The war to frame the war

The inevitable war as to who frames, and how they frame, the WWI centenary commemorations has started.

The first shots were fired in the UK where the Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gow, in the Daily Mail  called for a patriotic celebration that battled “left wing myths which belittled  Britain”. Now in the UK Gow is considered a sort of intellectual in politics although, it being England, he is handicapped by a reputation for being clever. It is a bit unclear which myths he is referring too but it seems he wants to present the British Labour Party as unpatriotic although they and the trade unions embraced the war with as much jingoism as anyone else. However, the critique of the war which has probably inspired more myths than anything else, “lions led by donkeys”, was formulated by the late Alan Clark who was probably one of the most right wing MPs ever elected to Parliament. He was probably also the most prolific seducer of woman in British political history as well as being an entertaining diarist. London Mayor, Boris Johnson (himself no slouch in the history and seduction fields), fuelled the controversy saying the “the sad but undeniable fact” was that the war was “overwhelmingly the result of German expansionism and aggression.” Fortunately the popular version of this view (“two World Wars and one World Cup”) has no chance of being altered by coming events in Brazil.

Gow was corrected by the Opposition Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, an academic historian who wrote a highly-regarded biography of Engels and edited a valuable collection of first hand descriptions of the British Civil War before being translated into Parliament by Peter Mandelson. In a piece in The Guardian Hunt said there had been a fear that the forthcoming European Parliament elections and the efforts of the right wing UKIP to win seats “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.”

Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse, also joined in calling for the commemorations to “honour those who died” and “celebrate the peace we now share.” The theatrical version of his book, by the way, is also currently being presented in a Berlin Theatre once frequented by the Kaiser.

In Australia a few historians are working to try to prevent similar politicisation and mythmaking from happening here although with the track record of the Abbott Government the chances of that being sufficient to correct the picture which will be drawn are probably slim. But to get an insight into the reality of WWI and Australia  it is worth reading an excellent review by Marilyn Lake, one of the group of historians trying to promulgate accurate information and promote serious consideration of the issues, in Australian Book Review (February 2014) of Joan Beaumont’s book Broken Nations: Australians in the Great War. . Beaumont’s book looks at the reality of the conflict for Australians in combat and at home. As Lake says: “If you read only one book about Australia’s experience of World War I, as the deluge of commemorative publications becomes a veritable tsunami, make it Broken Nation, an account that joins the history of the war to the home front, and that details the barbarism of the battlefields as well as the desolation, despair, and bitter divisions that devastated the communities left behind.” And to put Gallipoli, Anzac and commemoration in perspective Lake says: “The myth of Gallipoli was promulgated to live with the otherwise unbearable carnage of WWI. Broken Nation helps explain its provenance and continuing power.”

Nevertheless, the myth will be pushed relentlessly and by the end of four years of commemoration the number of times we are told that our national identity was formed on the battlefield will be immeasurable. Perhaps it will be pushed so often that it might provoke a backlash and a more balanced view will be possible. The materials for such a view are freely available. The Gow view – also known as the Max Hastings view – was pushed by the German historian Fritz Fischer in his 1961 book, Germany’s Aims in the First World War. But we also now have Margaret MacMillan’s magisterial The War That Ended Peace; Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers which, according to the FT (18-19 January 2014), has sold 160,000 copies in Germany and has been number one of the non-fiction best seller list for seven weeks; and, Sean McMeekin’s revisionist work July 14: Countdown to War.

Tristram Hunt says: “The historian Christopher Clark has suggested that Serbia deserves significantly more blame for the spark of June 1914, while (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.”

Hunt also quotes  the great historian of Nazism, Richard J. Evans, who has said: “Propagating inaccurate myths […] is no way to create a solid national identity.” But that no doubt won’t stop Tony Abbott accusing anyone pointing out inaccuracies in the Australian version of the myth of being “un-Australian” and “peddling left wing myths which belittle the battlers.”

Meanwhile, if we want to have a meaningful commemoration of what made Australia what it is today, a section of the Australian War Memorial devoted to the frontier war which dispossessed indigenous Australians would be an excellent start.