Walter Ellis

The BBC’s march to war

Perhaps we are growing war-weary – weary, that is, of the gathering storm of World War One documentaries on the BBC. There have been so many, not just Max Hastings (for) and Niall Ferguson (against), but Jeremy Paxman keeping the home fires burning and the reheated I Was There interviews with veterans of the conflict whom age withered, unlike those who left their corpses to stink in the mud of Flanders.

For all that, 37 Days, the corporation’s recent reconstruction of the events leading up to Germany’s invasion of Belgium, was utterly compelling, once again confirming the place of docudrama in the history schedule. Not only was it beautifully realised (Downton with diplomacy); more to the point, it brought to the surface long-buried truths about that momentous summer of 1914, the consequences of which can be felt even into our own time and our immediate preoccupations.

Today it seems almost inconceivable that what is happening in Ukraine and Crimea could lead to anything like a world war. The images we summon up are, at worst, of the Charge of the Light Brigade, or Prague in 1968, not Passchendaele. But who knows? Those who believe that full-scale war in Europe is a thing of the past will eventually be proved wrong. History will find a way. Like the universe, history is ultimately on the side of chaos, and chaos is inseparable from war. A century from now the BBC may screen a successor drama showing how the decisions, by mainly young people and nationalists in Kiev in the winter of 2014, resulted “inevitably” in mass killings and the fracturing of large parts of eastern Europe and central Asia.

We hope not, obviously. But time, like Germany’s imperial army, is on the march.

For those who didn’t watch 37 Days, the approach of playwright Mark Hayhurst was simple and direct.

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