Posts Tagged ‘Gavrilo Prinicip’

Gove on Blackadder and the First World War: Part Two – The British Went to War against German Social Darwinism

January 7, 2014

I’ve already posted a piece supplementing Mike’s excellent pieces over on Vox Political about Michael Gove’s comments in the Daily Mail attacking Blackadder, Oh, What A Lovely War, and ‘Left-wing academics’ for undermining the patriotism, honour and courage of the troops, who served in that conflict. In that piece I pointed out that the bitterness and rejection of patriotism for which Gove reproaches Blackadder was itself a product of the First World War, and that rather than a creation of ‘left-wing academics’, it was based very firmly in the experiences and testimony of the men who fought instead.

There is, however, something far more pernicious Gove’s comments about the First World War than simply the knee-jerk resort to patriotism of a True-Blue Thatcherite Tory. This is Gove’s statement that Britain went to war with Germany because of their ‘Social Darwinism’. This simply is not true. Social Darwinist theories were held by people right across the West from the late 19th century onwards, and certainly not just in Germany. There have been a numbers of studies, which have shown that the belief in the ‘economic survival of the fittest’ underpinned much Liberal economic and social theorising, and was used by wealthy magnates, like the Carnegies in America, to justify their opposition to state intervention, welfare, and health and safety legislation. The chattering classes all across Europe and the West also discussed legislation to limit and sterilise the indigent poor and congenitally disabled, in order to prevent them overrunning society and outbreeding their physical, mental and social superiors. These ideas formed the core of Nazi ideology, but they actually predate them. Modern eugenics, by which the unfit were to be bred out through carefully controlled selective breeding, was founded by Francis Galton in England, Darwin’s cousin. In the 1920s 45 American states passed legislation providing for the sterilisation of the congenitally disabled and particularly the mentally retarded. There was a scandal nearly two and a half decades ago at the precise week of Lady Diana’s death, when it was revealed that Sweden had still continued its campaign of sterilisation right in the 1970s. This legislation also predated the Nazis. The Swedish programme’s definition of who was congenitally unfit included sexually promiscuous girls, and members of the Tartare, Travellers rather like the Gypsies. Unlike the Gypsies, they were not considered to constitute a separate ethnic group, who were exempt from the eugenics legislation, and so they, like non-Traveller Swedes, were taken and sterilised. It was only very recently that the Tartare won recognition as an ethnic group in their own right, and so qualified for compensation for their members’ forcible sterilisation.

The same eugenicist and Social Darwinist attitudes pervaded British society. Ernest Beveridge, before he accepted the recommendations of the Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Socialist Medical Society on which the Beveridge Report was based, also shared these views. He believed that unemployment and disability benefits should only be given to men, on the condition that they were sterilised as ‘dysgenic’ due to their inability to support themselves. It was also espoused by sections of the British military. H.W. Koch, in his paper ‘Social Darwinism as a Factor in Imperialism’ in the book The Origins of the First World, edited by Koch himself and published by MacMillan in 1972, demonstrated, with numerous quotations, how Social Darwinism formed part of the expansionist ideology of the British military in the First World War. Leading British generals and admirals advocated war with Germany as it was believed that it was through violent conflict that the unfit were weeded out and organisms and nations evolved further. Gove’s comment that Britain went to war with Germany not only ignores this, but actually falsifies the true situation in that Social Darwinism was found on the British as well as the German side.

German historians believe that the First World War was not the fault of their country, but was due to a general move to war across Europe as a whole. This view is generally rejected by historians outside Germany, who believe that the War was caused by Germany’s desire to punish the Slavs for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand the Second by Gavrilo Princip in Serbia. Nevertheless, the web of alliances that the various powers had constructed across Europe in order to prevent war acted to pull all the various nations, their colonial possessions, and extra-European allies into the conflict. Britain had become increasingly alarmed by growing German economic and military power from the late 19th century onwards. There were a series of early science fiction stories and novels, such as the Battle of Dorking, which foresaw a future German invasion of and conquest of Britain. As a result, Britain engaged in an arms race with Germany to the extent that there were already arms limitation treaties signed in 1905 between the two nations.

There were also a number of other factors involved, and I urge those interested to read ‘Sean’s’ comments to Mike’s first article on Gove and his comments about Blackadder. He knows rather more about the war and its causes than I do. He points out that the Italian Prime Minister had a few years before the War prevented it from breaking out, from example. The point here is that Britain certainly did not go to war with Wilhelmine Germany to combat the latter’s Social Darwinism, as it was shared by this country’s own chattering and military classes, but was instead due solely to geo-political questions relating to the balance of power in Europe and freedom and autonomy of Serbia and the other Slavonic nations. To state that it was is to misrepresent the origins of the War, and produce a false, pernicious picture that ignores and covers up the prevalence of Social Darwinist views in Britain and the rest of the world. It presents a nasty, black-and-white image of righteous, enlightened Allies versus proto-Nazi Germans, quite at variance with the reality.

