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Michael Gove on World War One as a ‘just’ war

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2013 by kmflett

Michael Gove is Horatius on the Bridge: Radio 4 Start the Week on history

On December 30th Education Secretary Michael Gove appeared on Radio 4’s Start the Week to discuss history and history teaching. Also present were the programme’s anchor Andrew Marr, and historians Tom Holland, Margaret MacMillan and Simon Schama.

If you like Gove [perhaps have a look elsewhere on the interwebs for material] it might be said that his performance was commanding. Otherwise he was his usual smug self, albeit with the usual attacks on the left and Marxists held in check, perhaps in fear of Schama raising a mildly critical comment.

Gove compared himself to Horatius on the Bridge which for those who didn’t do classical history at school [which includes myself] refers to the Roman soldier Horatius Coclus. Historical accounts usually place Horatius at the bridge rather than on it, but let’s move on.

I may as well get my point of agreement with Gove out of the way first. He is right to insist on a chronological approach to history. If we don’t know that Queen Victoria came after Queen Elizabeth 1st by several centuries there are problems. I don’t of course think that chronology needs to be expressed via the dates of monarchs. On that point Gove himself was mildly equivocal. He made it clear that he was content with that approach but did appreciate that as Education Secretary there might be other views.

That aside there was a method to Gove does history on Radio 4. That was to praise radical figures so long ago in history that only old Marxists with beards remember who they were while moving on to the attack on more recent history such as that of the First World War.

Gove noted that John Ball, a leader of the Peasants revolt, was a hero of British history. He was also prepared to allow that there could be Marxist historians provided that they were genuine historians and not just Marxists. Given that Marxist historians from Hill to Hobsbawm and Thompson have provided the most sustained work in British history post-1945 this was very generous of Mr Gove.

Gove did add that he wasn’t aware that there were similarly Marxist schools of thought in science for example, but we’ll leave him with his ignorance there.

When it came to the First World War Gove was much more bullish. He was not for celebrating it as a victory but he did feel that those who participated in it should not be dismissed as idiots and fools. People fought in the war because they believed in it, was the Gove line, and there were many heroes.

There were indeed many heroes, not just amongst those who fought but from those who refused to fight as well. There was also a waste of human life on an industrial scale for at best, very doubtful ends.

No doubt this was what Gove had in his sights when he demanded that the Blackadder view of World War One must be corrected.

Andrew Marr several times suggested that Gove was veering towards the Liberal Democrat in respect of his views on history- by which he meant tolerant not Whiggish- and you could perhaps see his point in some of Gove’s comments.

Clearly Gove was worried about the accusation and by 3rd January he had produced an article for the Daily Mail [feel free to Google it, I dont link to the Mail] arguing that while the First World War was ‘horrific’ it was also a ‘just’ war because the Germans were nastier than the British. For the many who died on both sides this may have come to be a secondary consideration but it does echo an article by Martin Kettle in The Guardian that asked what if Germany had won the war. His thoughts, needless to say are more measured and balanced than those of the man in charge of school history.

Gove’s attack on Professor Richard Evans in the Mail article and the implication that those who draw attention to the futility and horror of war are unpatriotic has drawn an appropriately robust response.

He is right however that there is, a hundred years on, no consensus on the meaning of the First World War. So instead of cheap shots against the left perhaps it is time for a serious debate about what the War was for,how it was run and what it achieved.

Gove on Start the Week had one thing, as usual, that no decent historian should ever have, absolute certainty that he was right. His performance on Start the Week indicated not how reasonable is but how dangerous he is.

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One Response to “Michael Gove on World War One as a ‘just’ war”

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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