Posts Tagged ‘richard evans’

The Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana said in 1905 ‘those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it’. This concise thought (or aphorism) has been much quoted and has been re-phrased as ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ or ‘those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them’. The meaning then is that one should look back in history to see the mistakes that were made and avoid repeating them.

But like many subjects such as science, sociology, archaeology and so on, facts are open to interpretation, and in the case of history, it is the job of the historian to research the facts and put forward an argument for the whys and wherefores of events from the past. But what if the facts themselves are distorted? Does this diminish the worth of history? Two quite different instances come to mind, of how history can be twisted.

first world war, joan littlewood, richard attenborough, musical film, satire, music hall, tommies

Oh! What a Lovely War was a musical film directed by Richard Attenborough and based on the stage musical of the same name developed by Joan Littlewood as a satire on the First World War at the Theatre Workshop in 1963. The title was a popular music hall song written originally in 1917. Many of the songs were the witty and cynical ones sung by British soldiers, ‘Tommies’, during the war. The film was released in 1969 and the cast included Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Jack Hawkins, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, and Maggie Smith.

On 2 January 2014, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, wrote an article about the First World War published in the Daily Mail titled ‘Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?’. In his article Gove wrote of the government’s efforts to restore the importance of history in the school curriculum and give children ‘a proper rounded understanding of our country’s past and its place in the world.’ and in referring to the war he said that it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict. He said:

‘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.’

In particular Gove criticised Professor Sir Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian, for arguing that the men who enlisted in 1914 were wrong to think that they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom.Gove argued that whilst the First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, it was a just war. The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the aggressively expansionist war aims of Germany and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified. He said that it was also a noble cause, that those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order. Gove added that:

‘Evans’ case is 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.’

Unfortunately Gove in acting as the scholar shows his ignorance of history and his own preference for myth-making. In saying that the war was a ‘just war’, a ‘noble cause’, which was ‘fought by men to defend the western liberal order’, he forgets that one of Britain’s main allies was the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II, whose brutal autocracy was far more ruthless than that of Germany’s authoritarian Kaiser Wilhelm. And what was the western liberal order? Germany was certainly more democratic electorally than Britain. 40% of adult males in Britain didn’t get the vote until 1918, whereas every adult man in Germany had the right to vote since before the start of the conflict, and the largest political party, the Social Democrats, unsuccessfully opposed annexations and the militarism of the German elites.

british empire, queen victoria, global power, london, exploitation, first world war

This map shows the British Empire in 1901 on the death of Queen Victoria. By this time, Britain had been the foremost global power for more than a century and London was the economic capital of the world. This was derived in large measure from the exploitation of the natural resources and cheap labour in its colonies. The empire reached its largest territorial extent in 1922, though because of the impact of the First World War it was no longer the only major industrial or military power.

The German elite was certainly expansionist, they envied Britain and France with their vast colonies overseas. By the early 1900s, Britain had become the largest empire in history, and by 1922 held sway over one-fifth of the world’s population. It was ‘the empire on which the sun never set’ because its expanse across the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories. Germany wanted its ‘place in the sun’. But were these British colonies, dominions, protectorates, and mandates, obtained by peaceful means? Were they governed benignly? They were not. For example, in the period 1896-97, about five million people died from famine in British-ruled India as colonial officials enforced the export of food to Britain. In the period 1901-02 in British concentration camps in South Africa, 28,000 Boer people died from starvation, 22,000 of them children, which is about 10 per cent of the Boer population, and about 20,000 black people died in other camps. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in south-east Asia became part of French Indochina between 1887 and 1893, France’s motive being to exploit the countries’ resources, raw materials and cheap labour. The French seized vast swathes of land and reorganised them into large plantations, with millions of people forced to work long hours for wages that were pitifully small in debilitating conditions for the benefit of their French overlords. Up until the First World War, and beyond, thousands upon thousands of native people died through malnutrition and disease on the plantations.

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