It's time to commemorate the First World War, but don't let's be beastly to the Germans, says Ms Miller

Culture secretary Maria Miller's had an interesting insight into the First World War, the commemoration of which she'll oversee if she somehow survives the next reshuffle

Share

As skirmishing over the approaching centenary of the First World War begins, we turn for guidance to the leading British historian of the day. I refer not to Dr David Starkey, the headline-grabbing Niall Ferguson, or the KFC heir Andrew Roberts. Splendid as the above are, none compares in scholarship and intellect to Maria Miller, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Ms Miller may have no interest in culture, know little of the workings of the media, and not be especially interested in sport. We all have our blind spots, and Ms Miller’s should be set against the brilliance of her insight into the First World War, the commemoration of which she will oversee if she somehow survives the next reshuffle.

The thing about the war that ravaged this continent from 1914-1918, she observed this week with the sort of carefully weighted analysis to which Twitter is so ideally suited, is that it “ensured Europe could continue to be a set of countries which were strong”. Oh, but didn’t it, though? This is exactly what they said in Weimar Germany, as they steered the wheelbarrows overflowing with bank notes through the streets in the hope that 177bn marks would be enough for half a loaf.

“My dear Dieter,” one would say to another (I translate loosely) as their barrows came to a halt in the bakery queue, “I never thought I would say this, what with losing my four sons at the Somme, but mit hindsight the war was a truly excellent thing. For it ensured that not only the Fatherland but all the countries of Europe could continue to be strong. Who knows, perhaps Herr Hitler will make us stronger yet?”

With this curious implication that the war was a pan-European endeavour to entrench democracy and lasting peace, you can at once discern a cultural influence on what we will dignify as Ms Miller’s thinking. Here, she was clearly sampling Noël Coward’s Don’t Let’s Be Beastly To The Germans, which he wrote in 1943 with victory in the Second World War in sight. Ms Miller’s implicit plea that we avoid taking sides over who was to blame for the First comes in different circumstances, and the Government understandably wishes to suffocate any nascent Hun-bashing in the womb.

You do not kick your richest and most powerful allies in the balls, as Harold Wilson almost put it when berated for not taking a stronger anti-Vietnam line. Any Jingoistic celebrations would further inflame hostilty towards the EU that Germany has come to dominate, and do nothing to help whoever is Prime Minister after the next election win the referendum on membership. Given all this, the multitude and complexity of the forces that drove Europe to war in 1914 are a boon to Ms Miller and her boss, since they seemingly leave room for moral equivalence between the protagonists.

When the time comes to commemorate the Second World War, it will be hard not to be beastly to the Germans, since no one in their right mind disputes the casus belli or the justice of Britain’s involvement. It’s all a long time ago, and let’s put it behind us (though God knows how, to continue lifting from Basil Fawlty, the bastards). I mentioned it in print once, and thought I had got away with it.

But the Germans are still a little touchy on the matter, and for no better reason than some retrospective blue-skies thinking about how the post-Second World War settlement might have been improved – 1) transport every German to sub-Saharan Africa as slave labour; 2) punish the Vichy French by moving them into Germany; and 3) seize France as a holiday home for the British – the German diplomat took umbrage. We met for a rapprochement lunch in a Bayswater restaurant styled after a Bavarian hunting lodge, and despite inexplicably seeming a bit sleep-starved that day (September 13, 2001), he was a charming chap who said that his uncle had been part of a plot to kill Hitler (a claim made by as few as 23 million Germans).

Having learned from that encounter, I stick to the solemn vow taken then never to be beastly to the Germans again. And yet, while the First World War is not as easily understood or morally simplistic as the successor set in train by the actual post-war settlement at Versailles, it would be absurd if the commemoration misrepresented it on Ms Miller’s lines.

Until her tweeted analysis, the most respected historian of the period was S Baldrick, Edmund Blackadder’s Flanders trenchmate, who sourced the First World War to the moment “Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry”. A historian of Ms Miller’s stature might marginally amend that, positing that the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo activated the byzantine range of treaty obligations which led to war. But others will risk her outrage by arguing that Germany had been preparing for war for a couple of years, and that honouring the promise to support Austria against Serbia was a pretext to prosecute an existing plan for European domination.

Even today, there is no rigid consensus over whether the deaths of some 800,000 donkey-led lions was as monumentally pointless as the best poetry of the era suggests, or whether they died in the mud in a just war to safeguard freedom. Many of the more reliable historians believe that they did, however, and it would be a betrayal of their memory and their sacrifice were that argument stifled just to avoid distressing delicate sensibilities in Bonn and Berlin.

If, on the other hand, Ms Miller cleaves to her apparent conviction that the First World War was a six of one, half a dozen of the other affair which blessedly preserved the strength and integrity of European nations – even a kind of proto-EU – she should launch the commemoration next July with a Cowardesque turn at the piano. To this end, I have updated the first two verses of the song, and will supply more as and when required.

 

Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans

When it was all such a long, long time ago.

Let’s finally square the circle,

By being nice to Mrs Merkel

And blame a random death in Sarajevo.

 

It behoves us to surmise a

Better reason than the Kaiser

Wanting to place us under the German thumb.

So let sycophancy flower

’Cause they have all the power

And don’t let’s be beastly to the Hun.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant Plymouth

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: TEACHING ASSISTANTS NEEDED FOR PLYMOU...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Nursery Assistant/Nurse all cheshire areas

£7 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: We are a large and successful recrui...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant We are curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
The Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf heads the inquiry  

Why should Fiona Woolf be expected to remember every dinner date?

Mark Steel
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker