Monday 6 January 2014

Michael Gove's Great War Revisionism

In January 2014 the Tory education secretary Michael Gove penned a ludicrous article in the Daily Mail invoking the spectres of left-wing academics and BBC bias in order to argue that the First World War was not "a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite".

Other sites (such as Vox Political and The Huffington Post) have already covered this story quite comprehensively so I'll try to avoid reiterating too much of what has already been said. I'll go through some of Gove's absurd ramblings and highlight some of the many things that he's got wrong.

"The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths."
The conflict has also been seen through the great volume of testimonies from people who served during the Great War, from the works of great war poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon to the first hand testimonies collected by the Imperial War Museum and collated in books like Forgotten Voices of the Great War, The Soldier's War and Britain's Last Tommies (all of which I thoroughly recommend as infinitely more enlightening than Gove's partisan wittering on the subject). Many of these first hand testimonies are pervaded by a sense of horror at the tactical blunderings of the generals that resulted in the mass slaughter of millions of men. Gove is desperate to discount the first hand testimonies of those who were actually there in order to present his favoured interpretation; that the war was noble and necessary, that generals like Douglas "butcher" Haig did a good job under difficult circumstances and that the battle of the Somme wasn't a tragic and futile waste of life.

Despite his efforts to resuscitate the reputation of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, some of us are aware that Douglas Haig once said the "the machine gun is a much overrated weapon". On the first day of the battle of the Somme 60,000 British troops were killed or injured, the great majority of them by machine gun fire.

Gove's protestations that the tactics of the Great War didn't amount to "a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite" is easy to understand, given that the administration of the Coalition government in which he serves can easily be seen as 
"a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite".

As for his drivel about "left-wing academics", perhaps he is unaware that the historian who did the most to spread the "lions led by donkeys" narrative was 
Alan Clark in his 1961 book "The Donkeys". Clark went on to become a minister in Margaret Thatcher's government, hardly a "left-wing academic" by any stretch of the imagination. Not only is Gove expressing an ignorant and politically partisan myth (that the left are inherently unpatriotic) he's also displaying grotesque ignorance of his own political party.

Gove singled out a couple of specific academics to berate as "lefties" and dismissed their work as "undergraduate level cynicism", then he went on to namecheck a few other academics who have presented arguments that he prefers describing their work as "superb" and "skillful".

After about as crude a display of historical partisanship as it is possible to make, Gove had the gall to write that "there is, of course, no unchallenged consensus. That is why it matters that we encourage an open debate on the war and its significance".

Deriding one side of the debate as lefties and myth spreaders whilst heaping superlatives on the other side of the debate doesn't really seem to be the tactic of someone who is committed to an "open debate", it's more the tactic of a man who is stuck in a narrow minded world of confirmation bias, where the work of any historian that confirms his views is "excellent" and "superb" and any historian that presents a view he disagrees with is an enemy to be derided and belittled.

One of the most appalling things about Gove's article is his revisionist determination to speak on behalf of the men who fought and died during the Great War. It's no coincidence that he waited until the last survivors of the conflict had died before deciding to speak on their behalf and say that "those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order" and that the Great War was "seen by participants as a noble cause".

Not only does he utterly neglect the written and spoken testimonies of hundreds of Great War survivors that contradict his view that they were all willing and patriotic participants, the bit about "defending the western liberal order" is just laughable in light of the fact that the majority of the British public (including all women) were barred from voting, Britain controlled a very illiberal colonialist empire and one of Britain's main allies in the war was Tsarist Russia.

Probably the most absurd section of Gove's driveling revisionism is this:

"The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified."
This section creates the distinct impression that Gove has confused the Great War with the Second World War. There is no doubt that these criticisms would apply to Nazi Germany, but they hardly apply to the Deutsches Reich.

The criticism that Germany scorned "the international order" is particularly weak, given that the international order of the day was that the countries with the most military power (Britain and France) could invade and occupy whichever territories they liked (France and the UK had carved up around half of the globe between them). "The international order" criticism also fails because anyone who understands the origins of the Great War should know that the conflict came about because of the treaties and alliances between the great European powers which created the two rival power blocks (the Triple Entente & the Triple Alliance). In reality Germany's involvement in the Great War came about because of "the international order" not because of their scorn for it.
It is truly egregious for a member of the most social Darwinist government the United Kingdom has suffered since universal suffrage to use "social Darwinism" as a criticism. Michael Gove and his colleagues have worked tirelessly to ensure that "the lower orders" suffer austerity, whilst lavishing corporations and the wealthy minority with tax cuts and subsidies. Perhaps the most glaring example of Tory social Darwinism is their determination to continue the Atos administered WCA regime for the disabled, despite two court judgements that it discriminates against the mentally ill.

One of the most grotesque elements of Gove's historical revisionism is his determination to use the Great War to insult and belittle "the left". The shadow education minister Tristram Hunt (a man who actually has some relevant qualifications to work as an education minister) pointed out that "appeals by trade union leaders to oppose German aggression, particularly against Belgium, led more than 250,000 of their members to enlist by Christmas 1914, with 25% of miners volunteering before conscription". In his desperation to use the Great War to launch an utterly feeble attack on the left, Gove has clearly denigrated the contribution of countless thousands of left-wing people who fought and died in the conflict.

Michael Gove has shown himself to be a rambling revisionist, hell bent on deriding anyone who disagrees with his idealised version of the Great War as spreaders of leftist myths. So in conclusion I'll provide a few testimonies from people who were actually there and leave you to decide whether they are guilty spreading leftist "myths" about the Great War as Michael Gove would have you believe.
"The politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder." - Harry Patch
"War's stupid. Nobody wins. You might as well talk first; you have to talk last anyway." - Henry Allingham 

"I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed." Siegfried Sassoon

War is hell, and those who institute it are criminals" Siegfried Sassoon

"I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust." Siegfried Sassoon

"They are not often aggressive or offensively military. This is the dismal part of it: that these men, almost the best value in the ordinary upper class that we have, should allow themselves to suppose that all this is somehow necessary and inevitable; that they should give so much labour and time to the killing of others, though to the plain appeals of poverty and inefficiency in government, as well national as international, they are so absolutely heedless. How is it that as much blood and money cannot be poured out when it is a question of saving and helping mankind rather than of slaying them?" Arthur Greame West

"Patriotism, in the trenches, was too remote a sentiment, and at once rejected as fit only for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism would soon be told to cut it out." Robert Graves

"Opposite our trenches a German salient protruded, and the brigadier wanted to 'bite it off' in proof of the division's offensive spirit. Trench soldiers could never understand the Staff's desire to bite off an enemy salient. It was hardly desirable to be fired at from both flanks; if the Germans had got caught in a salient, our obvious duty was to keep them there as long as they could be persuaded to stay. We concluded that a passion for straight lines, for which headquarters were well known, had dictated this plan, which had no strategic or tactical excuse."
Robert Graves
"It doesn't matter what's the cause,
What wrong they say we're righting,
A curse for treaties, bonds and laws,
When we're to do the fighting!"

Robert Graves

"I never joined the army for patriotic reasons" Isaac Rosenberg

"How many have gone? How many more to go? The Admiralty is fast asleep and lethargy & inertia are the order of the day. However everybody seems delighted - so there is nothing to be said. No plans, no enterprise, no struggle to aid the general cause. Just sit still on the spacious throne and snooze." Winston Churchill (future Tory Prime Minister) 
"If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:
Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
." Wilfred Owen
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