Nationalism, Militarism, Flag Waving and Commemoration of The Great War

John Mills in the film adaptation of Oh, What a Lovely War!

For more on the war see:

Paxman’s Great War Episode 4.

17 Feb 2014

Can’t really be bothered to review Paxman’s final episode of Great War it has become so predictable.  Some factual stuff on home front was interesting, the Russian Revolution was not even mentioned and he concluded by summarising his crude and trite thesis: –  

  • The Great War had a massive impact on British society. (yes we all know that).
  • It acted as a catalyst to democratic change and social improvements. (extension of the franchise etc).
  • It was not futile because it prevented the German takeover of Europe….!    This relies on the rationale of the time that the war was all about halting German expansionism,  when in reality the cause of the war was far more complex than that.

The logic of the argument then is that the Germans were responsible for all the beneficial changes that the war brought about – because without the Germans (NB: not even Prussian militarism, or the Kaiser – Paxman refers several times to the Germans en masse, as if they were all guilty),  the war would never have happened !  In fact the changes would have happened without the ghastly cost of war.  The war in fact interrupted the democratic movements that were taking place – female suffrage, trade union struggles, Irish Home Rule.The very forces which embroiled Britain in the war were those who opposed democratic reforms and social justice at home.  But there is no class analysis in Paxman. ‘We were all in it together’ he smugly pontificates. Even the aristocracy sacrificed their sons.  Of course they did, as they had done in every war since the battle of Hastings to hold onto their power and privilege.  Paxman’s programme is particularly insidious because he gives it the aura of journalistic objectivity, when in fact it is nothing but more claptrap about the national interest and rallying around King and Country.

Paxman’s Great War Episode 2. 

3 Feb 2014.

Slim hope that the second episode would be better than the first were soon dashed by another banal rehash of official interpretations of the Great War. The best that can be said was that it did show that there was unrest and opposition to the war, facts some people may not have been aware of, but even these were dismissed in Paxman’s trade mark condescending and patronising tone.  The Clydeside shipbuilders dispute was mentioned, but they were dismissed as troublemakers, while the Glasgow rent strike was portrayed as an example of how the government legislated to control daily life,  (in this instance through the Rent Restriction Act), rather than primarily as an act of popular resistance to the effect of the war.

Absolutist Conscientious Objectors were, in Paxman’s own opinion, ‘cranks’.  The very term used by the politicians and jingo press during the war.  The Easter Rising in Dublin was ‘scatterbrained’, despite it , by Paxman’s own admission, acting as the catalyst for Irish independence.  And although he mentioned only James Connolly as a leader of the rising, the fact that Connolly saw the struggle as being against imperialist war, not only for Irish independence,  was not even mentioned.  It was, according to Paxman, ‘the war’ which led to Irish Independence, not the actual struggle of people against it.

‘Cranks’ and ‘Scatterbrained’ – it is those resisting war who are mentally unbalanced, not those sending millions of men to death and mutilation !  Paxman hammered home the theme that a ‘war machine’ was being created and that it was a war ‘on an industrial scale’.  Why then does he attribute moral approval to those supporting the war and not to those who opposed it and, for whatever reason, resisted becoming part of that machine ?

Paxman sees the war as almost a transcendental force determining the shape of Great Britain and its’ people.  It is a war which was unavoidable because of German imperialist designs on Europe.  This is regarded as the axiom around which Paxman’s analysis (or rather lack of it) and the programme is constructed.  Those who did not accept this axiom in 1914-1918, and who did not support the war effort, were therefore at best unpatriotic, at worst lunatics and traitors.

The episode opened with the horror of the sinking of the Lusitania, which made the case, at a stroke, to the audience, as it was made in 1915, that all Germans were barbaric Huns.  Paxman seeks to engage the audience emotionally, not rationally, as the government did the population during the war.  Perhaps there was some excuse for that approach a hundred years ago as politicians, like the people, were caught up in a process over which they had no control because they too thought it inevitable.  There is no excuse in a TV documentary by an experienced presenter who has a reputation for cutting through bullshit and exposing political cant.  Paxman has shown that his reputation is undeserved.  He is just another BBC hack churning out an official line which, while trying to appear liberal in showing another side,  does nothing to disturb the status quo.

