The battle of '37 days'

The series screenwriter and producer of 37 Days, a three-parter in the BBC's mammoth four-year commemoration of the First World War, takes issue with David Elstein's criticisms. The past is another country - but wars can be fought over it just the same.

Mark Hayhurst
12 April 2014

In his critique of ’37 Days’ (BBC 2) David Elstein says he commissioned a “better script” and a “more accurate account” of the countdown to the First World War than mine. Because his project never came to fruition we’ll probably not be able to judge the truth of those claims which, I agree, is a shame.  Though he only provides glimpses in his article of what this better account might have involved he does make several criticisms of 37 days that I believe are unfair and misleading.

I agree with Elstein that the story of the July crisis is complex and that it has indeed “filled hundreds of books and fuelled decades of debate”. When embarking on a project like 37 Days it’s impossible not to be aware of the colossal amount of scholarship around the subject and be impressed by the many competing, and often conflicting, explanations advanced for the outbreak of the Great War. Elstein thinks ‘37 Days’ did “scant justice to that complexity” by implying “that it was all down to a militarist Germany and a decaying Austria, with brave Britain carefully trying to manage an unravelling situation”. I would say that his criticism does “scant justice” to the complexity of the films.

Certainly I don’t think we portrayed a “brave Britain” in the drama. There was something decent about Grey’s diplomacy I feel. It wasn’t aggressive and it wasn’t designed to raise the temperature during the crisis. I think, too, that there’s some truth in the idea that British policy tried to “manage an unravelling situation.” But ‘37 Days’ showed Grey’s diplomacy to be neither brave nor astute – and most certainly not successful. Indeed one of the main themes in the series – which is returned to again and again – is the appallingly secretive nature of British foreign policy in the years before 1914. One of the key scenes shows the Cabinet to be as woefully ignorant as the general public are of the naval deal struck between Grey and Cambon that seemed to commit the Royal Navy to a defence of the French channel ports in the event of a German naval attack. On another occasion Grey resists the suggestion that the House of Commons ought to be informed of what is happening during the crisis. And I doubt very much that many viewers will have applauded Grey’s lofty and contemptuous view of ‘democratic foreign policy’ – the great rallying cry of the Radicals and the Labour Party - at the close of Episode One.

Elstein appears to miss all this while going on to say that, “It is hard not to conclude that the point of this entire exercise is to wallow in nostalgic fantasies of past imperial power, with an all-seeing Foreign Secretary carefully edging the deeply divided British cabinet into a marginal decision to go to war.” Since the comment is not actually substantiated it’s hard to know exactly what he’s driving at here. Certainly the “all-seeing Foreign Secretary” cannot be true. Many other reviewers of ’37 Days’ have noticed how Grey’s (literal) myopia acts as a metaphor throughout the films, and it is made quite clear that Grey was acting on partial and faulty information throughout. In fact the drama shows, in unflattering light, Grey’s lack of clarity from early on in the crisis, his reluctance to take Russian and – especially - French fears seriously, his complacency, and his naive faith in a German foreign ambassador who was being alternately ignored and manipulated by his masters in Berlin.

More than that, in the drama the Kaiser makes three telling points about his British ‘cousins’.  The first is that “they have the deck of cards arranged just as they want it” and this allows them to appear “reasonable” during international crises. The second is that they are critical of other powers when they appear to “bully” small nations but call their own bullying “paternalism”. The third is that they make a show of support for international law but, in truth, are busy maintaining and upholstering their own power (“How they hate it when we show our appetite to be equal to theirs” says the Kaiser at the end of Episode Three. One may deplore the Kaiser’s policy in July 1914 while seeing there was something in each of these accusations I think.

