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From the NS archive: BBC condones distorted history

29 August 1980: Should we trust the intelligence of average people by giving them the truth?

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In this article from 1980, the Austrian biographer, historian and investigative journalist Gitta Sereny reviews “A World Walk”, a BBC radio play about Albert Speer. Sereny first saw Speer, who served as minister of armaments in Nazi Germany, at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945 and would later write a biography of him. She queries the accuracy of “A World Walk”, which was itself based on Speer’s diaries from his time at Spandau Prison. “History has never been served by caricaturing or falsifying the character and motive of those who make it,” she writes, asserting that a play such as this – concerning such an important part of history – “assumes an importance beyond its station”. Ultimately, she asks, what is the purpose of art based on history? “Should books, films, plays and journalism try to make history more ‘easily digestible’, or should we trust the intelligence of average people by giving them the truth?”

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A fortnight ago the BBC gave listeners two cracks at Jonathan Smith’s radio play about Albert Speer, A World Walk. They must have felt it was pretty good. Many people listened to it, apparently, and afterwards the Daily Telegraph said it made “enthralling listening”. When I heard the play, however, I wondered how deeply the playwright had read the book on which he based it, Speer's Spandau: The Secret Diaries. I asked myself whether the actor who made him so maudlin and theatrical – which, in real life, Speer is not – had ever leafed through its pages. And I wondered what listeners would gain from such a play.

Speer's diaries provide a graphic account, over a period of 20 years, of his personal battle for moral salvation, together with equally revelatory descriptions of the six men who shared his imprisonment at Spandau – Walter Funk, Admiral Raeder, Hess, von Schirach, von Neurath and Dӧnitz. The diaries also give us an extraordinary insight into the psychological effects of long-term confinement.

I accept that a play, in a different sense from a book, requires confrontation and recognisable protagonists. But does this justify the playwright's choice of an orderly, Anton Vlaer (in reality, in Speer's book, a young man compassionate to all the prisoners and devoted to Speer), as the mouthpiece through whom to challenge Speer's morality? Such a confrontation could have happened, of course: Speer always was and still is a mixture of arrogance and humility, and had he been challenged by someone such as Vlaer he would have accepted the challenge as an obligation, part of his penalty.

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It could have happened. But it didn't. What did happen, and is described time and again in the book, is far more dramatic, although more complex to describe. For what actually provided the background to so many of Speer's bitter challenges to himself was the interplay of emotions and reactions between the seven prisoners. Dӧnitz's contempt, von Schirach's cantankerousness, von Neurath's detached courtesy, Hess's obsessiveness – none of this was indicated in the play, which barely touched on most of these characters and which totally misrepresented Hess and his relationship with Speer. On one occasion the playwright has Speer tell a giggling Rudolf Hess about his “plan” – in reality no more than a daydream – to assassinate Hitler. It is inconceivable that Speer, knowing Hess's enduring devotion to Hitler, would have told him of such thoughts.

History has never been served by caricaturing or falsifying the character and motive of those who make it. In Jonathan Smith's play a cockney soldier crudely interrogates Speer; others mock; still others mutter disapproval and distrust. There was, of course, ample cause for such reaction, but the fascinating thing is that the many soldiers who guarded Speer over the years hardly ever behaved in this way: Speer records in his book numerous act of kindness from them, and explains how these too had a part in his search for redemption. Would one not think that this would offer more dramatic potential than stereotyped aggression from stereotyped soldiers?

Jonathan Smith was obviously intrigued by Speer's desire to achieve the equivalent of a walk round the globe by the time he was released. But he made it sound as if this was Speer's principal activity at Spandau, whereas in truth it was merely the light relief among a series of meticulously planned disciplines. He read thousands of books, in several languages. He taught himself fairly fluent English and gave himself a second university education (“My first real education,” he told me) several times over. All this provided fuel with which he fired his examination of conscience.

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It seems extraordinary that for three and a half decades we have been deploring the fact that hardly any Germans have been prepared to admit their allegiance to the Nazis and their guilt, yet we cannot accept the integrity of the one man who, from the very start in 1945, has been determined to acknowledge both. This is why a play such as this assumes an importance beyond its station, for it raises again a crucial question: should books, films, plays and journalism try to make history more “easily digestible”, or should we trust the intelligence of average people by giving them the truth?

When Holocaust was first shown many of us deplored its quality, but the phenomenal reception it had, above all in Germany, seemed to vindicate the film's makers. Yet today, a year and a half later, it is virtually impossible in Germany to publish a book or make a film on the Nazis, and a recent opinion poll in Hamburg found that the number of people wanting an end to prosecution of Nazi criminals had risen by more than 15 per cent since the film was shown. Holocaust had a spectacular effect not because it was a good film but because it was deliberately made bearable. Its manipulated history and prettified characters offered an easy way out to millions who had felt vaguely guilty for their own resistance to the subject. Spectators spoke of crying as they watched, but those were the kind of tears shed for the vagaries of the Waltons or JR Ewing. Hollow and stereotyped drama produces hollow, stereotyped and, above all, short-lived reactions. The true horrors of our time defy the easy relief of tears, but if we are allowed to learn about them they become imprinted on our hearts and minds, to affect our actions and our lives henceforth.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)