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Friday, April 18, 2008

Reading List: What Britain Has Done

Ministry of Information. What Britain Has Done. London: Atlantic Books, [1945] 2007. ISBN 978-1-84354-680-1.
Here is government propaganda produced by the organisation upon which George Orwell (who worked there in World War II) based the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. This slim volume (126 pages in this edition) was originally published in May of 1945, after the surrender of Germany, but with the war against Japan still underway. (Although there are references to Germany's capitulation, some chapters appear to have been written before the end of the war in Europe.)

The book is addressed to residents of the United Kingdom, and seeks to show how important their contributions were to the overall war effort, seemingly to dispel the notion that the U.S. and Soviet Union bore the brunt of the effort. To that end, it is as craftily constructed a piece of propaganda as you're likely to encounter. While subtitled “1939–1945: A Selection of Outstanding Facts and Figures”, it might equally as well be described as “Total War: Artfully Chosen Factoids”. Here is an extract from pp. 34–35 to give you a flavour.

Between September 1939 and February 1943, HM Destroyer Forester steamed 200,000 miles, a distance equal to nine times round the world.

In a single year the corvette Jonquil steamed a distance equivalent to more than three times round the world.

In one year and four months HM Destroyer Wolfhound steamed over 50,000 miles and convoyed 3,000 ships.

The message of British triumphalism is conveyed in part by omission: you will find only the barest hints in this narrative of the disasters of Britain's early efforts in the war, the cataclysmic conflict on the Eastern front, or the Pacific war waged by the United States against Japan. (On the other hand, the title is “What Britain Has Done”, so one might argue that tasks which Britain either didn't do or failed to accomplish do not belong here.) But this is not history, but propaganda, and as the latter it is a masterpiece. (Churchill's history, The Second World War, although placing Britain at the centre of the story, treats all of these topics candidly, except those relating to matters still secret, such as the breaking of German codes during the war.)

This reprint edition includes a new introduction which puts the document into historical perspective and seven maps which illustrate operations in various theatres of the war.

Posted at April 18, 2008 23:27