WHO STARTED the war? Michael Gove clearly fired the first shot, with a snipe at Blackadder Goes Forth, complaining the television comedy peddled a myth of the First World War as a "misbegotten shambles".
By JOHN LEWIS-STEMPEL
Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered the slaughter of Africans Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered the slaughter of Africans [ALAMY]
Then, from the Labour front bench Tristram Hunt escalated the conflict, launching a full-scale salvo against Gove's "crass" views.
Gove received reinforcement from a piece of heavy artillery, Big Boris. Then Hunt revealed a secret weapon in the shape of actor Tony Robinson, the man who was Baldrick.
The one truly outrageous action in the War of Gove's Tongue went almost unnoticed. This was Hunt's casual use of the F-word. A sometime historian, Hunt excused Germany from sole responsibility for the Great War. Nonetheless he accused it of "fascism".
Surely Kaiser Bill's Germany was not a fascist-type state? Actually, the German imperial regime does tick relevant boxes. Militaristic? Tick. Authoritarian? Tick.
Genocidally racist? Tick.
In fact, there was a holocaust under the Second Reich of the Kaiser just as there was one under the Third Reich of Hitler.
You may not have heard of the Herero and Nama peoples. This is not surprising; the Kaiser almost succeeded in removing them from the face of Earth.
The tragic story of Kaiser Wilhelm II's holocaust against the Herero and Nama begins in 1883 when the German flag was raised on the coast of South-West Africa, the first conquest of Germany's African empire.
Deutsch-S¼dwestafrika (now Namibia) was more than a place in the sun, it was a testing ground for Lebensraum, the German word for living space. The Lebensraum policy of expansion was advocated by the 19th-century German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, who distorted Darwin's theory of evolution to proclaim that migration was necessary for a race's survival.
It was a policy later adopted by the Nazi Party, but back in the 19th century an uncrowded "New Germany" was to be created on African soil. The seizure of land from the Herero and Nama peoples was conveniently alibied by their "inferior" racial status.
The Herero and Nama were not "savages", indeed many Nama were the mixed-race, Christian offspring of earlier Dutch settlers.
After two decades of having their cattle and land stolen by German immigrants the Herero, under their chief Samuel Maharero, revolted. The Berlin government accordingly dispatched Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha and 14,000 soldiers to the insurgent colony in 1904. General Trotha's task was more than subduing the Herero insurrection. He was to conduct a "racial struggle" against them. Trotha announced his programme with chilling clarity: "I believe that the nation [the Herero] as such should be annihilated. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge, which will remain."
After beating the Herero in the battle of Waterberg, Trotha drove the survivors into the pitiless Omaheke desert with the intention they should die from thirst and starvation. Waterholes were poisoned by "cleansing patrols" of the Schutztruppe, the colonial army, to prevent the Herero from using them.
In Berlin the German general staff publicly lauded Trotha for his "extermination" measures. By 1905 Herero fugitives still alive in the Omaheke were too weak to do anything but surrender. They were rounded up, put into cattle wagons and sent by train to concentration camps, where they became slave labour for the colony's new railways.
Women were systematically raped by Schutztruppen, the incidents turned into photographs by the new-fangled Kodak roll-fill camera. The pictures were then sent as pornographic postcards to Germany.
Food was so scarce in the concentration camps that, according to a witness, when rations were distributed, "prisoners fought like wild animals and killed each other to secure a share". Inmates died in nightmarish numbers; after two years the main concentration camp at windswept Shark Island near Luderitz was obliged to close; most of its inhabitants had perished. Even the German soldiers called Shark Island "The Death Camp".
Something more sinister than extermination by starvation occurred at Shark Island however; the prisoners were used in racial "science experiments". The Shark Island camp physician, Dr Bofinger, conducted medical tests that prefigured those of Josef Mengele, the Nazi "Angel of Death", at Auschwitz in the Forties.
In a specious bid to determine whether scurvy, an illness caused by lack of vitamin C, was contagious, Bofinger injected prisoners with arsenic and opium.
