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Jeremy Paxman's BBC history of the First World War is shallow, banal, and cliché-ridden

Paxman accepts the war was awful and nothing to celebrate in 2014, but he clearly believes that the war was necessary and that its million or so British victims died in a worthy cause.

Jeremy Paxman as Kitchener

‘German troops were on the march throughout Europe,’ intones Jeremy Paxman in the opening of his new First World War series on BBC1. ‘The Germans had an army of over two million soldiers and detailed plans for the conquest of Europe.’

The presenter’s voice is heard over images of dense marching columns of spike-helmeted infantry. ‘The Emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm, aimed to dominate all of Europe by invading both France and Russia.’

The series may not be about the cause of the war, but the viewer is left in no doubt about Paxman’s explanation: it was German military imperialism that destroyed the peace of Europe in 1914; it was this that persuaded a reluctant British government and people to go to war.

This provides the frame for Paxman’s ‘big idea’ – that it was the First World War that ‘forged the country we know today’. He accepts that the war was awful and that there is nothing to celebrate at its centenary; but he is equally clear that the war was necessary and that its million or so British victims died in a worthy cause.

Paxman in the guise of Kitchener appears on the front page of the latest Radio Times, and an interview-based article inside reveals the depth of this ‘nation-building’ myth. ‘I love this country,’ proclaims Paxman, ‘and very often we don’t know how lucky we are.’ The First World War ‘made modern Britain, was genuinely a time when we were all in it together, and put an end to the assumption that everyone knew his or her place.’

Industrialised warfare, it seems, can be morally regenerative. ‘I’d have done better for having time in uniform,’ says Paxman. ‘Obviously I’m not wishing war on anyone, but it might have been better for all of us if we’d been obliged to do something rather than choosing for ourselves.’ So First World War revisionism becomes an explicit argument for conscription, national service, and imperialist war.

The two arguments, one about the causes of the war, one about its redemptive character, are interdependent. If the First World War was a war for empire and profit, one in which the many were slaughtered for the enrichment of the few, the claim that it did us all good becomes unsustainable. Both arguments, in any case, are false.

The role of Germany in 1914

Germany did not have ‘detailed plans for the conquest of Europe’ in 1914. Nor was it the case that German troops were ‘on the march throughout Europe’. The Germans invaded Belgium and France in August 1914, but they were on the defensive in Eastern Europe, where the Russians were the invaders.

A few sentences in an hour-long documentary conjure an image of an aggressive, expansionist, militaristic power set on world domination. The reality was that Germany was one of five great powers in Europe locked into a competitive struggle for resources and markets; that this struggle had created an explosive cocktail of alliances, armies, and war plans; and that this cocktail had been detonated by the July crisis following the assassination at Sarajevo.

Imperial Germany was essentially a land-based, Central European power. Tsarist Russia, on the other hand, had imperial interests in the Far East, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Balkans. The British and the French had the largest overseas empires in Asia and Africa; the British ruled over a fifth of the world and controlled the lives of one-fourth of humanity. Paxman’s caricature of Germany as exceptionally belligerent is not even true in European terms: the British, the French, and the Russians had formed a hostile alliance and engaged in an arms race against Germany. But it becomes positively absurd as soon as one looks beyond Europe and takes a global view.

The myth of redemption

The notion that war is redemptive is deeply reactionary and morally sick. Let us be clear what Paxman is saying. It was right that soldiers were forced to fight when their rulers decided to go to war, because ‘we were all in it together’ and ‘it forged the country we know today’. Let us follow the logic.

It was right that men spent four years killing one another in a war of unprecedented ferocity: workers and farmers in uniform on one side killing workers and farmers in uniform on the other, all having been torn from homes and families by a military machine over which they had no control, all subject to a ruthless discipline that saw men gunned down inside their own trenches or executed by firing squad because they were terrified.

Paxman seems to regard the coercion – the lack of choice, the negation of democracy, the submission to a rapacious ruling class of bankers, industrialists, and generals – as somehow character-building. The underlying philosophy is profoundly elitist: there is a nostalgic longing for the lost ‘values’ of 1914 – deferential respect for ‘one’s betters’; innocent obedience to authority; guileless acceptance of war propaganda; and the old lies about heroism, glory, and dying for one’s country.

Fortunately, the First World War was not consensual. Paxman’s history purports to be a view from below, a story about the impact of the war on ordinary people. It is not: shallow, banal, and cliché-ridden, it appears to be a history of how our rulers want us to behave in wartime.

The real story of the First World War is the story of resistance from below. It is a story about socialists, trade unionists, and pacifists who opposed the war; about soldiers who refused to fight; about strikes at home and mutinies in the army; about nationalists fighting foreign rule in the colonies; a story that culminates in a giant wave of revolution that finally brought the killing to an end. That was humanity’s true redemption.

Source: No Glory in War

Neil Faulkner is a historian and First World War archeologist. He is the author of No Glory: The Real History of World War One