January 30, 2014
The festival of self-congratulation will be the British at their worst, and there are still years to endure. A tragedy for both our nations.
'It will be the British at their worst: sanctimonious, self-congratulatory,
worshipping at the tomb of the unknown, awful German.'
Illustration: Satoshi Kambayashi
The government and the BBC are leading the charge. Jeremy Paxman and Dan Snow have gone over the top. Kate Adie is doing women, Hugh Pym money, Gareth Malone songs and Ian McMillan poetry. Historians Hew Strachan, Max Hastings, Margaret MacMillan, Chris Clark, Niall Ferguson, Richard Evans, Norman Stone and others have answered to Kitchener's Your Country Needs You. There are war poems, war propaganda, war nurses, war horses everywhere.
And there are four years of it still to come. David Cameron has found £50m to celebrate the Somme, Gallipoli, Passchendaele, Jutland and anywhere else that comes to mind. He has compared the occasion to the jubilee of 2012 and even appointed a minister, Andrew Murrison, for remembering the first world war. The lottery has come up with another £12m.
The essence of the outbreak of the Great War was that no one thought it was the start of anything. It was a sabre-rattling face-off expected to last a month or two. To revel in a final victory is one thing; to revel in these squalid initial miscalculations is gratuitous. Yet already the "secretary of state who should know better", Michael Gove, has seized the moment for tub-thumping jingoism against his political foes. He claims our brave boys were fighting for "western liberal values" against the evil Jerry, and decries the Blackadder Brigade of the leftist "blob". He is like Putin, demanding that Russia's history be rewritten without "imposing a sense of guilt on us".
One aspect of the centenary is undeniably welcome. Rarely can a historical event have become so wrapped in argument. The causes of the war have analysed in their intense complexity by authors such as MacMillan, Hastings, Stone and Clark. A recent debate in London between the latter two turned into a swirl of cause and counter-cause, accident and counter-accident, until they came close to concluding the cause was indeed Princip's Sarajevo bullet of 1914.
No less fierce has been argument over whether Britain needed to fight at all. Niall Ferguson yesterday called it "the biggest error in history". Britain had previously held aloof from the feuds of Europe's nation states. Germany was no existential threat to Britain. Even if Britain had wanted to intervene, it and America should have waited for Germany to win or lose to Russia and France. As it was, the war was staggeringly expensive. It lost Britain an empire and left Germany fit only for Hitler and catastrophe. It was hardly a triumph.
Ferguson's trouble is that any war a nation wins is thereby rendered "worth it". Historians can argue whether the Great War was noble, well-fought and sensibly resolved. But the more appalling the sacrifice, the more inexcusable it is to challenge its worth. Hence Germany must be depicted as so evil that the very idea of not declaring war on it is taboo. All wars start as popular; all wars end as just.
In his state of the union speech this week, Barack Obama bravely pleaded with America to "move on from a state of war". Any visitor to his country knows what he means: a place seemingly embattled and paranoid. Britain may be less militaristic, but it is no less obsessed with war as such, the second world war as much as the first.
The publishing industry swims in a sea of Hitleriana. Of some 800 books a year written on Hitler, 80% emanate from Britain. The school curriculum is stuffed with war. Television schedules are crammed with it. So, too, are opera sets, costume dramas, video games, comics. Nazis charge from every orifice. GCSE websites get three times more hits for Hitler than for the Tudors. Video game designers claim they always use Nazis (rather than Arabs) as baddies because they incur no moral relativism.
A nation trapped in nostalgia for past military triumphs is not healthy but weak and Ruritanian. Germany may understandably prefer not to commemorate its 20th-century conflicts, despite the losses its people suffered. Yet it must put up with its conquerors rehearsing their victories, year after year. Britain and Germany have always seemed to me to be the two European countries that have most in common, including a shared Anglo-Saxon ancestry. It is tragic that one feels constantly impelled to an orgy of recalled hatred for the other.
History is the orphan of politics, abused and forgotten. A year that promises a festival of history is thus a good thing. But why does it have to be a festival of war? Over the centenary horizon lies Magna Carta (1215). This year we should be commemorating the Hanoverian succession, the demise of the Stuart monarchy and the advent of modern politics. Then comes Peterloo (1819) and the pathway to the Great Reform. Will the government stage festivals, parades and lottery grants for these? Come the anniversary of the 1918 armistice, will it also remember votes for women? Can we really not do history without war?
If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org