Tub-thumping jingoism

The Independent comments on Gove’s tantrum and Evans’s response.

Today, one of Britain’s most eminent historians hit back at what he described as an “ignorant attack” by Education Secretary Michael Gove on his analysis of the conflict.

Writing in the Daily Mail yesterday Mr Gove accused Professor Sir Richard Evans of failing to acknowledge the debt owed to the soldiers that were killed in the Great War claiming he had previously dismissed attempts to honour their sacrifice as “narrow tub-thumping jingoism”.

Sir Richard, Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College Cambridge, suggested the criticism stemmed from his vocal opposition to the Education Secretary’s ill-fated attempts to reform the way history is taught in schools.

Professor Evans told The Independent: “I never said that at all. I said his proposals for the National Curriculum were narrow tub-thumping jingoism and there is some relationship between that.”

History according to the Tory party. Sounds about right.

Professor Evans accused Mr Gove of oversimplification.  “How can you possibly claim that Britain was fighting for democracy and liberal values when the main ally was Tsarist Russia? That was a despotism that put Germany in the shade and sponsored pogroms in 1903-6.”

He said that unlike Germany where male suffrage was universal – 40 per cent of those British troops fighting in the war did not have the vote until 1918. “The Kaiser was not like Hitler, he was not a dictator. He could never make his mind up and changed his mind every five minutes. The largest political party in Germany in 1914 were the Social Democrats,” he said. “Germany was a very divided country in 1914 and becomes more so as time goes on. It is not Nazi Germany,” he added.

Don’t pester the Education Secretary with pedantic details like that. He’s a busy man.


  1. RJW says

    “How can you possibly claim that Britain was fighting for democracy and liberal values when the main ally was Tsarist Russia?

    Britain was playing its customary balance of power game before WW1, as during the Napoleonic Wars, however it was participating as a rapidly declining industrial and imperial power, it’s extremely doubtful whether the ‘defence of liberal democracy’ was a policy imperative. Britain’s main allies, and the most important belligerents, during WW2, were The democratic US and the Soviet Union ( an even more oppressive tyranny than the Tsarist regime) so the idea that allies define the cause is easily refuted, perhaps the Professor isn’t a specialist on WW2.

    I don’t think women were able to vote in either the US or UK prior to WW1, so perhaps neither were democracies and the Prof. is correct for the wrong reasons. In reality, the Dominions ( Canada, Australia &NZ) where female suffrage was introduced before WW1 weren’t fighting for democracy either, but in order to prop up a ramshackle imperial system.

    If the Kaiser’s Germany had won WW1, the history of the 20th century would probably have been considerably less homicidal, for obvious reasons, but’s that’s an a-historical speculation isn’t it?

  2. says

    Prof. Sheffield is right–there’s no left-right split. And if Gove wants to see an example of right-wingers making myths about the war, he should look no further than Thatcher’s darling little shit, Alan Clarke.

  3. says

    If the Kaiser’s Germany had won WW1, the history of the 20th century would probably have been considerably less homicidal, for obvious reasons, but’s that’s an a-historical speculation isn’t it?

    I’m not so sure. Judging by Bethmann Hollweg’s Septemberprogramm, which was not put into action, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was, it would have been savage enough.

  4. Smokey Dusty says

    So I’ve got problem with tub-thumping jingoism and simplistic interpretations. I’m also slightly troubled by Evan’s response on the grounds of oversimplification. By what criteria does he adjudge Russia the ‘main allay’? Does ‘main’ mean ‘most populous’ or does it mean ‘closest’?

    The German assembly (as far as I know) was a rubber stamp. The decision to go to war was taken by the Kaiser. The decision (by Britain) to support France was taken by parliament. That involved intense debate and was almost defeated by a powerful pacifist faction of the Liberal Party.

    Going back to closest allies; Australia, Canada and New Zealand all had universal franchise at the start of the war. Australia and New Zealand had female suffrage. In his popular history ‘The Great War’ Les Carlyon argues it was natural and appropriate that these countries come to the aid of Britain and Western Europe who were also starting down the road to these democratic reforms. He invites us to consider a world in which Prussian militarists prevailed over French progressives.

    There’s nothing that frustrates me more than a culture battle over history. Each participant pushing an oversimplified version or spin to promote an ideological outcome. I suspect that might be going on here.

    Carlyon is great read by the way. He realistically assesses Australia’s contribution and reverses a popular tendency in Australia and Canada to write ‘How We Won the War’ histories. He’s moving when he needs to be. He deals frankly with the Australian tendency to commit atrocities in The Great War. I can’t charge him with oversimplification.

  5. Smokey Dusty says

    And one more thing…

    A total ruler who is prone to vacillation (but still invades France unprovoked and order civilian reprisals in Belgium – they shot children you can see the headstones) is somehow better than one who doesn’t vacillate?

    What point was he trying to make? What the hell does he mean?

  6. RJW says


    Agreed, however, with a German victory there would have been a 20th century without Hitler and the Nazis.

