Pull the other one
Michael Gove wants us to believe that 1914 saw the beginning of a just war in defence of liberty. And he is not alone, writes Eddie Ford
Prepare for a deluge of material marking this year’s 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. For instance, it is expected that about a thousand new books on the subject will be published - not to mention the huge numbers of titles that will be updated, revised and reprinted. Not a bad earner for some. You can guarantee too that there will be a near endless stream of documentaries and films of distinctly varying quality. Perhaps more significantly, sections of the bourgeoisie - particularly in the Tory Party and the rightwing press - will use the occasion to launch an ideological offensive designed to reinforce patriotic values and love of the nation.
Right on cue, therefore, is Michael Gove, the education secretary. He took to the pages of the Daily Mail, a more than appropriate medium it has to be said, to defend the honour of British imperialism. Plaintively asking “Why does the left insist on belittling true British heroes?”, he makes a puff for the government’s history curriculum - which apparently gives children a “proper, rounded understanding” of Britain’s past, including World War I (January 2). Part of this “proper, rounded understanding”, Gove explains, involves giving young people from “every community” the chance to learn about the “heroism and sacrifice” of our great-grandparents and “commemorate the bravery of those who fought” in the trenches and elsewhere. Hence schools will be organising visits to battlefields and graveyards, and so on.
Of course, he sorrowfully notes, the war was an “unspeakable tragedy” which “robbed this nation of our bravest and best” - if only things had been different. However, he notes, it is important that we do not “succumb” to some of the “misunderstandings and misrepresentations” about the war which reflect a disturbingly “ambiguous attitude to this country” - if not an “unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”. He singles out for special opprobrium popular classics such as Oh, what a lovely war, The monocled mutineer and Blackadder. As far as he is concerned, all of them are guilty of portraying the war as a “series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite” - and darkly adds that “even to this day there are leftwing academics all too happy to feed those myths”. Namely, professor Richard Evans, the renowned regius professor of history at Cambridge University and specialist in Nazi Germany, who, according to Gove, has the attitude of an “undergraduate cynic” playing in a Footlights revue rather than a “sober academic”.
Yes, the education secretary continues, it may have been a “uniquely horrific war” but it was “plainly a just war” - a tragic necessity. Thus the importance of challenging “existing leftwing versions of the past” which refute this belief. Never forget, Gove implores, the “ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites”, the “pitiless approach they took to occupation”, their “aggressively expansionist war aims”, their “scorn for the international order”, etc - all of which stands in ignoble contrast to cricket-playing British imperialism, which always adhered to Queensbury rules. The dreadful Hun just had to be defeated.
Finishing off his article, Gove tells readers that those who fought and died in the trenches were “not dupes”, as leftists supposedly contend, but “conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order”. We should even rehabilitate many of the much maligned generals of this war, it seems. Douglas Haig, for example, was not a “crude butcher”, but instead someone “grappling honestly with the new complexities of industrial warfare”. Even the battle of the Somme, generally considered the epitome of military futility, should be “recast as a precursor of Allied victory” - which obviously makes it justifiable. After all, Gove concludes, the “freedom to draw our own conclusions about this conflict” is a “direct consequence” of the brave men and women who fought for Britain’s “special tradition of liberty”. Where would we be without their sacrifice?
Naturally, Gove’s ruminations were endorsed by fellow Conservatives. ‘Mad’ Max Hastings in the same newspaper declared that the centenary of 1914 should be an occasion for recognising that Britain played a “necessary and honourable part in resisting German militarism” (January 7). Just imagine, Hastings speculates, if the kaiser had won - what sort of peace would he have imposed on Europe? “A brutal and draconian one”, seeing how he and his generals were “bent upon European domination”. We know this, thinks Hastings, because after defeating Russia in March 1918 they imposed a treaty as “harsh as they intended” for Britain and France, had Germany also been victorious on the western front. Hastings muses, slightly oddly, that “it is not the world that is so eager to excuse Germany” for its “decisive role in starting” World War I (presumably everyone loves Britain, but hates Germany) that we should blame, but the left, which “propagates a shamelessly distorted vision of the past”.
Boris Johnson even crankily suggested in The Daily Telegraph that Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, is “not fit to do his job” - either in opposition or in government - and should resign if he “seriously denies that German militarism” was responsible for World War I (January 6). Either that or issue an immediate “clarification” on the matter. Start the witch-hunt early.
In reality, Gove et al have a visceral objection to historians and dramatists that puncture a hole in sacred national myths about an essentially plucky British imperialism defending the underdog - and, maybe even worse, use humour as a weapon with which to merciless mock and attack the ruling class. Gove wants us to condemn the idea that there was an “out-of -touch elite” presiding over a “series of catastrophes” - even though that is clearly a pretty accurate description of 1914-18. On the very first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916 there were 57,470 British casualties, including 19,240 killed. The reason for that is not hard to fathom: the British top brass launched wave after wave of what can only be described as suicide attacks against well dug-in German positions - the soldiers treated as purely cannon fodder. Or what about the 1.7 million Russians, the 1.3 million French, the 600,000 Italians, the 750,000 Romanians and the 85,000 Bulgarians who died in the war?
