49th Parallel

Back to index

EPISODE TWO

THE IRON CURTAIN 1945-1947.

"The Cold War" – Episode Two: The Iron Curtain 1945-1947.

"The Cold War" is a documentary series which, despite attempting to appear well-balanced. is subtly anti-Communist. There are a number of factors which show bias against the Soviet Union, not least the choice of interviewees. America is represented by a number of important officials including the aide to President Truman, ambassadors and diplomats. There are fewer Russian interviewees and apart from Stalin’s Foreign minister, they are mostly of lower rank - Russian members of the public and a Red Army official. To emphasis the conflict, interviewees from Russia appear on the right of the screen and interviewees from the Western Allies appear on the left.

This bias is also apparent in the content, style and language of the documentary. Interviewees describing the hardships Russian people faced, alongside the great Russian losses during World War II arouse sympathy from the audience. We are led to blame the Communist government by continual, although discreet references to Communist, and more specifically, Stalinist atrocities. An interviewee close to Stalin tells an irrelevant anecdote about a servant spilling red sauce over him, and the servants fear of repercussions, although in the event Stalin did not react. Compare this "ominous" tale with the story told by Truman’s aide about Truman and Churchill meeting, admiring each other and bonding in a friendly manner, so that even on a personal level we are led to like British and American politicians and fear Communists.

The style of footage shown also contributes to our fear of communism. For example, footage of American troops returning home is cheerful, particularly one shot of a soldier returning to his Snow White style sweetheart, filmed in Disney style technicolor with a soundtrack of warm, inspiring romantic cello music. We then cut to the Soviet Union, where soldiers are returning home on something resembling a freight train looking dismal, filmed in black and white with a soundtrack of woeful accordion music. Likewise, the language used in "The Cold War" is powerful, dramatic, and arguably misleading. Soviet actions are described in particularly harsh terms; they "hunted down women", "Seized industrial resources" ,"Kidnapped (scientists and craftsmen)" and most controversially, they are accused of "ethnic cleansing" , which is arguably misuse of a loaded term. No allied action is described in such terms.

The motivation of Stalin, and the extent of the communist threat, something which would traditionally be a subject of debate is framed as fact. Truman’s suspicions that "Stalin was aiming at world domination" are stated in an authoritative manner, which suggest it is not open to question. Stalin’s cruelty is applied to every action - any non-demonic behaviour is described with surprise, for "Stalin even ordered his troops to feed Berliners". His non-intervention with Greek communists is described so it implies neglect and disloyalty, and his actions in Germany (where he did not attempt to impose communism) are described as "careful", suggesting communism was devious. Increasing Soviet paranoia is described without reference to the conditions in Soviet-American relations by which it was triggered. This makes it seem entirely unfounded and irrational, which is an exaggeration.

Despite the use of experts from all sides of the conflict, as indicated by the titles, the Cold War therefore remains biased in its account of history.

ANONYMOUS

UNDERGRADUATE – UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM


The Cold War – Episode Two: The Iron Curtain 1945-1947.

This Cold War series has been waited for and vigorously discussed as the new World at War, documenting the more recent Cold War. With the continued involvement of Jeremy Isaacs, the dramatic English voice of Kenneth Branagh the series appears to be trying to continue the "objectivity" and popularity of the original series. The problem we have found however is that the format and the consequent leanings are outdated – the style of the programme is ultra-conventional, making one feel as if one were back at school studying the Cold War for GCSE.

For a programme that is on Saturday night at nine o’clock, there should be something original and significant to attract viewers, historians and students. The make-up of this programme is very formulaic: point, music, footage, talking head, back to narrator, next point. This may be a tried and tested method, and the facts themselves are no doubt interesting and very significant to the present day world, but being made to feel like school children; swallowing a text book version of the complete Cold War. When there is such an impression of objectivity, we aren’t really encouraged by the programme to ask any questions of our own, to develop any ideas.

Yet that the claimed objectivity is merely a fašade, key words and phrases make the programme’s bias obvious, comparing the Polish taking of German homes to "ethnic cleansing", and failing to make clear the historical land disputes and the recent German appropriations. The coverage of the arrival of troops in Berlin also engenders an anti-soviet reaction.

