The proliferation of TV programmes about war and the military in recent months is enough to make one wonder whether this is a conscious attempt by the TV authorities to satiate the appetites of those who have become so twisted by capitalist society that violence is a way of life. Whatever, their latest offering—(BBC2, Mondays 7 pm, starting 11 November) —was an appalling example of the genre.
All the tricks used by bourgeois historians to account for—and justify—war were present in abundance. What was lacking was hard-headed analysis that actually fitted the facts. Frankly, when a large part of the historical analysis proffered in a series is given by such professional reactionaries as Norman Stone
and Niall Ferguson,
you know where the programme-makers’ priorities are likely to lie at the very start. The fact that the series started on Armistice Day, when the patriots and nationalists of the British Legion organise a two minutes’ silence to remember the past crimes of the British ruling class, only served to confirm this impression. 1914-18,
still ongoing at the time of going to press, is a series for dewey- eyed old soldiers who still proudly parade the pieces of metal they were given to put on their chest for killing people in other countries just like themselves for nothing that had anything to do with either of them.
As even the Guardian’s
TV critic admitted, the attempt to explain the cause of the First World War in this programme was woeful. For those who believe in some sort of innate German militarism it will have served to confirm their prejudices. but the real reason for the war—Germany’s late entrance into the imperialist scramble and its desire, along with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to extend its economic influence—was almost entirely ignored. Instead we were treated to stereotypical commentaries on the German ‘‘national character” and portraits of the great leaders of the day, presumably on the grounds that this was likely to prove insightful into the whole affair. We were informed, for instance, that the Russian Tsar was ‘’puny” and that—most fascinating and importantly of all— the French Socialist Party leader Jean Jaurès
had a rather wide back, “rather like that of a peasant”. The only mildly noteworthy fact to be mentioned in all of this for anybody who wasn’t already aware of it was the Black Nobility link between the various royal houses ostensibly involved in the war—the Kaiser, for example, was both Queen Victoria’s grandson and the cousin of Tsar Nicolas II.
The programme’s obsession with Jaurès was particularly odd and its only apparent virtue was that it fitted in with the Great Man Theory of History so beloved by bourgeois historians past and present. According to this programme, Jaurès’s assassination just before the outbreak of the war was a significant event which broke any likely resistance from the working class to the conflict. This is, at best, sheer fantasy. The International Socialist Bureau (Second International) had long signalled its willingness to take sides if war came. Indeed, as early as 1896 the ISB had signalled its belief in the primacy of national interests over class interests when a resolution was passed supporting the right to “national self- determination”. Allied with this, most of the leaders of the Second International were prepared to support a “defensive” war. It therefore was no surprise at all in 1914 when the French Socialist Party supported France’s war on its German aggressor, or that the largest nominally socialist party in the world, the German SPD, supported its own ruling class in its ‘defensive’ war against backward, semi-feudal Russia. In Britain, Henry Hyndman’s British Socialist Party and Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party both took sides with the British capitalists, while the Socialist Labour Party wavered before coming out against the conflict.
It is very unlikely indeed, given all that has already been noted about it, that 1914-18 will mention that the only political organisation in Britain to unequivocally oppose the war was the Socialist Party, making plain the real economic causes of the conflict. And if it continues with its theme that WWI was a battle between peace-loving and democratic Britain against German militarism and autocracy we might like to remind them of what real socialists were saying at the time about that most benevolent of social groupings, the British ruling class, when all the fake socialists rallied to their flag:
This Government, the ‘defenders of freedom, the upholders of justice and right”, endorsed martial law, the denial of all liberty and the firing on defenceless crowds in South Africa, batoned 700 men in Dublin, turned out the military against YOU at Belfast, Llanelly, Leith, the Rhondda Valley and elsewhere; they callously refused to give underfed children sufficient food; they mock with pretty words but cynical, brutal inaction, the condition of the ever growing army of unemployed; they have sanctioned wholesale imprisonment, exile and butchery in India, Persia, Egypt and the New Hebrides, and allied themselves with the infamies perpetrated in Russia and Japan: in a word they reek with lying pretence and self-satisfied pharasaism, for in very truth, they are the ever willing tools of autocracy, capitalism and class rule everywhere.” (SPGB leaflet. The Call of the Patriot, February 1916)