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Dealing With the ‘Blackadder’ view of the First World War: Were the Leaders Trapped by Circumstance?

Commentary, 13 January 2014
Art, Culture and Literature, History
Michael Gove’s intervention on how we remember the First World War has sparked off a national debate. The Education Secretary is adopting a stance that helps give depth to issues of judgment, morality and education, as well as to the drivers of memory and identity.

Michael Gove’s intervention on how we remember the First World War has sparked off a national debate.  In this personal reflection, historian Jeremy Black says the Education Secretary is right in adopting a stance that helps give depth to issues of judgment, morality and education, as well as to the drivers of memory and identity.

 By Professor Jeremy Black, University of Exeter

WW1 - Blackadder goes Forth - Picture courtesy of the BBC

History is both what happened in the past and our subsequent accounts of the past. At times, this interplay, with its implications of subjectivity, is not made explicit and there is an attempt to argue that there is one view, usually that of the writer and speaker.

Such an attempt focuses the desire for truth, the pressure for assertion, and the need to decide what to discuss, commemorate or celebrate. World War One exemplifies this tension. Already in 2013, there was in Britain a rift between, in essence, the academic and the literary account of the conflict. In January 2014, the entire situation was blown open with the intervention of senior politicians, first Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, notably in an article in the Daily Mail on 3 January, and then his shadow, Tristram Hunt, in the Observer on 5 January.

Gove offered an effective summary of much recent academic work and a reasonable critique of the popular depiction of the war, notably in Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder. He also argued that left-wing academics were responsible for some of the misleading views and named Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge. This point caused considerable comment, notably in the Observer and Evans was duly on the radio and television, including on Newsnight on 6 January.

Gove’s comments need to be set in a wider context. As a frequent commentator in the press, notably in the Guardian, Evans has indeed adopted a somewhat partisan position, and has written a form of higher journalism. This has included attacks on the changes to the National Curriculum introduced by Gove after a process of consultation in which Evans chose not to take part. Thus, the implication, offered by the Observer, of a poorly-informed politician foolishly assaulting the academic heights, was erroneous.

Doubly so as Evans is not an expert on World War One. He is a specialist in modern German history and part of the clash between Evans and Gove relates to the issue of German responsibility for the war. This is scarcely a new issue. Evans is correct to draw attention to systemic factors while Gove is right in pointing out both the bellicosity of German policymakers (and their Austrian counterparts) and the extent to which Britain did not cause the war but responded to the German attack on Belgium.

There is also a deeper point. In addressing the issue of meaning in history, Gove is adopting a stance that helps give depth to issues of judgment, morality and education, as well as to the drivers of memory and identity. Many academics are wary of this engagement and commitment, but there is room for a secular morality. To argue, instead, that everyone had a cause or a point of view is to state a truism that takes away from the chance to consider choice and meaning.

The leaders of the time were not trapped by circumstances. Instead, their own roles, preferences and choices were important. In emphasising that German leaders chose to fight, Gove is capturing a key element. So also with a stress on national honour as an important factor in the political culture and international realities of British politics. That the Western Allies subsequently won the war is also a key point. Gove is to be congratulated for his determined engagement with the nation’s history.

Jeremy Black is author of The Great War and the Making of the Modern World (Continuum, 2011) and War and Technology (Indiana University Press, 2013).

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI. RUSI will be commissioning further debates and reflections on the First World War as the Centenary progresses.

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