Why do some people have to be so unpleasant about the centenary of the First World War?

Sometimes Sir Simon Jenkins, who was knighted in 2004 for services to journalism, writes articles that make you wonder what on earth they were thinking. One such piece appeared in the Guardian recently. In it he lapses into various states of prejudice, distortion and unpleasantness – so much so that it is almost beyond belief that he is also a man who loves the simple truth of beauty. His ‘100 Best’ series, which exhibits the beauty of churches, houses, castles and views, is perhaps a clever commercial venture, but there is little doubt that he believes in the intrinsic value of beautiful creations, of both man and nature.

Why is it, then, that he is so willing to produce articles for the Guardian that are as unpleasant as any of the worst articles to be found in the British press? If truth is beauty then these are ugly things he writes. Is it because he works for the Guardian and assumes there are certain prejudices to which he must pander? Is it because he knows that certain subjects, especially if dealt with as offensively as possible, will increase sales and online traffic? Is he, in fact, a super-troll, baiting readers for fun and profit?

I don’t really know. And to be honest, I don’t really care, just as I am sure he doesn’t care about my opinion. There is enough bile on the web to keep the Devil entertained for eternity, so perhaps a bit more of it doesn’t change anything much. But if I don’t care why he does it, I do care that he does it, for the simple reason that it distorts the way we view the world, past and present, in a way that diminishes us all. Truth and objectivity are principles on which he and his employers no doubt pride themselves; indeed, a week scarcely goes by when it is not insinuated in some way or another that theirs is the moral uplands of an otherwise squalid press corps.

The article in question is about the centenary of the Great War; or the First World War, as we have known it since the repeat of 1939-45. Without a hint of irony, he begins with the sanctimonious declaration ‘I must apologise to the Germans’ before complaining that Britain is about to show itself at its ‘sanctimonious’ worst. Oh my! One man, a mere journalist, taking it upon himself to apologise on behalf of one nation to another. Such humility! The word sanctimonious, to clarify, means making a show of being morally superior to others; and in one little sentence he denounces an entire nation.

It’s the way he so glibly speaks for others and assumes that the centenary is going to be more about celebration, revelry, propaganda, tub-thumping jingoism and re-written history than about commemoration, thanksgiving and attempts, no matter how imperfect, to better understand what was undoubtedly one of the most significant events of not only British history but world history – and, amidst all that, were there to be one or two moments of celebration, especially to mark the end of the war and Germany’s failure to win it, then what, pray, would be wrong with that?

No doubt there will be occasions when we will cringe because the tone of some event does not meet with our exact approval, or squirm because the enormity of the First World War is not being reflected as we might wish in our more enlightened moments. But what do we expect? To think that every book, television programme, community event and public manifestation of the centenary will pass off to the satisfaction of a Saint is to misunderstand human nature. We get it wrong, a lot of the time, as the historical fact of the war should perfectly illustrate. Man can be a swine!

But denouncing (which is what he seems to be doing) the writing of books, the making of programmes, the composing of poetry and the allocation of lottery money to enable remembrance of this seismic event is… what word should one use… vile. Is that too strong? Perhaps, but it’s difficult to think of a more appropriate word.

His distortion is astounding. It is true to say that many believed the war would not last long. Margaret MacMillan, Professor of International History and Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, whom he mentions unflatteringly, agrees with this basic point; but she also explains that there were good reasons for this belief: that armies at the time trained and planned for quick wars, and that wars of more recent memory tended to be relatively short affairs. What she doesn’t do is reduce the nuance of the period to that of a ‘sabre-rattling face-off.’ Apart from being wrong, its crass and insensitive, which is just the sort of thing he seems to be criticising in others.

And comparing Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, to President Putin of Russia is ridiculous, as is suggesting he is embarking on some sort of exercise to rewrite history. Mr Gove’s beef is not so much that British history should be jingoistic, but that it should be taught at all. It is also true that there is, indeed, a lot of war in the syllabus, but he would like teachers to open out history to include the full story of this country, not just the bits about war.

