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BBC’s MacGregor and a dereliction of duty


WHETHER or not you heard art historian Neil MacGregor’s BBC Radio 4 series ‘As Others See Us’ last week, I recommend Charles Moore’s ‘Comment’ article in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph which, whilst admiringly acknowledging Mr MacGregor’s intellectual prowess and stature, bemoans the programmes’ ‘failure of intellectual reach’.

I too have enjoyed Mr MacGregor’s peculiar voice (think of a Glaswegian Brian Sewell) in previous broadcasts in which he stuck to his subject. But as Mr Moore noted, the introduction to this series hinted at a theme: ‘Brexiteers were in the dock’. Would it have been commissioned if otherwise? I doubt it. Perhaps the BBC should commission another series with itself as the subject.

As a teutophile and fluent German speaker having learned German in school then lived and worked either in the country or for German companies in Africa and Asia, I was particularly interested in the first of the five programmes in which three German commentators told Mr MacGregor how they saw us.

Much of what I heard was familiar from discussions with German friends and colleagues since 1990, such as the unquestioning belief that the EU is ‘a good thing’. I would point out that of course, for Germany it has been, enabling its post-war habilitation in the family of Western democracies. German democracy did not develop organically. It was imposed in 1945. This observation was never meant as an indictment and as far as I am aware was never perceived as such.

I also offered the opinion that (pre-Merkel at least), with Germany still cowed by its history and unwilling to assert itself politically on the world’s stage, the Franco-German relationship resembled that between Asterix (clever but not so strong) and Obelix (powerful but always following Asterix’s lead) and Germany was content in this role. German baby-boomers were saddled with the guilt of their parents and had a strong aversion to militarism as evidenced by the strength of the peace and green movements in the 80s and 90s.

I was therefore not surprised to hear one of MacGregor’s interviewees, the writer Thea Dorn (b.1970) when recalling pivotal moments in the formation of her opinions about the UK, expressing disdain for Margaret Thatcher’s policies and incredulity that a civilised country could go to war over the Falklands. By not responding to this, Neil MacGregor failed dismally. Ms Dorn’s opinion echoed those expressed by most of my pacifist German peers, who believed this was an attempt by a spent imperial power to restore some prestige by military force. And I would offer them an alternative view.

A recovery of national pride and enhancement of Mrs Thatcher’s status were results of the Falklands War but not its aim. Neither was future exploitation of (still unproven) offshore oil fields as claimed by some. The whole venture was extremely risky with success far from certain. Not only were much blood and treasure at risk but also Mrs Thatcher’s political life, UK national prestige and possibly peace on the South American mainland if Argentina had succeeded, as the junta had been rattling sabres at Chile for some time.

She was only twelve at the time but apparently maturity has not enabled the intellectual Ms Dorn (according to Wikipedia her philosophy studies included work on self-deception) to see a parallel between the occupation by force of the Falklands by an Argentinian proto-fascist military junta in 1982, and occupation of the Rhineland in 1936 by fascist Germany. That Neil MacGregor failed to query it or perhaps suggest that it was desirable firmly to nip General Galtieri’s budding militarism (as France had failed to do to Hitler in 1936) is more than just ‘a failure of intellectual reach’. It is to be oblivious to the significance of a decisive moment in 20th Century Germany’s and world history, for we now know that Hitler’s troops were under orders to retreat if a shot was fired against them in the Rhineland. Perhaps Hitler’s subsequent humiliation might have prevented World War 2. Ms Dorn and Mr MacGregor might like to ponder that.

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David Owen
David Owen
David Owen has over 30 years’ experience of international trade and contracting, mainly with UK and German companies, managing oil, gas and mining projects in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

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