I sat History O Level a long time ago, in 1978 to be precise. The syllabus was European and World History from 1870 to 1945 with ‘World’ pretty much tacked on as an afterthought. Our teacher was a Mr. Heath who drummed one thing into us from the outset of the course.
‘In an exam boys’ he said, ‘never ever attempt a question about the causes of the First World War.’
This was sound advice. The causes of the conflict are simply too complex for any 16 year old to discuss adequately in a 45 minute essay. They defy simplification and generalisation and are best left alone by those without detailed knowledge.
The problem with journalists and politicians is that they often think they know more than they do and when you are both a former journalist and an Education Secretary the temptation to sound off must be irresistible. So Michael Gove has given us his thoughts on the First World War and given a presumably long retired Mr. Heath the satisfaction of knowing how right he was all those years ago. The insights of Mr. Gove do not, apparently, extend to understanding that Blackadder Goes Fourth was a comedy. Presumably he also thinks that Dad’s Army has been influential in shaping public perceptions of the Second World War.
Gove’s thesis is simple. It was the fault of the Germans who were hell bent on world domination and had to be stopped in the name of freedom. He seems to forget which country had actually been successful in subjugating large parts of the world. The German colonial empire did not, in fact, amount to much, essentially a few bits of Africa that nobody else wanted and a couple of coastal towns in China, the main legacy of which is Tsing Tao beer, which is still brewed to a German recipe in a brewery founded by German settlers in the late nineteenth century. But I digress.
The point is that Britain was every bit as ruthless as the Germans in promoting its interests and freedom did not extend to more than a handful of the inhabitants of the Empire. Other countries too had their agendas and the slaughter began in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914, the capital of a Bosnia-Hercegovina which had been an Austro-Hungarian protectorate since its detachment from the Ottoman Empire 1878 but which had been illegally annexed in 1908 inflaming Serbian feelings. It takes two to tango or, in this case, seven, and none of the participants had pure motives. None of them, either, intended the actual consequences of the war. Gove’s comments are as ludicrous as the post-war demands for punitive reparations and have as little foundation in fact..
I know that listening to what Mr. Heath had to say is not something that comes easy to modern Conservatives but occasionally it is well worth doing.