Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?

Here are four newspaper articles on which country is to blame for WWI: 1) Michael Gove (education secretary) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-

2532930/MICHAEL-GOVE-Why-does-Left-insist-belittling-true-British-heroes.html 2) Tristram Hunt (shadow education secretary)

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/04/first-world-war-michael-gove- left-bashing-history

3) Boris Johnson (Mayor of London) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10552336/Germany-started-the-Great-War-but- the-Left-cant-bear-to-say-so.html

4) Richard J Evans (historian) http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/06/richard- evans-michael-gove-history-education

1) Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes? MICHAEL GOVE asks damning question as the anniversary of the First World War approaches By Michael Gove Daily Mail. Published: 22:30 GMT, 2 January 2014 | Updated: 23:16 GMT, 2 January 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2532930/MICHAEL-GOVE-Why-does-Left-insist- belittling-true-British-heroes.html The past has never had a better future. Because history is enjoying a renaissance in Britain. After years in which the study of history was declining in our schools, the numbers of young people showing an appetite for learning about the past, and a curiosity about our nation’s story, is growing once more. As a Government, we’ve done everything we can to support this restoration. We’ve changed how schools are judged, and our new measure of academic success for schools and pupils, the English baccalaureate, rewards those who study history at GCSE. And the changes we’ve made to the history curriculum have been welcomed by top academics as a way to give all children a proper rounded understanding of our country’s past and its place in the world. That understanding has never been needed more. 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.


The Government wants to give young people from every community the chance to learn about the heroism, and sacrifice, of our great-grandparents, which is why we are organising visits to the battlefields of the Western Front. The war was, of course, an unspeakable tragedy, which robbed this nation of our bravest and best. But even as we recall that loss and commemorate the bravery of those who fought, it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict. Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage. 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. Professor Sir Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian and Guardian writer, has criticised those who fought, arguing, ‘the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong’. And he has attacked the very idea of honouring their sacrifice as an exercise in ‘narrow tub- thumping jingoism’. These arguments are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate. The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war. Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford, laid out the ethical case for our involvement in a superb essay in September’s Standpoint magazine. 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. 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. Other historians have gone even further in challenging some prevailing myths. Generals who were excoriated for their bloody folly have now, after proper study, been re- assessed. Douglas Haig, held up as a crude butcher, has been seen in a new light thanks to Professor Gary Sheffield, of Wolverhampton University, who depicts him as a patriotic leader grappling honestly with the new complexities of industrial warfare.


Even the battle of the Somme, once considered the epitome of military futility, has now been analysed in depth by the military historian William Philpott and recast as a precursor of allied victory. There is, of course, no unchallenged consensus. That is why it matters that we encourage an open debate on the war and its significance. But it is important to recognise that many of the new analyses emerging challenge existing Left- wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders. Instead, they help us to understand that, for all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage. Indeed, the more we reflect on every aspect of the war, the more cause there is for us to appreciate what we owe to our forebears and their traditions. But whatever each of us takes from these acts of remembrance and hours of debate it is always worth remembering that the freedom to draw our own conclusions about this conflict is a direct consequence of the bravery of men and women who fought for, and believed in, Britain’s special tradition of liberty.


