The Past in Reconstruction: Why Spice Up History? Secret Soviet Deals with the Nazis Is Fascinating Enough

By Cooke, Rachel | New Statesman (1996), November 17, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Past in Reconstruction: Why Spice Up History? Secret Soviet Deals with the Nazis Is Fascinating Enough


Cooke, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)


World War II: Behind Closed Doors

BBC 2

As BBC documentaries go, World War II: Behind Closed Doors is rather significant. Not only is it the last series that will be written and directed by Laurence Rees, the BBC's creative head of history (Rees, who brought us such magnificent films as The Nazis: a Warning from History and Auschwitz, is leaving the corporation to devote himself to writing), it also signals the climax of the inexorable march within the BBC towards "presenter-led" history documentaries. From now on, we can expect to see fewer sombrely narrated films featuring grainy archive material and talking heads, and a lot more ... what? A lot more hand-waving is what it boils down to. The talk within the BBC is of "resonance". Apparently, we, the audience, only care for history that directly speaks to us, to our own situations, and it will be the job of the presenter, be it Bettany Hughes (The Spartans) or Dan Snow (co-presenter on 20th Century Battlefields) to articulate these "parallels". Needless to say, I find this idea mighty depressing. Why can't something be allowed to be interesting for its own sake? Why, moreover, can't we be trusted to find the contemporary resonances in history for ourselves? Personally, I think I'm more than capable.

This is not to say that an old school documentary like Behind Closed Doors is without its flaws. Though it lacks a presenter (it is narrated by Samuel West), and therefore doesn't patronise-sorry, I mean, extemporise-or excitedly flap its arms, it does rely heavily on somewhat hammy dramaticreconstructions, and in this particular instance, they sit a little uncomfortably beside interviews with people who actually witnessed the terrible events that the series seeks to uncover: the secret deals that the Soviet Union struck with the Nazis before and during the war-deals that enabled Stalin to invade Poland from the east even as Hitler entered it from the west. The Soviet treatment of the Poles was every bit as awful as Germany's; the Poles had defeated Russian Bolsheviks in battle in the 1920s, so far Stalin, an element of revenge was in play. His troops rounded up middle-class Poles, stole their property, and exiled them. Those who were suspected of being involved in the resistance were tortured. Polish army officers were imprisoned and then shot by soldiers who wore long, leather aprons. …

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