A new poll shows that 62% of respondents said that the centenary of the First World War should be an occasion for ‘remembrance of loss of life and national reflection’, whereas only 23% preferred a commemoration of victory over Germany. So, at this moment, it is almost three to one against Max Hastings, Michael Gove, The Daily Mail, and other flag-waving jingoes on the lessons of the First World War.
This is what they hate. Here is an argument that the Left won in 1918, when a wave of revolution brought the First World War to an end, partly in revulsion at the carnage in the trenches, partly in response to privation at home, partly in disgust at a ruling elite of imperialists and profiteers.
Why does this matter so much? Perhaps because what happened in 1918 represented a sea-change in popular attitudes to war. The first modern industrialised war had consumed millions of citizen-conscript soldiers in four years of apocalyptic destruction. War was no longer something painted on the tops of biscuit tins. It was a visceral reality in millions of homes torn apart by grief and hunger.
Popular hatred of war – and, to an extent, of the nationalism and imperialism that breed it – became commonsense politics for working-class people in the interwar period. It is with us still, having fed into several great upsurges of anti-war protest in the post-war period – against nuclear weapons in the early 1960s, against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, against cruise missiles in the 1980s, and against the War on Terror from 2001.
History matters because it is about the present. Our rulers know this. That is why they are determined to refight the ideological battles of 1914-1918. Damaged by Iraq, ground down in Afghanistan, defeated over Syria, the jingoistic right are determined to rewrite the history of the First World War in an effort to rehabilitate imperialist war in the early 21st century. Their arguments are crass, and, the polls suggest, most people know it.