Whatever Happened To History? Blackadder, Gove and The Great War…

The recent brouhaha of Education Minister Gove criticising teachers for allegedly using Blackadder Goes Forth and films (rife, we are warned, with Left-leaning fallacies) to teach about the First World War as we reach the centenary. Although it isn’t just Gove – the issue was even raised in a short article in a wargaming magazine complaining that such programs were propagating stereotypes of the war. Well, ignoring the fact that, for most people, the complex details of history will always be obscured to a greater or lesser extent by stereotypes and simplified narratives, what amused (and annoyed) me as the debate got under way was how both sides seemed to know little about the actual history of the war and were equally happy to deal in stereotypes, and how the critics laughably seemed to understand neither context nor that things were not the black-and-white, either-or stances they believed them to be.

The Great War as History

Both sides seemed eager to leap to defend their stances with stereotypes and simplified explanations, whilst accusing the opposition of doing the same. Yes, stereotypes usually reflect some truth, so depictions of warmongering Huns, stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen and dozy generals leading lionhearted warriors to their deaths all have some basis in truth; but, as with all such stereotypes, they fail to convey the complexity of human nature and how it changes over time, from person to person and due to circumstances, whilst reducing thousands of individuals into clones. Whether positive or negative, such stereotypes do not tell the whole truth and playing some sort of one-upmanship of stereotypes is a fool’s pastime.

A perfect example are attempts to apportion blame for the war itself with complaints that the Germans are being let off the hook. History doesn’t happen in a vacuum and when dealing with events on the scale of the First World War it is impossible to pinpoint a single cause. Yes, we can argue that Germany should have reined in Austria-Hungary, but we might equally argue that Russia should have pressured Serbia into defusing the situation by handing over conspirators (real or framed), or even not backing the Black Hand in the first place, or we could say that France should have refused to honour its treaty with Russia, dragging it into a war over the balance of power in the Balkans and the activities of terrorists. Yes, Germany and Austria-Hungary had their agendas, but so did Russia and France. The situation in the early 20th century was that there inevitably would be another war at some point, just as the system of alliances that secured the peace meant that when war came it would drag everyone in. Had there been no assassination, something else would have provided the spark to ignite the powder keg of Europe.

Ironically, given the accusations of unpatriotic behaviour levelled at ‘revisionist’ historians, the fact that everybody seems to have overlooked is that if there was one country in 1914 that can be said to be doing the right thing, it was Britain, honoring, as it did, its obligation to guarantee Belgian independence – and, indeed, making good on its promise. Britain was the only country not following its own interests, with everything to lose and nothing to gain. Rather than constantly focusing on the negatives, why can’t the British focus on this positive?

Most of all, everything is reliant upon hindsight. We know now just how static the Western Front would be, the horrors of gas and trench warfare. The generals, even if often foolishly naive, didn’t know how it would all unfold. Perhaps they would have pigheadedly made the same mistakes if they had known, but most would likely have tried something different (and probably still failed to break the deadlock). To be judgemental of an outcome – feeling that the deaths were ultimately a waste – is fine if we can remember that, without omniscient hindsight, things probably looked very different to the people on the ground at the time.

Not Either-Or

There has been an obsession amongst the critics on the ‘Right’ that any description of the war that is critical of any aspect of Britain’s conduct is automatically an affront to the memory of the brave men who laid down their lives. Absolute nonsense! If anything, to say that British soldiers were brave and stoic, willing to hurl themselves over the top again and again to fulfill the ambitions of generals lacking in sense is a tribute to their sense of duty not an insult, just as saying that more recent wars were illegal, ill-considered or badly managed in no war detracts from the individual bravery or achievements of modern soldiers. Indeed, as the British army has always been deliberately been kept small and under-supplied, yet has always managed to achieve amazing successes nonetheless, such critiques merely reflect the qualities of the soldiers themselves.

Patriotism should not be equated with slavish, unthinking nationalism. Indeed, true patriotism is not tubthumping, flagwaving my-country-right-or-wrong; the true patriot will question and seek to ensure their nation is the best, not blindly accept the assertion from those with an agenda of their own.

Blackadder Goes Forth

The most important thing to remember about this series – which its detractors seem to have forgotten – is that it is a comedy and thus plays with stereotypes, extremes and parodies. It isn’t intended as an accurate portrayal of the war itself: yes, it draws and comments upon truth, but it is still comedy. Possibly some teacher somewhere is using it as if it were a documentary, but I doubt it – and that represents bad teaching, not a flaw with the series. But, as a hook to get children interested in the war or to introduce a concept, its use is perfectly alright.

An important aspect that seems to have been overlooked by Gove and his chums is that Blackadder recycles characters from series to series. Blackadder, Baldrick and iterations of the others appear again and again in different situations. Why should the Great War Blackadder be any braver, luckier or less cynical than his predecessors or Baldrick less stupid? Anyone who takes their presence in the trenches as an insult to the soldiers of the Great War is an idiot! – especially if we consider that the series is set in 1917, by which time cynicism is entirely legitimate: George is the sole survivor of his tiddlywinking pals, whilst Blackadder is a professional soldier who fully understands what war entails and would rather go back to the inequalities of colonial warfare.

Finally, anyone who doubts that the makers of Blackadder respected the soldiers in the trenches really should watch the final episode which celebrates their bravery and commitment whilst questioning the futility of war.

In Conclusion

We should remember the fallen and the horrors of war, but we should also celebrate the courage and bravery of those who fought and fell – and we shouldn’t be scared to laugh at the fallacies and foolishness.


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