By Alex Cupples
On 28th July 2014 it will be exactly 100 years since Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, initiating The Great War. Already we are publicly remembering the event. Unfortunately, thus far it is being remembered through headlines about politicians who are exploiting the centenary to score political points.
“Government accused of ‘social engineering’ over WW1 plans” (The Telegraph)
The most recent controversy accuses the Government of focusing on the contributions of black and Asian servicemen in the war and neglecting to acknowledge the role of Australians and New Zealanders in planned commemorations. In Australia this was criticised as “blatant politicisation” and the UK Government were accused of attempting to win “political and economic favour in multicultural Britain.”
Britain relied heavily on aid from all over the Commonwealth to prevail in the war; 62,000 Australians and 18,000 New Zealanders died in the First World War. Meanwhile, from South Africa, around 12,000 men were killed. Although this number is by no means menial, and these men should be honoured in the centenary, it is not difficult to see that the government have political motivations behind plans to focus on minorities.
Depraved politicians are neglecting to honour these men in favour of their own reputations as a result of political correctness which has no place in the planning of national commemorations.
“Jeremy Paxman criticises David Cameron’s WWI comments” (BBC)
Last October Jeremy Paxman attacked David Cameron for turning the centenary into a “celebration of war” after Cameron said he envisaged “diamond jubilee”-like celebrations. By organising celebratory events for the centenary Cameron may, as Paxman puts it, “gratify his vanity”, but in doing so, he will lessen the war’s severity and importance.
Although it may be a controversial view that the First World War was a futile massacre; it is indisputable that a generation was destroyed and therefore to celebrate the war like the diamond jubilee is vastly inappropriate. The centenary year should be about honouring the men who fought, but at the same time understanding, reflecting on, and learning from the tragedy of war.
“Labour condemns Michael Gove’s ‘crass’ comments on First World War” (The Guardian)
Just a few days into the centenary year, Michael Gove wrote an article about the First World War in the Daily Mail which accused the Blackadder series and “left wing academics” of being “unpatriotic”, sparking a furore amongst actors, academics and politicians.
Sir Tony Robinson, who played Baldrick in Blackadder, retorted that Gove was simply “slagging off teachers”.
For example, Gove directly criticised Richard Evans, professor of History at Cambridge University, for suggesting that the men who enlisted in 1914 were wrong to think “they were fighting a war to defend freedom.”
Gove’s manipulation of the war into an attack on teachers and academics would almost be impressive, were it not such a cheap, political move.
His article essentially tells us that we should not analyse the causes of the war, but uncritically honour the men who fought; an opinion which undermines the work and prerogative of many historians, who are professionals in the field. And yet, this is the man trying to overhaul the history curriculum.
Labour’s shadow education minister Tristam Hunt accused Gove of trying to score political points. He told the Observer, “There was always a fear that the timing of the anniversary alongside the May 2014 European parliament elections and the rise of the UK Independence Party could undermine a dignified response to the events of 1914-18, yet few imagined the Conservatives would be this crass”.
It is disturbing that politicians have chosen to exploit the centenary. The commemorations should be a chance to learn about the war, whilst paying respect to those who fought in it; instead it is turning into a vessel on which politicians are battling to score cheap points.
The war deserves a subtle and respectful commemoration, not a celebration, which honours those who fought, without political bias, but also sees the First World War as a tragedy, not a proud part of our national heritage.
In the build up to the 28th July it will be interesting to see how the government reacts to these headlines and whether the celebratory atmosphere is really fulfilled. My predictions would be that it will.
Photograph: Irina Sztukowski