First World War
As skirmishing over the approaching centenary of the First World War begins, we turn for guidance to the leading British historian of the day. I refer not to Dr David Starkey, the headline-grabbing Niall Ferguson, or the KFC heir Andrew Roberts. Splendid as the above are, none compares in scholarship and intellect to Maria Miller, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
Ms Miller may have no interest in culture, know little of the workings of the media, and not be especially interested in sport. We all have our blind spots, and Ms Miller's should be set against the brilliance of her insight into the First World War, the commemoration of which she will oversee if she somehow survives the next reshuffle.
The thing about the war that ravaged this continent from 1914- 1918, she observed this week with the sort of carefully weighted analysis to which Twitter is so ideally suited, is that it "ensured Europe could continue to be a set of countries which were strong". Oh, but didn't it, though? This is exactly what they said in Weimar Germany, as they steered the wheelbarrows overflowing with bank notes through the streets in the hope that 177bn marks would be enough for half a loaf.
"My dear Dieter," one would say to another (I translate loosely) as their barrows came to a halt in the bakery queue, "I never thought I would say this, what with losing my four sons at the Somme, but mit hindsight the war was a truly excellent thing. For it ensured that not only the Fatherland but all the countries of Europe could continue to be strong. Who knows, perhaps Herr Hitler will make us stronger yet?"
With this curious implication that the war was a pan-European endeavour to entrench democracy and lasting peace, you can at once discern a cultural influence on what we will dignify as Ms Miller's thinking. Here, she was clearly sampling Nol Coward's Don't Let's Be Beastly To The Germans, which he wrote in 1943 with victory in the Second World War in sight. Ms Miller's implicit plea that we avoid taking sides over who was to blame for the First comes in different circumstances, and the Government understandably wishes to suffocate any nascent Hun-bashing in the womb.
You do not kick your richest and most powerful allies in the balls, as Harold Wilson almost put it when berated for not taking a stronger anti-Vietnam line. Any Jingoistic celebrations would further inflame hostilty towards the EU that Germany has come to dominate, and do nothing to help whoever is Prime Minister after the next election win the referendum on membership. Given all this, the multitude and complexity of the forces that drove Europe to war in 1914 are a boon to Ms Miller and her boss, since they seemingly leave room for moral equivalence between the protagonists.
When the time comes to commemorate the Second World War, it will be hard not to be beastly to the Germans, since no one in their right mind disputes the casus belli or the justice of Britain's involvement. It's all a long time ago, and let's put it behind us (though God knows how, to continue lifting from Basil Fawlty, the bastards). I mentioned it in print once, and thought I had got away with it. …