In Britain, a centenary and a war of words | World War I | DW | 09.04.2014
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World War I

In Britain, a centenary and a war of words

Although nostalgia is big business in Britain, the country has long struggled over how to remember World War I because of the huge loss of human life. As the centenary approaches, a war of words has broken out.

Britain loves nostalgia. You could say the country is built on nostalgia for its own "Great" history. But up until recently, there wasn't so much nostalgia for the First World War itself with its mass slaughter and break with the old ways. (Many see the war as having ripped apart the class system which had kept people in their place for centuries.) Since 2013 though, the country's academics and politicians have been struggling over how to commemorate the centenary which has turned into a "war of words" within the country itself.

Britain's education secretary Michael Gove fired the first shot. In the first week of the New Year Mr Gove accused "left wing academics" of peddling unpatriotic "myths" about Britain's role in the First World War. They had -said Gove- portrayed the war as a "misbegotten shambles" and had thereby disparaged the "patriotism, honor and courage" of those who served and died for a "just cause," that of defeating German aggression.

Tristan Hunt -a left-wing academic and the opposition Labour party spokesman on education- shot back. In a newspaper article, Hunt accused Gove of making "ugly" and divisive comments at what should be a time of national reflection. Hunt accused the education secretary of crude triumphalism, of trying to stir up nationalism and scoring anti-European political points ahead of the crucial European parliament elections in May. "Few imagined the Conservatives would be this crass" he wrote "undermining a dignified response to the events of 1914 – 1918."

A 'dignified' commemoration

The Conservative-led government insists that its response is dignified: it is staging a solemn and respectful commemoration of the war. A major, multi-million pound program of events is planned, including battlefield visits for schoolchildren, memorial concerts and the unveiling of special plaques and statues honoring the millions who died in the "war to end all wars." The Imperial War Museum in south London is undergoing a substantial refurbishment and is expanding its World War I exhibitions too, exhibitions which will tend to look at all the changes the war made to British and European society.

Australian War veterans remember the war dead in Sidney

The way Britain remembers the war has changed over the years

But education secretary Michael Gove says it would be wrong to ignore the issue of culpability for the conflict and fail to celebrate the victory of Britain and its allies. Gove says it would dishonor their sacrifice, if the commemoration pandered to what he called "a popular, left-wing perception" of the First World War. This is the perception reinforced by the musical "Oh What a Lovely War" (currently enjoying a re-run at London's Theatre Royal, Stratford East) and the T.V. comedy series "Blackadder" that the conflict was utterly futile, a completely avoidable waste of human life, and that all sides were to blame. Many British military historians agree with Gove that this is a misconception.

'It was not futile'

"The First World War was certainly tragic but it was not futile, it was a war of national survival for Britain. And it became a war of liberation for France," says Prof. Gary Sheffield, director of war studies at Wolverhampton University. "Britain and its allies were defending themselves against German and Austro-Hungarian aggression. We need to recognize what a huge national achievement it was for Britain to come through the war victorious."

Sir Max Hastings - author of yet another new book about the war, "Catastrophe 1914" - goes further. He argues that defeating the Kaiser was just as important as stopping Hitler in the Second World War.

"The Kaiser's Germany - its war aims - fell not far short of those of Hitler's Germany in 1939. The Kaiser wanted hegemony over Europe," Hastings claims.

"If the Germans had won, it would have been a very bad day for democracy and freedom in Europe."

Hastings -a former editor of the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper- says history has been re-written and distorted out of a misguided desire to avoid upsetting today's Germany. Hastings describes that as an insult to a nation which has fully faced up to its militaristic past.

'We should try to tell the truth'

"Modern Germany is a very great country and a very great democracy for which all of us feel the highest respect." says Hastings. "But surely if teaching history to the new generation is to mean anything we should try to tell the truth."

The "truth" about the Great War is perhaps more elusive than Hastings and Gove imply. And the interpretation of this conflict is not simply a matter of political bias. An eminent British historian -who could never be described as "left-wing"- has entered the fray, lobbing a grenade into the view that Britain was right to intervene in a continental European dispute. Niall Ferguson -the Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard University- rejects the notion that the 1914-18 conflict was a just war for Britain and its allies.

A picture of a memorial to the First World War in Belgium with wreaths laid out to remember the dead.

Many Britons feel World War I was a futile waste of life that ripped apart Europe

Catastrophic miscalculation

"It was the biggest error in modern history," Ferguson argues in his book, "The Pity of War." "Britain should have stayed out of the conflict. There had been no immediate threat to the country." Ferguson claims that rushing into a land war, while unprepared, was a monumental British blunder.

"Creating an army more or less from scratch and then sending it into combat against the Germans was a recipe for disastrous losses," he writes. "And if one asks whether this was the best way for Britain to deal with the challenge posed by imperial Germany, my answer is no."

The historian claims that to equate the Kaiser with Hitler is wrong. Wilhelm's aims were not as grandiose as those of the Nazi leader. And even if Germany had defeated France and Russia, it would have had a huge challenge trying to run them and would have remained significantly weaker than the British Empire in naval and financial terms.

Britain should have held back and then pitched in later at a far more opportune moment. By joining the fight at the outset, Ferguson says, Britain became locked in a long and immensely destructive slog that not only drained Britain's resources: It devastated Europe and led to the birth of the 20th century's two greatest tyrannies - Nazism and Stalinism.

Creating controversy

What's more, Britain failed to achieve its fundamental war aim: to prevent Germany dominating Europe. One hundred years later which country dominates Europe? Just ask the Greeks, writes Ferguson..

These bold views were aired in an extraordinary BBC television broadcast, extraordinary because he made his case in front of historians and other experts who all disagreed with him. He invited them to shoot down his ideas, which they did with vigor. The counter arguments flew thick and fast: Britain had to step in to support its allies and uphold its commitment to international law. Britain had to protect its trade routes. And the Kaiser was not as benign as Ferguson depicted.

All this and the start of the centenary commemoration is still months away. The war of words over the Great War rages on, just as the war did itself. What is sure, is that even after the big commemorations this summer, the controversy over how best to remember the war won't be over before Christmas and has far more contemporary ramifications than many would have wished for.

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