  7. RJW says

    @5 Smokey

    “it was natural and appropriate that these countries come to the aid of Britain and Western Europe”

    Yes, admirable sentiments, but defence of the Empire was most likely the real motivation for participation in WW1.
    Western politicians seem rather selective in the choice of which nascent democracy they decide to spend blood and treasure defending.

    If only the British had returned the favour during WW2, Churchill’s deceitful behaviour comes to mind.

  8. says

    Canada didn’t have the universal franchise, federally, until the end of WWI. Women had the vote if they were British and had a close male relative in uniform after the Wartime Elections Act in 1917, but full suffrage didn’t come until 1918.

    Provincially, Manitoba went first in 1916, but Quebecoise women didn’t get to vote until 1940.

    Even when “universal” suffrage came in 1918, it didn’t apply to all women:

    :On 24 May 1918, all female “citizens” aged 21 and over became eligible to vote in federal elections, regardless of whether they had yet attained the provincial franchise. However, the Elections Canada website specifies what conditions were attached to such eligibility: “age 21 or older, not alien-born and meet property requirements in provinces where they exist.”

    The Canadian Encyclopedia

    In fact, full and universal federal suffrage didn’t come until the UK Privy Council overturned the Canadian Supreme Court which had ruled that women were not persons (thus known popularly as “the Persons Case”) in 1928. The PC ruled in 1929 that this was wrong, and women were then allowed to be appointed to the Senate, the last official obstacle to full participation in government.

    So no. Canada was not yet close to fully democratic when WWI began, and was only approaching it when it ended. It wasn’t until 1960 that racial restrictions on voting were ended, when “full-status Indians” were extended the franchise. Japanese-Canadians, as well as other Canadians of East and South Asian backgrounds, were not fully franchised until 1948; restrictions in BC were extended to BC-born Japanese-Canadians who moved to other provinces, even.

    Not hard information to find.

  9. RJW says

    @9 CaitieCat,

    Thanks for the info, quite a few surprising anomalies in Canada’s progress towards democracy, there were similar racial restrictions against indigenous people here in Australia until 1967.

    Australian women were given the right to vote in federal elections in 1902 and to stand for election to Federal Parliament. The gold medal goes to New Zealand where women received the right to vote in 1893.

    “Democracy” is a rather vague term isn’t it, the “world’s first democracy” was actually a slave-owning oligarchy.

  10. says

    @7 I agree no Hitler, no Nazis. However, a reading of Vernon Kellogg’s ‘Headquarters Nights’ suggests that what we would have gotten would not have been so far behind. And a victorious Kaiser would still have faced the same problems as Hitler: of an inefficient agricultural sector dominated by Junkers and pressure towards autarky that would have probably resulted in expansion East. (See Adam Tooze’s ‘Wages of Destruction’ and Lizzie Collingham’s ‘The Taste of War’ on this.)

    ‘Headquarters Nights’ was published as a work of propaganda, but the sentiments of the officer class therein (and therefore the bourgeois and landed classes) are true. Their promotion of ‘neo-Darwinism’, a vicious and distorted social Darwinism, was not so far from Nazi thought. And as Stephen Jay Gould noted, the book may have been one of the inspirations for William Jennings Bryan’s attacks on Darwinian evolution at the Scopes Trial.

    Here’s the text of Kellogg’s book:


  11. Smokey Dusty says

    Okay I got Canada wrong. Thanks for the correction. Although I the expectation that I should know about Canada’s path go is a bit onerous. I feel its fair for me to rely on a recollection of a (well researched) book I read 6 years ago.

    Here’s a question. When did German women get the vote as compared to Canadian?

    I didn’t argue that anyone was fully democratic. I was merely questioning some of Evan’s points. There just isn’t space to go into the nuance here. The picture I was trying to paint was more democratic and less democratic. I’m trying to explore grey areas that I believe both Gove and Evans seem to be ignoring for ideological reasons. Perhaps the UK was further along the road than Gernany. Perhaps it was good to protect French progressives from Prussian oppression. Perhaps Canada was further along the democratic road than Britain.

    RJW mentions the first democracy. One of Solon’s reforms was to ban keeping child, sex-slaves. So do we praise him for his novel observation that this was a bad thing. Or do we condemn him for this exeption that confirms the rules: 1 One may keep sex-slaves and 2 One may keep child slaves.

    My perspective is both. That’s the way I see things. Show me one reformer who’s produced a perfect society. That’s why I don’t like culture warriors trying to throw black and white interpretations onto history. I suspect Gove and Evans are both being a little disingenous.

  12. RJW says


    Agreed. Nazi ideology didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere, the Nazis used existing myths and fantasies for a “Greater Germany”, eastern expansion was already on the German nationalists’ “to do” list. Two generations before the Nazis, the Second Reich’s political and military elite even proposed their own version of “lebensraum”, which proposed expansion as far as Anatolia.

    We must stop this a-historical speculation!

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    RJW @ # 1: … perhaps the Professor isn’t a specialist on WW2.

    Are we talking about the same Richard Evans who wrote the acclaimed trilogy The Coming of Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power, The Third Reich at War, as well as In Hitler’s Shadow and Lying About Hitler?

