Saturday, 7 March 2015

A few thoughts on Stevan Eldred-Grigg's 'The Great Wrong War'

I read this book very recently, and have been meaning to write a 'proper' review on it for some time. Unfortunately I have too many other projects on the go, so I it might never happen. So instead of a 'proper review' just a few thoughts.

It's a really good book. The writing style is very engaging, I found myself reading it very quickly. Grigg takes a passionate and morally engaged stance, and exposes the dark imperialist underbelly of early twentieth century New Zealand. He covers aspects of the war typically ignored or glossed over by conservative historians: the invasion of Samoa, the appalling treatment of Egyptians by the Anzacs, the blockade of Germany and its effects. There's a really insightful analysis of the class dynamics of the time, and the economic aspects of the war.

I found it very interesting to read the reviews of this book. The negative reviews – and there were quite a few of these – all complained that Grigg was too judgemental or moralistic. Oliver Riddell for example states:

But its title gives it away. This is not an even-handed history. The author despises New Zealand's reasons for joining in the war and despises its leaders as an elite who fought for their own selfish reasons.

He lectures his readers on virtually every page. This hectoring and sneering really grates, in spite of the readable style.

           [….] this book is not so much a war history as a tract.

Does this mean that 'good historians' always reserve their judgements? Do they calmly contemplate the objective facts and even-handedly report on what they find? I wonder how they do this. Somewhere, somehow they become so incredibly enlightened that they find themselves in a nirvana of pure objectivity. From this ideologically untainted and neutral cloud, they wisely construct their historical narratives.

Well …. no. This is bullshit. The cloud does not exist, all historical narratives have some kind of ideology.

Thinking more about this question of 'morally engaged' history, it occurred to me: how could you not respond to history by posing questions about right and wrong? Given the incredibly gruesome toll of the first world war on New Zealand, how could you not pose the question of whether or not it was right for New Zealand to take part?

What if we compare Grigg's supposedly overly judgmental approach to, say, just about any historical study of Nazi Germany. Or Stalin. Or Pol Pot. Or countless other examples of hideous history. Isn't it true that historians make moral judgements about their subjects? Wouldn't it be a bit weird if they didn't?

So why is it somehow inappropriate for Grigg to take a moral stance on world war one?

* * *

There's a really good interview with Grigg, where he takes apart Damien Fenton's book New Zealand and the First World War 1914–1919.

I wonder if he will raise his voice this year sometime around April 25th. I'd sure like to hear it.

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