History – what if we really are the bad guys?


Because the First World War is far more complex than goodies, baddies and heroes

It’s been hard not to miss the furore coming from Michael Gove’s comments on the First World War – see here. In his firing line were Blackadder and ‘left wing academics.’ For me that’s the equivalent of politicians blaming Yes Minister for the low levels of political literacy across the country. I wonder if messrs Elton, Fry and Atkinson have been asked for the right of reply. One historian named by Gove – Cambridge professor Sir Richard Evans, has responded – see here. One of the most powerful and detailed responses to the Secretary of State that I’ve seen is by Adam Ramsay of the Green Party – see his piece here.

The Pub Landlord’s history of England

“The history of England: 1066 – last time we were successfully invaded – this time by a conker-playing Frenchman who won 1066 games unbeaten! His name was William. 1588 – we beat the Spanish. 1814 – we beat the French. 1918, 1945, 1966 – we beat the Germans (with NO HELP from anyone else!)…Today”

It’s one of the inspirations taken from Al Murray’s early days in his comic character The Pub Landlord. (Al graduated from Oxford with a degree in history, and outside Pub Landlord character has made a number of historical documentaries). When the opportunity to study post-war European History came up soon after I graduated over a decade ago, I jumped at it – not least because I had no idea what I was going to do with my life having just been churned out of the ‘school-college-university’ conveyor belt but having not made the jump to graduate jobsville. What I wanted to know in studying the subject of my heart (history) is how we got from 1945 to where we are today. In school history for GCSE, my generation did the causes of the first and second world wars in sketchy detail, but as far as the latter was concerned did very little other than ‘we won.’

Dress me up for battle/ when all I want is peace,
Those of use who pay the price / come home with the least.

When will there be a harvest for the world? Exactly. Hence my view of warfare being that it represents the ultimate failure of politics. Politics is the process by which human beings resolve their collective differences without having to resort to violence.

So…how are we going to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War?

Hopefully not like this:

“In your paper this weekend, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the First World War as our finest boys set sail for the continent to rescue Europe from the despotic hordes that sought to invade our green and pleasant lands!

“Re-live the glorious colour of the Fields of Flanders as our brave heroes charged the German lines, falling gallantly in front of the Hun’s howitzers!

“Collect tokens starting tomorrow and send off for your own personalised spade so that you can dig your own trench so that you too can experience the buzz, excitement and thrill of the moment that British soldiers went over the top to face the foe!

“Included too are your own free packet of poppy seeds so that you can have a lasting tribute to the heroes that did not return. (Disclaimer – Poppy seeds sown in your garden at own risk – we are not responsible if your garden is overrun by them).”

And yet it’s all too easy to forget: King George V – the Queen’s grandfather on the throne at the time of the First World War, was the first cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany – the latter being Queen Victoria’s eldest grandson. Queen Victoria’s eldest child was a daughter (also called Victoria, but known as Vicky), not a son. But because of the rules around men succeeding to the throne and not women, she was married off to the best Emperor Germany never had (I blogged about him here) and it was her younger brother that became king as Edward VII in 1901.

Note too that the UK through France was allied to Russia in the First World War. That alliance was sealed in part due to Edward VII being married to Alexandra of Denmark. Alexandra’s sister Dagmar was married to Tsar Alexander III of Russia – Nicholas II’s father, thus making Edward VII Nicholas’s uncle and George V the doomed Tsar’s cousin as well. (See the latter two together here, and The Tsar’s visit to the Isle of Wight here, unable to visit mainland UK at the time due to the risk of protests against his regime from left wing activists).

Was the First World War a ‘just’ war?

It’s hard to make that judgement call given what we know now. Hence why I try to look for what decision-makers knew and thought at the time. If they had any idea of what would happen, would they have gone ahead with it? In the case of the fallen autocrats, of course not. Were there people on both sides that actively wanted war? Of course. Just as Germany had Admiral Von Tirpitz, the UK had Admiral Jackie Fisher. Fisher’s entire naval plan and restructuring of the Royal Navy in the early-mid 1900s was based entirely around dealing with Germany. And not without controversy either – there was huge opposition to his reforms that resulted in the scrapping of huge numbers of naval vessels in the run up to the launch of the first what we would recognise as a modern day battleship – HMS Dreadnought. At a stroke she made all other battleships around obsolete, able to either outgun or outrun any opponent then on the high seas.

