murdered innocent millions for a noble cause, not a bad one, which must have been a mitigating factor, surely?) and have only now come to appreciate what most intelligent people have known for decades: Stalin was perhaps just as evil as Hitler.
Patrick West is spiked‘s TV columnist.
Read on: spiked-issue: TV
(1) World War Two: Behind Closed Doors, episode one, BBC iPlayer
(2) World War Two: Behind Closed Doors, episode two, BBC iPlayer