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In his new book on the First World War, the BBC journalist puts forward ignorant, shallow, and childish arguments, writes Neil Faulkner

Judging by the extracts from his new book published in the Mail (21 September 2013: Don't insult my Uncle Charlie or his comrades), the BBC's Jeremy Paxman should stick to asking questions instead of trying to answer them. Here are the four main points in turn.

1. If so many young men had not lost their lives, it is likely that a militaristic Germany would have built a European superpower.

Correct: Germany lost the war and therefore her imperial ambitions were frustrated. Instead, a militaristic Britain and a militaristic France, already global superpowers, gobbled up even more of the world and its people.

2. The only way we can grasp the sheer scale of this loss is to simplify it, resulting in the received wisdom of these vast and complicated events – the common man ordered to advance into machine-gun fire by upper-class twits sitting in comfortable headquarters miles away – a version that has sustained us for generations. It is such an easy caricature.

Easy caricature? How about 'militaristic Germany' for easy caricature?

But I digress. Paxman's target here is Oh! What a Lovely War, Blackadder Goes Forth, and other satires on the carnage of the Western Front. Such attacks on what Max Hastings castigates as 'the war poets' view' have now become one of revisionism's main rituals. As if to say: 'You simple-minded folk, you don't understand the complexities, and have been gulled by an easy caricature.'

Art often perceives a deeper truth than right-wing historians of empire and war. Beyond the churn of diplomacy and divisions, it sees a world gone mad, a world careering out of humanity's control, a world in which the products of human labour have been transformed into a vast mechanism of death and destruction.

Understanding the causes of war involves a hierarchy of significance which is clearly beyond Paxman's grasp. Ultimatums trigger responses. Responses are determined by war plans. Plans reflect the existence of mass armies. Mass armies have been recruited because of rising international tension. Rising tension reflects growing competition between national-capitalist blocs.

The simple-minded will follow Paxman in explaining the First World War in terms of easy caricatures like 'militaristic Germany'. Those of us who wish to learn the lessons of history – to understand why the world went mad between 1914 and 1918 – must have recourse to more sophisticated analytical tools.

3. We are stuck with the conviction that the First World War was an exercise in purposelessness. That was not the prevailing view at the time. We need to cast ourselves back into the minds of these men and their families, to try to inhabit the assumptions of their society rather than to replace them with our own.

It is as if 'history from below' never happened. Paxman transports us back to the early 20th century, when history was about statesmen (always statesmen) and generals, about treaties and battles and empires. There was only one view in 1914, the view of the Establishment, the view of the warmongers, the view from above.

Vanished from the picture are the socialists and the pacifists. Vanished are the conscripted husbands and fathers, marching grim-faced into the maelstrom with pictures of their children in their backpacks. Vanished are the strikers, the mutineers, the demonstrators who brought the war to an end in 1917 and 1918. Vanished are the millions who became revolutionaries in revulsion at the carnage and set the world on fire in the years of turmoil afterwards.

Paxman's Uncle Charlie, who died at Gallipoli, did not think his sacrifice pointless. So Paxman assumes. But he has no evidence – as he freely admits – for what Uncle Charlie thought. Whereas we do have evidence that millions of First World War soldiers did think the war was a futile slaughter.

Many did not, of course, and the debates raged for years in dug-outs and base-camps across war-torn Europe. Until finally, first on the Eastern Front in 1917, then on the Western Front, on the Isonzo, at Salonika, and in the Middle East in 1918, the majority decided they had had enough and headed for home.

4. The war is the great punctuation point in modern British history, the moment when the British decided that what lay ahead would never be as grand as their past.

Here, finally, Paxman reveals why the argument about the First World War matters. The revisionists are apologists for empire, jingoes who mourn its passing, reactionaries who see something 'grand' in a history of violence, conquest, enslavement, and exploitation.

Paxman's book is a lament for lost empire. Don't bother reading it.

This article was first published on the No Glory website.

Neil Faulkner

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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