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Over the top: the battle over the anniversary of WWI

John Bell

February 1, 2014

April will mark the 100th anniversary of WWI. That is when Stephen Harper and his army of historical revisionists will commence their battle to claim that imperialist slaughter as a good and just war.
Harper will have allies. Right-wing governments in Britain and Australia are also hard at work gearing up the celebration of war. The trick will be to separate “Empire” from “imperialism.” “Empire” was good guys bringing civilization and democracy to the world, and by a wonderful coincidence the goods guys were mostly English speaking white people. By no coincidence at all, these governments are all in the midst of austerity drives, slashing services in order to deliver tax cuts to the 1% corporate elite. Tories seldom admit it, but believe that the growing gap of income inequality is a good thing.
Occasionally the mask will slip. The ever loathsome Kevin O’Leary thinks the fact that just 85 billionaires have wealth equal to half of the human race is “fantastic.” Evidently our envy for our betters should motivate us to join their ranks. To suggest that income inequality is a problem is to engage in “class warfare.” San Francisco-based high tech capitalist Tom Perkins recently wrote to the Wall Street Journal to “call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich.’” Warfare good, class warfare bad! Talk about going over the top.
Rehabilitating WWI
Which brings us back to the impending celebration of WWI. Like the millions wasted on commemorating the War of 1812, this new anniversary will try to accomplish two goals: to whip up unquestioning patriotism; and to define Canada as a “warrior nation.” We don’t have to look far to know what to expect as the celebration of slaughter heads to a climax in April, 2017, the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge.
In April of last year, Tory propagandists dug up a blog post by Alexandre Boulerice, written back in 2007 before he was elected to parliament as an NDP MP. In it Boulerice called WWI “a purely capitalist war on the backs of workers and peasants.”  Vimy Ridge, rather than the defining moment of national character, was when “thousands of poor wretches were slaughtered to take possession of a hill.” He couldn’t have been more accurate. For most of the intervening 100 years there has been broad consensus–among participants, observers and historians alike–that the war which claimed over 16 million lives was a brutal, inhuman waste, a war in service of nothing more noble than imperialist competition.
But facts didn’t stop Harper and his party attacking Boulerice and attempting to rehabilitate WWI. Tory spokesman Fred DeLorey called Vimy Ridge “a battle that forged our national identity and marked the beginning of our proud nation.” It seems that to tell the truth about WWI is “to denigrate and disrespect the legacy of those who served, sacrificed and gave their lives in the defence of freedom and democracy during World War I.”
War for democracy?
Let’s be clear. World War I was not a war for democracy or freedom. Arguably, the most democratic nation involved in the slaughter was Germany, where every adult male had a vote. More, the German Social Democratic Party was an openly socialist party with millions of members, and in 1912 it gained more votes than any other party. By contrast, 40 per cent of British adult males were denied the vote in 1914. Only following the war, in an attempt to forestall a rising mood of rebellion, was universal male suffrage granted. With the advent of war absolute press censorship was imposed. Elections due in 1915 were simply cancelled, and a non-elected coalition government installed. In Canada, adult males of British descent were granted the vote. But provinces were free to impose restrictions and conditions on other immigrant communities. As for First Nations, men living on reserves were denied the vote entirely while those living off reserve had to own property to qualify.
As the war dragged on enthusiasm waned, so did recruitment. Tory PM Robert Borden was forced to impose conscription in 1917, to replace the more than 10,000 casualties taken at Vimy Ridge. The draft was unpopular across the country, especially in Quebec where it was greeted with mass protests. Fearing electoral defeat, Borden used his parliamentary majority to force through electoral “reforms” that took away the right to vote from groups considered likely to be anti-Tory–like conscientious and religious war objectors. And they temporarily granted the vote to some women–the wives and relatives of men living or dead who served in the military. As well, any immigrants from “enemy” nations were denied the vote. Especially in the west, tens of thousands Canadian citizens lost their democratic rights with the stroke of a pen.
War against veterans
So don’t buy the coming wave of crap that will claim WWI is war for freedom and democracy. And don’t buy the nonsense that todays Tories are standing up for veterans. Look no further than the savage budget cuts to veterans’ health and social services. Witness the insults Tory Minister Julian Fantino dumped on veterans when they dared to speak out. And witness the tragic wave of suicides by vets, traumatized by their participation in pointless wars, all but abandoned by their government.
In 2006, British PM Tony Blair tried to stage a photo op with Harry Patch, the last surviving WWI vet. Harry told Blair: “Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder.” Blair fled.
Who are you going to believe about WWI: Stephen Harper or Harry Patch?

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