A Propagandist Rides to War

As we approach the centenary of a war that butchered hundreds of thousands in the name of God, King and Country, the Education Secretary insists that it was entirely “just”:

In an article for the Daily Mail, Mr Gove says he has little time for the view of the Department for Culture and the Foreign Office that the commemorations should not lay fault at Germany’s door.

The Education Secretary says the conflict was a ‘just war’ to combat aggression by a German elite bent on domination.

‘The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war,’ he says. ‘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.’

Mr Gove writes: ‘Richard Evans may hold a professorship, but these arguments, like the interpretations of Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder, 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 Education Secretary says it is time to listen to historians such as Margaret Macmillan who has ‘demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order’.

Let the propaganda die, Michael. But don’t take it from me; the Thatcherite Niall Ferguson has explained very well why the First World War was a mesh of blunders and lies.

Firstly, not only did Edward Grey – the Foreign Secretary – refuse to commit Britain to neutrality in the event that Germany respected Belgium’s sovereignty, which would have side-lined the 1839 treaty with which his government declared war, but in the weeks before the war the Committee for Imperial Defence even considered invading Belgium if the German generals chose to attack through France. There was no casus belli in “defending the Western liberal order”.

Britain’s Liberal government, though, was another matter. With a slender majority in the Commons, there was a serious threat that the government would have to call a general election if Britain reneged on its pledge to Belgian neutrality; it would have led to the resignation of Grey at the very least. It was judged to be more more convenient to fight, instead of the Tories, the greatest war that humanity had ever waged, and to do so people who couldn’t even vote.

For all the propaganda, indeed, there was little need for liberal ideas in the early months of the war. Posters of soldiers standing in English meadows had no bearing on the thousands of the dispossessed urban class moving en masse to enroll in the effort; declaration of war led to financial collapse and the rocketing of unemployment, to which – and never let it be said that war has no ironies – the only salvation was found in uniform in Europe’s trenches. It was grab a gun (if there were enough) or go hungry.

The war was sustained not only in poverty, but in vengeance killing. A bloodied terror came to haunt No Man’s Land as men saw their friends butchered in front of their eyes. Desertion remarkably rare, blood feuds drove soldiers to fight with ferocity they had never known before; often to be gunned down in exactly the same way. This is not something, I imagine, that we should be rushing to defend. Were it valid, there’s not a single war in history that wouldn’t be justified by the horror of soldiers dying in vain – by the fatuous and arrogant verdict that the death of one man justifies those of many more.

The Great War was a waste. Millions died for no reason that could ever have pretensions to be justification. A stupid decision, made at a late hour in Whitehall, impoverished men and made them the oxen driving a war to its exhaustion; and they deluded themselves, as all people are capable of doing, into the belief that letting the blood of every remaining Hun might vindicate the sacrifices their friends made to causes that were never theirs. Forget liberal freedoms; to call the defence of Belgium simply “tragic” is dishonest and disgraceful.

For all the failures of the British government’s propaganda drives – which made compulsory enlistment so necessary – it’s a belated irony that the Education Secretary should fall for them so easily. Some advice for him: if he is serious about returning children to literature and history, he should probably start with Wilfred Owen.

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