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The First World War: There Are Not Two Sides To Every Story

08/08/2014 15:36 BST | Updated 07/10/2014 10:59 BST

The "balance fallacy" in the commemorations of the First World War means we forget the real reason millions died.

"There are two sides to every story and this is my side. The true side." said Emma Stone at the beginning of the (highly underrated) teen comedy "Easy A".

The mantra that "there are two sides to every story" is embodied to a fault in the anniversary coverage of the First World War. This is dangerous. January's controversy about the origins of the war has been smoothed over with references to "complexity". Every mention of tragedy is mitigated by the platitude that "no one" was expecting the nature of the war. Apparently it was no one's fault.

Except that it was. To say that the slaughter was senseless and some were more to blame than others isn't to ignore the complexity of diplomatic and military history. Sometimes history is not balanced. Sometimes the merits of one side of the argument so monumentally outweigh the other that the imbalance must be acknowledged.

In a History Today blog in January I said that the study of history is the search, not for truth but, for understanding. But the belief that the sun orbits the earth does little to advance one's understanding of the solar system.

Understanding history is important because history is inherently political. Imagine historians agree that "A happened, therefore B action was taken and C was the catastrophic result". The next time A happens we, as a voting public, will be understandably skeptical of anyone who suggests doing B or of anything suggested by the people who suggested B in the first place.

This creates a problem for those original decision makers (or their political descendants) who don't wish to lose power. Or if doing B again remains in the interests of certain powerful groups despite its catastrophic consequences for society in general.

There's a fable amongst lawyers about the Harvard Civil Procedure professor who tells his students: "If the facts are on your side argue the facts, if the law is on your side argue the law and if neither the facts nor the law are on your side bang your fist down on the defence table and make enough noise until everyone forgets you're in the wrong." If you want history to forget how you screwed up, create enough contradictory accounts that it looks like a debate with "no right answer" rather than a cataclysmic failure of judgment. Create legitimacy with noise rather than academic rigour.

The First World War is just such an issue. Naomi Klein argues that to understand suffering we should look for who benefits from it. Whether or not the First World War was inevitable, it was not necessary for Britain to intervene. Britain had ignored guarantees identical to that (to Belgium) which its leaders insisted must be honoured. Germany, France and Russia had fought each other multiple times over the preceding century without the need for Britain to intervene.

Similarly it is simply wrong to say that no one could have predicted the slaughter. The American Civil War and Crimean War both saw dynamic tactics lead to thousands of deaths in the face of modern weapons (it shouldn't take a genius to reason that if the bolt action rifle could cause such damage then to try the same thing against machine guns would be suicide). Indeed Bertrand Russell was eloquently describing the dangers at the time.

So who benefitted from Britain's involvement in the First World War? Those with a financial and political interest in Britain's status as a world power. This was certainly not the majority of British people. The wealth of empire was effectively controlled by a small elite. But those with an interest in maintaining the effective monopolies that were the result of Britain's policy of excluding other states from swathes of Africa and the Middle East and those who's political legitimacy rested on maintaining their status as leaders of empire had much to lose from staying out of the war and much to gain from sending others to fight. For their political and commercial gain over a million of their own people died.

This is not to say that there is some sort of conspiracy or cover up. Reality is more subtle. But members of an elite see their interests lie in obfuscating the historical record of a time when that elite (with different members) failed. So they write conflicting accounts. If these happen to rely more on xenophobia and exaggeration than actual history it doesn't matter.

This is important because nothing has changed. We may not have seen the sheer scale of the devastation of the First World War repeated recently, but the issues remain the same. Financial and political elites still sacrifice the interests of the majority for the benefit of themselves. Sometimes this means war (180 killed in Iraq so that KBR and Dick Cheney's Halliburton can make millions), sometimes it just means local misery (David Clapson starving to death so David Cameron and Ian Duncan Smith can get to votes of Daily Mail readers). Forgetting history may not doom us to repeat it but misunderstanding it surely will.