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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

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Succinct dismissal of Michael Gove’s fatuous take on the First World War

Sock it to ‘im, Prof Evans! http://zite.to/1cr5zxb

“‘ How can you possibly claim that Britain was fighting for democracy and liberal values when the main ally was Tsarist Russia? That was a despotism that put Germany in the shade and sponsored pogroms in 1903-6.’

“He said that unlike Germany where male suffrage was universal – 40 per cent of those British troops fighting in the war did not have the vote until 1918.”

Expect a lot of offensive idiocy about the Great War this year, amidst the sombre reflection – the coincidence of a European Parliament election happening just a few weeks before the 100th anniversary will simply be too much for the more jingoistic nationalist politicians to avoid. The worst of it, I hope, will be this commemorative £2 coin, being issued by the UK, featuring the man who, having seen the nascent concentration camps used by the British in the Boer War, thought: “ooh,  that’s a good idea – lets have loads more of them, make the conditions worse so more prisoners die, and chuck women and children in there too!”, thus demostrating their effectiveness as tools of mass repression and murder to bastards from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot and helping usher in some of the very worst excesses of the 20th century:

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/rant

Update: For those that missed it, Gove also had idiotic things to say about Douglas Haig, the man who thought slowly walking towards machine guns through mud, bomb craters, barbed wire and poison gas to attack fortified positions with bayonets was a winning strategy – these have been nicely dissected over at Zelo Street.

8 Comments

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  3. Ministers and historians fighting over the truth, always interesting. Gove quotes Evans as writing: “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”. I’d certainly want to see the context for nuance, but this POV can certainly be opposed.

    Some questions:
    * Was it not, in some sense, serving “freedom and democracy” to oppose German hegemony in Europe in 1914? (Even if we can add the usual qualifiers about despotic allies and Western plutocracy and racial supremacism, which also actually apply to World War II..)
    * What role should governments have in the teaching of history and national self-perception? Is there a conflict between “truth” (assuming academics have some claim to that) and the collective consciousness necessary to be a cohesive body of citizens? (E.g.: Should the individuals of a nation have a collective identity with a positive national narrative, allowing them to live together and giving them a sense of place and an ability to project themselves into the future?)

    • first point :

      World War 1 had pretty much nothing to do with “freedom and democracy” and everything to do with Imperial dominance.
      only white male europeans and americans had the freedom to vote, and not all of them (forget women, the poorest and the immigrants).
      yet, people from colonies and dominions were sent to fight in the trenches, and until a few decades had their sacrifices pretty much forgotten or devalued.

      Next, what “german hegemony” ? the German Reich was a confederation of german-speaking regions, with a Hannoverian Kaiser as head of state, ruling through a Prussian aristocracy.
      the 2nd next biggest European Empire, the Austro-Hungarian were ruled by the Habsbourg who would not define themselves as “german”, and most certainly not as Prussians.
      the German reich was a continental power, but not hegemonic one (as in “ruling over the others”) : Europe was divided between multiple conflicting Powers and ever-shifting alliances.
      try to imagine 5 large powers competing in Europe (Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Russia) with several medium-sized powers (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium, Ottomans).

      The prevailing economic ideology was that industrial, mass-production societies needed large, ever-expanding markets for their prosperity.
      such markets were closed off unless conquered by colonisation or gunboat diplomacy or great power wars.
      In the first decade of the 19th century, Germany saw multiple conflicts arising from the “closure” of world markets (divided between the US for the americas, France and Britain in africa, all previous three + Russia in asia).

      You might make the point that the Imperial Powers that went to war wanted to protect their future prosperity (based on exploitation of the colonies), but to claim it was for “freedom and democracy” is, with all due respect, laughable revisionism.

      2nd point :

      if there is not a socially acceptable official “truth”, then there is no truth, and only realities (or beliefs or myths) appropriated by each groups for their own self-satisfactions.
      whether approved by perceived neutral parties (like academics) or enforced by a state (as the authority) is only relevant as to the speed of its acceptance by the population, not its “veracity”.
      states, whether democratic or authoritarian, will always make a “truth narrative” emerge through education. without state control of the education, unfettered choice will become another nodes of power rather than argumentative enlightment.

      therefore, the real test is not whether governments/states should teach an “official truth” (ie : they will teach it notwithstanding), but rather how open it is to dissenting voices and the methodology of argumentation (as opposed to make-believe sloganism)

      Best regards,

      • Thierry – your final paragraph is spot on.

        Gove (the *education secretary*, ffs) is trying to impose a single line of interpretation, and is responding with personal attacks on his detractors. This is not displaying openness towards other interpretations than his own. By all means push the glorious dead line – it has its merits for WWI – but to try and shut down other interpretations smacks of despotism. This is not encouraging education, it’s encouraging close-mindedness.

    • Craig – re: your questions (and apologies for the delay, still getting back into this whole blogging lark, and comment notifications seem a bit screwy…)

      - Serving freedom is arguable, as Germany was being expansionist, Austria-Hungary clamping down on secessionist movements. But imperial powers teaming up with autocratic Russia? Hardly bastions of freedom. Democracy I don’t think be argued as a goal pre-universal suffrage. That broader democracy came out of the war was a happy side-effect, not a goal.

      - What role governments should have in the teaching of history/national self-perception?
      - These are two different things. Any sensible history education emphasises the differences of opinion/approach, teaches research and analysis skills to enable people to think for themselves. The key lesson of history as a discipline is that, once you get beyond dates/times that things happened, most other “truth” is subjective. A national curriculum makes sense, so governments can have some role in setting the vague agenda, but as soon as they start prescribing “this is the interpretation we want pushed”, the subject ceases to be history.
      - Does pushing a sense of national identity make sense, telling people “this is what we as a nation stand for”? Yes, it can, if done right – though it can also be incredibly exclusionary if done wrong. But this isn’t something that should be taught in a history class (though some historical elements would almost certainly be necessary as part of that teaching) – to do so would be to turn history into propaganda. You may *call* the subject history, but it wouldn’t be history by most historians’ definition.

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