One hundred years after the start of World War I, Britain has been gripped by an unexpectedly bitter argument over the legacy of the conflict, focusing on the television comedy “Blackadder”.
Comments by Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove about the war this week have sparked a fierce debate that, despite its historical origins, goes to the heart of present-day questions about British identity.
Gove, a horn-rim-spectacled hawk, said in a newspaper article that “left-wing” myths about the “Great War” belittle Britain and absolve Germany of blame.
He wrote in the Daily Mail that programmes such as “Blackadder” had distorted history by depicting the war as a “misbegotten shambles — a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”
The fourth and final series of Blackadder, first broadcast in 1989 but still shown as part of history lessons in some schools, stars Rowan Atkinson as Captain Edmund Blackadder, an officer in the trenches of Flanders in 1917.
It mocked the military leadership of the time, particularly in the figure of a pompous general played by Stephen Fry.
But it ended on a poignant note as Blackadder and other characters went “over the top” to their deaths.
Like many other European countries and Commonwealth nations such as Australia and New Zealand, Britain has planned a series of events to commemorate the terrible human sacrifice of World War I.
In Britain, World Wars I and II are still widely seen as high-water marks of national courage and reminders of a more glorious past.
A century on, those memories seem particularly salient as Britain faces something of an identity crisis. There is a referendum on Scottish independence in September and a possible vote on EU membership in 2017, all set against the drab background of continuing austerity measures.
The row that erupted over Gove’s comments showed that the “Great War” remains a sensitive issue.
One of the first to take exception was actor Tony Robinson, who played Blackadder’s dim sidekick, Baldrick.
“I think Mr Gove has just made a very silly mistake,” Robinson, a vocal supporter of the Labour Party, told Sky News.
“To categorise teachers who would introduce something like Blackadder as left-wing and introducing left-wing propaganda is very, very unhelpful.”
Labour education spokesman Tristram Hunt accused Gove and the government of a “crass” attempt to use the commemorations to “rewrite the historical record and sow political division.”
Meanwhile Gove won few friends with his comments about Germany being to blame for the war.
The minister wrote that it was “plainly a just war”, and that the “ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.”
As education minister, Gove has helped rewrite a national history curriculum that once heavily relied on critical accounts of the 1914-1918 conflict, such as those of the “War Poets” like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
But his comments opened up yet another rift in the increasingly eurosceptic coalition government.
Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who is half Dutch and whose wife is Spanish, said the commemorations should be sombre and avoid “finger wagging”.
But Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesman backed Gove, saying Britain should commemorate the war “without being afraid to say it was right for Britain to respond to aggression”.
While the political row is new, it mirrors decades of debate among historians about the causes and conduct of World War I.
Historian Richard Evans, who was singled out for criticism by Gove in his article, wrote in The Guardian that the minister was “playing to the gallery” instead of properly considering the evidence and sources.
But historian Max Hastings, whose recent book “Catastrophe” traces the origins of the conflict, said Gove was “largely right” and accused the left of trying to “make an ideological argument out of World War I, as it does out of almost everything else in history.”