Given the position, mindset, principles & prejudices of the British ruling class, foreign policy and of the British Empire at the time, it’s understandable why ministers – a Liberal government under Asquith supported by the opposition Conservatives in Parliament under Andrew Bonar Law – chose to go to war. But as Sir Richard Evans stated, viewing the UK as the goodies and the Germans as the baddies is far too simplistic given the UK was allied to an even more despotic regime under Nicholas II. We also forget that in 1914, women did not have the vote. We may see universal suffrage as inevitable today, but at the time it definitely was not. Hence why people fought for, were arrested, tortured (trigger warning for this Times Higher Education article) and in some cases, died for securing the vote.

What if we saw history through the lens of another country? Were we the baddies?

Back in the mid-2000s, this was a question I asked myself. It was one of the reasons why I made several visits in the mid part of the last decade to Germany and Austria. It was at a conference in the latter that I met a history student from Mexico, who told me all about the Latin-American view of ‘Tudor’ history. Suffice to say that Sir Francis Drake is not a hero, but known as “Francisco El Draco” – or Francis the Devil/Dragon, an evil blood-thirsty pirate. (Henry VIII’s known as Enrique Octavo, and Prince William is known as Guillermo, with his son Jorge…which sounds slightly more cool than Wills & George). When I was in France and was taken by a French friend to see some of the monuments depicting Napoleon’s victories with me originally thinking: “Yeah, but your side lost”. That then made me think whether we in the UK have statues of military leaders that lost major battles and wars. Or do we perpetuate a belief in our culture that the UK never loses major wars? In which case do we fail to learn from what happens in them? Will Iraq and Afghanistan be seen as defeats or will we fudge a belief that the UK did not lose as it was not defeated in a pitched battle on the battlefield where it had to wave a white flag?

Coming back to all things German and Austrian, I wanted to see things for myself away from the interpretation of ‘Two-world-wars-one-world-cup’ tabloid history. Between 2004-08 I visited a number of German and Austrian churches, looking at the war memorials from 1914-18. What struck me was how similar in style they were, other than the calligraphy, to the British war memorials. It was only when my German host at the time took me to the memorial of NikolaiKirche (see here) that I got a sense of the devastation of the bombing campaign of the Second World War. When we read about the firepower of military weapons, we seldom see what the impact of people, towns and cities on the receiving end is. The devastation felt by ordinary Germans felt just as profound as it was to communities in cities, towns and villages across the UK. Because of the nature of trench warfare, of how volunteer regiments and later conscription in the UK, fewer than 50 parishes out of an estimated 16,000 came out of the First World War without any fatalities from those that served on the front. (See here). Conscription wasn’t popular either – note the protests in the summer of 1916 cited on Parliament’s website. (See here).

We also have to look at the nature of British colonialism in the context of the First World War too. Soldiers from the colonies served on the Western Front as well as elsewhere – see here on the racism they experiences, and photos from Brighton Pavillion that served as a hospital.

“But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

From Monty Python’s The Life of Brian – which was one of the films I watched and discussed very early on when I arrived at university when looking at colonialism with a more critical eye.

It’s all very well talking about the infrastructure put in place by a colonial power, but if your family has been hit by a poison gas shell such as those used in the Middle East in the 1920s, why would you want to feel good about colonialism? It’s easy to forget that in the First World War it wasn’t just the Germans that used poison gas. It was the British too. The legacy of its use in the First World War was that it was used in wars and conflicts afterwards before its use was more strongly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.

“What about our heroes? Doesn’t this denigrate the achievements of those gallantry medal winners?”

Not at all.

Remember that from 1916, and throughout the Second World War, many people did not have the choice on whether to fight or not due to conscription (see here). The Commons debate on death sentences later on that year (see here) also makes for interesting reading.

