Battle rages over meaning of first world war
As Europe prepares to commemorate the ‘Great War’, disputes have grown about how to interpret the conflict: is the row unseemly, or a valuable debate about history’s meaning?
They were lions led by donkeys, working class cannon fodder sent casually to their deaths by largely unconcerned ruling class generals in both Britain and Germany; military leaders and politicians on both sides were pursuing a war that was both futile and unnecessarily wasteful, serving only the needs of arms dealers.
This interpretation of the first world war has held sway since the 1960s, but at the beginning of this year’s centenary commemorations a fresh conflict has broken out. Historians and politicians are attacking each other about whether the version of history outlined above should be challenged, junked completely, or taught in schools as the consensus view.
Michael Gove, the Conservative minister responsible for English schools, launched an attack on what he characterised as a Blackadder view of the first world war. This view, he claimed, portrays the war as ‘a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.’
He said such interpretations were perpetrating ‘versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.’
His Labour shadow, Tristram Hunt, who is a historian, then leapt in, condemning Gove for what he called taking a ‘tawdry’ and ‘crass’ opportunity to bash his political opponents and ‘sow divisions’.
Now each day brings a new intervention, as MPs, historians, military experts and commentators weigh in with their own views, usually criticising everyone else.
Antony Beevor is the latest heavyweight to become involved, pointing out that it is not just one political persuasion that tends to peddle myths or push a particular point of view about the first world war. Like Gove, he is against ‘the Blackadder interpretation’ and is ‘horrified at the confusion of fact and fiction.’
But he warns that anti-militaristic views have distorted our perceptions of what really happened on the battlefield. For example, far from sending ordinary troops ‘over the top’ to be killed while they held back, young officers on the western front died at twice the rate of the soldiers under their command.
So this debate may be healthy, putting all perspectives to the test, provided those who take part can keep cool heads. Maybe Beevor should have the last word with this warning: ‘intellectual honesty is the first casualty of moral outrage.’
Choose your enemy
Some commentators have accused the politicians of a lack of dignity in opening fire on each others’ interpretations of the Great War. They hope for a largely neutral memorial to the millions who died in and beyond Europe – a four year version of Remembrance Day.
But for some, this itself would be a distortion and a wasted opportunity. No event, particularly one so cataclysmic, can be immune from being seen through some sort of prism.
- ‘History should never be an exercise in patriotism.’ Is Anthony Beevor right?
- Is a war commemoration always condemned to distort history? If so, does this matter?
- In groups, summarise the two sides of this argument with bullet points.
- Watch a scene from Blackadder Goes Forth and write an analysis of the historical interpretation that informs the humour. Is there more than one interpretation? Can you write an opposite version, and is it funny?
Some People Say...
“All human knowledge takes the form of interpretation.’Walter Benjamin”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why are we talking about this?
- The rest of 2014 will be dominated by discussions about the first world war because this is the centenary of the start of the conflict. Schools across Europe will be investigating the events of the Great War, as it was known, and discussing the impact of hostilities that began in the summer of 1914 and didn’t end until 1918. At some point during the four year commemoration, you will reach your own conclusions.
- And does it still matter?
- The last British survivor of the 1914–18 war only died in 2009, so this is still fairly recent modern history. But many politicians and commentators are so interested in the interpretations being drawn in history classes because they believe the 20th century could offer lessons on how to avoid such catastrophic loss of life in future conflicts – or how to avoid war altogether.
- Historian Alan Clark’s famous book, The Donkeys, published in 1961, achieved dominance for the revisionist view of the first world war. In it, he attacked the competence of British generals. That was followed by a musical satire Oh! What a Lovely War and an enthusiasm for the poetry produced by disillusioned soldiers in the trenches, emphasising the scale and horror of the slaughter and what they saw as its futility.
- TV comedy featuring Sir Edmund Blackadder, who is transposed into successive periods in history in each series. He starts off at court during the Dark Ages, then finds himself a courtier in the Tudor period, then a Regency gentleman, before ending up as a reluctant officer in the first world war trenches in ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’. The star is Rowan Atkinson, with Tony Robinson playing his downtrodden, idiotic servant Baldrick.
- Tristram Hunt was an academic before becoming MP for Stoke-on-Trent in 2010. He has written books about the English civil war and the rise of the Victorian city, and has presented history documentaries on TV and radio. Currently education spokesman for the Labour opposition, thus described as Michael Gove’s ‘shadow’.
- New intervention
- Boris Johnson, the Conservative London mayor, wrote that Hunt was ‘not fit’ to oversee the school curriculum unless he believed Britain’s cause in responding to German ‘aggression’ made it a just war. Downing Street then agreed, albeit more tactfully.