The intervention of Education Secretary Michael Gove on the First World War suggests that the Centenary is becoming a political football. In this personal reflection, historian Gary Sheffield argues that it is not too late to disentangle the Centenary of the First World War from crude partisan politics.
This article was first published by Royal United Services Institute, January 2014
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Michael Gove’s comments about the First World War have ensured that what some of us feared would happen has come to pass. Aided by a rather-ill-advised reply from Labour’s Tristram Hunt, immediately seized upon by Boris Johnson, the Centenary of 1914-18 has become a political football. Gove’s Daily Mail article attacked Sir Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge. This might not be unrelated to the fact that Evans has been an outspoken critic of Gove’s educational reforms. In July, Evans published a Guardian article on the Gove reforms which included some trenchant comments on the First World War. Some historians, myself included, were also in his sights.
As a loyal Guardian reader, my feelings about this piece were mixed. Not being one of Michael Gove’s fellow travellers, I actually agreed with many of Evans’ criticisms of the educational reforms. Of course, I dissented from his interpretation of the First World War. Likewise, the opinions formed in the course of my research mean that I cannot support some the things Evans has written and said in response to Gove’s Daily Mail article. He is not going to convert me to his views, and vice versa. So be it. But we share common ground to this extent: it is plain wrong to suggest academic opinion on the First World War is polarised along Left/Right lines.
Historians of all political persuasions and none have been working for decades to discredit what might crudely be described as the ‘Blackadder’ view of the First World War. Views among this group are by no means uniform, and there are some sharp divisions over interpretations. My politics happen to lie on the Left. Interviewed on the BBC’s ‘World at One’, I was asked if I was embarrassed that Gove mentioned my work approvingly. I am not embarrassed, but I am concerned, for by politicising the issue Gove has done the cause of education no favours.
He gets the history broadly right. For Britain, the war was one of national survival, fought in defence of its vital interests against an aggressive, militarist, anti-democratic, near-autocracy. The tired stereotype of the British army as ‘lions led by donkeys’ has long been thoroughly discredited. My worry is that because my work and that of other historians has been used for party political advantage, it might be regarded as tainted by those who are not knowledgeable about current debates. This would be a great shame, because above all the Centenary period offers a wonderful opportunity for education about the seminal catastrophe of the Twentieth century. Sadly, responses to ‘Govegate’ have all too often been intemperate and ill-informed, with ignorance and prejudice to the fore.
A subject as emotive as the First World War can never be depoliticised; nor should it. I hope, however, that it is not too late to disentangle the Centenary of the First World War from crude partisan politics. It is a hopeful sign that both Andrew Murrison, the Prime Minister’s pointman for the event, and Dan Jarvis, his Labour shadow, have taken a much more measured approach. In particular, Jarvis’ article for the Fabian Review should be required reading. Moreover, mutterings have been reported among some of Gove’s fellow Conservatives about his undermining of No. 10’s consciously inclusive, bi-partisan approach to the Centenary.
My hope, perhaps doomed, is that academics and politicians will rise above ‘Govegate’ to ensure that by this time next year, the British public will better informed about the First World War. At a minimum I would like to see general recognition that the ‘sleepwalkers’ interpretation of the origins of the First World War, crudely stated that the great powers stumbled into a war that no one wanted, remains a minority view among scholars. On the contrary, there is a great deal of evidence that Austria-Hungary and Germany bear the burden of the responsibility for unleashing the war. Moreover, it needs to be understood the vast majority of the British people supported the war, not as an imperialist venture but because they believed that Germany posed a direct threat to their country, their well-being and their families; and many historians argue that they were absolutely right to do so.
To assert that the Kaiser’s Germany was not the same as Nazi Germany is a red herring. True, it was not consciously genocidal (at least in the European context: in Africa it was a different matter); but the aggression and brutal occupation polices of Imperial Germany were, by any other standard, bad enough. Finally, the complexities of understanding what happened on the battlefield needs to be explained. The idea that the heavy British casualties were caused by solely by the stupidity of the generals remains surprisingly enduring, but cannot withstand even a cursory glance at the evidence.
Commemoration of the First World War is too important to become caught up in partisan politics. The years 2014-18 offer a unique opportunity for education and rational debate about the war. We should not squander it.
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