World on Fire shows British politicians more honestly than our history lessons


By Joe Harris, MA Literatures and Cultures

What sets World on Fire (2019) apart from other WW2 dramas is its divergence from the usual, regurgitated wartime narrative, its illumination of commonly suppressed historical realities and its representation of demographic groups who are more-often-than-not left unrepresented.

Sunday 10 November saw the final episode of the BBC’s new WW2 drama World on Fire take to the screens of family televisions and unlicensed catch-up devices across the country. For many, strong performances from household names such as Sean Bean, Helen Hunt and Lesley Manville have earned it its place as a Sunday-evening staple of the living room broadcasting schedule.

The series opens with an important depiction of Poland’s capital city Warsaw in September, 1939. For many of us, the mention of Warsaw in history conjures up a plethora of disturbing, yet wholly accurate, images: poverty, violence and the ghettoisation of the city’s Jewish population during the Holocaust. Warsaw exists in British consciousness as one of the most criminally targeted victims of the Nazi mission, and so it should.

What is strangely commendable from the BBC is their humanising representation of German soldiers. Not high-ranking Nazi officers, but the common Soldat: the young men conscripted to fight for their country and Führer without question. Too often are young men who fought for Germany under the black swastika painted with the same sweeping brush of Nazi malevolence when, in reality, many low-rank soldiers were not fully aware of the broader picture of their military task.

Child actor Eryk Biedunkiewicz and BAFTA Award Winner Sean Bean in World on Fire | Courtesy of BBC / Ross Ferguson

Our initial impression of teenage German soldier Klaus (Bruno Alexander) is through a photograph. From the photo, there is little to distinguish him from any other Nazi soldier: dressed in military uniform with a helmet covering half of his face and a stern expression hanging just below. However, we suddenly cut from the photograph to a close-up shot of the materialised Klaus, sitting in a Warsaw pub.

The façade is dropped as we are introduced to an unsure, doe-eyed boy, glancing innocently behind the bar. This juxtaposition of Klaus the soldier and the human drives into the scene a commonly overlooked vulnerability. He is surrounded by comrades but visibly feels nonetheless isolated. It becomes clear that Klaus is not an evil Nazi, but a nervous, ‘clumsy’ young boy who misses his family. This is a commendable humanistic approach from the BBC.

What is strangely commendable from the BBC is their humanising representation of German soldiers

Another vital element that is often omitted from the telling of WW2 narratives is the involvement of the colonies of Western allied powers. In 1939, at the beginning of the war, Britain claimed approximately 503 million external colonial subjects worldwide and France 72 million - predominantly in Western Africa. WOF brings to light these efforts through the portrayal of two Senegalese troops who join forces with the British after being separated from their unit at Ypres.

Parker Sawyer plays the saxophone as Albert | Courtesy of BBC / Dusan Martincek

With 180,000 men fighting on behalf of France and, within that, 40,000 deployed to Europe, Senegal played a tremendous role in the war. At the time, imperialism and its polarising ruler-native doctrine was still rife, as encapsulated in episode six by Harry’s snobbish mother who labels Demba, a Senegalese soldier, ‘a savage.’ Demba and his men face friction throughout the series with British soldiers fighting and refusing to accommodate them.

The ‘Churchill as a great leader’ narrative is one that is overplayed, with little to no attention being shone on his darker, more heinous side

‘Can’t we just leave ‘em here?...’ asks Blake Harrison’s character Sergeant Raddings: ‘they’re not even ours,’ encapsulating the colonial commodification of African soldiers. Harry, an officer, channels the BBC’s chosen voice, replying that he won’t tolerate the talk of ‘men who are fighting on our side as though they are disposable.’

The pushing of this point is, to a degree, laboured and possibly untidy, but it is nonetheless imperative and can only be praised as what it does is recognise the courageous efforts of a demographic whose bravery and needless sacrifice is far-too-often side-lined.

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However, the thing that is perhaps most surprising about WOF, as a BBC production, is its standpoint on Britain’s famous wartime prime minister Winston Churchill. As a nation, we idolise him, synonymise him with national pride. And yes, it would be naïve to deny that the PM played a significant role in the war victory. However, the facts ultimately seem to tell us that Churchill was a great strategist, yes, a strong leader, but that he was also, in many ways, a deplorable human being.

We can make a more well-rounded judgment before worshipping with one eye closed

With films such as the 2017 blockbuster Darkest Hour exploding into cinemas across the country fluttering people’s inner Union Jacks, the ‘Churchill as a great leader’ narrative is one that is overplayed, with little to no attention being shone on his darker, more heinous side. The side of wicked colonial crimes and white supremacism, the one that in 1937 labelled Hitler’s patriotic movements as ‘admirable’.

It is extraordinary to see the BBC take such a clear standpoint against the grain in beginning to expose this ulterior character - albeit in a generally indirect way with Bean’s morally reliable character Douglas claiming to ‘have [his] differences with Mr Churchill.’ The most striking example in WOF is the moment that a Nazi doctor hired to euthanise disabled children recites in defence to Hunt’s character Nancy:

‘“The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race.” You know who said that, Miss Campbell? Winston Churchill.’

German soldiers are shown across a spectrum of humanity | Courtesy of BBC / Dusan Martincek

A real quote from Churchill to Asquith in 1910, the BBC use this to draw parallels between Nazi ideology and Churchill’s own beliefs. This is a step in the right direction to drag into the spotlight a different side to one of our most prolific national icons so that we can make a more well-rounded judgment before worshipping with one eye closed.

In short, when the BAFTAs arrive again in May next year, World on Fire may not be winning every award there is to win. It’s not perfect, but it is certainly watchable, and this is all that is needed to communicate its applaudable illuminations and representations of Historic realities that have too often been pushed down into the mud.

Featured: Courtesy of BBC / Ross Ferguson

What do you think of World on Fire's humanistic retelling of history?