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37 Days, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

37 Days, BBC Two

37 Days, BBC Two

Inside story of how the lights went out all over Europe

Kaiser Wilhelm II (Rainer Sellien, left) gathers the German high command as hostilities threaten

Hitherto, it has been routine for the average citizen to observe that while they could understand the causes of World War Two, getting a grip on why the world went to war in 1914 has been like trying to learn Mandarin while blindfolded and riding a bicycle. 37 Days, an account of the fateful few weeks leading up to the outbreak of war, has ambitions to change all that.

In the first of three parts over three nights, we began (of course) with the assassination by Serbian agents of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, then were whisked away to the palaces and chancelleries of Europe to eavesdrop on the political and diplomatic responses to the murder (Chris Kelly as assassin Gavrilo Princip, pictured below). An initial reaction from a fresh-faced underling in the Foreign Office in London was that the news was "interesting for sure over breakfast, but forgotten by teatime." But his boss, Sir Eyre Crowe (Nicholas Farrell), sensed there was more to it, and hastened to inform Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey (Ian McDiarmid).

This was a splendid performance by McDiarmid. At first he seemed like an absent-minded old coot happy to while away his evenings quaffing brandy and gossiping about cricket with an assortment of blimpish Sir Bufton Tuftons. However, as the drama slowly began to unfurl in Mitteleuropa, it became clear that Sir Edward was a thoroughbred diplomat of the old school, committed to maintaining a civilised balance between powers and whose urbane manner masked a mind like a scalpel. His super-fine antennae were keenly tuned to the brainwaves of Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany and to the likely inclinations of the Habsburgs in Vienna or the Serbs in Belgrade. He grasped that an over-zealous response by Austria against the Serbs would prod Russia to back its Serbian allies, an outcome at all costs to be avoided. But, as Crowe liked to say, "Austrian policy is made in Berlin," and the Kaiser hated the Serbs.

In his recent film about the road that led to the Great War, Max Hastings pinned most of the blame on the Kaiser and the bristling Prussian war machine, a view that was by no means contradicted here. Rainer Sellien played the Kaiser as a pugnacious, impatient militarist, exasperated with the feebleness and decadence of the Austro-Hungarian empire and determined to instil some gleaming Germanic steel into its disintegrating spine. The sole purpose of its ambassador, a camp individual somewhat resembling Robert Downey playing Charlie Chaplin, was to be hectored and raged at by assorted Germans, while saying not a word in reply.

The Kaiser didn't give a toss what the Russians thought, and was adamant that the Serbs, and indeed all the other minor and irritating races of the region, needed the smack of firm Teutonic government (Nicholas Farrell and Ian McDiarmid, pictured left).

"The Serbs are wild animals but you can tame them and then you can order them around," he barked. "They have a special talent for servility."

Thanks to writer Mark Hayhurst's nicely-nuanced dialogue, 37 Days avoided the obvious trap of being merely a history lesson dressed up in period costumes, and even managed to introduce a scintilla of satirical observation. The scene where the whiskery ambassadors from Germany, Austria and Russia – all of them cousins, which was typical of this doomed world dominated by networks of senescent royalty – sat in a line outside Grey's office awaiting an audience gave off an aroma of Ruritanian whimsy, as did the scene where the dodderingly ancient Emperor Franz Joseph laboriously penned a belated ultimatum to the Serbs. Unfortunately, the consequences of all this Baron Munchausen-esque absurdity were far from amusing.

The Kaiser didn't give a toss what the Russians thought, and was adamant that the Serbs needed the smack of firm Teutonic government


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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The film was completely biased against Kaiser Wilhelm. Yes, he was an inept ruler in some ways but he never wanted war. His generals did. When Austria sent troops into Serbia he asked the Austrians to stop at Belgrade and they didn't, because his telegram as never sent. ALL leaders during the war bear blame. Atrocities were committed on all sides, not only by Germans. The kaiser was a good man at heart, blustery, given to angry outbursts and expressions of sentiment that did him no good, but a good man nevertheless.

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