The bad thing about iPlayer is that we all end up watching something different. The good thing about iPlayer is that we all end up watching something different. You stumble across gems at the back of the digital cupboard with little idea of when they were broadcast or why. So it was that I found myself gripped by two-part drama The Sinking of the Laconia (which I’ve since discovered was first broadcast in 2011). Rather like Titanic, it relies on the writer’s skill to weave enough surprise and humanity around the inevitable plotline. And these writers did – a refreshing Anglo-German team involving the BBC, ARD and SWR – who told the aftermath of the torpedoing of a British cruise liner carrying PoWs and British civilians … from both sides.
I’m not sure I’ve seen a war film told from both sides before. Of course, when characters on both sides are humanised, there’s no clear line dividing goodies from baddies. There are more and less noble people on both sides, who behave well and less well at different moments. In other words, it’s like real life.
I was reminded of Afua Hirsch’s recent Channel 4 documentary, The Battle for Britain’s Heroes, in which she persuasively argued that Britain needs to re-examine its heroes and for a more rounded national narrative. She asked questions about the slave trade’s links to Nelson and Bristol benefactor Edward Colston. We saw her asking about Churchill’s role in the Bengal famine. Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and founding director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, was the first white man she interviewed who agreed with her unreservedly. She then highlighted Germany as a nation that has re-appraised its heroes. I wanted her to take her ideas further, but it was clear she had had as much Twitter abuse for them as she could take.
The more I look back at my history education the more I’m embarrassed by the gaps in it. Having gained an A at GCSE and then taken an MA in Middle Eastern studies 20 years later, I feel qualified to generalise, given that 30-40 per cent of pupils take history as far as GCSE, while only 40-50,000 get to A-level and beyond.
My GCSE covered the Tudors, and the history of medicine, so my pre-Year 10 knowledge of other episodes went like this: First World War = trenches; Empire = ¼ of the globe; Second World War = Blitz and Holocaust. One contemporary GCSE syllabus, for example, teaches about Germany from 1890 to 1945 – the turbulent, violent decades without the arguably more astonishing cultural, physical and spiritual rebuilding that followed.
The postwar period cropped up during my German A-level, which fewer and fewer pupils take now. I learnt about the slave trade while living in Bristol, stumbling across the appalling diagrams of how-to-fit-the-most-bodies-in-a-hull in the university library. The church I attended wrestled with the legacy of the trade, and later films such as Amazing Grace celebrated the reformers who fought and fought to get it abolished.
In Britain we have crafted ourselves not only a narrative of military victory, but also of moral one. We allow ourselves nationwide Remembrance with all its pageantry and solemnity. We don’t worry about the damage we inflicted during the wars because we were fighting evil, so it was in a good cause. Neither do we readily recall that we won only with the Empire-wide coalition of Allies and Stalin’s Russia. We should know better.
Watching Laconia brought home to me just how dangerous a simplistic narrative is. The drama tells the remarkable story of the U-boat commander who rescues hundreds of survivors from the liner he torpedoed, and invites Allied forces to pick them up, promising not to attack. He has a Red Cross flag draped over his sub. Italian and Vichy-French craft collect the Italian PoWs. The British in Freetown tell the Americans to look for remnants of the liner but cynically neglect to mention the sub or the mainly British survivors in need of rescue, some of whom are sitting pathetically in lifeboats. The Americans send out planes with pilots who, despite seeing the flag, drop two bombs on the sub, sinking two lifeboats, killing dozens of survivors, damaging the sitting-duck sub and potentially committing a prima facie war crime.
Who were the goodies there? Who were the baddies?
Towards the end of the dramatisation of the Laconiastory, the character of the hero, Commander Hartenstein, says he looks forward to peace. “Not victory?” asks a British junior officer.
The distinction could not be more important. And I wonder what our country still hankers after. Peace with the nations all about it, or a sense of victory over them, bolstered by an isolationist, even supremacist, outlook?
If we believe that our goal is victory over our threatening neighbours, we will see the EU as a threat to sovereignty and Brexit a blessed release. If we believe our goal is peace with our flawed neighbours, we will see the EU as a modern-day miracle and Brexit a potential tragedy.