Posts Tagged ‘Imperial War Museum’

History tells us not to trust GCHQ’s Robert Hannigan

12/11/2014, 09:54:09 AM

by Sam Fowles

When it reopened in March after a ¬£40m revamp the Imperial War Museum was applauded for it’s “judicious choice of […] fascinating, and frequently heartbreaking, exhibits”. So when I visited last week I was looking forward to a nuanced and informative account of Britain’s conflicts since 1914. But I was disappointed. The exhibition, as a whole, often presented a one sided and, at times, inaccurate view of history.

The cards telling the stories of the individual tanks, planes and boats were, themselves, fascinating and informative. What was worrying was the story that the IWM wove around them. Displayed on giant notice boards putting exhibits in context, this was a peculiarly conservative account of history. The exhibit on the early years of the war told us that Britain increased arms production in the late 1930s, but not that the Chamberlain government delayed this despite the repeated warnings of the Labour opposition, military leaders and their own backbenchers. The exhibit on MI5 told us all about the targeting of Communists and Fascists (simple “villains” we can all identify) during the interwar years. But it omitted that the security services had also spied on Trade Unions and the Labour movement and masterminded the Zinoviev letter (a plot to ensure that Labour lost the 1924 general election by implicating them in an – imaginary – communist coup).

The exhibition captures the individual horrors and heroisms of war with aplomb but refuses to acknowledge that war itself is the result of the (often self interested) decisions of those in power.

Why is this important? Surely the notice boards are just there to provide a small amount of information, not to pursue a political agenda?

But it could not be more important. The way we understand our history defines the way we understand ourselves as a nation and our history is under threat. Michael Gove’s attempts to eliminate historical debate from the National Curriculum, use of the bully pulpit to condemn interpretations of history which the government doesn’t like and commemorations of the First World War which eschew analysis for incoherent national “mourning” all teach us to accept a sanitised view of “historical fact”. We should be questioning and debating. Control of history has always been an ambition of despots. It should not be the goal of democratic governments.

Charles De Gaulle rebuilt France after the Second World War with the help of the “resistance myth” – the idea that France as a nation had resisted Nazi occupation, conveniently forgetting the mass collaboration of the Vichy regime. De Gaulle’s willingness to ignore history helped him unite his country. But ultimately deep fissures in French society, based on race, fear and authoritarian leanings, were papered over rather than healed and still divide France today.

This is not just an argument of vague aphorisms. We can’t learn from the mistakes of the past if we allow them to be forgotten. The security services willingness to spy on and sabotage peaceful social movements that challenged the (Conservative) establishment in the 1920s and ’30s could not be more relevant. Last¬†week the director of GCHQ (backed by the Prime Minister) demanded we sacrifice privacy and trust him to protect us from “terrorists”.

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