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Were we really the goodies in World War I?

The centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War have made an ominous start.

A new £2 coin has been issued. Its design reproduces the famous Kitchener, "Your Country Needs You", poster. It's hardly an appropriate choice. This iconic piece of propaganda has usually been regarded as symbolic of the jingoism dressed up as patriotic duty which persuaded millions to sacrifice themselves in a wholly unnecessary, brutal war.

Other images might have been used. Some have suggested a poppy or the fields of crosses from the military cemeteries or the nurse Edith Cavell. But no, instead it's the notorious call-to-arms which features on the new coin.

There are some though who welcome the design - those currently seeking to recast our ideas about the Great War.

Revisionism is an integral part of history. No sooner has one view of an event been established than critiques are made, new interpretations presented. It's right that existing hypotheses should be subject to constant scrutiny especially as research is done and new evidence comes to light. But chauvinist prejudices are no basis for historical judgements.

Until fairly recently, the First World War has generally been thought of as an unmitigated disaster. The Great Powers stumbled ineptly into a terrible, pointless conflict which brought tragic loss and suffering to tens of millions.

Now there's an attempt by the likes of the Education Minister, Michael Gove, and the right-wing historian and columnist, Max Hastings, to present it differently. Kitchener's message was right. Britons went to war to defend British democracy and British liberal values against the aggressive militarism of the Kaiser. It was a just war and Britain was on the side of the good.

Really? In the Britain of 1914, not only was there no female suffrage but barely 40% of working class men had the vote. In fact, at that time, Britain had one of the narrowest suffrages in the western world. In the worldwide empire the British had created through wars of conquest, anyone with a black or brown skin had hardly any rights at all.

By 1914, Britain was wracked by political discontent and social upheaval. The civil disobedience of the suffragettes, violent strikes, Ireland on the brink of civil war - for many in the ruling elite, the war must have come as almost a welcome distraction from all these domestic ills.

And if Britain was leading a liberal crusade, we had some strange bedfellows with allies like the Tsarist autocracy of Russia and the xenophobic dictatorship of Japan.

Nor was Germany in 1914 the proto-fascist state some Great War revisionists would have us believe. It did not espouse any ideology of racial superiority. It had a social insurance scheme a generation before Britain attempted to put something similar in place. Its education system was far superior to ours. Its Reichstag was as effectual (or ineffectual) as the UK Parliament. Its majority political party, the Social Democrats, was the biggest left-wing movement in the whole of Europe. They may have supported the outbreak of war but so too did the Labour Party.

The Kaiser's political blundering, Germany's miscalculations in its economic and military rivalry with Britain and its mishandling of foreign affairs may all have contributed to war but real historians should leave stories about Evil Ones and orc/hun hordes to fantasy writers like Tolkien.

Right-wingers like Gove and Hastings seek to wrap themselves in any available Union Jack, even one that is bloody and tattered. It will be unforgiveable if they seek to make political capital out of the centenary. Worse still will be any attempt by the No side in the Scottish referendum to use the commemorations as a rallying call to preserve the UK.

We should remember the Great War for the tragedy it was, a tragedy which led directly to further catastrophes like bolshevism, fascism, nazism and the holocaust. It should be marked solemnly and sorrowfully. That's the best way to honour all of its victims, the German as much as the British. It's not an occasion for flag-waving of any sort.

That £2 coin was badly misjudged. Let's hope it doesn't set the pattern for the months ahead.

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