Damaged by Iraq, ground down in Afghanistan, defeated over Syria, the jingoistic right are determined to rewrite the history of the First World War in an effort to rehabilitate imperialist war in the early 21st century

army recuitsIf I had to create a sitcom caricature of an odious suburban bigot, I would take Michael Gove as my model. That a bar-room bore like Gove has influence over the education of my children is surely symbolic of a rotting social order. But before discussing the Education Minister’s Daily Mail rant on the First World War, here is some good news.

A new poll shows that 62% of respondents said that the centenary of the First World War should be an occasion for ‘remembrance of loss of life and national reflection’, whereas only 23% preferred a commemoration of victory over Germany. So, at this moment, it is almost three to one against Max Hastings, Michael Gove, The Daily Mail, and other flag-waving jingoes on the lessons of the First World War.

This is what they hate. Here is an argument that the Left won in 1918, when a wave of revolution brought the First World War to an end, partly in revulsion at the carnage in the trenches, partly in response to privation at home, partly in disgust at a ruling elite of imperialists and profiteers.

Why does this matter so much? Perhaps because what happened in 1918 represented a sea-change in popular attitudes to war. The first modern industrialised war had consumed millions of citizen-conscript soldiers in four years of apocalyptic destruction. War was no longer something painted on the tops of biscuit tins. It was a visceral reality in millions of homes torn apart by grief and hunger.

Popular hatred of war – and, to an extent, of the nationalism and imperialism that breed it – became commonsense politics for working-class people in the interwar period. It is with us still, having fed into several great upsurges of anti-war protest in the post-war period – against nuclear weapons in the early 1960s, against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, against cruise missiles in the 1980s, and against the War on Terror from 2001.

History matters because it is about the present. Our rulers know this. That is why they are determined to refight the ideological battles of 1914-1918. Damaged by Iraq, ground down in Afghanistan, defeated over Syria, the jingoistic right are determined to rewrite the history of the First World War in an effort to rehabilitate imperialist war in the early 21st century. Their arguments are crass, and, the polls suggest, most people know it.

The ‘dupes’ argument

Gove, echoing several other revisionist commentators, says that historians have ‘demonstrated that those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in King and Country, committed to defending the Western liberal order’.

Now this is a curious species of argument. The best way to expose the false logic at work here is by counter-example. It might equally well be argued that if I ‘consciously believed’ that Protestants were agents of Satan – as many did in 16th century Spain – I would be entitled to set up an Inquisition to burn them alive. Or, if I ‘consciously believed’ that black people were inherently inferior to me and capable only of routine labour – as many did in the antebellum South before the American Civil War – I would be entitled to hold them in slavery. And so on.

Many British men volunteered to fight in 1914 for ‘King and Country’. Whatever that meant to them, it clearly had nothing to do with their real interests. Just as it was not in the interests of German men to fight for the Kaiser, or Russian men to fight for the Tsar, or Turkish men to fight for the Sultan. These are children’s stories, and if millions of men were duped – yes: duped – by these stories in 1914, that is an indictment of their society.

Cambridge historian Richard Evans is therefore absolutely right to argue: ‘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’.

The job of historians is to cut through the lies. Millions were indeed duped by the ideologies of their rulers in 1914: nationalism, imperialism, military glory, allegiance to monarch and flag, and all the rest. By 1918 millions of them knew better. Soldiers were streaming out of the trenches and threatening to gun down officers who tried to stop them; and workers were on the streets at home toppling warmongers from their thrones and settling accounts with the war-profiteers who employed them.

We also know better – because of the experience and the example of our forebears. What Gove hates is that my children cannot be duped as easily as their great-grandparents were duped. Now that is progress of a sort.

The ‘honour’ argument

Gove deplores ‘an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour, and courage’. He is thinking of ‘left-wing academics’. He is also thinking of such artefacts of popular culture as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer, and Blackadder. (For some reason he did not mention the war poets, but since Max Hastings, amongst others, already has them in the dock, we can assume it was oversight.)

The Observer gave space to Tristram Hunt, Labour’s shadow education spokesperson, to reply to Gove. At least I assume that was the intention: a reply. It was certainly how the piece was framed. In fact, because Hunt is currently metamorphosing from reasonably good historian into ghastly New Labour clone – rather like that beetle in the Kafka story – it was nothing of the sort.

‘The British responded to such fascism [Kaiser Wilhelm’s] by largely supporting the war effort. Appeals by trade union leaders to oppose German aggression … led more than 250,000 of their members to enlist by Christmas 1914 … Contrary to the assertions of Michael Gove and The Daily Mail, the Left needs no lessons on “the virtues of patriotism, honour, and courage”.’

Where to begin with this dog’s dinner? No time to discuss the technical definition of fascism here; suffice it to say that, whatever else he was, Kaiser Wilhelm was not a fascist. Even Max Hastings does not accuse him of this, merely suggesting that he might as well have been, since the First World War was really a grand dress-rehearsal for the Second.

Then there are those ‘patriotic’ trade union leaders. Call me a dinosaur if you like, but some might say that their job was to represent the interests of their members – not to encourage enlistment in a bosses’ war for empire and profit in which workers in uniform on one side killed workers in uniform on the other.

As for ‘patriotism, honour, and courage’, the Left may not need lessons, but Tristram Hunt most certainly does. This is the garbage that killed 15 million between 1914 and 1918. Let me translate in so far as I can. When they talk about ‘patriotism’, they mean nationalism, imperialism, and militarism. When they talk about ‘honour’, they do not mean the ‘honour’ of the Suffragette, the striking miner, or the Irish nationalist. And when they talk about ‘courage’, they do not mean the courage of the pacifist, the mutineer, or the revolutionary.

Steve Bell portrays Gove as a duck. (I am not sure why. Does he look like a duck?) The stupidity of talking about ‘patriotism, honour, and courage’ in relation to the First World War certainly makes Gove a sitting duck. But Hunt has missed the target. (Perhaps because he has turned into a beetle.)

The ‘nobility’ argument

Breathless from declaring his admiration for ‘the heroism and sacrifice of our great-grandparents’, Gove then proclaims that ‘Britain’s role in the world has been marked by nobility and courage’, and that Britain has a ‘special tradition of liberty’. Unlike Germany.

‘The ruthless Social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims, and their scorn for international order, all made resistance more justified.’

There you have it: the First World War was a struggle between the good empire and the bad empire. It is of course the pantomime season and Gove is Education Minister, so maybe all this is just pretend. The goodies are ‘noble’, ‘courageous’, and fight for ‘liberty’ (applause). The baddies are ‘pitiless’, ‘aggressively expansionist’, and have ‘scorn for the international order’ (hiss). We know who has to win.

Then, having won, the British helped themselves to Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Namibia, and Tanzania, while gunning down protestors in Dublin, Cairo, and Amritsar. In South Africa, they were busy inventing a system that would later be called apartheid by driving black farmers from their land to force them to work in British-owned gold-mines. Back home, unemployment hit 2.5 million in 1922, remained above a million for the next decade, and then soared to 3 million in 1932. This was wartime Prime Minister Lloyd George’s ‘land fit for heroes’.

It is the outcome that gives the lie to revisionist arguments about the First World War. It was a war for empire and profit in which the many were sacrificed for the wealth and power of the few, and in which Britain’s rulers demonstrated once again that they represent not ‘nobility’ and ‘liberty’, but a world of exploitation, oppression, and violence.

From No Glory in War

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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