Taking Sides on the Great War

As commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War get underway, Stephen Cooper offers an overview of the often fierce debate among British historians about the conduct and course of the conflict over the last hundred years.

A British recruiting poster, 1916.Though the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is still a few months away, a public debate about its origins, course and legacy has already begun. The early spat, in which the education secretary Michael Gove, his shadow, Tristram Hunt, and the Cambridge Regius Professor of History Richard Evans were prominent, has arguably shed more heat than light, yet it has revealed widespread ignorance of scholarly debate about the war. It is important then at this stage to look at the changing nature of one of the most fascinating and contentious of all historical arguments.

The Conventional Patriotic View

Though Tristram Hunt has  suggested that the debate began with Fritz Fischer’s study Germany’s Aims in the First World War, published in English in 1967, we actually need to start much further back. There was a time when few Britons doubted that the war was a worthy cause. There was widespread hatred and fear of Imperial Germany in Britain in 1914 and many people felt that it was their Christian and patriotic duty to fight the Kaiser. Pro-war sentiment was promoted by Church and state, by the Boy Scouts, Boys’  Brigade, Church Lads’ Brigade and Sea Scouts.

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