Sunday, 5 January 2014

Refighting the First World War by today’s politicians

It is hardly surprising in the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War that historians, politicians and countries are reappraising its origins, course and consequences.  We have already seen the publication of a tranche of books on the subjects including the excellent study by Max Hastings of its beginnings and David Reynolds’ superb study of its ‘long shadow’ during the twentieth century and there is undoubtedly more to come.  Now there’s nothing wrong with re-examining past events and coming to different interpretations of those events—the essence of what being a historian is about—but I also become a little jaundiced when politicians enter the fray largely because their comments are normally ill-informed and designed to attract the media and because those comments often have little to do with the events themselves and rather more to do with contemporary political agendas.
Michael Gove’s comments in the Daily Mail last Thursday is the case in point.  He argues that people’s understanding of the war had been overlaid by ‘misrepresentations’ which at worst reflected ‘an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage’.  ‘The war was, of course, an unspeakable tragedy, which robbed this nation of our bravest and best,’ wrote Mr Gove. ‘But even as we recall that loss and commemorate the bravery of those who fought, it's important that we don't succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict.’ ‘The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh, What a Lovely War!, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles - a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.’  Then comes the critical point: ‘Even to this day there are left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.’  Yes, it’s a further assault on Mr Gove’s bête noire…left-wing academics even though the origins of the idea of ‘lions led by donkeys’ came from Conservative politician Alan Clark’s revisionist history.  What Michael has done is to erect an Aunt Sally that few historians now believe in and proceed to knock it down.  The importance of Clark’s The Donkeys is that it initiated a debate into how the war was conducted—which was his intention—rather than simply an attack on the incompetence of the ‘top brass’.  Today we have a more nuanced view of how the generals ran operations during the War—and perennial trench warfare was beyond most of their experiences—and historians recognise that there were some poor and some very good military leaders and that no general, good or bad, could sensibly regard their troops merely as cannon-fodder to be thrown pointlessly against the enemy trenches. 
That there has been a response from the Labour Party should come as no surprise.  Shadow education secretary and TV historian Tristram Hunt also criticised Mr Gove's ‘crass' comments. ‘The reality is clear: the government is using what should be a moment for national reflection and respectful debate to rewrite the historical record and sow political division.’   While Sir Tony Robinson commented that ‘I think Mr Gove has just made a very silly mistake; it's not that Blackadder teaches children the First World War. When imaginative teachers bring it in, it's simply another teaching tool; they probably take them over to Flanders to have a look at the sights out there, have them marching around the playground, read the poems of Wilfred Owen to them. And one of the things that they'll do is show them Blackadder.  And I think to make this mistake, to categorise teachers who would introduce something like Blackadder as left-wing and introducing left-wing propaganda is very, very unhelpful. And I think it's particularly unhelpful and irresponsible for a minister in charge of education.’   Tony’s mistake was that Michael Gove did not mention teachers in his article though others, including Jeremy Paxman, have criticised schools for relying on episodes of Blackadder Goes Forth to teach about the conflict.  The critical word here is ‘relying’ and in my long experience in teaching I have never come across any teacher who would ‘rely’ on fictionalised drama to teach about the War.  Drama provides one interpretation of the War, Wilfred Owen another and Rupert Brooke yet another.  I am reminded of Nikita Khrushchev’s comment that ‘Historians are dangerous and capable of turning everything upside down. They have to be watched.’  Undoubtedly Michael Gove would agree.

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