Essays: Thoughts of Idi and Adolf |
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Thoughts of Idi and Adolf

SIMON DRING of BBC News bagged an exclusive with Idi Amin. ‘The BBC has degraded the standards of the news media ... by making false accusations,’ Idi accused, eyeing his interviewer balefully. Nevertheless, his manner implied, out of his magnanimity as the World’s Most Powerful Man he was willing to cooperate one more time.

No whit daunted, the brave Dring persisted in trying to find out what had happened to Mrs Bloch. ‘It is the responsibility of the Israel,’ Idi explained. So was Britain’s otherwise inexplicable initiative in breaking off diplomatic relations. Idi had it all worked out: everything was the responsibility of the Israel. The Zionists were to blame.

Having watched Idi deliver his message on BBC2’s Late Night Extra, I switched back to the World At War Third Reich special on Thames just in time to find Goebbels saying the same thing at the Berlin Sportpalast 40 years ago. Everything was the responsibility of the Jews, but they needn’t think they’d get away with it, etc. The assembled zombies greeted this theory with a roar of approval, especially when, after Goebbels had sat down, Hitler stood up and expounded it all over again. An even bigger ham actor than Goebbels, he pulled justification out of the sky with clenched fists, sweating self-righteousness at every enlarged pore. There could be no doubt about what answer a contemporary interviewer would have received to any inquiry concerning the fate of Mrs Bloch. It was the responsibility of the Jews.

The Thames special was the first episode in a two-part expansion of their original Life-with-Führer Chapter of ‘The World at War.’ With more room to move in, it went into the kind of detail which evoked something of the weird flavour of everyday Reich life. The bad taste was staggering. Banality, like the Big Lie, was endemic. Here was ample proof of how unfair — indeed prejudiced — it is to regard Idi as a second-rate dictator. They’re all second-rate. Simultaneously terrifying and boring, the monomaniacs turn everything they touch to kitsch.

Infuriatingly, the ITV Hitler clashed with a BBC1 version presented by A. J. P. Taylor in his new six-part series, The War Lords. Working without the lavish visual aids available on the other channel, Taylor strove to encapsulate his subject in a brief extempore lecture. Although with age some of the fire has gone out of his delivery, Taylor is still remarkable at improvising to camera. Apart from one instance, which he corrected, of saying ‘Hitler’ when he meant ‘Providence’, there were no important slips of the tongue. (In the previous week’s instalment, on Mussolini, he at one point said ‘Hitler’ when he meant ‘Mussolini,’ at another said ‘Mussolini’ when he meant ‘Hitler,’ and corrected himself in neither case.)

Nevertheless there has always been something unsatisfactory in Taylor’s account of Hitler. He is better on Mussolini because Mussolini was a less evil figure. Taylor, notably in his ‘The Origins of the Second World War,’ usefully redirected the historical emphasis by explaining that Hitler’s early successes were the result of comprehensible and even necessary policies, rather than the first expansionist moves of an all-conquering maniac.

But Taylor did this at the cost of making evil peripheral to his view of Hitler’s personality, instead of central — with the consequence that, although he managed to illuminate the historical account in the short term, in the long term he left it looking rather insubstantial. For example, Taylor is still telling us that Hitler didn’t have the idea of exterminating the Jews all by himself. But didn’t he make sure it was suggested to him?

What with Idi and Adolf creaming so much air-time, it was a breath of relative sanity to be faced with General MacArthur (Collision Course, Thames), who, after all, only wanted to reduce China to radioactive dust. This was an American made-for-TV movie starring E. G. Marshall as Harry Truman and Henry Fonda as MacArthur. Documentary drama is a genre which the Americans at their best do better than anybody (‘The Missiles of October’ remains, in my view, one of the all-time great television programmes), but ‘Collision Course’ was sapped by the fact that Fonda is too thoroughly established in our minds as the wise President, rather than the crazed General. In other words, the casting was all backwards.

Still, it was a worthy try. Even 10 years ago, let alone 20, such a production could not have been contemplated. MacArthur’s paranoia, megalomania and plain lunacy were all fulsomely brought out. So was the tinge of authentic grandeur that occasionally emerged from the grandiloquence: like Patton, MacArthur had considerable learning.

The governing tone of the programme, however, was Truman’s down-home realism. It was too easily assumed that Truman could do nothing about Joe McCarthy, but we were left in no doubt that Truman acted bravely in dismissing MacArthur. That the people’s elected representatives shall control the military is a principle fundamental to the Constitution of the United States and Truman knew how to apply it. What MacArthur might have done to the world thus remained hypothetical. It was nice, for a change, to be asked to contemplate a disaster that didn’t happen.

One disaster that did happen was the first part of This Is Waugh (Thames), a trilogy starring Auberon Waugh. Preceded and postluded by anxious rubrics warning that his was ‘a personal view,’ the programme gave Bron scope to speak his mind on such subjects as the basic niceness of the class which had the good fortune to boast his membership, the basic nastiness of the lower orders, and the yawning gulf which lay ’twixt him and Them.

In fact Bron was extraordinarily keen to point this last disparity out to just in case They had missed it. ‘The point is,’ he told a group of plebs in a Liverpool pub, ‘that I’m better off than any of you.’ He couldn’t leave it alone. ‘I earn, I suppose,’ he went on, helping himself to their cigarettes, ‘four or five times what any of you earn.’ One of the proles, with eloquence not greatly inferior to his interlocutor’s and twice the political sensitivity, pointed out with unwarranted tolerance that Bron was simply using Liverpool as a university, so that he could go away and make sure the same sort of things — unemployment, vandalism, etc. — didn’t happen where he lived.

Where Bron lives is undeniably a desirable residence. Sitting in it he frets about the yobs crowding around his moat. Yet it is highly questionable whether Bron himself particularly represents the values he thinks his class embodies. He is a fake squire, like his father. He has certainly always told the truth as he sees it. But the truth as he sees it is scarcely ever the truth. The only reason he can insult people without getting duffed up is that he has managed to get himself cast as the school fool. Seeing the pointlessness of cracking his addled pate, people pat it instead.

The Observer, 15th August 1976