2) Michael Gove, using history for politicking is tawdry. The British left supported the 1914-18 conflict – which was far more complex in its origins than the education secretary’s simplistic assertions admit By Tristram Hunt The Guardian / The Observer, Saturday 4 January 2014 21.05 GMT http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/04/first-world-war-michael-gove-left- bashing-history Two days after Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse, published a beautiful essay calling for this year’s First World War commemorations to “honour those who died” and “celebrate the peace we now share”, Michael Gove has delivered the government’s response. In an essay for the Daily Mail, the education secretary announced that the 1914 centenary should be about “battling leftwing myths that belittle Britain” and denouncing historians who “denigrate patriotism”. It is shocking stuff. There was always a fear that the timing of the Great War anniversary, alongside the May 2014 European Parliament election and the rise of Ukip could undermine a dignified response to the events of 1914-18. Yet few imagined the Conservatives would be this crass. The reality is clear: the government is using what should be a moment for national reflection and respectful debate to rewrite the historical record and sow political division. In the very paper that so grotesquely called into question Ralph Miliband’s wartime service in the Royal Navy, the education secretary has sought to blame “leftwing academics” for misrepresenting the First World War. His thesis is a bowdlerised version of historian Max Hastings’s argument that the conflict was a necessary act of resistance against a militaristic Germany bent on warmongering and imperial aggression. Any talk of “lions led by donkeys” or “we are all guilty” of relativism is to betray the sacrifice of Flanders, Somme and Jutland, Gove wrote. The commemorations, argued Hastings, in the Mail last summer, “should seek to explain to a new generation that World War I was critical to the freedom of western Europe”. So, first of all, some history. Much of Hastings’s case is an update of the scholar Fritz Fischer’s 1961 work, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, which fully laid the blame for the war on the German lust for European and colonial power. Few on the left would wish to defend Kaiser Wilhelm II against such charges of militarism. “First cow the socialists, behead them and make them harmless, with a bloodbath if necessary, and then make war abroad. But not before and not both together,” was his advice to his chancellor, Bernhard von Bülow, in 1905. The British left responded to such fascism by largely supporting the war effort. 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. Typical was John Ward, one of my predecessors as MP for Stoke-on-Trent and the leader of the Navvies’ Union. To “fight Prussianism”, he raised three pioneer battalions from his members and, commissioned as a colonel by Lord Kitchener, led them to battle in France, Italy and Russia. Contrary to the assertions of Michael Gove and the Daily Mail, the left needs no lessons on “the virtues of patriotism, honour and courage”. However, modern scholarship also suggests that Fischer underplayed internal opposition to the kaiser’s ideas within the German establishment. What is more, the historian Christopher Clark has suggested that Serbia deserves significantly more blame for the spark of June 1914, while US scholar Sean McMeekin has even argued that Russian attempts to break up the Ottoman empire played an incendiary role in the fallout from Sarajevo. In Clark’s judgment, other nations were just as imperialistic as the Germans and any attempt at a First World War blame game is futile. Whether you agree or disagree, given the deaths of 15 million people during the war, attempting to position 1918 as a simplistic, nationalistic triumph seems equally foolhardy, not least because the very same tensions re-emerged to such deadly effect in 1939. In the words of Professor Richard J Evans: “Propagating inaccurate myths […] is no way to create a solid national identity.” None of which is to belittle the significance of the First World War – its heroism, military engagements or social and cultural consequences. Indeed, the events of 1914-18 proved one of the prime motors of social change in modern British history. The growing impact of the state on production, employment and welfare soon came to affect most aspects of the lives of UK citizens. Culture and technology at all levels were transformed by the war and colonial frontiers redrawn, with Irish independence signposting the future decline of empire. The Representation of the People Act in 1918 saw a tripling of the electorate and the creation of a mass democracy with the enfranchisement of women over 30 and working-class men. And so, in the words of the curator and historian Nick Mansfield: “The key role of working-class people and their struggle for a different society and its outcomes needs to be given full attention if we are appropriately to commemorate the many lives lost.” That is surely the point. This year’s anniversary events need to reflect and embrace the multiple histories that the war evinces – from the Royal British Legion to the National Union of Railwaymen to the Indian, Ethiopian and Australian servicemen fighting for the empire. And, in Britain, we know how to do it well. The 2007 commemorations on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade were brilliant exercises in historical understanding, community participation, scholarship and reflection. As a result of numerous exhibitions, events and publications, we were able to understand much more about slavery in 1807 but also Britain in 2007.


To the government’s credit, it is using the £50m commemorations fund to revamp London’s Imperial War Museum and to offer school visits to the battlefields of northern France. Sadly, the Tories have decided to use this year’s anniversary to sow division with ugly attacks on “leftwing academics”. Meanwhile, in Berlin’s Theater des Westens, the theatre where the kaiser sat, War Horse is being performed each night. Between the government’s partisanship and Morpurgo’s play, I know which is more likely to generate the kind of reflective understanding of the meaning and memory of the First World War that its history so desperately deserves. Tristram Hunt is shadow education secretary