 Jeremy Paxman’s Great Disappointment  27 Jan 2014

Jeremy Paxman’s documentary on the Great War aired on 27 January on BBC 1.  Turned out to be a Great Disappointment.  I expected more from Paxman, but it was the usual stuff of how the war was an unavoidable response to German Imperialism and treaty obligations and how out of a sense of national duty the bulk of the population rallied to the colours.  Perhaps he will redress this in future episodes, and perhaps he was trying to get over how the majority of the people perceived it at the time.  He missed out vital incidents such as the Xmas ‘truce’ which showed that even those fighting hadn’t swallowed all the rabid Horatio Bottomley rhetoric about the evil Hun.  However, he did question some of the atrocity stories, but not by pointing out that in a similar situation the British Army would have been similarly brutalised by the fear of an insurgent civilian population.  The example of the repression of the Easter Rising shows what Britain was capable of in its efforts to crush small nations. Indeed, even on the eve of the war, unarmed civilians had been shot down in Dublin during the Bachelors Walk massacre.

The German attack on the East Coast of England when hundreds of civilians were killed and wounded was an horrific incident, but it was not unknown for the British Army and Navy to bombard civilian populations, the attack on Egypt in 1883 being perhaps the best known example.  Nor was the treatment of Boer civilians far removed from the atrocities of ‘Prussian Militarism’. There was perhaps little more than a nod to political correctness with an aknowledgement of the role of Indian troops, again without any reference to Britain’s role in the sub-continent.

Only by showing that German Imperialism was only one facet of the struggle of the Great Powers’ to carve up the globe can the origins on WW1 be understood.  Paxman’s programme came nowhere near explaining this.   Indeed, the emphasis on the smallness of its  army implied that Britian was somehow an innocent and wronged party in the initiation of the war and no threat to Germany.  No mention of the arms race and the Dreadnoughts excluding Germany from an overseas Empire, while surrounding her on the Continent and reinforcing the threat from Absolutist Russia with the alliances of the Entente.

He did get in a mention of Huddersfield though.  Paxman said, slighlty supercilliously, “One story which spread like wildfire and appeared in the national press was about a 23-year-old nurse called Grace Hulme. She was said to have been working at a hospital in Belgium when the Germans arrived, burned the place down, beheaded the patients and chopped off her right breast. The truth turned out to be quite different. She was living quietly with both her breasts in Huddersfield.”   Perhaps he will have something less flippant to say about Huddersfield in future episodes, pointing to its’ history of resistance to the war .  If he does – all is forgiven (almost).

If this is the best the BBC and one of its more astute political commentators can do then it does not bode well for the Great War Commemoration.  However, let’s see if Paxman’s analysis improves with his coverage of conscription and the home front.  Also the Beeb has other documentaries scheduled.  Hopefully they will be of a higher quality than thir first offering !john-bull-cover


Michael Gove’s comments about ‘Left Wing myths’ distorting opinions of World War One could be taken seriously if Mr Gove had any alternative view to offer  other than Right Wing myths about the war.  Also his main source seems to be those well known academic works ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ and ‘Oh ! What a Lovely War’.

If this is the level of debate then it does not bode well for this year’s commemoration of the outbreak of World War 1.  That these infantile comments have come from the Minister of Education is even more alarming.  If his lead is followed by schools than the younger generation will learn nothing about the war other than that the Germans were baddies and the brave British Tommy made a heroic and justifiable sacrifice.  A bit like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been presented.  This is history for dummies at its worst and it is an insult to the very people that Gove claims to be honouring.

The causes of the Great War were many and complex.  Similarly the way people responded to the war varied greatly and involved complex ideas and emotions.  If there is any point commemorating the centenary of the war at all then all these factors must be taken into account.  What is needed is real historical analysis, which shows every facet of the war, not the repackaging of myths.

But there also needs to be an ethical appraisal of the war.  Is the inflicting of such horror and suffering on our fellow beings ever justified, for any reason ?  This cannot be reduced to facts, to apportioning blame for the war, or arguing over the statistics of casualties and whether this or that battle was necessary.

If the commemoration  of  World War One does not lead to a debate about war itself, about militarism, weapons production, the use of violence as a tool of policy, the concept of the just war , etc  then it is an utter waste of time.   Those like Gove who want it merely to be an occasion for flag waving are using the victims of war to promote their own political agenda which is itself based on nationalism and militarism.

If Gove’s comments are intended to set the programme for the commemoration of the war then he will be disappointed.  Most people are enlightened enough to see the war for what it was.  A horrific waste of life and resources engineered by an elite who cared nothing for the sufferings of ordinary people.

Those who see it as a glorious episode in British history are the ones who are the myth makers.

See also Martin Bashforth’s comments on the Gove view of the war at:

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