The plan was for curious schoolchildren to wander foreign battlefields, for grateful communities to repair crumbling monuments and for an entire nation to solemnly recall a war that cost more British lives than any other.
Oh, what a lovely commemoration it was to have been.
But just a little over a month into the centenary of the start of World War I, those plans have been overshadowed by ugly political sniping over what the war meant, and whether Britain is remembering it in the proper way.
Charges of insufficient patriotism have been answered by accusations of jingoism. A much-beloved British sitcom has been caught in the crossfire.
The war’s outbreak may be 100 years in the past, and most of the combatants long in their graves, but the Great War remains a highly combustible subject in Britain, even after other nations have moved on, forgotten or deliberately erased the memory of a conflict that left more than 16 million people dead — nearly a million of them British. World War I may be an afterthought in the United States, but not here.
“For the British, it’s the big-problem war,” said David Reynolds, a Cambridge University scholar who has written on the subject in a recent book, “The Long Shadow.”
Like Vietnam for Americans, Reynolds said, “it’s a war that is hard to present as a success, and the explanations for why you got into it are not very satisfying.”
The debate has as much to do with the British present as with Britain’s past, reflecting both deep ambivalence about the war itself as well as the hugely divisive question of whether Britain really is a part of Europe.
The battle lines, roughly drawn, are between those who see the war as a costly but vital triumph against German aggression and those who regard it as a pointless slaughter that laid the groundwork for an even more horrific conflict just two decades later. Scholars see merit in both arguments, but the latter view has tended to dominate the popular understanding here.
British Education Secretary Michael Gove fired the first shot of the war over the war, 2014 edition, with a column in the Daily Mail that sought to change that.
As the centenary of World War I begins, Gove wrote in January, it is “important that we commemorate, and learn from, that conflict in the right way.”
And that way, according to a man with vast influence over the nation’s education curriculum, is as “a just war” waged against the malicious German leadership by young British men who were “conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.”
Gove ridiculed popular depictions of the conflict, including the 1960s-era musical “Oh! What a Lovely War,” as well as the 1980s BBC sitcom “Blackadder.” The latter, which starred Rowan Atkinson as a hapless infantry captain in the trenches of the Western Front, is still used as a World War I teaching tool in classrooms nationwide. But by casting the war “as a misbegotten shambles,” Gove insisted, the show has it all wrong.
The column drew a contemptuous response from historians. Richard Evans, a Cambridge professor who was singled out by Gove for criticism, said the education secretary was “trying to sideline those who don’t take his line by saying they denigrate the troops.”
“Blackadder” actors objected, too, as of course did Gove’s political rivals.
A senior politician in the opposition Labor Party charged Gove, a member of the ruling Conservatives, with pandering to the party’s anti-Europe wing. The Tories have faced an increasingly robust challenge on their right from the U.K. Independence Party, which favors withdrawing from the European Union, where German influence looms large.
“It’s all within a strain of anti-
Europe, German-phobic thinking,” said Tristram Hunt, Labor’s point person for education policy. “We in Britain are very good at history. We’re good at tradition and commemoration and heritage. So it’s a shame to let the politicians just frame this in terms of how we beat up the Germans.”
For going after Gove, Hunt was attacked by London Mayor Boris Johnson, who accused Hunt of a “kind of cock-eyed exculpation of the Kaiser and his generals.”
While Johnson, like Gove, is a Conservative, the debate over World War I doesn’t fall neatly along political lines. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, who generally tilts right politically, recently called British entry into the war “the biggest error in modern history,” arguing that Britain could have lived with a German victory on the continent.
The immediate trigger for the war was a single shot — the June 28, 1914, assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. A patchwork of alliances brought one player after another into the burgeoning conflict, with Britain entering on Aug. 4 after Germany invaded Belgium. The United States didn’t join the fray until 1917, and the fighting ended with an armistice the following year.
By then, Europe was in ruins — and the stage would be set for the next great war.
“The First World War is nothing to be jubilant about — for anyone,” said Karl von Habsburg, great-grandnephew of the slain archduke. “Where’s the fault for this war? It’s the fault of strong nationalism.”
In the past week, top government officials have promised that the $80 million, four-year official commemoration of World War I won’t politicize the conflict. But new controversies continue to crop up, with the German Foreign Ministry forced to deny reports that it has been leaning on the British not to turn the event into a celebration. The British have said that no pressure was necessary.
“The decision to avoid any sense of celebration or triumphalism is absolutely there and at the heart of what everyone is doing,” said Hew Strachan, an Oxford historian who has been deeply involved in the planning. “The key word is ‘commemoration’.”
Still, others worry that, given the way the year began, the temptation for political exploitation will be hard to resist.
“People feel that to raise questions about the past is to question the present. I understand that. But I would hope that the further back an event is, the more you can discuss it without politics,” said Margaret MacMillan, a historian who is also at Oxford. “Of course, the Serbs are still arguing about the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, so I suppose there’s faint hope for that.”
Karla Adam contributed to this report.