When Sir Simon writes that ‘he [Gove] claims our brave boys were fighting for “western liberal values” against the evil Jerry,’ he undermines a salient point with two others that are patronising and spurious. It is true that in 1914 Britain’s idea of western liberal values was not quite what he might imagine them to be today, but does he suppose Mr Gove does not know that? Does he mean that he thinks Mr Gove is saying that Britain in 1914 is just like Britain today? I hope not, because that would say more about Sir Simon than the education secretary.

And in the article that provoked so much criticism for Mr Gove, and which seems to be Sir Simon’s source here, he does not even refer to ‘western liberal values.’ His choice of words is ‘western liberal order.’ There is a subtle difference in meaning here: ‘values’ are about moral assumptions and the behaviour that falls from them; ‘order’ is more about the way something is arranged. Mr Gove was arguing that one of the reasons so many volunteered to fight was to defend the existing international order – sovereignty, national self-determination, continuity etc – rather than to advance female emancipation or human rights. 1914 was a different age to the one we experience today, but it was still a ‘western liberal order.’ This is, indeed, and despite the obvious difficulties we now have with empire and a restricted franchise, exactly what ‘our brave boys were fighting for.’ How offensive these words are when sneered in this way!

There is another glaring misquote: ‘Yet already the “secretary of state who should know better”, Michael Gove, has seized the moment for tub-thumping jingoism against his political foes.’ What should we derive from this sentence? It sounds very much like Sir Simon is saying that Mr Gove is claiming ‘tub-thumping jingoism’ for his own. While Gove does use this exact phrase in his article, he is in fact quoting someone else, namely Sir Richard Evans, Cambridge historian and, as it turns out, Guardian writer.

Perhaps a more interesting point in this argument, especially as accuracy is an important principle in the study of history, is Sir Richard’s retort that Mr Gove had misquoted his reference to jingoism. So we have Sir Simon misquoting Mr Gove misquoting Sir Richard; everyone’s at it. Closer scrutiny of this article probably shows I’m at it too. But there is a difference between deliberate and accidental misunderstanding; and Sir Simon, I’m afraid, is doing it quite deliberately – or if he is not, he has not read Mr Gove’s article properly and is instead relying on the Chinese whispers of King’s Place for his information.

Sir Simon does, however, welcome the debate provoked by the centenary: what were the causes of the war; did Britain need to fight at all; could we have lived with a continent dominated by Germany and the Kaiser; and did the war lose us the Empire? All good questions, but then he reaches for the straw man as if afraid the vitriol of his argument might be lost with these reasonable questions. ‘It was hardly a triumph,’ he writes. Jolly good point! But who exactly is arguing that the First World War was a triumph? Mr Gove, for one, thought it ‘horrific.’

And he also makes other valid points: the level of sacrifice diminishes the idea that the War was worth it; the Kaiser’s Germany has been depicted as more evil than it probably was; there is a tendency for a country to claim all its wars are just, not least because no country wants to admit they have fought an unjust war; and that historical debate will continue, which is a good thing.

But then he goes and ruins it by wailing against our national ‘orgy of recalled hatred for the other.’ Sir Simon seems to be stuck in that period of British History in 1914 just after the German Navy attacked the North Sea coast of England killing and wounding scores of civilians and which resulted in some quite understandable disgruntlement in the population. We don’t need to condone demonisation, but who could blame them after experiencing that? Today’s British attitude is defined more by fond regard for Boris Becker, Wimbledon Champion, and Henning Wehn, the German comedian who frequently appears on our television screens. Our football grounds might produce something closer to Sir Simon’s caricature, but even that is underpinned by genuine respect for the quality of German football.

Perhaps there is greater scope in Britain for a more measured attitude to war and its significance. Perhaps we should celebrate Magna Carta of 1215 and the Reform Act of 1832 with greater vigour. But we do not lack enthusiasm and understanding of these other aspects of our history because they are crowded out by war; we pay them only scant attention because, as Michael Gove has alluded, in the past we have not had a particularly healthy attitude to British history full stop. And we will certainly not improve things by following Sir Simon’s approach of sneering denigration and hyperbolic analysis of what happened and why. Good history is about detail, as Margaret MacMillan would vouch. And the detail surrounding the First World War is more nuanced and surprising than anything he has offered in this piece of ignoble journalism.

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