Sooner or later some voice from the narrowly nationalist right wing of British politics was going to break cover on the debate as to how we should commemorate the First World War and play the ‘Patriot Game’. There is an Orwellian logic that the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, should be the one to parade his personal ignorance. In the process he has kicked off what has been described in some quarters as ‘the history wars’. I doubt this will be the ‘war to end all wars’, any more than was the subject of his infantile broadside – just the latest of his attempts to impose on schools his bigoted version of British history.
In promoting a narrowly ‘patriotic’ approach to the commemorations, he has totally missed the point. For most people it is not about which individual party was to blame, nor about which side won (if anyone did), nor even about the conduct of the war at either a political or military level. For most people who have any interest at all, it is because they have a relative who died or was severely traumatised by the war and their families, over several generations, have had to deal with the emotional and psychological fall-out. Gove’s comments are an insult in that context and lack any sound intellectual foundation.
Firstly, the 1914-18 War was the first global conflict of the 20th century. Thinking about it from a purely British standpoint is rubbish. The experiences and consequences profoundly impacted on millions of people across the globe. The consequences still impact on us to this day – in the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa and the Caucasus (to name a few).
Secondly, the war itself arose out of conflicts that had gone on before in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Americas. It was about the imperial territorial expansionist ambitions of Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Austria, Japan, Russia and the USA (among others). Britain, having got in early on that particular act, was largely on the defensive, trying to keep control over its fractious overseas dominions, especially close to home in Ireland. They made sure they got in on the post-war land grab.
Thirdly, despite the rhetoric, it had nothing to do with the rights of small nations – something that was opposed and contradicted by all the imperial powers, including the USA seeking their own spheres of global influence. Serbia had ambitions of expansion in the Balkans at the expense of the Austrian Empire and its own neighbours. ‘Plucky little Belgium’ had its own, particularly bloody colonies, in central Africa.
Fourthly, and most definitely, it was not a war for liberal democracy – there were none at the time. Only Germany had anything like universal suffrage in 1914 and that did not extend to women at all. Voting in the UK was restricted by property qualifications and the years before the war had seen cruel and despotic suppression of the women’s suffrage campaign. The USA came late into the war, once it could decide which side represented the best opportunity to advance its own interests, and it too denied women the vote and happily bullied smaller nations – a practice that continues to this day.
Sadly, there will be others who choose to peddle Gove’s narrow viewpoint or something like it. Even worse will be those who (as during the War itself) see an opportunity to make a quick buck. This is already happening in Suffolk, where the appropriately named commercial enterprise, ‘Khaki Devils’, is peddling its wares round the county and anywhere else, and have successfully visited on one small village near Bury St Edmund’s a crass ‘First World War Experience’ where the punters can pay for the privilege of playing at soldiers in trenches and, no doubt, buy all the tacky souvenirs the firm can muster. It will of course be stripped of all such inconveniences as dysentery, scabies, lice, rats, and the constant hazard of gas attacks, trench raids and artillery barrages – and the inconvenience of having to stay in them for two weeks at a time in the same clothes without leave. Personally, I hope they do get one of the problems – a trench six feet deep in rain water and mud. It is an insult to people like my grandfather and local people who have supported this idea should be ashamed of themselves.
Much as I might have preferred something different, as someone who has written about the First World War, I guess this will only be the first of many such blogs over the coming years.