In class it was maintained that educational history documentaries cannot escape their format, and that it is inevitable that the programme makers of today cannot ever completely lose their own preconceptions of the Soviets as the enemy. Yet we think that it is possible to use new and varied methods, perhaps forgoing some of the authority that a full text book style programme assumes, to give new and more in depth analysis of such diverse and far reaching events that accumulated in the Cold War

In contrast, we found the CNN Cold War Web site to be very different from its televised series. Whilst it provides a very "pop" history of the Cold War, the site’s interactive activities: maps, quizzes, pictures, debates and discussions made the learning process more alive. This new approach is particularly suitable for the Cold War as a subject, being recent and relevant in our lives, as students experience an involvement in history.

SARAH JOHNSON AND AMY STANIFORTH

UNDERGRADUATE STUDENTS, THE UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM


"The Cold War" - Episode Two: The Iron Curtain 1945-1947

This documentary is certainly very keen to assert itself in a "traditional" mould. The voice of the narrator (the ever English Kenneth Branagh) is established as serious and commanding, as he takes the audience through a dramatic narrative punctuated by a comprehensive array of footage, interviewees, colourful maps and symbols.

The documentary is certainly effective in several ways. Its introduction is both gripping and dramatic (despite the fact that it opens with a speech dated before the chronological confines of the episode). We see Churchill’s "iron curtain" speech, and immediately afterwards are treated to part of an interview with an American contemporary, and then comes the ominous comment from Branagh. Indeed, the whole documentary appears to follow this formula; footage is shown, the interviewee comments (sometimes over it), and finally the narrator jumps in with another piece of commentary. The abundance of archival footage manages to make points clearly, and affirms to the audience the inherent "truth" of the story which is being unfolded. It varies in colour and location, and seems to carry the loaded bias of the producers of the programme - a pro Western perspective on the events of the Cold War.

In this respect, the archival footage is most explicit. Shots of Russian and German exercises are almost invariably shown in black and white, and a sombre soundtrack is played alongside them. Often the content of these shots is harrowing; scenes of bedraggled women and towns physically falling apart because of the atrocities. The picture from the Western perspective seems far brighter; soldiers coming home (in full colour) to meet their sweethearts is just one example.

The choice of interviewees also betrays the bias of the programme. There are far more Western officials who comment on the action than Eastern. Indeed, the predominant witnesses from Germany and Russia are housewives; not the political high fliers who appear on the "other side". This notion of "sides" is reinforced by the camera angles which have been used. Every Western witness appears on the right hand side of the screen, and the reverse is true for the Eastern interviewees: thus, despite claims to objectivity, the directors present events subjectively, even through visual signifiers.

HANNAH LEVY

UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT, THE UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM


"The Cold War" – Episode Two: The Iron Curtain 1945-1947.

To the average Saturday night viewer, this documentary series would no doubt appear informative and interesting both in its techniques and content. Portraying itself as the ultimate authority on the events of the Cold War, this series uses orthodox techniques to good effect. Contemporary footage is combined with cine - film clippings, interviews with key witnesses, maps and photographs. This variety produces a professional and diverse documentary in which the viewer can believe.

However, on closer analysis it can be argued that much of this orthodoxy masks an anti-Soviet agenda. This can be seen at several points in the episode, as Russia and her people are constantly juxtaposed with the Western powers and America. The most striking comment was that the ‘Nazi brown was turning red overnight’. The Soviet army are portrayed as rapists, preying on the defenceless women of war torn Berlin, but the role of the western powers in the city is completely neglected. This bias is set right from the beginning of this second episode, with Churchill’s iron curtain speech. This, we are told, was not welcomed at the time but only now can we see how right he was. There is no mention of the fact that this famous speech could well have antagonised the situation further.

It could be argued that with historians from England, America and Russia involved in the making of this series, such bias should have been avoided. However, as all three work for the Cold War project in America and share a common dislike of Stalin, the documentary is obviously made from a particular perspective. Perhaps it is down to an innate bias in the western world that we cannot really understand the cold war from a Russian viewpoint. Most of what we are brought up to believe is so heavily influenced by our society that it is hard to see events in any other light. If this is true then maybe it should be the responsibility of a documentary claiming to be the authority on the Cold War to expose the side that we rarely see.

RUTH WARD

UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT, THE UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM

 

episode 2 episode 6
links