Tuesday, 20 January 2009

New Dawn

In 1939, a black pastor called Walter Coachman was interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project. The son of a South Carolina sharecropper, he had an unvarnished perception of his place in the world:
“A mere whimsy of fate made me black and you white. You were born with the blessing of Providence; hands were extended to help you the day you were born – you may go as far as your capabilities permit. But me? The cards were stacked against me the day I was born. I can go just so far – and no further…”.

Forgive me for uploading yet another clip from “American Voices”. But today, on the day an African American family enters the White House, I can’t resist. Here’s Walter Coachman’s testimony, brought to life with quiet dignity by the brilliant American actor Clarke Peters:

Monday, 19 January 2009

Obama's New Deal

Well, Barack Obama will be sworn in tomorrow – hurrah! – but what a mess he’s taking over.

In anticipation and hope, here’s a clip from my series “American Voices”. It begins with the inauguration in 1933 of my all-time political hero, Franklin Roosevelt, and it describes the extraordinary energy of the early months of his first administration.

FDR inherited a nation with 13 million unemployed. Within a hundred days he’d pushed loan bills through Congress, shoring up the banks, the farmers and homeowners. The Labor Bill followed, and - in 1935 - the creation of the Works Progress Administration, the most wide-ranging and valuable of the New Deal job creation programmes.

The clip quotes Myron Buxton, a member of the WPA interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project. He’d watched with despair at the ‘do-nothing’ approach of Herbert Hoover, and celebrated the fact that FDR was getting his hands dirty. “This country was like a runaway train. We needed some kind of planning just to stay on the rails”.

Here’s the clip:

Of course, it’s easy to be seduced by the successes of the early New Deal. And it’s easy, too, to forget how contentious and divisive it proved. I have an instinctive respect for FDR – but I was provoked, researching the series, by the number of contemporary testimonies I read in the files of the Federal Writers’ Project, dating from 1937 onwards, disparaging Roosevelt as a dangerous radical. These were testimonies of ordinary Americans, most Republican, some Democrat, all of them appalled by spiraling federal spending, and a sense of the sheer inappropriateness of this level of federal interference in local affairs.

We forget, in Britain, how much the American political system operates at a local level. There’s truth, still, in the backwoods image of America as an affiliation of ‘rugged individuals’ gathered in small communities. Charity and welfare is integral to this backwoods system (the ‘good neighbour idea’, described by Roosevelt at the end of the clip), but it’s a local affair – you look after the needy folk next door, or maybe in the next street. (As George Bush put it when Governor of Texas, “we look after our own”).

Imagine how radical it was for FDR to declare to the comfy folk of Connecticut and Massachusetts that their ‘neighbours’ included bums in the Bronx and dustbowl Okies, and that their tax dollars would be spent on massive nationwide federal welfare programmes – or, worse, on programmes like TVA that only benefited one part of the nation. This kind of centralised thinking was truly new, and, to many, utterly distasteful. It smacked of socialism. By the Second New Deal, FDR’s opponents in Congress had regrouped, and he was forced into massive spending cuts.

In the end, the Depression was beaten by the onset of the Second World War, a truly ‘national’ disaster that justified the mass mobilization of labour. There’s the rub, of course – the definition of a ‘national’ disaster. Hurricane Katrina was local – but Bush was lambasted for sitting on his hands. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The current crisis is surely ‘national’ by any definition, and Obama, like FDR, will get involved. We’ll have a new ‘hundred days’, federal spending will soar, and liberal America will applaud. For a while, some Republicans may even rally behind him. But, in time, the battle lines will reform, and a new anti-New Deal backlash will emerge.

From the homesteads of Nebraska and the country clubs of South Virginia, we’ll hear the sound of tut-tutting and teeth sucking. Hundreds of millions of decent and kind Americans will paraphrase the words of Ronald Reagan, delivered in his first inaugural address thirty years ago: government isn’t the solution, it’s part of the problem. And Obama will be forced into compromise and retreat. Ah well. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009


A couple of years ago the German Ambassador to London requested we stop teaching Nazi history in British schools because it risks hi-jacking our perceptions of modern Germany. Which is a fair point. But the fact is, teaching Nazi history is a moral imperative – not because of what it tells us about Germany, but because of what it tells us to be human. Nazi history has, if you like, transcended time and place. It’s part of all our stories. It’s the textbook antithesis of western democracy – and it needs to be understood.

