Michael Gove Attacked For 'Blackadder' Comments On 'Left-Wing' Whitewash Of WW1 History

Historians have hit back at Michael Gove's assertions that "left-wing" programmes like Blackadder have whitewashed Germany of blame for World War One, and eradicated national pride in the Great War.

In an extraordinary denunciation, Gove said "left wing academics", and series like the satirical Blackadder, sought to damage patriotism and portray the war as a shambolic game played by a bumbling elite.

Rowan Atkinson as Captain Edmund Blackadder (left) with Tony Robinson as Private Baldrick

The Education Secretary wrote: "Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.

"The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.

"Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths."

The conflict was "plainly a just war" aimed at stopping "the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order".

And it was seen that way by the soldiers who fought, Gove added.

He said Professor Sir Richard Evans, the eminent Cambridge historian, had "attacked the very idea of honouring their sacrifice as an exercise in ‘narrow tub-thumping jingoism’".

On Saturday, Sir Richard said Gove's attack was "ignorant".

“How can you possibly claim that Britain was fighting for democracy and liberal values when the main ally was Tsarist Russia?

"That was a despotism that put Germany in the shade and sponsored pogroms in 1903-6," he told the Independent.

Many on social media also disputed Gove's take on "liberal" Britain fighting an evil enemy.

Others intimated that it was crude to portray criticism of the war as a left-wing take:

Sir Richard also said that, in his view, the Culture Secretary had achieved the right balance, by having "made money available for groups and institutions to mark the war in any way they see fit. That is the right thing to do".

The University of Manchester's Dr Christopher Godden, expert on early twentieth century British history, told HuffPost UK that representations of the war, like Blackadder and Oh! What A Lovely War, could be useful to academics.

"The fact that none of us experienced the horrors of the war means that we are all engaged in a process of ‘historical remembrance’.

"Some historians are interested in understanding the representations [through films such as Oh! What A Lovely War, television programmes such as Blackadder Goes Forth] through which the general public’s views of, and responses to, the war have been constructed.

"Put simply, it is the interactions between culture and memory that reinforces our ‘historical remembrance’ of the First World War.

"This would appear to be part of the issue that Michael Gove is seeking to address in his recent article.

"Yet the representations of the war that we have today reflect complex cultural process that date back many years, and it is too simplistic to single out a few historians, or one or two films or television programmes, for creating ‘misunderstandings’ or ‘misrepresentations’ of the conflict.

"The nature and significance of the First World War cannot be immune to such scrutiny. Yet give the hugely emotive nature of the First World War, it is unlikely that this broad ‘historical remembrance’ is about to undergo any imminent form of reorientation."

Professor Gary Sheffield, Director of Military History in the Centre for War Studies at the University of Birmingham, told Radio 4's World At One that he agreed that comedies like Blackadder should not necessarily be used in schools to teach about the war.

"People do pick up their views on the First World War from shows like Blackadder and Oh! What a Lovely War. I’m a fan of both, but they should not be taken as being documentaries," he said.

The Government is funding a project which will provide the opportunity for two pupils and one teacher from every state funded secondary school in England to participate in battlefield tours of the western front.

More than £50m has been committed to marking the centenary, which will include a service for Commonwealth leaders at Glasgow Cathedral, a candle-lit vigil in Westminster Abbey and an event at the St Symphorien Military Cemetery in Belgium.

Earlier this year, Gove was forced to backdown on a planned overhaul of the history curriculum to make it more sharply focused on British history, rather than on a broader world perspective, after criticism from leading historians, including Sir Richard Evans.