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Busting the myths of the WW1 apologists

tiThis summer will mark the outbreak of the First World War and, although comment has gone quiet since the beginning of this year, the usual apologist discourse for the waging of this war will doubtlessly soon recommence. Such accounts are however part of a revisionist attempt to construct a myth of a ‘just war’ to justify present western military adventures.

From the right we hear that the war was justified to keep save Europe from an expansionist undemocratic Germany. This ignores the fact that we are dealing with a time before the vast majority of European states were nowhere near to being what could be classed as democracies, including both Germany and Britain. Both sides held other nations under colonial oppression so there was no moral superiority of either side.

The narrative of the imperative for intervention to defend the small Kingdom of Belgium ignores that state’s role as a colonial player in European power struggles and its heinous crimes in The Congo. The UK was allied itself with the autocratic and viciously anti-semitic Russian Empire that had its own designs of expansion into Europe, making a mockery of any moral outrage at Prussian by supporters of British intervention. Indeed liberal and Social Democrat supporters of the war in Germany supported their own country’s involvement as part of a ‘just war’ against Tsarism.

The argument that our country was dragged into the war to defend democracy is laughable given only 40% of British soldiers themselves could vote at the outbreak of the way, with many property qualifications to suffrage having yet to be lifted. It was not their war but a war of European elites for power and wealth.

In a piece for the Daily Mail in January, Michael Gove took to the last refuge of the scoundrel and accused the left of a lack of patriotism in criticising the folly of war and not buying into the mythology of the noble sacrifice for democracy against German expansionism. I fail to see what is patriotic about sending young working class Britons off to their deaths in a war between Europe’s ruling classes for power.

At the time of the war the many of the trade unions and the Labour Party shamefully supported British involvement in this slaughter of the working class in a rich man’s war. However a significant section of the left; including figures such as Keir Hardie, Sylvia Pankhurst, and Tom Mann; opposed the war, calling for working class unity across the lines of conflict and for soldiers to simply refuse to fight, and the working class opposition and revolutions which finally made the continuation of the war untenable on all sides vindicates them.

It is important that this historical debate is fought by the left as the arguments of Gove and others feeds into a jingoism used to defend wars today. The myth of Britain being a crusader for democracy in World War One shrouds the self interest and wrongs of Western foreign policy today and feeds into sabre-rattling as we saw with the Tories over Syria.


  1. James Martin says:

    As a former history teacher I know that Gove’s claims about how badly this subject has been taught over the years in schools is laughable (as is most everything else he comes out with). The complex interaction of events and causes have always been examined carefully, from Serbian nationalism, Germany’s lateness on the scene in terms of carving up Africa (in many ways the war fought by many colonial subjects was a war over the domination of Britain and France at Germany’s expense), the arms race (particularly in battle ships) and the rigid opposing alliances.

    As a socialist I also recognise the central failure of the European labour movement and socialist leaders (with a few honourable exceptions) to oppose the war and the butchering of workers by other workers when the time came.

    And it is those lessons that still need to be absorbed and taken on board. The desperate need to not only oppose NATO, but to throw it out of the country. The need to link up with socialists and trade unionists across the globe in common cause against our common enemies. The need to oppose the continuous war that this country has waged against various weaker states across the globe for decades now. And the need to return the Labour Party to something other than a cheerleader for NATO and ever more dangerous imperialism and conflict.

  2. swatantra says:

    James Martin makes an important point about solidarity and international socialism.
    What there was pre 1914 elites running countries, The German Elite fell out with the British Elite and the working class were not involved in the declaration of War. WWI could have been avoided; it was not necessary. It achieved little and continued in WWII. And the peoples of the Empire wwere drawn into a dispute which was basically a white european family squabble. The working class were conned into enlisting by Kitchener to not sign up was cowardice and by jingo they had no alternative.

  3. Gary Elsby says:

    Who is the revisionist here?
    We know what happened and we know how and why it happened. We also know the ending.

    Ferguson’s book, ‘The pity of war’ suggests that the war was avoidable (at its outset) and Great Britain could have entered the war, or waged a new one, if Germany had been left alone in 2014 with a war she was intent on launching.

    This theory suspends all British complicity into driving a people into a slaughter.

    His theory must be challenged that an entrenched Germany on the Normandy beaches would have been overcome by a mighty superior British force.

    He’s never explained how this would have been done.
    Those that oppose this war one hundred years on should also explain away the thought that Germany would never have armed the French coast and would never have conquered the whole of Europe including Russia.

    It wouldn’t have mattered?

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