Hodder History Expert Blog

Is Niall Ferguson right about Britain’s role in The First World War and how we should teach it?
By Dean Evans
25 Feb
Whilst reading BBC History’s latest issue covering (or should I say plugging) Niall Ferguson’s new TV series, The Pity of War, it got me thinking about how I teach the start and causes of The First World War to my year 9 and 13 groups. Furthermore, how would Gove react to such a statement (from a leading historian who had backed his history curriculum reforms only last year) since he has been attacking such ‘left-wing’ teaching of Britain’s role in the war?

The Guardian (oops – already showed a ‘leftie’ side there – sorry Gove) nicely summed up Ferguson’s point:

In an interview with BBC History Magazine, Ferguson said there had been no immediate threat to Britain, which could have faced a Germany-dominated Europe at a later date on its own terms, instead of rushing in unprepared, which led to catastrophic costs.

Further to that, and alluding to the title of his series and book, Ferguson firmly states: 'We should not think of this as some great victory or dreadful crime, but more as the biggest error in modern history.' How do I teach the causes and origins of the war? I fleet between a different theory each year from Lloyd George’s ‘Europe slipped into war’ school of thought and the Fischer Theory. Nothing revolutionary there! But when I compare that to Ferguson’s view, I realise I might be guilty of downplaying Britain’s involvement. I don’t think I portray Britain as some Arthurian protector of England against the German dragon, but when I teach ‘Imperialism’ as a theme to analyse and prioritise, Germany seems to get the focus from me as the instigating power against Europe.

Our year 9 students do not study industrialisation and empire prior to the year, so do not come having an expansive knowledge of any British atrocities or demanding foreign policy. To them, they come seeing Britain as a small power as it stands today – ‘the little train that could’ – or as the Kaiser put it, ‘a contemptible little army’. Our year 13s who engage in the From Kaiser to Fuhrer A2 course must for the sake of the exam, test theories of German accountability for causing the world war. Britain and indeed Russia’s important roles are side lined as an additional research task. The controversy question, of which we know will be in their exam, must deal explicitly with German responsibility, whether accidental or not. Ferguson is a controversial historian and perhaps I should not worry too much, but his point still resonates with me, especially as I have a British propaganda poster with ‘Remember Belgium. Enlist today’ right in front of my desk. Am I unintentionally selling the heroic version of Britain’s reasons for going to war too?

In an article in The Daily Mail, Gove recently attacked 'left wing academics all too happy to feed those myths [of war being a shambles] by attacking Britain's role in the conflict.' Gove calling it a ‘just war’ echoes the jingoistic rhetoric of the Edwardian government in 1914 and serves no help for discussing causation with students today. Yes – it’s one idea of why Britain went to war. But just one of many that deserve to be heard. Just because a government said it was just, doesn’t make it so. Any good history student knows to always question a source like that. Perhaps Gove should brush up on his source skills. Politics cannot get in the way of teaching history. In light of Ferguson’s ideas and Gove’s attack on the topic, I have made a new year’s resolution to certainly spend more time thinking and planning anew for the following academic year, when I pose the same question to my new class, ‘OK, gents; what caused the outbreak of war?’
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