I made a series on the Nazis years ago, for British schools. Nothing I’ve made before or since has had a comparable impact, and I still get letters about the series, every fortnight or so (mostly from teachers asking if I can help them replace their tired VHS copies – to which the answer is, regretfully, no – but watch this space). Making the series was a profoundly moving experience, because it forced me to ask myself again and again the one question we all must ask when we confront the Nazi era – had we been there, what would we have done? Would we have joined in? Stood silent? Opposed?

The fifth programme in my series featured an embittered patrician German called Fritz Reck-Malleczewen, the author of a wartime diary published in this country as “Diary of a Man in Despair” (click here). If you’re interested in the human cost of the Hitler years (not the bodycount, but the cost to the soul of ordinary Germans) then read it. It’s an extraordinary and important document. Reck-Malleczewen catalogues what he calls the ‘drunkenness’ of the German people, seduced into a terrible affair with Hitler – a swaying, hysterical ecstasy. He witnesses the slow insidious erosion of integrity. He applauds the actions of the White Rose; he’s amazed of the moral courage of Hans and Sophie Scholl. He himself opposes, but does nothing. And in late ’44, the diary ends. Reck was taken to Dachau and killed – a shot in the neck.

Here's a clip from the programme:

I mention all this because “Valkyrie” – Tom Cruise’s version of the Stauffenberg story – is about to hit our screens. Tricky one, this. What are we to make of the Bomb Plot? Tom Cruise has obviously fallen for the Stauffenberg myth – the dashing young Colonel with the eyepatch, who dared make a stand. But the truth is much muddier – and the moral gulf between Stauffenberg and Sophie Scholl is vast.

I touched on the Bomb Plot in my programme on Reck-Malleczewen. But unfortunately pressure of space forced me to cut a fascinating paragraph in the diary, Reck’s own reflections on the Bomb Plot, and the generals behind it. This is Reck-Malleczewen writing in his diary the day after the failure of the plot, on July 21st, 1944:
Ah, now, really, gentlemen, this is a little too late. You made this monster, and as long as things were going well you gave him everything you wanted. You turned Germany over to this archcriminal, you swore allegiance to him by every incredible oath he put before you – you, officers of the Crown, all of you. And so you made yourselves into the Mamelukes of a man who carries on his head responsibilities for a hundred thousand murders and who is the cause of the sorrow and the object of the curses of the whole of the world.

And now you are betraying him, as yesterday you betrayed the Republic, and as the day before yesterday you betrayed the Monarchy. Oh, I don’t doubt that if this coup had succeeded, we, and what remains of the material substance of the country, would have been saved. I am sorry, the whole nation is sorry, that you failed. But then to think that you, who are the embodiment of the Prussian heresy, that sower of evil, that stench in the nostrils of humanity – that you may be Germany’s future leaders? No.

I hate you! Coquettes who flirt with every passing political adventurer! Renegades, betrayers of your past! Obedient planners of the attempt, now gone awry, of burglarising Russia – the very planning of which only reveals your political dilettantism and geopolitical ignorance! Men who have left the realm of all propriety and order! Unconscionable advocates of every conceivable form of godlessness and soullessness – haters of the beautiful and everything which excludes your flat Prussian utilitarianism!
The truth is, of course, a certain class of Prussian officer despised Hitler from the start. To these career soldiers, he was a jumped-up corporal – and the Nazis were bunch of Bavarian peasants. The diaries of the families of bomb plotters – the Von Hassells and the rest – reek of these 19th century snobberies. They rode Hitler for a while; and then he rode them. As Germany grew stronger, the generals were delighted. They cheered when Poland fell. Stauffenberg was delirious at the success of the western campaign. Only when the war in the East turned sour – mindful of the ‘honour’ of Germany, and fearful of another defeat – did they think about replacing Hitler. “Ah now, really, gentlemen, this is a little too late…".

(By the way, the narration in the clip is Daniel Craig – currently playing Tuvia Bielski in “Defiance”. Now there’s a worthy hero.)