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Twisting History

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.

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.

On 2 January 2014, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, wrote an article that was published in the Daily Mail titled ‘Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?’. In his article Gove writes 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 First World War he says that it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the
conflict. He says:

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 criticises 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 argues 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 says 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 adds 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.

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. They wanted their ‘place in the sun’. By the early 1900s, Britain had the largest empire in history, and by 1922 held sway over one-fifth of the world’s population. But were these colonies, dominions, protectorates, obtained by peaceful means? Were they governed benignly? They were not. In the decade before 1914, about 30 million people died from famine in British-ruled India as colonial officials enforced the export of food to Britain, from the slaughtering of resisters, and from the imprisonment of Boer families and native Africans in concentration camps in South Africa.

Further, the 1939 Treaty of London between Britain and Belgium guaranteed that Britain would come to the defence of Belgium in the event the latter was invaded, and when Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914, this was one of the main reasons for Britain’s entry into the conflict. This is the same Belgium that remotely and undemocratically governed its African colony of Belgium Congo, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, right up to 1960. But far worse was that between 1885 and 1908, only six years before the outbreak of the First World War, the colony was the personal property, called the ‘Congo Free State’, of Leopold II, the king of Belgium. During this time one estimate says that a fifth of the population died from forced labour and mass murder resulting from Leopold’s exploitation of the country’s natural resources. The story is quite horrific, and part of it can be found here. But Britain, France and Belgium according to Gove, represent the ‘western liberal order’.

Finally, what of Gove’s claim that ‘even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths’ that the war was a ‘misbegotten shambles’ as represented in certain TV series and in film? In his article Gove quotes a number of historians who argue that it was a just war or that the generals were ‘grappling honestly with the new complexities of industrial warfare’. But it is not just left-wing academics who disagree with Gove’s case. Professor Niall Ferguson, self-styled right-winger, has argued that it was wrong of Britain to enter the war; Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, has strongly criticised First World War generals; and the late Conservative MP, Alan Clark, coined the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ to describe the performance of the British military.

None of these people could be remotely described as left-wing. To defame an historian who writes critically of Britain’s role in the First World War, is no way to conduct the debate that Gove says he wants to encourage. Unlike the Second World War, the First World War was not unequivocably a just war. The arguments over Britain’s role and conduct of the war have nothing to do with left versus right. Gove should argue on the basis of facts and not twist history to suit his purpose.

The second instance of how history can be twisted can be described more simply.

In September 2013, the war film The Railway Man premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was an adaptation of the bestselling autobiography of the same name by Eric Lomax which tells how Lomax, a British officer captured by the Japanese on the fall of  Singapore in February 1942, is sent to a prisoner of war camp where he is forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway. During his time in the camp, Lomax is tortured by the Japanese military police, the Kempetai, for having built a radio. Years later, still suffering the psychological trauma of his wartime experiences, Lomax, with the help of his wife Patti, decides to find and confront one of his captors, an interpreter. Lomax returns to the scene of his torture and manages to track down the interpreter, Japanese officer Takashi Nagase, in an attempt to let go of a lifetime of bitterness and hate.

The film directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, stars Colin Firth as Lomax, Nicole Kidman as Patti, and Hiroyuki Sanada as Nagase. In the end credits it says that it was based on a true story, and tribute is paid to Lomax and his wife, who were both said to have been involved in the making of the film.

Unfortunately whilst Lomax’s autobiography makes clear that he prepared to meet with one of his tormenters to seek some sort of closure, the film suggests that Lomax went to the encounter determined on vengeance – and indeed at one point he holds a knife to Nagase’s throat – and it was the meeting alone which led him to change his mind. The film also suggests that his tormenter was not expecting to meet Lomax, whereas in reality correspondence between Lomax’s wife and Nagase had prepared him for it.

It appears that this was done purely to build up suspense, to display Lomax’s emotions more vividly. The crucial meeting between victim and perpetrator, where the issues of forgiveness and reconciliation are explored, was fundamentally changed for dramatic effect.

There were other inaccuracies in the film. One was showing the prisoners being released from the railway itself by the arrival of allied forces after the Japanese surrender. In fact, the railway had been completed, as much as it was ever going to be, and the POWs had been moved to camps elsewhere and the main dangers came from starvation and disease, Allied bombing, and the looming threat that all would be murdered by the Japanese at the end of the war. Such compression of stories in films is common, but again in this case it seem entirely unnecessary to distort the facts to this extent.

For the film to say that it was based on a true story is to give the film a degree of authenticity that it doesn’t deserve. The film does Lomax and his wife Patti, a serious disservice, and twists history to make sure of a good story.

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