When confronted by such statistics - and barbaric slaughter - sometimes humour is the only recourse if you want to save your sanity. Ridiculing Gove, the satirical website The Daily Mash got it just about right - “The lie that our troops were ‘lions led by donkeys’ must be overturned. In truth, the lions were the visionary members of the officer class who invented the revolutionary tactic of swamping the enemy’s machine guns with donkey bodies”. Of course, the callous, criminal ineptitude of the British high command was brilliantly lampooned by Blackadder in one particularly memorable scene, whereby the eponymous army captain discovers that the Germans were stealing British battle plans:
“You look surprised, Blackadder,” says the absurdly over-moustachioed, rubicund General Melchett (ie, Stephen Fry).
“I certainly am, sir,” replies Blackadder. “I didn’t realise we had any battle plans.”
“Well, of course we have!” shouts Melchett. “How else do you think the battles are directed?”
“Our battles are directed, sir?”
“Well, of course they are, Blackadder, directed according to the Grand Plan”
“Would that be the plan to continue with total slaughter until everyone’s dead except Field Marshal Haig, Lady Haig and their tortoise, Alan?”
“Great Scott!” exclaims Melchett. “Even you know it!”
No wonder that Blackadder is on Gove’s hit list.
As for the idea that Britain fought the war to defend liberal democracy, that would be laughable if it was not so sick - what? In 1914? Pull the other one, Gove. Even on the most basic level this is an obvious nonsense. Who had the right to vote in 1914? Before the war started 40% of males in Britain were still disenfranchised due to the property qualification and all women were denied the right to vote. It was not until 1928 that property qualifications were scrapped and women had equal voting rights (in Germany, by the way, women’s suffrage was gained on November 12 1918), and it was not until 1969 that suffrage was extended to those aged 18 and over.
At the outbreak of war, Britain presided over a global empire - where was the democracy in India, Africa, etc? Simple answer - there was none. Instead there was vicious repression against who anyone who dared to defy imperialist rule. Closer to home in Ireland, Britain used every brutal tactic in the book to hang onto its colony - suppressing the Easter Rising in 1916 and setting up the Black and Tans to terrorise the Irish people. It would have been news indeed to them that Britain was fighting for democracy and liberty. The simple fact is that the British ruling class went to war to defend its imperialist booty: vast swathes of land and territory which it had taken using brutal and overwhelming force (something that Winston Churchill was totally open about with regards to both world wars). On the other hand, fair’s fair, Germany wanted its own colonies. But apart from South West Africa, Tanganyika, Cameroon and a few other remote possessions, no colonies were vacant - Britain, France, Holland, etc, had it all sewn up.
Then another obvious question. After France, who was Britain’s biggest ally? Tsarist Russia, of course, groaning under autocratic tyranny - a byword for savage backwardness amongst all progressively minded people. Thanks to the terrible crime committed by the Bolsheviks of publishing the secret treaties, we know that the British and the French were offering Russia the glistening carrot of Constantinople - ripped out of the hands of the dying Ottoman empire and giving the tsar direct access to the Mediterranean (via the Dardanelles). How would that have advanced the forces of democracy, freedom and liberty? Quite the opposite, it goes without saying. More oppression and terror. To grasp the anti-democratic and cynical mindset of British and French colonial officials, take a look at maps of the Middle East and Africa with their scary straight lines dividing up whole territories and peoples.
War or revolution
You also have to ask why Germany went to war. Once again, it is not difficult to work out. If it had not done so, then it is quite possible that the Social Democratic Party would have become hegemonic both politically and electorally - revolution seemed to beckon. So for the German ruling class it was either an army coup or a war, with the latter appearing a safer bet.
Kaiser Wilhelm II was very conscious of the threat posed by the working class, as indicated in 1905 by the advice to his chancellor, Bernhard von Bülow; “First cow the socialists, behead them and make them harmless, with a bloodbath if necessary, and then make war abroad. But not before and not both together”. Equally, elements of the British establishment - including Fabians like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, it should be noted - had the same essential diagnosis: for British capitalism, going to war decapitated the great industrial unrest and stopped a possible general strike. The ruling class on all sides worried that the working class was becoming ungovernable, and they were right to do so.
For communists, there is only one way to stop war - get rid of a system that produces it. As the CPGB’s Draft programme states: “War is the continuation of politics by other, violent, means. War is a sustained conflict on an extended scale. War is the product of class society. War, and the potential for war, will only end with the ending of class society itself” (section 1.3). That requires a mass party, not just an anti-war movement that (inadequately) opposes this or that conflict on basically pacifistic grounds. Broad for the sake of broadness campaigns like the Stop the War Coalition are for that reason a dead end.