David Priestland at the Financial Times:
In January 2014 Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, opened the centenary year of the first world war in typically belligerent style, with a full-frontal attack on the “myth” that the conflict was a “misbegotten shambles — a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite”. This falsehood was propagated, he claimed, by various guilty parties — from the authors of Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder to “leftwing academics”. “Leftwing academics” duly returned fire, and Gove came in for a drubbing in the liberal press.
Yet to be fair to Gove, he was simply echoing, albeit rather crudely, the work of academic historians. Hew Strachan and others have for some time been challenging the “lions led by donkeys” view of the war, championed by AJP Taylor in the bracingly anti-elitist 1960s. For Strachan, the British fought a necessary war against an illiberal and militaristic Germany. Nor does Taylor’s stress on callous elitism and aristocratic arrogance find much favour in Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers — one of the most important books of the centenary season. For Clark, all of Europe’s rulers, including Britain’s, were blameworthy, but it is their myopic misreadings of international politics, not their aristocratic values, that he sees as culpable.