I am also accused of “much larger adjustments to the known record”, particularly when treating Grey’s proposal for a four-power mediation over the Balkans crisis “as a serious idea”. Elstein cites Christopher Clark here who, he says, called mediation a “non-starter”. Clark does indeed describe it in those terms, though the footnote to this judgment leads us to Sidney Fay’s earlier and much fuller treatment of the initiative. Fay, however, thought Grey’s idea “a good one and…certainly made with sincerity” while still believing it was likely to fail. And that’s precisely how ’37 Days’ dealt with it too – as a sincere attempt to reduce the tension, which was unlikely to succeed. Why could it not succeed? There are many reasons, but the most important have nothing to do with the idea itself.  The most important was, in Fay’s words, because Berlin believed Austria should not be “summoned before a European court of justice”. It was Grey’s failure to understand that the Austrian aggression against Serbia had already secured Berlin’s approval, says Luigi Albertini (another principal authority), which made the mediation idea “a foolish waste of time.” This is the route taken in ‘37 Days’. Prince Lichnowsky enthuses about the Grey initiative; Bethmann Hollweg kills it. Typically, Grey relies on Lichnowsky’s enthusiasm alone.

Another big criticism Elstein makes is that ‘37 Days’ misunderstood the motivations of the British cabinet when it came to resigning or clinging on to power in early August. He thinks it was the “inexorable logic” presented by the Conservative party as a government-in-waiting that decided things more than the German invasion of Belgium (or, presumably, the question of what was the exact nature of the British commitment to France). This is just bizarre. ’37 Days’ certainly showed the Cabinet to be well aware that the Tories were ready to take the reins, but to suggest that Morley and Burns (who resigned over France, not Belgium) did so out of party-political considerations or that Lloyd George supported the decision to send Germany an ultimatum over Belgium in order to keep the Tories out is….well, it’s extravagant!

Elstein’s other criticisms are trivial ones. He’s right to say that Princip only fired two shots not seven – that was our exuberance. Grey may not have been in his office when news of the assassination reached London, but Elstein’s notion that he was fly-fishing is surely a confusion with his well-documented weekend whereabouts when news of the Austrian ultimatum came through, not the Sarajevo murders. The idea that we “let Grey off the hook” over ‘the misunderstanding’ is simply wrong. His error is shown to be gross and embarrassing and if anyone ‘lets him off the hook’ it is the gracious German ambassador, the very man who was misled. Elstein’s objection to our portrayal of Franz Ferdinand as “arrogant” and “bullying” is, likewise, an odd one. Some people have become infatuated with the idea that the Archduke was Serbia’s best friend on the international stage, little realising that his plans for greater Slav autonomy in the dual-monarchy were as much about reducing Hungarian prestige as raising anyone else’s. AJP Taylor, who knew a thing or two about Austria-Hungary, once called Franz Ferdinand “one of the worst products of the Habsburg house: reactionary, clerical, brutal and overbearing”. We were quite kind in comparison. Finally there’s the complaint that the “English-speaking German actors” possess “stage German accents”! Does Elstein imagine they were deliberately trying to sound more German than they are?

I think the one fair criticism that Elstein makes is where ’37 Days’ placed its focus (ie London and Berlin). But any 3-hour drama will surely be open to criticism on this score, no matter where the focus is actually placed. Any successful dramaturgy requires a limited cast of characters; the judgment to be made is ‘who should be prioritised?’ not ‘should anyone be prioritised?’ I thought that London and Berlin were the priorities, not least because the British entry into the war actually made it a world war.  Were the films “fatally undermined” by this decision, as Elstein believes?  I don’t think they were and I certainly reject his reason (ie “the fact that London played only a minor part in the 37 days until near their end.”) Indeed the only evidence he cites to support this contention is his own (unmade) drama where “Grey makes no appearance until July 24th, or day 26.” Fair enough, but that’s maybe not such conclusive evidence as he thinks.

On the wider point Elstein makes about the BBC monopolising the First World War I have nothing to say. As a freelance writer I’m in the same position as he and his company are when it comes to competing for commissions. But it’s clear from the channel’s output so far that ’37 Days’ doesn’t represent some kind of ‘house interpretation’ of the outbreak of the war. It’s merely one of a number of competing views.


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