IT is not very often that historians get to act like scientists. History is a field of interpretation, nuance and theory, and while evidence is the blood in its limbs, a historian would rarely claim to use a word like “true” in same way as a scientist. Gravity, evolution: true. Agincourt, Pankhurst: contested. A crude summation, but the sciences and humanities operate in different (though not exclusive nor always competing) planes of experience.
So it was with some relish this week that historians got to pull out the “not true” card, stored often in the back pocket for Holocaust deniers and let-them-eat-cakeists, to attack Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, for his comments on World War One. Scientists dip into that pocket with greater ease to batter climate change deniers, Creationists, proponents of Intelligent Design, and so on. This time, Professor Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and Tristram Hunt MP, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, led the charge from the historians’ trenches.
Gove said that interpretations of World War One as a ‘misbegotten shambles’ are left-wing myths, propagated by Marxist academics and Blackadder, ubiquitous in school classrooms, and that the war was ‘just’, fought to repel German imperialism. It is a view as simplistic as it is contrived, contrarian point-scoring designed to out-muscle Labour in the mawkish, national festival of commemoration to come in 2014, imbibed with a zest of anti-European paranoia and British protectionism: let’s have our memorial. Which party can appear the most British? It was, after all, a British war. Britain alone. Not the 17 other nations who sent soldiers to the Triple Entente. Not the Australians who, having not been granted the right to declare war by the British empire (so much for German imperialism), were forced to send thousands of combatants as part of the war effort, many of whom were sent to a slaughter at Gallipoli by broadly inept British generals.
As Evans pointed out, the British fought alongside a regime, in the form of Tsar Nicholas II’s Russia, that was arguably more despotic than the Kaiser’s Germany as was no more a democracy than their enemy. In 1914, only 40% of adult males had the vote – unlike 100% of Germans. Nor do the left run criticism of the war: historians Niall Ferguson and Max Hastings – not so much your average anarcho-syndicalists – have been largely critical of British commanders.
Still, lets not let facts get in the way of history. Or truth. While Gove’s attack on how we teach history is welcome – Blackadder is a text, not necessarily an authority – and he is right to point out that the caricature of the war’s commanding officers, like Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘scarlet Majors’ who, after sending men over the trenches to be mown down, would ‘toddle safely home and die – in bed’, may not be all that helpful for historical scholarship. Iconoclasm is a valid tool of the historian. But, crumbs, Michael. I think most historians had worked that out. In the 1920s.
Reaction to Gove shows us much. Historians enjoy the opportunity to be unequivocal, to deliver a helping of outrage based on a serious body of all but indisputable evidence. Scientists, though it is easier for them, are not always as good at this. They have more on their plate, perhaps, with homeopathy, left-side, right-side brain nonsense, Darwin, global temperature rises etc. Our planet burning itself up with fever is largely more important than whether the Wild West really was a bit like the Wild West or not like the Wild West or in part like the Wild West (and whether that semiotic approach is at best limited, and does it denigrate materialist interpretations? And what about socio-economic factors? History is fun).
Perhaps scientists are spread more thinly, battling the fires of misinformation across the world such that historians’ responses to Gove seemed more dramatically audible because they were so concentrated. Perhaps, as Professor Lisa Jardine says, it’s that humanities graduates run the media and can more readily digest and transmit arguments within intellectual history than developments in particle physics. But Gove gave historians the chance to enjoy a run of indignation, harnessed to a rare sighting in history: something that looks a bit like historical truth.