Beyond Gove’s ignorance of the causes and spiritual, social and cultural effects of the First World War, there is the wider issue of his attitude to education and particularly the teaching of history. Gove has specifically targeted ‘left-wing academics’ for being, as he appears to see it, unpatriotic. This has been a common complaint of the Tories ever since the days of Thatcher and before, when the Express and Mail regularly carried stories of the ‘loony left’ indoctrinating vulnerable minds with subversive subjects like Peace Studies, and attacking British identity in the guise of anti-racism. I can remember Maggie sneering at one Tory conference about ‘Fabians’ and ‘anti-racist mathematics’. Now there may have been a minority of leftist radicals like that, but most weren’t, and in any case, most teachers are teachers because they want to stand in front of a chalkboard and teach, not indoctrinate their pupils one way or the other. One of the most precious, fundamental qualities in British academia is the freedom to think, debate and argue without having to bow to the dictates of the state. By attacking teachers and the academics, who hold views on the First World War and its origins at variance to his own, Gove has attacked this principle.

And this is very serious indeed. Academic freedom is under assault across the world. In Russia last year, Putin passed a law partially rehabilitating Stalin. This piece of legislation makes it illegal to denigrate Stalin as the saviour of Russia during the Great Patriotic War, the old Soviet name for World War Two. Now Stalin did indeed save the Soviet Union, but only after he signed a non-aggression pact with Ribbentrop and was totally unprepared for the Nazi invasion to the point where in the first days of the German assault Russian troops were forbidden to fire back. Far worse than that, the old brute was responsible for the deaths of 30 million Soviet citizens during the Purge. This may be an underestimate, as the true figure is unknown. It could be as high as for 45 million or more. A few years ago the BBC screened a programme on modern Russia, in which the presenter travelled to one of Stalin’s gulags. The place was dilapidated and decaying, but there were still the remains of the barracks, guardhouses and other buildings. Most chillingly, however, there were lying scattered on the ground the bare bones of the inmates, who had been starved, tortured and finally worked to death in that terrible place.

Historians and archaeologists are extremely wary about allowing nationalist bias into their work. Every nation has, of course, its own view of history, including its own. The ideal, however, is to produce an objective account free of nationalist bias. It was one of the first things I can remember being taught in history as an undergraduate. And one of the most compelling reasons for avoiding it was the way history was used and distorted by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, like Stalin’s Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, to justify their brutal, murderous tyrannies. It has also been used to justify the invasion, colonisation and expropriation of the subject nations of the European empires around the world and the racist policies that legitimised the rule of their White masters. Hence the emergence of Historical Archaeology. The name is somewhat misleading, as it does not deal with the archaeology of the broader period for which historical records survive, such as from the ancient world onwards, but rather more narrowly of the period c.1500 to the present day. It’s called Historical Archaeology as it was founded by American researchers, for whom the written history of their country really only dates from the fifteenth century. As a discipline, Historical Archaeology tries to recover the voices and experiences of the subordinate social groups oppressed and subjected by the forces of colonialism and capitalism, who are rarely heard in the written historical accounts – the indigenous peoples, slaves, immigrants and other ethnic minorities, the working class masses and women. It’s an attempt to challenge the official histories produced by the colonial elites, which largely ignored and excluded these groups.

Gove wishes to ignore all this, to turn the clock back to what the historian Butterfield called ‘the Whig interpretation of history’, in which British history is one long process of gradual improvement, culminating in democracy and the British Empire. Gove is probably keen on the latter, but I’ve seen absolutely no evidence that the current administration pays anything but lip service to the notion of democracy. History is richer, and far more complicated than this, with frequent shameful episodes and periods when genuine oppression and brutality were all too common, and where it was never clear that the forces of humanity and justice would win. You can look, for example, at the period of vicious political repression that occurred in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, when the government tried to crack down on anything resembling subversion against aristocratic rule. It was a period characterised by the notorious Peterloo Massacre, when the British army and a squadron of Hussars charged a peaceful demonstration gathered to hear the radical politician, ‘Orator’ Hunt. Or the slave trade and the long campaign against it, which succeeded in outlawing it in the British Empire only in 1840. Real history gives the lie to the Whig Interpretation, and casts very grave doubts over the supposed justice of British imperialism. Gove, however, would prefer that the last fifty years and more of historical scholarship, in which the Victorian view of the correctness and justice of Britain, her society, and her imperial rule, was swept away, to be replaced with a cosily reassuring Conservative version justifying the traditional British class structure, capitalism and its militaristic expansion and invasion of the wider world. He wants to return to a history guided by the old adage, ‘My country, right or wrong’.

