History Wars: First World War

4 01 2014

Was the First World War a just war fought against an evil enemy or was Britain’s decision to get involved in this conflict an appallingly stupid move that doomed millions of young men to death?  This question has been debated extensively in the last 72 hours, ever since the British Education Secretary for England, Michael Gove, declared that he thought that schools should use the upcoming centenary of the war to teach young people that the conflict had been a just war fought against a nation intent on world domination. Gove clearly has no time for the view that Britain and Germany were, in 1914, morally equivalent.  Gove denounced the 1980s TV comedy Blackadder for disseminating left-wing propaganda. He also attacked Sir Richard Evans, a distinguished academic historian of the Third Reich, for having questioned whether British soldiers in the First World War had indeed been fighting for freedom and justice.  In Gove’s view, such comments undermine patriotism and respect for the armed forces.

Gove appears to be departing from the UK government’s official view that the commemorations should not seek to attribute blame to either the Central Powers or the Entente. Since the 1980s, when Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl attended a joint commemoration ceremony at a First World War cemetery,  it has been standard practice for national leaders in the EU to honour and remember the dead who fell on both sides in the First World War.

Needless to say, Gove’s remarks, which were reported in the right-wing Daily Mail. Gove earned a smack down from Dr Tristam Hunt, the Labour MP who is the shadow Education Secretary and who happens to be a distinguished academic historian with a PhD. I really liked the opening paragraph of Hunt’s essay on Gove’s views:

Two days after Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse, published a beautiful essay calling for this year’s First World War commemorations to “honour those who died” and “celebrate the peace we now share”,Michael Gove has delivered the government’s response. In an essay for the Daily Mail, the education secretary announced that the 1914 centenary should be about “battling leftwing myths that belittle Britain” and denouncing historians who “denigrate patriotism”. It is shocking stuff.

Hunt suggests that Gove’s comments may have more to do with the 2014 European parliament elections and the need to appeal to the anti-EU faction within the Conservative Party than a reasoned and evidenced view of history.

In retrospect, it was rather foolish for Gove, who has zero academic qualifications in history, to bring a knife to a gun fight with Hunt.

In this audio clip, you can hear history professors Sir Richard Evans and Gary Sheffield debates Gove’s ideas.

For other responses to Gove’s comments, see here, here, and here.

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2 responses

4 01 2014
Andrew Perchard

A point of clarification. Gove is the Secretary of State for Education for England. Fortunately, he has no purview over the curriculum and education policy in Scotland (hence he is not the ‘British’ Minister of Education).

4 01 2014
andrewdsmith

Ooops! Thanks for the clarification.

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