When in doubt, blame the Americans

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The Independent Culture
Writing in this newspaper last week, Bryan Appleyard reckoned that Adam Curtis's The Living Dead (BBC2) was the most important documentary series of the year. Immediately after watching last night's portentously titled opener in a series of three historical re-appraisals, "On the Desperate Edge of Now", I thought Appleyard must be going gaga. Rarely have I disagreed so vigorously with a television film. But then I realised that was his point. The standard documentary procedure is to win viewers by confirming prejudices and massaging preconceptions. And here was a documentary telling us that that in which we most fondly believed was a fiction. Not comfortable at all.

The film's premise was a simple one. In 1945, the Allies invented an official version of a good war: the triumph of right over wrong. The centrepiece of their construction was the Nuremberg trials, not so much a judicial procedure as a public relations exercise of a kind Max Clifford himself would be hard-pressed to engineer. In order to make sense of Germany's behaviour, it was suggested at the trial that the war was the responsibility of a few bad men rather than a nation drawn into collective insanity by the inclinations that lie within us all. And this was done not so much to effect a final end to Nazism as to provide a moral imperative to the winners' own political system.

But is there anything new in this? And if there is, is there, as Curtis's doom-laden voiceover suggested, anything wrong with it? From the Trojan wars to Vietnam, to the victor have always gone the spoils, which include the moral high ground. The only difference between the victors' behaviour in 1945 and that during, say, the aftermath of Waterloo, was that the technology existed in 1945 to make a more believable propaganda effort (according to Curtis, Hollywood film editors were brought in to Nuremberg to sift through seized newsreel footage and construct what became the received view of Nazism). Besides, the broader history will always be different from the individual truth, as was attested even by soldiers who saw young Germans butchered in a manner that was hardly righteous. The tension between the personal and the general informs all history, not just the history of war.

Some of Curtis's extrapolations from his centrally flawed contention seemed to me even more wobbly. He claimed that the manner in which anything that could remind people of the Nazi era was destroyed meant that an opportunity to heal by confronting the disease was passed over. On a trivial level, this led to precious little memorabilia surviving (no bad thing if it might preserve us from the sight of the ghoulish American collector filmed lovingly holding up Goering's underpants: "beautifully made; note the monogram"). But also, the film implied, this sanitised version of the war led to the present disintegration of parts of Europe. According to Curtis - in a sweeping, unsubstantiated generalisation - the Americans found "Europe was a much darker, stranger place than America". Unwilling to face the recidivist tendency in the European psyche towards inhumanity, they pretended it was never there: a cowardly diagnosis which led, apparently, directly to Bosnia and Chechnya. The effect of totalitarian regimes disintegrating, unleashing territorial ambitions and score-settling, was, it seems, less significant. When in doubt, blame the Yanks.

And it is on this that I really fell out with Curtis: it seems to me the American analysis in 1945 was no fiction. Of all wars, the last one was a just war. True, the American system may have been flawed, but Hitler, surely, was evil incarnate. Or maybe such a reaction merely proves how successful that post-war conditioning programme was.