  14. says

    True, but Evans’s argument is weak and he probably needs to raise his game. After all, the British were fighting for their war aims and Tsarist Russia was a means to that end, just as Stalin’s Russia was to prove in a later war.

    As Churchill noted in the rematch with Germany: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”

  15. RJW says


    I was being sarcastic, the comment wasn’t to be taken literally.


    “he probably needs to raise his game.’—agreed, whatever the Prof’s credentials as an historian, his comments quoted above, appear to be somewhat confused.

  16. Nick Gotts says

    Smokey Dusty, RFW,

    Arguing about why Canada, Australia and New Zealand took part in WWI is pointless, because none of them had a choice. Until the 1931 Statute of Westminster none of them were sovereign states: when the UK declared war, they were automatically at war as well.

    I can’t see anything wrong with what Evans is quoted as saying. I’ve just read Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about the origins of WWI, and it’s quite clear from that, that the Kaiser was extremely indecisive, and that the decision to go to war was by no means his alone – indeed Clark identifies the absence of clear lines of responsibility for foreign policy in Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary as contributing considerably to the outbreak of war.

    It’s also necessary to distinguish between why the various states went to war, and the war aims they then formulated. According to Clark, Germany and Austria-Hungary wanted to confine the war to a straight fight between the latter and Serbia (German backing for Austria-Hungary was intended to deter Russia from intervening) – and Austria-Hungary was quite right in believing that the assassinations in Sarajevo were planned high up in the Serbian state (in fact, by the head of Serbian Military Intelligence). Once a full-scale great power war became practically inevitable, with Russian mobilization, the Germans did declare war on Russia and France, violate Belgian neutrality, and (along with all the other main participants) did formulate very expansionist war aims. But although he doesn’t make this fully explicit, Clark’s account places more responsibility for the full-scale war on the Entente powers than on Germany and Austria-Hungary: the pre-war governing elites of Serbia, Russia and France all had central foreign policy aims that could only be achieved in the context of a general European war; those of Germany and Austria-Hungary did not. British policy-makers were afraid that if they stayed out, whichever side won would be strong enough to threaten the Empire.

  17. RJW says

    @ Nick Gotts,

    “Arguing about why Canada, Australia and New Zealand took part in WWI is pointless, because none of them had a choice. Until the 1931 Statute of Westminster none of them were sovereign states: when the UK declared war, they were automatically at war as well.”

    Rather too legalistic, if any of those countries had decided to opt out, there wasn’t anything the British government could, or would do about it. The degree to which any of those Dominions participated in the war was really up to them, for example, despite British pressure, Australians voted against conscription for WW1 in national referendums. They participated in the war because of loyalty to the Empire, not because the British government compelled them to do so, and I’m sure the situation was similar in the other Dominions.

    It wasn’t the 18th century, do you think that the UK government would have routinely exercised its legislative rights against the wishes of any Dominion? They hadn’t forgotten how tetchy ‘Colonials” could be if provoked.

    The Statute of Westminster was a face saving exercise that recognised the political reality.

  18. freemage says

    When we talk about “a German victory” in WWI, what exactly are we suggesting:

    1: That everyone stayed out of the little Balkan feud and Germany helped A-H beat down the Serbs?
    2: That Britain stayed out, and so Germany claimed the territory that it felt was its right after opting to invade Belgium, France and Russia?
    3: That the U.S. stayed out, and this resulted in a German victory over Russia, France AND Britain? (Here, frankly, it seems more likely that things would’ve wound down to an ugly, bitter armistice, with no one leaving happy, but everyone tired of fighting. The Germans probably would end up with a chunk of Belgium, at most.)
    4: That somehow the Germans beat the official line-up completely?

    It’s just too much speculation. Beyond the “No Hitler, no Holocaust” element, you just can’t guess how things would’ve worked out differently with any accuracy–just too many damned variables. (For instance, without WWI, do we get a full-blown Russian Revolution against the Tsar at all? Or does it unfold more along the lines of the slow erosion of the monarchies of Europe, with the royal family slowly becoming figureheads [but not martyrs]?)

  19. Nick Gotts says

    That’s a reasonable point, but at the same time, discussing the issue without noticing that, legally, the dominions were at war as soon as Britain declared it, ignores an important part of the reality of the time. To have said “Oh no, we’re not” would have been impossible without leaving the Empire, and while British leaders would not have sent troops, they would certainly have punished such “disloyalty” economically.

  20. Nick Gotts says

    Your (2) and (3) are the only feasible ones, I think. In both cases, the result would have been a German-dominated Europe, but it’s hard to see further than that. I disagree with your suggestion that (3) would have led to (effectively) a draw. Recall that the Central Powers had already defeated Russia, and Germany’s summer 1918 offensive came close to succeeding. Without American financial and logistical support (American troops didn’t arrive in numbers until after the crisis had passed, although the knowledge that they were on their way was important), it probably would have succeeded, France would have had to sue for peace, and Britain to withdraw the BEF. But conversely, if it had nonetheless failed, it might well have left Germany so weakened that the Entente powers would have won, particularly as Turkey and Bulgaria were nearing defeat.

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