The best comment I’ve heard on that old saying was by the fictional space detective Nathan Spring in an episode of the BBC SF series, Star Cops, back in the 1980s. In a conversation with the very shifty, patriotic commander of an American space station, the conversation moves on to patriotism and conservatism.
‘My country, right or wrong, eh?’ remarks Spring.
‘There are worse philosophies’, replies the commander.
‘Yes,’ retorts Spring. ‘Most of them begin with that one.’

Gove’s attack on teachers and ‘left-wing academics’ is also part of a general, anti-intellectual trend in Conservative politics that’s been around since Reagan and Thatcher. Back in the 1980s, the great American comedian, Bill Hicks in one of his routines used to remark, ‘Do I detect a little anti-intellectualism here. Must date from the time Reagan was elected.’ This attempts to appeal to populist sentiment by presenting a left-wing view of history as a distortion forced upon vulnerable young minds in schools, colleges and universities by subversive left-wing teachers and college and university lecturers. It attempts to present the existing order as so obviously correct, that only out-of-touch, elite liberals, who themselves sneer and patronise the working class, wish to question and challenge.

Now, you can certainly find ‘loony-left’ teachers and lecturers of whom this is true. Most teachers and lecturers, in my experience, actually don’t want to indoctrinate young minds with dangerous and subversive doctrines so much as stand in front of a class and teach. Yes, they have their biases, but the goal is to teach an objective history as supported by the facts, although how history is interpreted naturally depends very much on the individual historian and how they see the past. Gove wishes to jettison all this, and replace academic freedom, in which the accepted view of events can be freely examined and questioned, with a Conservative, patriotic view dictated by the state. It’s an attack on the very core of academic freedom. Its the mark of an insecure political elite, who fear any questioning of their authority and their view of history. And if left unchallenged, will end with Britain becoming like Russia and so many other nations around the world, where children are taught only the official history, and the nation’s shameful actions and periods are ignored. In many of these nations, those that challenge the official view of history can be subject to intimidation and imprisonment. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, for example, has been imprisoned for insulting Turkish nationhood, because he said the country ought to admit to its culpability for the Armenian massacres. Gove’s view of history and his attack on academic freedom threaten to bring Britain close to that state.

Unfortunately, the Tories do have form for trying to use the law to purge the educational system of those, whose political views they do not share. A friend of mine, who was very much involved with his student union at Uni, informed me that in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher passed legislation intended to bar Marxists from holding posts at university. In the end, the law proved an unworkable dead letter, at the Marxists at whom it was aimed simply declared themselves to be ‘Marxian’, instead. They weren’t Marxists, but had a culture based on Marx. Hence they were exempt from such legislation. It was a very fine legal point, and some would say that it was a difference without distinction. Nevertheless, it did what it was intended to do and they kept their jobs.

Now I am aware of the reasons why Thatcher attempted to stop Marxists teaching at university, and the arguments that have been used to support it. Communist regimes around the world, from the Soviet bloc to China, have murdered millions. The argument therefore runs that if the extreme, racist right cannot be tolerated in academia because of their guilt for the murder of millions, and the murderously illiberal and intolerant nature of their doctrines, then neither should the extreme Left, who are equally guilty of such crimes. Nevertheless, there is a danger that when states start introducing legislation to regulate, who teaches in their schools and universities, based on their personal religious or political beliefs, then a step is taken towards further state control of what their citizens are allowed to think and believe, and freedom suffers. There is, rightly, legislation in place to prevent teachers and university lecturers indoctrinating their students with their personal religious or personal beliefs. Nevertheless, schools and universities are also places where students are encouraged to think for themselves, to explore different views and perspectives on particular issues, and make their own decisions. And given the immense contribution certain elements of Marxism have made to various academic disciplines, regardless of the merits or otherwise of Marxism itself as a political creed, it is only right and natural that Marxists should be allowed to teach and publish at universities, provided they too abide by the rules of open debate.

Baroness Thatcher attempted to use the law to close this down.

And Gove with this rant about Blackadder and ‘left-wing academics’ has attempted to go some way towards following her. If you value academic freedom, and right of everyone in academia to be able to teach and research, regardless of their political views, so long as they can support their views with fact and logical argument, then Gove’s latest rant, and his desire to indoctrinate young minds with his narrow view of history, must be resisted to the utmost.

Sources

Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth: How Genetic Information is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators and Law Enforcers (Boston: Beacon Press 1997)

Philip Rahtz, Invitation to Archaeology: 2nd Edition (Oxford: Blackwell 1991)

D.G. Williamson, The Third Reich (Harlow: Longman 1982)

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