Book review: Battling with the Truth, by Ian Garden

Ian Garden
Ian Garden
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There can be few things more frustrating than reading what should have been an excellent book, only to find it is hamstrung by a few obvious, fairly minor but niggling faults that should have been picked up at the editing stage. The premise of Battling With The Truth is fascinating: a comparison of how key events of the Second World War were covered by the German and British media.

The research is thorough. Ian Garden draws from the digital archives of The Scotsman, The Times, the Express and the Mirror, and from the archives of four German papers, Neue Vetschauer Zeitung, Freiburger Zeitung, Völkischer Beobachter and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, as well as from British newsreel archives Pathé and Movietone, and a German one, Die Deutsche Wochenschau.

Vitally, he also succeeds in getting the balance right between summarising the various engagements under discussion – Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, El Alamein and others – and moving on to analyse the contrasting ways in which they were reported. Those who know little about the events being described are given enough information to understand the implications of the way events were reported; those who are experts won’t feel as if they are having to waste time going over old ground.

There is a good explanation of the different mechanics of media censorship in the two countries, and some startling discoveries, too, perhaps the most jaw-dropping of which is that while the Battle of Britain was presented in these islands as a defining moment of the war, as far as the average German was concerned, such a battle never took place. Garden notes: “After the war, many Germans who lived through that period were rather confused when they visited Britain as to what exactly was meant by the Battle of Britain... No indication was ever given to the German public that there was a short, specific period when the fate of Britain hung precariously in the balance.”

And the niggles? Well, it’s frankly mystifying that nobody at the History Press seemed to notice that many of the quotes taken from newspaper stories aren’t attributed to any specific publication. Garden is right to suggest that the German headline “Soviet attacks in various sectors” announcing the Soviet counter-attack at Stalingrad in November 1942 must surely be “one of the greatest understatements in military history” but from which paper did it come?

More problematic is the verging-on-naïve tone of the conclusion. Garden seems to be outraged at the “willingness of all governments to dupe their citizens during the Second World War”, when surely that’s the whole point of censorship. Is his discovery of this willingness “extremely revealing” as he suggests? Or will readers have suspected the truth to have been bent a little from the outset?

For the most part, this is an intriguing exploration of a significant yet rarely discussed aspect of the war, but it could have been improved by some judicious wielding of an editor’s red pen.

Battling With The Truth, History Press, £14.99. Ian Garden is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 18 August