3) Germany started the Great War, but the Left can’t bear to say so. In this centennial year, it’s more important than ever that we treat the truth with respect By Boris Johnson The Telegraph. 7:00AM GMT 06 Jan 2014 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10552336/Germany-started-the-Great-War-but-the- Left-cant-bear-to-say-so.html One of the reasons I am a Conservative is that, in the end, I just can’t stand the intellectual dishonesty of the Left. In my late teens I found I had come to hate the way Lefties always seemed to be trying to cover up embarrassing facts about human nature, or to refuse to express simple truths – and I disliked the pious way in which they took offence, and tried to shoosh you into silence, if you blurted such a truth. Let me give you a current example of this type of proposition. It is a sad but undeniable fact that the First World War – in all its murderous horror – was overwhelmingly the result of German expansionism and aggression. That is a truism that has recently been restated by Max Hastings, in an excellent book, and that has been echoed by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. I believe that analysis to be basically correct, and that it is all the more important, in this centenary year, that we remember it. That fact is, alas, not one that the modern Labour Party believes it is polite to mention. According to the party’s education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, it is “crass” and “ugly” to say any such thing. It was “shocking”, he said in an article in yesterday’s Observer, that we continued to have this unacceptable focus on a “militaristic Germany bent on warmongering and imperial aggression”. He went on – in a piece that deserves a Nobel prize for Tripe – to mount what appeared to be a kind of cock-eyed exculpation of the Kaiser and his generals. He pointed the finger, mystifyingly, at the Serbs. He blamed the Russians. He blamed the Turks for failing to keep the Ottoman empire together, and at one stage he suggested that we were too hard on the bellicose Junker class. He claimed that “modern scholarship” now believes that we have “underplayed the internal opposition to the Kaiser’s ideas within the German establishment” – as if that made things any better. Perhaps there was some more “internal opposition” to the Kaiser, as Hunt thinks. Whoever they were, these internal opponents, they weren’t much blooming use, were they? It was Germany that pushed Austria to make war on Serbia. It was Germany that declared war on Russia, on August 1 1914. It was Germany that decided it was necessary to invade Luxembourg, and it was Germany that deployed the Schlieffen plan (devised in 1905, incidentally) and sent her troops smashing through neutral Belgium and into France.


Why was it necessary to follow up some rumpus in Sarajevo by invading France, for heaven’s sake? It wasn’t. The driving force behind the carnage was the desire of the German regime to express Germany’s destiny as a great European power, and to acquire the prestige and international clout that went with having an empire. That is why Tirpitz kept increasing the size of the German fleet – in spite of British efforts to end the arms race. That’s why they tried to bully the French by sending a gunboat to Agadir in 1911. That, in a nutshell, is why millions died in the trenches of the western front and elsewhere, 15 million in all. It was an even greater tragedy for Germany, and for the world, that within two decades of the end of that conflict there should arise another German leader who decided to revive what was essentially the same military/political objective – a massive expansion of German influence in Europe and beyond; and though Hitler was admittedly even more nasty and militaristic than the Kaiser, it was no coincidence that he used a very similar plan: first take out France and the Low Countries, then go for Russia. In both wars, huge numbers of British people, military and civilian, lost their lives in the struggle to frustrate these deranged ambitions. They were, in essence, fighting on the right side, and it should not be forbidden to state that fact. The Second World War arose inexorably out of the first, and in both wars I am afraid the burden of responsibility lies overwhelmingly on German shoulders. That is a fact that we should not be forbidden from stating today – not just for the sake of the truth, but for the sake of Germany in 2014. Hunt is guilty of talking total twaddle, but beneath his mushy-minded blether about “multiple histories” there is what he imagines is a kindly instinct. These wars were utterly horrific for the Germans as well as for everyone else, and the Germans today are very much our friends. He doesn’t want the 1914 commemorations to pander to xenophobia, or nationalism, or Kraut- bashing; and I am totally with him on that. We all want to think of the Germans as they are today – a wonderful, peaceful, democratic country; one of our most important global friends and partners; a country with stunning technological attainments; a place of incomparable cultural richness and civilisation. What Hunt fails to understand – in his fastidious Lefty obfuscation of the truth – is that he is insulting the immense spiritual achievement of modern Germany. The Germans are as they are today because they have been frank with themselves, and because over the past 60 years they have been agonisingly thorough in acknowledging the horror of what they did. They don’t try to brush it aside. They don’t blame the Serbs for the 1914-18 war. They don’t blame the Russians or the Turks. They know the price they paid for the militarism of the 20th century. They don’t try to mitigate, palliate, or spread the blame for the conflict. They tried that in the Thirties, and they know that way lies madness. The Germans know the truth about the world wars, and their role. They have learnt, and they have changed. It would be a disaster if that truth became blurred today. I can hardly believe that the author of this fatuous Observer article is proposing to oversee the teaching of history in our schools.


If Tristram Hunt seriously denies that German militarism was at the root of the First World War, then he is not fit to do his job, either in opposition or in government, and should resign. If he does not deny that fact, he should issue a clarification now.