Research on cadavers was uncontrolled. According to German medical statistics 778 autopsies were conducted in the concentration camps in one year. Eminent anthropologist Eugen Fischer went to South West Africa to study the phrenology of the Herero and the Nama. Phrenology was a fauxscience that believed mental and psychological characteristics were indicated by head shape.
It was truly skulduggery. More than 3,000 skulls of Herero and Nama were sent to German universities for experimentation; in some cases Herero women were made to boil, and clean with broken glass, the specimen heads of their own people.
history, ww1, kaiser, wilhelm, africa, holocaust, Lothar von Trotha was responsible for a 'racial struggle' [GETTY]
The prisoners were used in racial 'science experiments'
In Germany the skulls were used to prove the similarity between the Nama and anthropoid apes. A sane wing of the German establishment, including the chancellor Bernhard von Bulow, tried to stop the outrages as "contrary to Christian and humanitarian principle". Bulow was also aware that the genocide was damaging to Germany's international reputation. The Daily Express was one of the many British papers that gave the "war" against the Herero coverage.
The Kaiser and the military were largely beyond political control though. Not until 1907 did domestic and international pressure succeed in making the Kaiser call off the holocaust.
Not until 1907 did domestic and international pressure succeed in making the Kaiser call off the holocaust.
By then the Herero population had gone from 100,000 to 15,000 and half of the 10,000-strong Nama had been killed.
A UN report in 1985 judged the German atrocity in Namibia to be the first genocide of the 20th century. Although overt German imperial murder of blacks in Namibia stopped, their persecution was unabated.
In 1912, on the basis of Eugen Fischer's recommendations, interracial marriage was prohibited throughout the German colonies. All Africans over seven years of age were required to carry a token, the so-called "pass mark" around their necks, as a sign of their inferior status.
Fischer's recommendations, interracial marriage was prohibited throughout the German colonies. All Africans over seven years of age were required to carry a token, the so-called "pass mark" around their necks, as a sign of their inferior status.
The links between the Kaiser's holocaust and Hitler's are sobering. The ubiquitous Eugen Fischer taught medicine at the University of Berlin to Nazi physicians; his students included Josef Mengele.
Admirers of Fischer's racist Principles Of Human Heredity And Race Hygiene included Adolf Hitler. The future Fuhrer used the eugenic principles in the book to underpin his dream of a pure Aryan nation in his manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle).
An enthusiastic protagonist in the extermination of the Herero was a Bavarian lieutenant called Franz Epp. He later secured the funding for the Nazis' first newspaper. In the Thirties Epp was the Nazi Reichskommissar for Bavaria, watching over the extermination of its Jews and Roma.
Almost symbolically, the first uniform of the Nazis was a job lot of surplus Schutztruppe kit.
Designed for colonial warfare in arid South West Africa, Schutztruppe shirts were sandy brown. Hence the Nazis who donned them being known as the Brown Shirts.
In the strange, cruel mind of Kaiser Wilhelm II there lurked more "untermenschen", or sub-humans, than the Herero and Nama. From his early 20s Wilhelm was an ardent anti-Semite. "They want stamping out," he complained of the Jews.
His appalled father, who deserves a posthumous Medal for Decency, attended the Berlin synagogue in full military uniform to show unflinching solidarity with the Jewish people.
"Asiatics" also earned the Kaiser's loathing. Like Hitler, he considered himself a dab hand with a paintbrush. He daubed a fantasy picture adding the inscription "V¶lker Europas, wahrt eure heiligsten G¼ter" (People of Europe, defend your holiest possessions), which showed white Europe marching against the Yellow Peril, represented by, of all people, Buddha.
Most infamous among the Kaiser's anti-Asiatic rants was his address to German troops about to depart for China to suppress the Boxer Rebellion. Standing at Bremerhaven docks he urged his soldiers to be "like the Huns under their king Attila. Prisoners will not be taken!".
This lamentable call to genocide in the manner of the barbaric Dark Ages chieftain gave the Germans their nickname in the Great War: The Huns.
Victory for Germany in 1914 would likely have freed the hand of the Kaiser to enact his racist, proto-fascist fantasies. No matter who started the First World War the right side won.
John Lewis-Stempel is the author of The War Behind The Wire: The Life, Death And Glory Of British PoWs 1914-18, published on January 30