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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Tuesday 5 September 2023

The Battle for History

 I was listening to Gary Sheffield's podcast on his former colleague at Sandhurst, John Keegan. Most famous for his book The Face of Battle. The following day I was browsing through our local Oxfam bookshop and spotted a book of his I hadn't read, The Battle for History: Re-Fighting World War Two.

This is a slim volume, published in 1995, essentially a historiography of the Second World War. The problem with historiography is that it quickly becomes dated, so he covers the classics. He starts by describing some of the significant controversies, not least the causes of the war. Much of this takes me back to my A-level history course on this subject. Keegan is somewhat more critical of A.J.P. Taylor than my teachers were. 

He is kinder to Churchill than most histories today, particularly over Greece, less over his Mediterranean strategy, but he was part of the wartime generation. There is a schoolboy error referencing the Ionian Islands rather than the Dodecanese, which I hope was addressed in subsequent editions. However, I'm not convinced there is any evidence that Hitler was planning on invading Turkey in 1941. In fact, he went out of his way to negotiate a non-aggression treaty. Keegan concludes that Turkey may be regarded as the most successful neutral of WW2. I'm not sure the population more generally felt they were successful given the economic hardship, but if success is measured solely by casualties, then he has a point. 

He is not uncritical of David Irving, but kinder than most historians would be today because of his holocaust denial. I'm afraid I cannot view him as 'a historian of formidable powers', given how he has perverted those apparent skills.

At least we are spared some recent revisionism regarding the war in Yugoslavia. Milan Djilas' book Wartime gets special praise 'as one of the most brilliant literary achievements of the Second World War.' It is on the Eastern Front that his analysis looks the most dated. He was writing before access to Soviet and other Eastern European archives. He also underplays the role of the Wehrmacht in atrocities in the Eastern Front and the Balkans.

His chapter on the brains and sinews of war is also a bit dated. However, even in the 1990s, the view that Germany outmatched the Allies' equipment 'in quality and arguably in size' is debatable. Most would argue it was strategy and tactics that gave Germany the edge.

It's an interesting wee tome if a bit dated. You can pick it up today for very little, which is probably just as well. As Gary Sheffield pointed out, his later works have been criticised, although that should not diminish the groundbreaking work of The Face of Battle.


  1. This isn’t a book I have. Given your review I suspect it’s not one I’ll be getting either.
    David Irving & holocaust denial? I mean… for goodness sake… Any respect I had for the guy went straight out of the window with that. Some things are so, so, so far “beyond the pale”…

  2. Strangely I read Irving' s biography of Rommel before his disgrace and found it even handed; certainly not a hagiography and (perhaps not so strange with hindsight) did not shy away from his rise through connections to the Nazi party, as many such books do. After all being the commander of Hitler's bodyguard / escort somewhat tarnishes the anti-Nazi post war gloss....

    A recent historiography of a more limited scope is Alexander H Joffe "Operation Crusader and the desert war in British history and memory."
    It looks at the various CW Official Histories, historians and how they were written after the war. It's a dry and at times repetitive read mainly concerned with Cunningham, his replacement, mental state and how the writing of the OHs was subject to editing, influence and outright interference. I had heard anecdotally that they were written in such a way as to "not make people look bad", but had no idea of just how far from an objective history they are.
    It's worth noting the NZ, Australian and South African OHs were less subject to this influence, although not without their own prejudices and bias.