For me, what marks out things like gallantry, bravery and courage is that the person achieving such acts feels the fear and danger, but overcomes such feelings to act in the way that they did given the situation they were in. When you are on a battlefield surrounded by an armed, hostile enemy intent on killing you, it’s hardly the time to be pondering about the principles of whether you should be there in the first place. Getting out alive and unharmed is far more likely (I assume) to be your first priority.

That does not let the politicians off the hook.

Wars are horrible things. Very horrible things happen in them. It’s dangerous to be selective in picking out only the bits that we like and trying to ignore the bits that we don’t. If we’re going to praise the heroes, we also need to accept that the UK did things that were horrific – such as the use of poison gas. If we’re going to criticise Imperial Germany for wanting to upset the existing world order, then we have to accept that there was a hell of a lot wrong with the existing world order – such as colonialism and women not having the right to vote.

We also need to acknowledge that there were lots of people in the run up to 1914 that were fighting for a very different world order. Within Germany, the left-wing Social Democrats were by far the largest party in the 1912 Federal Elections (See here). Compare that left-wing result to how the British Labour Party did in the second 1910 election (see here). To what extent were the people more progressive than their governments? What happened to these progressive movements after war was declared?

Do we risk glorifying war in the commemorations?

Some parts of the media and some politicians do. If anything, it risks being the reverse of some of the backlash against the military as a result of the Iraq War in 2003 where the focus of some protests were against members of the armed forces rather than on the politicians that voted for the war. That’s why the wider historical context for me is ever so important.

Why was it that the UK ended up going to war with the German Emperor less than 15 years after he was in the room watching his grandmother Queen Victoria pass away, and less than 4 years after he took pride of place next to his cousin George V (The Queen’s grandfather) in the funeral procession of his uncle Edward VII? (See here for a picture).

Why was it that the UK felt so threatened by Germany that it chose to overcome its historic quarrels with France (which only a couple of decades previously had resulted in significant expenditure on coastal fortifications), and with Tsarist Russia (which threatened Britain’s imperial interests in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, India and China) to sign alliances with them? Why did diplomacy fail with Germany but succeed with France and Russia?

Was going to war inevitable? What were the counterfactuals? Who was Franz Ferdinand, why was his assassination the trigger, what was it about the Balkans that made it the powderkeg of Europe? How and why did the Ottoman Empire and Italy get involved? Why did the USA get involved? What if Belgium had accepted Germany’s terms and given them free passage? Why did the UK feel treaty-bound to intervene in Belgium from something signed in 1839? (ie the world had changed significantly since then). Why did Germany only seem to have a single war plan? (The Schlieffen Plan). Wouldn’t the world at the time have ended up a better place if everyone had left Russia to fight it out with Germany and Austria-Hungary? What were Germany’s war aims? What peace initiatives were there between 1914 and 1918, and why did they fail?

The risk is that we only tell a tiny part of what happened

ie that the UK went to war to stop a big bully called Germany stomping all over plucky little Belgium – followed by lots of colourful parades and processions of soldiers in splendidly polished uniforms. (The latter being the very opposite of what life was like in the trenches).

It’s also worth noting that a number of MPs died on active service during the First World War – see here on Parliament’s website. An interesting question to put to any politician the next time they call for military action: Would they put themselves in the firing line in the way some of their predecessors did?

[Updated to add, following historian Sean Lang‘s comment]

Where Gove is right (see the second half of this) is with this comment:

“Because the challenges we face today – great power rivalry, migrant populations on the move, rapid social upheaval, growing global economic interdependence, massive technological change and fragile confidence in political elites – are all challenges our forebears faced.

Indeed, these particular forces were especially powerful one hundred years ago – on the eve of the First World War. Which is why it is so important that we commemorate, and learn from, that conflict in the right way in the next four years.”

For me, the question that stems from the first paragraph is what can we learn from the failure of the political and royal classes of 100 years ago in dealing with the big changes that feel very similar to those of today?

Instead, Gove’s politicised the whole thing by targeting individual historians and people with a different political perspective to him – hence the backlash. There are other aspects that are questionable too in the wider colonial context

“And the war was also seen by participants as a noble cause. Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.”

Liberal for whom? Certainly not for the women that could not vote. Certainly not for the people being exploited by the system of colonialism.



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