(What politicians want us to learn.)
Earlier this year, when he was still Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove wrote a piece for the Daily Mail about teaching the history of the First World War. In it, he wrote:
‘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.’
Gove seemed to believe that these representations of the First World War were all left-wing propaganda that let the Germans off the hook:
‘The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.’
I’ve just refreshed my memory of Oh! What a Lovely War, courtesy of an excellent production by Winchester Musical and Opera Society. This confirms that it does nothing to let the German elite off the hook; they are there explicitly behaving badly in the opening sections of the show. However, thereafter the show looks at the war from the British viewpoint (particularly those facing slaughter on an industrial scale). As for its critique of the British commanders, this was drawn largely from the work of military historian Alan Clark. The same Alan Clark served as a junior minister under Margaret Thatcher. From Gove’s viewpoint, Clark is a left-wing propagandist. From my point of view, the value of Gove’s contribution to First World War history is much the same as Blackadder’s opinion of the deterrent theory of the European balance of powers.
As a skilled politician, Gove wrote a nuanced piece which left open the door to different interpretations of history whilst giving his fellow travellers plenty of opportunity to describe their opponents as unpatriotic. To my mind, however, he did a disservice to all concerned. His piece said next to nothing about how the First World War is actually taught whilst implicitly branding as unpatriotic everyone, including the many who would normally occupy the same political ground as him, moved by productions such as Oh! What a Lovely War.