‘When Will They Learn?’ by Alun Thomas

Each new year comes with old arguments, newly packaged. 2014 is the centenary of the First World War and a chance for this conflict, often overlooked in favour of World War Two, to receive more of the attention it still deserves. Some of this attention has become conflated with a contemporary political debate regarding the proper teaching of history in schools, with Michael Gove and Simon Schama included in a bloodless discussion on Radio 4 alongside historians of the conflict. Karina Urbach has written an elegant response to this very British disagreement from a German perspective.

From Prospect Magazine

I’ve no interest in dragging this matter on to the SLC blog. It strikes me as another ‘national debate’ which was simultaneously half-baked and stale before it was even taken out of the oven. Most dispiriting of all was the immediate decision of journalists who associate themselves with either the political left or right to respectively attack or defend ‘narrative history’. No presentation of history can be monopolised by a political movement.

But another radio news feature did capture my attention, this time in relation to the late Harry Patch, ‘the last Tommy’ who fought in WWI. Patch passed away in 2009, but extracts of his final interviews have been used to offer us some contemporary connection with a war which began one hundred years ago. His gravelly voice, which confirmed his extended years, gave weight to his sentiments. Regarding the political leaders of Europe, past and present, the veteran preferred to ask a question: ‘When will they learn?’

There’s a populist, anti-political feel to Patch’s words which surely chimed with many listeners. The UK is still embroiled in unsuccessful foreign battles which enjoy far less popular support than WWI did. When indeed will they learn? The question feels vital and profound.

In light of the slew of recently-published books which offer assessments of WWI a century on (comprehensively reviewed by Bronwen Maddox in Prospect Magazine), however, Patch is very definitely aligning himself with a particular presentation of history. In highlighting the ignorance which ‘they’ exhibit, he implies that political and military leaders had the power and perception necessary to avoid mass bloodshed. Some historians are comfortable with this idea, but others prefer to discuss far greater, long-standing trends in European and world history which would have led millions to die regardless of any personal intent.

The matter of individual autonomy in history perhaps lends itself less obviously to political point-scoring. I don’t suppose it suits politicians, civil servants or journalists to emphasise their predecessors’ own powerlessness in the face of vast impersonal forces of whatever kind. Yet with all due respect to Patch and his comrades who were rightfully idolized in their final years, we could spend 2014 asking bigger questions than ‘when will they learn?’, though if different answers to these questions come with tedious predictability from left and right, we may have to wait for another centenary to learn anything new.

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2 Responses to ‘When Will They Learn?’ by Alun Thomas

  1. Ruthie says:

    This is a really interesting post Alun and surely something that is going to be discussed interminably this year. I do see your argument but (playing Devil’s Advocate to some extent) I would like to disagree with you. The understanding I have of your argument is that discussing the agency of the people who lead countries into war is a moot point, given that there is always a combination of controllable and uncontrollable factors that propel history.
    My point to counter this would be that your argument misses the human element to the situation. For many of the former political prisoners that I study, the ability to stand up and contradict the various interpretations of history gives the ordinary person a chance to express their frustration and essentially their dissent. I view Patch’s ‘When will they learn?’ as a stand that any person can take and perhaps a matter of personal comfort that lies outside of the historical debate on the matter. Perhaps the reason that you found the Gove/Schama debate so bloodless, while finding Patch’s statement vital, is that the ability to express this kind of dissent is really where the passion of politics and of history lies.

    • Alun says:

      Is it the alleviation of personal frustrations or the agency of individuals which lends Patch’s question its utility? His intervention may help us all resolve our emotional relationship with the past, but does it constitute real influence?

      Until the matter of any individual’s control over global affairs is at least addressed, the matter of our politicians’ failings is precisely a moot point.

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