Saturday, February 08, 2014

Avi Shlaim: The perils and pitfalls of patriotic history


War is said to be too serious a business to be left to the soldiers. By the same token, military history is too serious to be left to the politicians. When politicians pontificate about the past it is rarely in the disinterested pursuit of a complex truth.
Michael Gove’s perspective on the First World War is a classic example of a narrow, nationalistic, blinkered version of history. In an article in the Daily Mail, on 2 January 2014, the education secretary used the centenary of the Great War to declare war on “left-wing academics” whom he accused of peddling unpatriotic myths about Britain’s role in the conflict.

For Gove this was a plainly just war, a patriotic war in defence of the homeland and freedom, a war forced on Britain by imperial Germany’s “aggressively expansionist war aims”. British soldiers, according to Gove, went to war in 1914 to defend “the western liberal order”. Gove also argued that dramas such as Oh What a Lovely War and satires such as Blackadder enable left-wing myths to take hold, leading some people to denigrate the “patriotism, honour and courage” of those who fought and died for their country. Gove’s article provoked a barrage of angry responses, including one from Baldrick, Blackadder’s wily sidekick.

One of the fiercest counter-attacks on the education secretary came from the left-wing journalist Seamus Milne in an article entitled “An imperial bloodbath that’s a warning, not a noble cause” (The Guardian, 9 January). Milne dismissed Gove’s claims about the war and its critics as “preposterous nonsense”. For Milne the 1914-18 bloodbath was not just a war: “It was a savage industrial slaughter perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture and carve up territories, markets and resources”.

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