4) Richard J Evans: Michael Gove shows his ignorance of history – again. The education secretary’s attack on first world war historians is no way to conduct the debate he claims he wants to encourage By Richard J Evans The Guardian. Monday 6 January 2014 14.23 GMT http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/06/richard-evans-michael-gove-history-education For the second time in a few months, Michael Gove, the education secretary, has singled me out for personal attack, this time in an article in the Daily Mail headed “Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?” According to Gove, I have demeaned the memory of the British soldiers who fought in the first world war and “attacked the very idea of honouring their sacrifice as an exercise in ‘narrow tub-thumping jingoism'”. Actually, of course, I have done nothing of the kind. What I did say, in an article in the Guardian on 13 July 2013, was that the broad and inclusive plans of Maria Miller, the culture secretary, for the commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war have been “in strong contrast to the narrow, tub-thumping jingoism of Gove” in his redrafting of the national schools history curriculum to force schools to teach an uncritically celebratory narrative of English history. That redrafting was so comprehensively ridiculed by the historical profession, including such august bodies as the Royal Historical Society, the British Academy and the Historical Association, that it had to be withdrawn and replaced by a much better curriculum that encouraged pupils to think for themselves, allowed teachers wide latitude in their approach to the subject and gave due recognition to the history of other parts of the world. I wasn’t attacking the memory of British soldiers in the first world war at all. Perhaps Gove should attend some history lessons taught by the professionals he so belittles so that he can learn how to read and cite sources properly. Of course, nobody would wish to demean the memory of the soldiers who fought in the war. I hope that the commemorations of the conflict beginning this year will find plenty of room to honour their courage. However, just as he did in his proposals for the national curriculum, Gove has again shown his ignorance of history and his preference for mythmaking over scholarship. Naturally, Gove thinks he is the scholar, and describes the arguments he wrongly claims I put forward as “more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate”. (Ouch!) But who’s playing to the gallery here? Gove wants us all to celebrate the first world war as a “just war”, a “noble cause”, fought by men “committed to defending the western liberal order”. He seems to forget that one of Britain’s two main allies was the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II, a


despotism of no mean order, far more authoritarian than the Kaiser’s Germany. Until Russia left the war early in 1918, any talk of fighting to defend “western” values was misplaced. Britain wasn’t a democracy at the time either: until the Fourth Reform Act of 1918, 40% of adult males didn’t have the vote, in contrast to Germany, where every adult man had the right to go to the ballot box in national elections. Gove suggests that “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.” He’s right about the elites, but misses the point that they weren’t able to carry the majority of the German people with them; the largest political party, the Social Democrats, was opposed to annexations and had long been critical of the militarism of the elites. By the middle of the war, the Social Democrats had forged the alliance with other democratic parties that was to come to power at the war’s end. German atrocities in the first phase of the war, in France, and the last phase, in the east, were real enough, but you can’t generalise from these to say this is how the Germans would have treated the whole of the rest of Europe had they won. Imperial Germany was not Nazi Germany; the Kaiser was not Hitler. And who are these people who are peddling “leftwing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders”? Step forward, please, Professor Niall Ferguson, a self-styled right- winger whose book The Pity of War argues that it was wrong for Britain to enter the war in 1914 and claims that the British government of the day should have left the continental powers to slug it out among themselves. Step forward, please, Sir Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, whose trenchant criticisms of British generals such as Sir John French in his latest book Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 yield nothing in their severity to the excoriating attacks levelled at Sir Douglas Haig and other leaders of the British army by the late Conservative MP Alan Clark in his book The Donkeys, a term used to describe the British military performance in the war (“lions led by donkeys”, was a phrase he attributed to a German commentator but later admitted he had invented himself). None of these men could remotely be described as leftwing, yet all of them convicted Britain and its leaders either of making the wrong decision in 1914 or of turning the war effort into a “misbegotten shambles” – the words Gove uses to describe the portrayal of the conflict by the likes of Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder. The arguments that will rage about the war over the coming months and years have nothing to do with left versus right; anyone who wants proof of this has only to read the comments thread on Gove’s article in the Mail Online, where the newspaper’s readers, few of whom I would guess would describe themselves as leftwingers, overwhelmingly reject his views. Defaming historians and others who think and write critically about Britain’s role in the first world war by accusing them of seeking to “denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour, and courage” is no way to conduct the debate Gove says he wants to encourage. He should be ashamed of himself.


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