Monday, 6 January 2014

The Politics of History...

2014 has got off to a fascinating start for those of us interested in politics and coming from a historical background. It is of course the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1 and Education Secretary Michael Gove has wasted little time laying into his personal bĂȘte noire, academics on the Left, for their interpretation of the Great War.

Included in Gove's tirade were films such as The Monocled Mutineer and even Blackadder. The thrust of Gove's rather confusing ranting was that the image of the British war effort from 1914-18 being led by an arrogant out-of-touch elite which allowed working men by the tens of thousand to be slaughtered in the trenches is distorted and driven by class envy and ideology.

Gove went on to emphasise that Britain's rationale for fighting the war was to halt German social Darwinism in the name of freedom and democracy and reproached the Left for being less concerned about that than the failings of Britain's political and military leadership at the time.

As a historian, I know that the First World War is a hugely complex issue but I also know Gove's approach is simplistic in the extreme. Britain went to war in 1914, as she would in 1939 and did in 1793, to prevent a single power dominating the European Continent in general and the Channel ports in particular. The guarantee to Belgium was less about protecting a small European state than ensuring that its ports remained out of either French or (after 1871) German control.

Had the Germans attacked France in 1914 as they had in 1870, it's highly likely the British would have stayed out but the threat of the Germans in force on the other side of the Channel was too much so we had to fight.

While we were more democratic than the Germans or our erstwhile Russian allies, suffrage was still limited (to men only) so World War 1 pitted a series of barely democratic European states in competition.

We also need to confront the notion that the war was won by the brave British Tommy in the trenches. Victory was the product of a number of concurrent factors starting with the rigidity of the dynastic German State which couldn't adapt to the demands of war and ended up being unable to feed its own people.

That in turn was the result of the Battle of Jutland and the allied naval blockade. Despite performing well in the naval battle, the German High Seas Fleet returned to Kiel and sat out the war with its sailors getting more resentful and radicalised.

Then there was the entry of the United States, precipitated again by the stupidity of the Germans, which brought fresh and well-fed troops to the Western Front from mid-1917. The failure of the Spring Offensive in 1918 confirmed the tactical balance was shifting away from the Germans and had the German State itself not collapsed, it's possible an allied offensive in the spring of 1919 would have taken British, French and American troops into Germany itself where doubtless the Germans would have fought for every inch.

Combine the above with technology and the victory of the western allies was inevitable but both the French and British armies flirted with mutiny and the post-war period would see social and political unrest in both countries.

World War 1 deserves more than petty political squabbling and pointless mud-slinging. It was a tragic development, in so many ways unnecessary as it's highly likely the dynastic empires would have collapsed under their own political and economic contradictions before very long. It might not have been peaceful but without the shadow of war and the attractions (and fears) of Communism (itself a product of the same war), the likes of Germany might have achieved a more stable and enduring democracy and the world would have been spared the horrors of a second world war within a generation.

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