Fighting the Myths of the First World War

Television - BBC - Blackadder Goes Forth - Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson - London
Rowan Atkinson as Cpt. Edmund Blackadder (left). Tony Robinson as Private Baldrick (right).

Marc-William Palen

Did you miss this weekend’s intellectual battle over the myths of the First World War? Here are the highlights.

Round 1, Gove v. Evans

Late last week, Education Secretary Michael Gove fired off the year’s opening salvo in the pages of the Daily Mail in ‘Why Does the Left Insist on Belittling True British Heroes?’ As the title suggests (and now with support from Stephen Pollard in the Express and UKIP’s Nigel Farage in the Independent), Gove attempts to situate the debate as a Left v. Right political issue (for which Professor Gary Sheffield has taken him to task).

Gove first brings in the study of globalization as a key to the war’s centenary importance:

Michael Gove
Gove (Photo: Getty)

Because the challenges we face today – great power rivalry, migrant populations on the move, rapid social upheaval, growing global economic interdependence, massive technological change and fragile confidence in political elites – are all  challenges our forebears faced. Indeed, these particular forces were especially powerful one hundred years ago – on the eve of the First World War. Which is why it is so important that we commemorate, and learn from, that conflict in the right way in the next four years.

Gove then gets personal.

He attacks the war’s portrayal as ‘a misbegotten shambles’ in dramatic enterprises like Blackadder, and then goes on to lay much of the blame on ‘Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.’

In particular, Gove blames Sir Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, for having

criticised those who fought, arguing, ‘the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong’. And he has attacked the very idea of honouring their sacrifice as an exercise in ‘narrow tub-thumping jingoism’. These arguments are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.

For those who have been following Gove’s attempts to rewrite British national(ist) history back into the school curriculum, his conclusion will have a familiar ring, extolling Britain’s historic role in defending democracy and liberalism:

There is, of course, no unchallenged consensus. That is why it matters that we encourage an open debate on the war and its significance. But it is important to recognise that many of the new analyses emerging challenge existing Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders. Instead, they help us to understand that, for all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage.

Professor Sir Richard Evans.
Professor Sir Richard Evans.

Evans promptly fired back  at Gove’s ‘ignorant attack’ via the Independent, pointing out how Gove had baldly misrepresented his comments, and by illustrating Gove’s oversimplification of the war itself: “How can you possibly claim that Britain was fighting for democracy and liberal values when the main ally was Tsarist Russia? That was a despotism that put Germany in the shade and sponsored pogroms in 1903-6.” [Evans had previously leveled criticisms against Gove’s desire to reinstate a ‘Tory Interpretation of History.’]

Round 2, Hunt v. Gove

Tristram Hunt, shadow education secretary, provided Evans with editorial reinforcement, calling Gove’s statements ‘shocking stuff’ in the weekend Observer:

There was always a fear that the timing of the Great War anniversary, alongside the May 2014 European Parliament election and the rise of Ukip could undermine a dignified response to the events of 1914-18. Yet few imagined the Conservatives would be this crass. The reality is clear: the government is using what should be a moment for national hastings catastrophereflection and respectful debate to rewrite the historical record and sow political division . . . the education secretary has sought to blame “leftwing academics” for misrepresenting the First World War. His thesis is a bowdlerised version of historian Max Hastings‘s argument that the conflict was a necessary act of resistance against a militaristic Germany bent on warmongering and imperial aggression. . . . Whether you agree or disagree, given the deaths of 15 million people during the war, attempting to position 1918 as a simplistic, nationalistic triumph seems equally foolhardy, not least because the very same tensions re-emerged to such deadly effect in 1939. In the words of Professor Richard J Evans: “Propagating inaccurate myths […] is no way to create a solid national identity.”

The Verdict? A Net Positive

Despite the negative tone of the debate so far, I rate it a net positive. Why? Because, however vitriolic, it is refreshing to see historiographical debates — so often the lonely demesne of the Ivory Tower — enter into the public arena. This is  especially so on such an important topic as the mythologizing of the First World War, and especially considering that such myths will doubtless continue to proliferate amid massive centenary memorializing.

Preempting this, for instance, John Blake has taken historiographical aim at three big myths surrounding the First World War:

First, that it was, without question, an unjust and imperialist war; second, that war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen provide a representative response of soldiers to the conflict; and third, that the generals of the First World War were ignorant and callous butchers who had no regard for their men. All three of these myths appear to be deeply embedded in too many of our schools and in too much of our culture. . . . The First World War was an infinitely more complex historical phenomenon than British popular memory makes it. Instead of being approached with caution and examined – and learned from – as a multilayered event, it has become almost a “fixed point” in the historical calendar, a vision of war not as it was but as we think it should be taught. This is neither desirable nor wise: it cheapens the contributions of those who served in full knowledge of what their service meant; it makes generals who may have been slow to learn but were ultimately highly effective into callous villains; and it substitutes an easy, allegedly historical lesson for a much harder set of truths. The centenary of the First World War must not be a chauvinistic cavalcade but nor should it be a pacifist’s parade.

We will of course continue to follow the intellectual struggle over the myths of the First World War here at the Imperial & Global Forum. And odds are the debate will only get more heated in the weeks ahead. Please be sure to follow along and to chime in.

Update 1: Blackadder‘s Baldrick weighs in on the debate in the London Times.

Update 2: Evans responds at greater length in the Guardian.