Review of 37 Days, BBC TV three-part Series March 2014
The brilliantly written three-part BBC2 drama, 37 Days - shows step by 'gentlemans' step, the process by which the European elite took us to war. It was an account of the logic 'of the top' agitated by the 'very top', as royal cousins, Nicky, Georgie and William played out their own infantile parlour games of honour and revenge - 'the Teuton versus the Slav' – a kind of uber-agenda to the Imperial interests of the politicians. Ordinary people, those 'below' were represented by two narrators, young clerks in the British and German foreign offices; a good dramatic device carrying the full horror of what their governments were moving towards.
We know that by the end, both will be in uniform, the envy of men too old to fight (as the recruitment propaganda had it) with the German describing 'the grief consuming half the world.' This young German was also a socialist and we learn through his appalled and dawning awareness how this war was meant to 'sort them out' too, in a Germany with 6 million socialists and power in the Reichstag.
Most of the British cabinet at the time were desperate to avoid war, (as Churchill growls in the background about the Irish rebellion) and Edward Grey plays a gentleman's game. The Kaiser, shrieking about regicide, (a theme soon forgotten as imperial interests take over) was played a little too Hitlerish at times; disingenuous of a programme that was equivocal and subtle. Disingenuous, as this characterisation could sew the seed in the minds of many that the Kaiser was another Hitler and thus the war was justified, or worse – it's a German thing. But Socialism was a German thing too…
The principled anti-war stand of the socialist John Burns in response to Churchill's call for 'honour' (in supporting the French) was well done 'Edward Greys honour, not ours,' and the pacifist Lord Morley's Cabinet speech was profound and emotional - 'I foresee a calamity lasting years. A war with no victory.' To which Grey replies 'What about the moral calamity.'
So here's the crux – putting the moral claims of a paper agreement above international carnage in full understanding of what they are about to do 'a million facing another million men – with all that metal.' Where's the morality in that?
At the time working class awareness was different and varied, unlike the 1960s when a welfare state (and theatre like Oh What a Lovely War and later Blackadder) brought a new consciousness. So we have to ask why this government is so desperately trying to turn that consciousness around. Studying the machinations of the power brokers in 37 Days, ie how to commit an atrocity killing 10 millions in order to sustain their own interests will help us spot the signs today (Lloyd George's volte-face was a good parallel to current human rights war mongering). One criticism - there was little about the desperation to preserve imperial interests on both sides, save 'Do you think we should consult our dominions?' (Grey) 'No is no constitutional need, they will see it as we see it' (Asquith). But maybe that was enough.
Reading other critiques of this fine programme was dispiriting, with details of costume, sets, characters' peccadilloes, 'forests of moustaches' etc by intelligent journalists. But Sam Wollaston wrote an interesting one, stating that his colleagues at the Guardian didn't really know how WW1 started except for a few 'smart arses' who watched Max Hastings and Naill Fergusen. So we must keep Our history close and understand the Real History of the First World War. Order the pamphlet. See what we're up to.