The pro-war voices on David Cameron's first world war committee co-ordinating next year's centenary events are getting louder and more shrill
Government spokespeople have been claiming that the £55 million commemorations of the First World War starting next year will be neutral and unpolitical.
The tone, they have promised, will be somber, celebration will be avoided and there will be proper consideration for the millions who died. But it is increasingly clear that the events are in danger of being driven by an agenda to rehabilitate the terrible slaughter that began thirty years of war in 1914.
The board overseeing events for the government provides some clues. Among its sixteen members are five former senior military staff, one former defence secretary and the current minister for International Security Strategy. One of its academic members is Sir Hew Strachan, a proudly pro-war historian.
Lobbying groups have run a campaign in the last few months to try and marginalise the few critical voices on the board and get the government to commit to a positive take on the war. Major General Mungo Melvin, president of the British Commission for Military History, set the tone early in the summer:
‘The generation who fought thought it was a war worth fighting, and the commission takes the view that there was a great deal of sacrifice, but none the less it was fought with reason. British soldiers, sailors and airmen fought for their country, for freedom and a set of values they felt very deeply about. These aspects are often overlooked.’
A few weeks later in June, Culture Secretary Maria Miller, who appointed the board and is responsible for the commemorations, echoed the Major General. In a Radio Four interview she claimed the ‘facts’ showed that ‘it was important there was a war:
‘I think it's important that you set out the facts and it's clear that at that point in Britain's history, it was important that there was a war that ensured that Europe could continue to be a set of countries which were strong and could be working together rather than in any other way’.
So much for neutrality. International Security Minister Andrew Murrison MP, who is emerging as the main spokesperson for the board, tends to be a little more circumspect. ‘It would be wrong’ he says ‘for the government to insist on a particular narrative.’ He stresses two themes, however. One that there should be less focus on big explanations and politics and more on local, personal experience. Second, in a clear endorsement of the pro-war pressure groups’ line, he encourages revisionism amongst academics. He claims they "will want to explore the counter-intuitive, or perhaps some of the mythology around, for instance, the idea that the war was prosecuted by bungling generals leading brave soldiers, as in the phrase "lions led by donkeys."
Given this steer from the politicians in charge it is no surprise that the BBC is in full revisionist mode. The very first item on its dedicated World War One online page follows the script faithfully. Titled ‘World War One: A Misrepresented War?’ its introduction reads, “Does the traditional tale of 'stupid generals, pointless attacks and universal death' give a fair picture of the war?” Author Dr Dan Todman is a historian known for stressing the professionalism of the war’s generals and the patriotism that accompanied the war.
To confirm the trend the BBC has enlisted the two most high profile revisionist World War One historians Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson to make keynote documentaries about the war.
No wonder too that the pro-war voices on the committee are getting louder and more shrill. Last week Hew Strachan came clean and wrote a piece in the Daily Mail headlined ‘Why we SHOULD upset the Germans - by reminding them of their Great War atrocities.’ The article made clear that for Strachan the war was not just worth fighting, it was a success:
‘For much of Europe,’ he writes, ‘including Britain in 1918, Germany was a militarist and imperialist regime which had to be defeated and from that point of view, the victory is a serious victory,’
The popularity of the No Glory in War counter initiative and others, and the open letter calling for an anniversary to promote peace, suggests the warlike revisionists will have their work cut out. No Glory will be organizing a series of events in the new year. Get ready for some hard campaigning.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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