Although the British tradition of history on television has had a big impact on neighbouring countries, it is striking how many national differences exist in the way in which history has been, and still is shown on television. In the current era of television, the internet and downloads, series like Mad Men have gained an international audience, and American historical drama series are easily sold in Western Europe. Take, for example, the cross-border success of series like The Tudors (2007– 2010) and The Borgias (2011 – ).
Unlike Mad Men, however, the success of most national television programs often stops at the border, with the exception of a few British series. In their own country, they are watched, loved or distrusted, but elsewhere they are hardly known. This is mainly because they are often about national history, but there are also differences in the way they present history. Although the formats are sometimes copied, the actual execution is different. All the same, the kind of criticism expressed about these various programs remains the same. Before outlining that criticism and explaining why I think it is unjustified, I will describe several European programs.
In France, history on television was initially intended to arouse political debate in a public television system that was very strictly controlled. Between 1953 and 1965, 47 different television dramas were broadcast, many of which were followed by studio discussions about the French past. The programs avoided certain subjects, however, and there were some historical events, such as the Dreyfus affair, which were strictly taboo.
From the 1980s onwards, history on television in France (and in the other Western European countries, too) was assigned a different role: it was to be primarily for entertainment. And the importance of regular scheduling on television receded into the background. This does not mean that history no longer plays a role in France; rather the zeal to provide the population with uplifting material has subsided. This change is reflected in the program Secrets d’Histoire (France 2), presented by Stéphane Bern, which discusses famous people from French history (such as Victor Hugo) and intersperses the stories with re-enacted scenes. It is characterized by the use of rapid montage, and exciting music lends tension or drama to the story. The content is provided by a voice-over and a few experts, and it is more difficult to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction than was the case in earlier programs.
Fictional elements are seen not only in dramas and docudramas. Many German history programs about the national or international past also contain re-enactment, to which fictional elements are regularly added consciously in order to make the story more exciting. Sometimes the events are ones about which very little is known, in which case the producers give their own interpretation and have actors in costume re-enact the story.
Just after World War II, perhaps not surprisingly, people in Germany found it very difficult to film recent history. When the American miniseries The Holocaust (NBC) was broadcast there in 1978, it sparked a debate about how Germany should deal with its own history. The German media and film scholar Tobias Ebbrecht, who studied German drama and docudrama about World War II, concluded that German television approached the subject differently than British television did. In German films, documentary and fiction are combined “to create a special kind of tension and magical aura in order to offer the German audience a sensual and emotional space to empathize with the perpetrators.” 3 In America, The Holocaust was dismissed as fiction and sensationalist, but in Switzerland, France and Germany some praised it for leading people in those countries to confront “the process of the destruction of European Jewry in all its enormity”.4