Friday, January 03, 2014

Gove on WWI

Education Secretary Michael Gove has taken issue with the interpretation of the Great War as nothing more than industrialised mass-slaughter in the following manner:
"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 Twitter response has been as you might expect - most of it along the lines of, "Ah, but it was a misbegotten shambles and anyone arguing otherwise is an idiot". It pains me to say so (really) but I'm not sure that Gove is entirely wrong. Not in his particular take on the Great War, I would stress, but in his suggestion that what might be termed as the 'War Poets' view has been accepted rather uncritically. The reaction to his comments rather reinforce this impression - suggesting that the only conceivable lesson one could possibly draw from the conflict is one about the futility and horror of war.  Expressions about the flip-side of the same coin spring to mind...

No, the problem with what Gove said lies not in his interpretation of history but his idea that you'd have to be a leftwinger to take issue with what he says.  We've seen this before.  He has, for example, explained opposition to his education reforms as attributable to the prevalence of 'Marxist ideology' in the teaching profession.  This struck me as being a little like that; one gains the impression that Gove is engaging with a cartoon - one that he has drawn in his own mind.  Who are these 'left-wing academics' that he refers to?  I wouldn't know if they dominate history departments in English universities but I'd make a sizeable wager that they certainly do not dominate the field of military history.  As it is, Gove has named only Richard Evans, an academic that he seems to have a rather schizophrenic attitude towards, given he praised his work on the Third Reich on a previous occasion.

The description of the Great War as 'industrialised mass-slaughter' is hardly original but is one I quote verbatim from Norman Stone's short history of World War One.  No leftwinger he and neither is Niall Ferguson.  One wonders if Gove would have invited him to advise on the history curriculum had he been aware of his views on Britain's role in the Great War.  The other possibility, of course, is that he is perfectly aware of them and is being disingenuous.  It's not Gove's views about history that should be concerning people so much as his red-bating.

No comments:

Blog Archive