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A canker of ignorance and bigotry infects the First World War centenary

The firmest supporters of austerity, arms spending, and imperialist war are also enthusiastic cheerleaders for revisionist rewriting of First World War history.

Europe commemoration

First world war commemorations at Douaumont cemetery, Verdun, on the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day - the sort of commemoration Conservative Eurosceptics like MP Bill Cash want to stop.

Tory Eurosceptics have moved to block EU plans to spend £154 million on projects to commemorate the First World War. Veteran anti-Europe MP Bill Cash has used his chairmanship of an influential House of Commons committee to oppose the funding on the basis that it is being used to promote a partial view of the war and to further the cause of EU integration.

These two issues are quite separate. Some European politicians are using the First World War centenary to argue for greater EU integration. This is an abuse of history. Austerity and privatisation are hard-wired into the EU’s internal functioning. It has become a bankers’ club for siphoning wealth from working people and public services in the interests of the super-rich.

Imperialism is also hard-wired into the European project. If NATO is the military arm of Western imperial expansion into Eastern Europe, the EU is the economic arm.

It is precisely this that has created the context for the stand-off between the West and Putin’s Russia over the Ukraine. There are faint echoes here of Imperial Germany’s fears of ‘encirclement’ in 1914. The idea that the EU is a force of world peace is laughable.

But that is not the Tory Eurosceptic argument. They are among the firmest supporters of austerity, arms spending, and imperialist war. Theirs is an argument about the interests of British capitalism, not those of the working people of Europe. And they are also enthusiastic cheerleaders for revisionist rewriting of the history of the First World War.

‘We have to be sure the money is being spent in the right manner,’ says Bill Cash:

‘Max Hastings, Michael Gove, and Boris Johnson all say, “Let’s get it right: Germany started the First World War.” We need to ensure there is no bias in how the money is distributed and that the funds are being used in the appropriate manner. We all want to remember the war, but there should be a proper historical assessment and impartiality in how they decide who will receive the grants.’

That there is a canker of ignorance and bigotry at the heart of Tory Euroscepticism is not news. But the degree to which this sort of thing has infected the official commemorations of the First World War in Britain is notable. A crude anti-German version of the causes of the war has become commonplace.

It dominates the BBC schedules and much other mainstream media reporting. With great fanfare, warmed-up war propaganda of 1914 vintage is being rolled out as cutting-edge historiography, putting wind in the sails of political buffoons like Cash, Gove, and Johnson.

The British Government stands out in Europe for its flag-waving jingoism in relation to the centenary. Most Europeans are more sophisticated.

The superb ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’ on the battlefield of Ypres/Passchendaele in Belgium presents the war as a collective human tragedy which we need to understand. A ‘Path of Peace’ runs along the old trench-lines of the Isonzo Front in Slovenia’s Julian Alps. The twinned towns of Newark in Britain and Emmendingen in Germany plan to recreate the 1914 Christmas Truce football match.

And there is much more: places, exhibits, and events which seek to present the war – causes, course, and consequences – as it really was, and to use the commemoration to foster internationalism and peace.

Anti-war campaigners should support the use of official funding – our money – in ways that help us remember the victims, lament the waste, and learn the lessons.

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